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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Sidney Leneer Pete Underdown, June 18, 2000. Interview I-0091. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Underdown family members helped each other in their businesses

Pete Underdown recounts the businesses owned by his family members and how they were connected to one another. His relatives often helped each other in the furniture trade by passing on carpentry skills or sharing suggestions on how to improve their business.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Sidney Leneer Pete Underdown, June 18, 2000. Interview I-0091. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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So then Uncle Milt, he was one of the finest carpenters that ever built a house. Some of his trades he used to hide and do, to keep anybody from finding out how to do them, protecting a job. A craftsman always hid his quirks like sawing out the risers for stair steps. Just anybody can't saw those things out. Somebody let the secret out and they wrote a book about it several years ago, and you can now, but you've got to follow them steps, every step in those books. But he could saw a set of stairstep risers out and never think about how he had to do them. He did pass that on to my cousin, Wayne Simmons, who does most of the work around Hickory Springs nowadays, or has for the last several years. But that's the only person he ever passed it on to. I wanted to fix some one time, and he says, "You just forget about it and I'll go cut them for you." He went down and looked and ordered the material and cut the things. And he wouldn't teach me how to do it, but he did teach Wayne later about how to cut risers for stairsteps, which is one of the hardest things to do in carpentry. But that was Uncle Milt. He wound up as assistant superintendent for Bernhardt Furniture Industries and stayed there with them about forty years after he quit the carpentry. Incidentally, he was the chief carpenter on Mayview Manor Hotel when they built that, and that used to be a real landmark. Then we come down to my father, who wound up as general superintendent of Bassett Furniture Industries, got killed there at an early age, about thirty-six years old, something like that. And he'd always been in the furniture business somewhere. And he left us in good shape. We spent all the money, but he left us in good shape. [laughs.] And then we have Aunt Johnsie, and Aunt Johnsie wound up owning about half of Lenoir Pad and Paper Company. And of course the kids got some. She and her husband and Parks ran it in thirds, I think. She wound up with about two-thirds of it, I should say, and it was successful up to several years ago. They just didn't change often enough. Parks tried to get them to change, but they wouldn't. They were set in their ways, kind of.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
What was the problem? What should they have changed?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Oh, they should have changed several things. The method of making pads and everything. Probably Jiffy Pad Company more or less hurt their business. They converted to where they ground up newspapers and put it in there instead of excelsior. And Lenoir Pad and Paper just converted and made paper pads, which had lining, cardboard which had been run through a crimper, in between their outer pads and all. Just frankly they found easier ways to do things, everybody, and while Parks was trying to get some changes made in it, well, they were satisfied just to continue on like they were. And they had business, and business pretty good until long after Aunt Johnsie and Vic both died and Dal and Peg Greer were running it for them.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
That was their son or their daughter?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
That's the daughter. Dorothy, Peg, was Aunt Johnsie and Vic's youngest daughter. She's about a year older than I am, not hardly a year older than I am. Then we go down to-let me look-oh, Scottie. Aunt Scottie, Edna Underdown, she married Hugh Simmons Underdown, and Hugh was probably one of the greatest musicians in Caldwell County. Had a beautiful voice. He used to sing with about four or five professional quarters. He had his own quartet out of his family, and they made several recordings. And while Hugh didn't come out of it as a millionaire, some of the kids through construction and everything have probably made it. Then we have Charles Ambrose Underdown. And Ambrose was a hardware salesman and a hardware store owner all his life.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
In Lenoir?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
When he died, he didn't own the hardware store, but he sold it out about four or five years before he died. But he made a good living out of it and they had everything that they wanted.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
Was that in Lenoir?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
That was in Lenoir, yes. He at one time ran Bernhardt-Seagle Hardware in Blowing Rock. For several years, maybe ten or twelve years, he ran their Blowing Rock store. Had a lot of summer business, but not too much in the winter time. And he was kind of a genius with his hands. If your iron burned out or broke down, you took it to him to get it repaired, and he'd make you practically a new iron out of it. Toaster ovens hadn't been invented yet back in those days, but if anything else, a fan or anything like that tore, he could fix it. And he made Bernhardt's a lot of money that way, Bernhardt-Seagle I should say, because they're separate from Bernhardt Furniture Company. Cousins, but separate. And that brings us down to Parks Cornelius, who was the most successful of all. And it seems that he just had the knack for seeing things the way they ought to be, and he made a good ending to it.