Interview with Vance Gregory, November 11, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Interviewee: Gregory, Vance Interviewer: Warren, Harry Date of Interview: 11/11/2002 Series: Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length 47 minutes
Warren: We’re here on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2002. My name is Harry Warren, I’m the interviewer and also the cameraman for this. Our first interview this morning here at Godfrey Lumber here in Statesville, North Carolina, is Mr. Vance Gregory.
Warren: Mr. Vance, would you tell us your full name and where you’re from, and when you were born and just some of that good old basic background information.
Gregory: I’m Vance Gregory from Olin, North Carolina. I was born the 25th day of March 1921.
Warren: You said you were from Olin, North Carolina. Where is that in relation to Statesville?
Gregory: North of Statesville about 12 to 15 miles.
Warren: Did you grow up on a farm over in Olin?
Gregory: Yes sir.
Warren: Was your father a farmer? Was he in the lumber business?
Gregory: Yes, a farmer and in the lumber business too. He sawed when they had the steam engines.
Warren: He was sawing wood when they probably had the steam engine? Now he probably had a mobile unit.
Gregory: Well some of them you know you had to pull with a team, but some of them would pull themselves. Mobile.
Warren: Now a lot of people that were farming back in those days, they also had their own sawmill. Is that right that people cut a lot of their own wood?
Gregory: Yes sir, there were quite a few of them.
Warren: Was your father cutting wood just for your family or was he also cutting it for other folks in the area?
Gregory: He was cutting it for other folks too.
Warren: Now how old were you when you started working and messing around in that sawmill with your daddy?
Gregory: Well I was in my early teens. I was helping him farm and log and things like that you know, cutting timber and other things, get the mail. I didn't work much for my daddy in the lumber business. When I went in, I was on my own.
Warren: But you got your first experience working with your father.
Gregory: That’s correct.
Warren: Did you have any brothers and sisters?
Gregory: One brother and seven sisters.
Warren: Did he decide to go into the lumber business also?
Gregory: No sir, he was a plumber for several years and then he went worked at Chatham’s Mill in Elkin.
Warren: Now just a little more about your dad, Mr. Gregory. Your father, what was his name?
Gregory: Wesley Gregory.
Warren: And your momma’s name?
Gregory: Lena Journer Gregory.
Warren: And you had one brother and no sisters?
Gregory: Seven sisters.
Warren: Seven, oh I’m sorry, I missed that. I don’t know how I missed that (laughter). Seven sisters! My goodness. Well you were born in 1921 and got a little taste of lumber and logging when you were a teenager. Is that what made you decide to go into it yourself?
Gregory: Yeah, I think so. I liked the woods. I cut some blocks, you know, you used to sell blocks here in town and they’d make squares out of them. You’d cut ____ blocks certain lengths and bring them in, other timbers like sycamore and birch. That was a way to make a little money with that, you know.
Warren: When we were talking earlier, you mentioned something about you got started with a mule. Tell us about your start a little bit.
Gregory: After World War II, I came home and went to work, but I wanted to be in the woods. I had a mule and I bought me a Turner sawmill for $300.
Warren: Now you said Turner sawmill, now that was a sawmill that was actually made here in North Carolina.
Gregory: Yes sir, Winston-Salem I’m pretty sure is where it’s made.
Warren: Did you buy that here in Statesville?
Gregory: I bought it from Hughes Mill, I bought it and right now I can’t remember who I bought it from, but I know what I paid for it.
Warren: Three hundred dollars, now we were talking earlier, this was before mills were really like they are today, like in one place. They were moving around a lot.
Gregory: Moving, you’d saw a boundary, whatever was in the boundary and then you’d move to another location. That went on until 1973 when we put a stationary mill there off of I-77 and 901. The road wasn’t finished hardly, it got opened right after we were there.
Warren: That was in 1973 that you put down roots there.
Warren: Before that you were just all over the woods.
Gregory: All over.
Warren: You said you would cut within a boundary, was there a prescribed area that you would cut?
Gregory: I cut over about eight counties, different locations.
Warren: What would a man do if he owned some property? Would he contract you to go to his property and do some cutting? Just how did that work?
Gregory: I always bought it. I sawed some by getting paid per thousand, but most of it was bought by contract for so much money for the boundary. Then we’d cut until we got the boundary done and then we’d move to another location.
Warren: How would you determine, would you pay by the log or did you have somebody go out and cruise the timber?
Gregory: I did the cruising and determined what I thought was in the boundary. I had pretty good success. With my cruising, I never missed it two per either way.
