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Interview with Benjamin Franklin Mitchell, April 17, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Benjamin Franklin Mitchell, April 17, 2002
April 17, 2002
Mr. Mitchell's life while in the field of forestry.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Mitchell, Benjamin Franklin Interviewer:  Wyche, Ray Date of Interview:  4/17/2002 Series:  Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length


Wyche: If you could, what was the date of your birth?

Mitchell: 1916, May the 18th.

Wyche: May the 18th, same birthday as my daddy that’s exactly right, 1916 except my father has been passed away. He was born in 1904 if you can believe that.

Mitchell: Well my daddy was born in 1892.

Wyche: Where were you born, Mr. Mitchell?

Mitchell: Hallsboro, between Hallsboro and…

Wyche: And you lived most of your life here in North Carolina.

Mitchell: All my life. Of course, I bought a place and built a home that’s in the same area.

Unknown: And you moved on down to what we call the Clyde Collier Road.

Mitchell: Yeah, that’s right. About three or four or five years it’s been named that. It wasn’t named that, it didn’t have a name.

Unknown: I didn’t know what it was. I called it the Mayberry Garden Road because Mayberry was the one I knew that lived on it.

Mitchell: Well, there is two ways to go to Dupree Landing.

Unknown: That’s right, that’s the shortcut.

Wyche: Mr. Mitchell, your full name is Benjamin Mitchell?

Mitchell: Benjamin Franklin. I use Benjamin F. most of the time when I write. It’s so long.

Wyche: That’s M-i-t-c-h-e-l-l.

MITCH: Double “l”.

Wyche: Ok Ray, I think we’re almost ready to do a little something now.

Unknown: Do we need to say this is Mr. Benjamin Mitchell.

Wyche: Yes, doesn’t hurt to, you know.

Unknown: And the date?

Wyche: Yep. Give me a chance to master this technology.

WOMAN (who is sitting in on the interview): You the youngest thing in here and you talking about help him.

Wyche: Ray’s talking about him forgetting names and everything I could never use that excuse as far as getting old goes I’ve never been any good at it, if that’s a measure of getting old then I’ve been an old man since I was 10 years old. Anyway, I think we’re doing a little something now and this, I;m looking right now at Mr. Ray Wyche, from the Hallsboro area, the greater Hallsboro area, Ray, take it away.

Wyche: Today is April 17, 2002. Today we’re interviewing Benjamin F. Mitchell known far and wide as Ben Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell began working as a very young man in the lumber mills around Hallsboro. He ended up being the chief maintenance machinist of the mill. At that time the machinery required probably a lot more maintenance than new machines do today.

Unknown: So we’ll begin by asking Mr. Mitchell to tell us exactly when you started working and what your first job was.

Mitchell: I worked with my dad in the blacksmith shop. Mr. Galt got him to get me to work with him. I stayed there and worked in that shop to the next company, the next company was Federal. As the company was bought out, I was there.

Wyche: As the company was bought out…

Mitchell: I was there.

Wyche: As a matter of clarification, the company that Mr. Mitchell worked for began life as Short and Beers manufacturing cypress shingles.

Mitchell: That was the name of the company, yeah.

Wyche: Then Mr. Galt …

Mitchell: I went to work with Mr. Galt.

Wyche: And he made it North Carolina Lumber Company.

Mitchell: That’s right.

Wyche: And it was later bought by J. W. Wells, a big lumber manufacturer out of Alabama and then he sold it to W. M. Ritter out of West Virginia.

Mitchell: No, out of Ohio, not Cleveland, but anyway he came from Ohio.

Wyche: Later it was bought out by Georgia Pacific and still exists in Whiteville. Now Ben when you started working, what was your first job with Mr. Galt?

Mitchell: I went to work, I worked with my daddy in the shop. That’s where I went. Every time that _____ would get the case, the man that did the low grade shingles out in the yard, once in a while he would get me to go out there to _______ and I didn't do that long, just a few times. I worked out in the maintenance shop all of my life. I started running it after my daddy passed, retired. That was in 1940.

Wyche: And your first job in there, you did a lot of pure blacksmith work.

Mitchell: Yeah, blacksmith and working on every kind of thing. We made water tanks, we did everything.

Wyche: Did you make water tanks out of redwood?

Mitchell: No, cypress. 18,000 gallons