Warren: Would you tell me when you went out cruising back in the 40’s, what would that entail? Would you start your day early in the morning?
Gregory: Well just anytime. It’s good to do it when the sun’s shining. If you go out in cloudy weather, it’s not as easy to do. You know you sort of learn how to judge when to go. You’ve got to look at boundary timber when you walk into it. If you try to find out the acreage, if you don’t know, you sort of measure and guess.
But then I’ll start walking over it and decide…you want to know what it will average per acre you see. Well some of it may cut 20,000 per acre and some of it may not cut but 5,000 per acre. You’ve got to decide going over that timber how to judge that the average per acre for the whole boundary.
Warren: How would you go about doing that?
Gregory: Well I just done it (laughter).
Warren: You got a feel for it after a while.
Gregory: Over the years you get a feel for it and you know, I love the woods. I love to do it. You get closer to losing a little, well you’ll get a little better in the estimation. One boundary in my whole career that I know of where I really lost money on it.
Warren: That you had underestimated or overestimated I guess how many trees were on the property?
Gregory: Yeah, I thought it would cut more that it did. It was on a real steep hillside. I learned then that you have to watch the steep hillsides, real steep, because a lot of times if you’ll notice, at the tops it’ll be about level. The long ones from the bottom will have a lot of lumber in them, but you get look at the ones up on the hill that didn't grow as tall, then you get messed up on it if you don’t know. You’ve got to learn, it costs you sometimes.
Warren: Indeed it does. It sounds like that was kind of misleading as far as what you were looking at in the forest, the hills would kind of give an optical illusion almost that there was more than was actually there. So you started right after World War II. You were in service in World War II. Where did you serve at? Just out of curiosity.
Gregory: The European theater.
Warren: Were you in the D-Day invasion?
Gregory: No, I went D+10. Part of our outfit was in D-Day. A lot of the artillery batteries went. One of them left D-Day. I don’t know whether they arrived over there or not, but then the whole company left three days after. We had to clean up after. They left a bunch of us there to clean it up and then we went D+10.
Warren: And then went across Europe cleaning up and chasing the Nazis back in Germany.
Gregory: Yeah and on into Germany and went down to the Belgium Bulge.
Warren: You were at the Battle of the Bulge?
Gregory: Not when it started, but later they called us down there and we stayed down there until it got stabilized and then came back to Germany. Then I came back through the hospital.
Warren: Were you wounded?
Gregory: No, I just had a nervous stomach and couldn’t keep my food down.
Warren: Then you made it on back to Statesville.
Gregory: Well I was in the hospital and I was three days out when the war ended.
Warren: When the European war ended or when the Germans surrendered back in May? Well so you decided to go into the logging business after that and you bought that Turner mill. Now you told me earlier, about how many feet a day was that old Turner making?
Gregory: Well we started off at about 3,000 to 4,000 feet a day. We had a mule you know. The mill wasn’t a big mill you know. We could get up to 4,000 or 5,000 some days.
Warren: How many men did you have working for you? You had the mule and you had a man with the mule.
Gregory: Two to three on the mill. Two can drum a small mill you know, one off bear and the sawyer. Depends on what you’re doing.
Warren: What would your average day be like? Would you start at the break of dawn and go on all day long?
Gregory: Well when I first started, just as soon as you get up in the morning and most of the people tried to get out and get to working pretty well by sun up or not long after and come in close to sundown.
Warren: You would be out all day. Your role in this, I mean you’d just be out all day supervising your men? Or would you actually be cutting?
Gregory: I was working. I was sawing or either off bearing or whatever.
Warren: What were some of the dangerous parts of the job? I mean sawmilling and logging can be a pretty dangerous occupation.
Gregory: Any of its dangerous, but the sawing is dangerous if you don’t watch what you’re doing. If it picks up a slab or something, you have to watch coming back especially then. You didn't have any edgers. You’d pile your edging boards on your mill to edge them and that made it a little more dangerous. You just have to watch and take care of yourself you know.
Warren: Just be aware? Would you all take your lunches out in the woods and eat out there at the mill?
Gregory: Yeah, you took lunch, pork and beans, weenies or potted meat, crackers.
Warren: And you all take a break in the middle of the day or so and have lunch?
Gregory: Yes sir.
Warren: The men that worked for you, any interesting…I bet you’ve worked with a lot of interesting characters over the years.
Gregory: Oh yeah.
Warren: Anybody comes to mind?
Gregory: Well there’s a lot of them you know. I don’t know how to say it. Some of them would come would had been on a weekend binger.
Warren: Been involved in some entertainment.
Gregory: Yeah (laughter). You had to let them get it worked off first before you were putting out production like you ought to.
Warren: If you had a man that was coming in after a hard weekend’s entertainment, you wouldn’t want to put him on the blade.
Gregory: No sir.
Warren: So what would you do, try to sort of give him a chance to …
Gregory: Put him to logging or something.
Warren: Until he had a chance to loosen up his muscles and get his sweat going a little bit.
Gregory: But basically most of them…I never did have a whole lot of trouble with my men.
Warren: Any of them that were just characters, just unusual guys.
Gregory: Well comical and stuff like that.
Warren: Was it like that… I would imagine you’ve got a few men working out in the mill in the woods, you’ve got to get along with each other.
Gregory: Oh yeah.
Warren: So was there a lot of joking around, was it a good spirit out there? Seems like it would have to be.
Gregory: Almost all the time you were joking. It wasn’t all work. You’d be sharpening the saw or something, then lunch, all the time having something to keep you entertained.
Warren: Like just practical jokes and stuff like that?
Warren: Now when you went out, you got the wood in, you cut the lumber, what would you do? Put it in the wagon or did you have a little railcar out there? How did you get the lumber out of the woods?
Gregory: Then we had to throw it over, had a pole with the bark off of it and we’d shoot it across and let it fall on the pile. Then a truck would come in. I had a truck, we’d back it in there and load it by hand. Later on we got so we’d put the truck behind at the end of the sawmill and load most of it as you sawed it. Then got to getting lifts and we could load it with the lifts. It made it awful handy to not have to load it by hand of course. Some of the big heavy timbers were hard to manhandle.
Warren: I imagine that you had some pretty strong men working for you, didn't you?
Gregory: Yeah, they had to be strong to handle crossties and some heavy timbers that you sawed. You know, out pine.
Warren: Did your employees tend to stay with you a long time?
Gregory: I had some and have boys now that have been with us 30 years I guess. Some that started with us at first, some are dead. Not many of them are living.
Warren: You were in eight counties in this area moving your sawmill around from right after World War II 1946 and 1947, from then until 1973. Why did you decide at that point in time to…you didn't have anymore mobile operations after ’73 and you concentrated it in the location you are today?
Gregory: No, we decided to set down permanently. We leased some land there at the intersection of 901 and I77. Went to sawing basically then, a crosstie company wanted crossties from us. I told him I wanted to set the mill down and told him I didn't have any money to put a mill up, not all of it. He kept on, we had a restaurant there we built. He’d come by there and eat and come to check with his men in Elkin. Every time he’d want us to go into cutting crossties.
One day I said I had the land, but I didn't have any money. I told him if he’d loan me $100,000, I’d put one up. I had the rest of the money. He said he wanted to talk to them down in Spartanburg. So now he called me back and said to come on down and we set the mill down. We paid him off in about two years.
Warren: No kidding. What was that man’s name did you say?
Gregory: I don’t remember now. He’s still in the business, but the company went busted down there. Me and Cecil went down and appraised it before they sold it out.
Warren: Now you mentioned Cecil a couple of times.
Gregory: That’s my son.
Warren: And he’s still in the business today?
Gregory: Yeah, he’s in the business. I’ve been retired 16 years. He’s running, he owns the mill now. I own some of the property, but I don’t have anything to do with the mill anymore.
Warren: So you retired in 1986 or something like that?
Gregory: It’s been 16 years, yeah I guess that’s right.
Warren: Well after 1973 though you still had quite a ways to go. Apparently the mill prospered.
Gregory: Oh yeah, in fact there wasn’t a whole lot of money in sawmilling until in that area somewhere around the 70’s when it started going up. You could make a good living at it, but you couldn’t accumulate a whole lot. After that, the lumber business really got good. Us and everybody else I’d say did real good until now, until this recession came. It’s hurting some. We had a good 20 years. Everybody that wanted to work could make money.
Warren: There’s a downturn in the economy now. Now you were the first sawmill in this area to put down roots in the area, is that right?
Gregory: Mr. Wilson put down here I believe in 1955. Ours was 1973.
Warren: Were there others that were already permanent? So you two were the first two?
Gregory: Well there were some down east.
Warren: But in this area. Your lumber company, is it called Gregory Lumber Company?
Gregory: G & G Lumber Company.
Warren: Has it been that since the inception when you began it?
Gregory: Well no we just made it G & G Company when we set down. It just ran under my name before then.
Warren: Before then it was just Vance Gregory’s lumber operation. Wherever you happened to find you, you found the company (laughter). How many other sons or daughters that you have involved?
Gregory: Four daughters and a son and two of the daughters work there. One of them has a CPA hardware. The other one is in Kentucky, she’s a hospice nurse. Her husband is a chaplain in a federal penitentiary.
Warren: Well he’s got his work cut out for him. But you’ve got two daughters working in the plant and your son Cecil. So it’s still very much a family operation.
Gregory: My father started, I guess it’s been 75 or 80 years since we’ve been in business all together.
Warren: Are you offering… you bought the land?
Gregory: Yeah I bought the land, leased it first. When it runs out, it becomes mine.
Warren: Do you still have the property your dad had that you grew up on?
Gregory: Well my nephew owns it.
Warren: Now when you built the plant in ’73, was I77 completed then?
Gregory: If I remember right, it opened up that year or the next.
Warren: Well that must have been good, did you know that was going to happen? Sounds like a very good location to have. Were you shipping out to all over the country at that point once you got settled in ’73?
Gregory: When I first set down there, I was small you know.
Warren: Just doing the crossties.
Gregory: Well I was doing pine too but was hauling it to Statesville here, Wilson and other people. It grew and grew and it’s become a pretty good outfit now. My son has another location south, in Blacksburg.
Warren: That’s right on the line isn’t it?
Gregory: Yeah, it’s on 85. You look off to the left, you can barely see it going down, but coming back you can look right off on it.
Warren: How many folks do you all employ now?
Gregory: Well up here at this one somewhere around 100 and then I don’t know down there. He bought that since I left.
Warren: But you’ve got 100 people working in the plant up here.
Gregory: That’s the loggers and everything.
Warren: But starting out, but when you started out, you had yourself, a mule and a man with the mule so that’s quite an accomplishment, starting from those humble beginnings to have this kind of operation going on. You’re looking very good I must say, it looks like the lumber business has been good to you. In looking back, if you had it to do all over again Mr. Gregory, would you do it all over again the way that you did it?
Gregory: Sure, it’s a lot of hard work you know. When you look back on it, you don’t want to do that part of it anymore, but it took that to get where I got.
Warren: Well it was especially hard work when you started.
Gregory: It sure was.
Warren: But it’s a little bit easier now, isn’t it, with the machines and the technology available. What were some of the big breakthroughs that you see from a machine technological standpoint since you’ve been doing this or have been associated with this in the last half century?
Gregory: Well all the mills are updated and with the lifts, the forklifts and loaders and they’ve updated them. It’s a punch button thing now. Very little manhandling and when I started for years it was just manhandled, everything.
Warren: If a log got put on the truck, a man put it on the truck.
Gregory: Several men (laughter). It’s a world of difference. It’s really nice you know. Whoever figured it out, I’m proud of them (laughter).
Warren: When did you start seeing the big breakthroughs, do you remember? Was it in the 1950’s or 60’s?
Gregory: Well I’d say from the 60’s on up, the biggest change. The last 15 years I guess, would be the biggest change. Seems like it just blossomed, didn't it?
Warren: Well computers probably have found their way into the lumber business like they have everything else into our life. I know down at Jordan Lumber they were telling me that they use a lot of computerized, a lot of their machinery is run by computers now. What about saws themselves, the basic instrument of cutting down wood. How have they changed over your career?
Gregory: Cutting of the trees?
Warren: Right, when you started were they still primarily using crosscut saws and axes?
Gregory: Yes sir. Well they were just coming in with the power saws. It took two men to operate them. They were big, heavy, but they would really cut. Then they got the one man power saw and it was a big help over the other one. Now they’ve got tree crawlers that just takes the work out of a lot of it. You can just pick up a tree and take it where you want it. Most of them, some are too big for it. In this area, you can handle most of them.
Warren: What was the primary wood that you all cut? Are you still cutting the same types of wood that you did primarily when you started?
Gregory: Yes sir. It’s not as plentiful as it was. Back then you know, when I first started, if you wanted a certain type you could find it a lot easier than you can now. There’s pine, poplar, oak and we cut sycamore, birch, beech, hickory. Of course the hickory is harder to cut and it’s harder to sell too a lot of times. That’s the worst one I ever got into. In this part of the country, you’ve got several species. A lot of places you know, you’ve just got a few species.
Warren: But you’ve got a nice variety to choose from up here. How else has the forest changed since you started working in the industry? You said, I mean we’ve got a lot of managed forests now.
Gregory: We’re setting pines out. I wish we set out earlier. You’ve got to learn these things. We started setting out about 25 years ago. Now everything we cut, if we can get the landowner to agree to it…
Warren: Well most landowners are doing that. They see…
Gregory: Yes, most of them are doing that. They’re cleaning the land up and some of them are planting fields.
Warren: Fields of trees?
Gregory: Yeah and in just a few years, they’ll have a crop you know, you’ll have enough to cut a different crop each year.
Warren: And it’ll just be a continuous cycle and that’s where we want to get it back to. I know at one time it just looked like as much trees, we’d never be able to cut them all, but we can. But now we’ve learned and we’re managing things and so we’ll have plenty of wood in the future. Just looking at my list, making sure I haven’t missed anything. Mr. Gregory, what about the future of forestry? You think there’s a bright future for forestry?
Gregory: Well I hope so. I believe that people after us will have a better situation that we had with the reforesting and all that. I hope it is anyhow.
Warren: What’s the biggest challenge that you see facing forestry today?
Gregory: I hadn’t thought about it.
Warren: Well I’ve asked this to everybody and some of the gentleman have responded to educate the public on what the forest is all about.
Gregory: I would agree with that. You know if you get educated on something, you can sort of understand what it’s all about, but if you don’t try to get educated on it, then you’ll always be without the knowledge you need.
Warren: And people need to realize this is probably our most valuable resource because it is renewable. Do you think the importing business is hurting American forestry right now?
Gregory: Yes sir, I do.
Warren: How so?
Gregory: Well they’re bringing it in cheaper than ours I think in a way.
Warren: Like the Canadians?
Gregory: Well different countries. It’s sort of flooding the market and it hurts forestry and the recession more than it would ordinarily you know. I guess we’ll have to get used to some of it because they’ve not known how to get rid of the timber I believe if I’m thinking right and maybe how to take care of it. They have some countries I understand that have a lot of timber. They’re going to want to get rid of it. I’d say a lot of it will come in here.
Warren: And they often aren’t even managing theirs, they’re just cutting it because they’ve got a lot. They’re going to have to learn. One thing if they don’t manage it, then it will all be gone. You think regulations have hurt or hindered the forest industry?
Gregory: Well I think regulations are good if they’re managed right, but I think in a lot of cases, it goes too far.
Warren: What kind of regulations when you started in the business in the 1940’s, there weren’t too many regulations then.
Gregory: You made your own mostly (laughter). I guess some of us maybe abused it. I hope I didn't. I don’t think I did. That’s why I guess regulations have to come about, you know, but I think they ought to…regulations ought to be, I wished I knew how to explain it, they’re good if they’re administered right. Administered right.
Warren: In a common sense, everything has to be tempered and people have to realize that you can’t stop people from making a living.
Gregory: I don’t think… I think if a man pays the tax on his land and owns it, that he ought to have more say so over it than anybody else. I think he needs to work with the regulations, but you can’t use regulations to push people around.
Warren: Well Mr. Gregory is there anything else that you’d like to add this interview? This has been an excellent interview.
Gregory: Well I hope it has. This is my first one.
Warren: We sure to appreciate your taking the time to come over here to Godfrey Lumber and sit in Buddy Connor’s office and let me talk to you and get some of this good information on tape. We are with Buddy Connor and we are in his office. Anything else that you would say?
Gregory: No, that’s about all I’ve got.
Warren: You still love to walk in the woods.
Gregory: Yes sir, I did work in Montana for five years in the woods, but that was in 1955 to 1959.
Warren: You were in the woods for that entire time?
Gregory: At a sawmill in Montana.
Warren: In Montana for five years, what kind of project was that?
Gregory: When I started sawing for the company, he had a big mill down and he wanted some little mills in the woods.
Warren: So he hired you to go out and set them up for him?
Gregory: Well no, I took my mill and set it up in the woods and contracted to bring it to his mill for so much, saw the lumber. What he sawed was hauled in at that time out there.
Warren: Do you remember what his name was or the company’s name was?
Gregory: It was in Livingston, they were from Idaho. Now I sawed half of the time for a pulp company, they had mills in the woods. They were out of Minnesota, but their headquarters were in Bozeman, Montana.
Warren: Excuse me. Well I understand you still like to get out on the golf links.
Gregory: I like to try.
Warren: I’m glad that we had a rainy day today (laughter) because that gave you an opportunity to come over here and talk with me and I certainly do appreciate this. If anything pops up that you would like to add to this, just let me know. Thank you very much.
Gregory: You’re welcome.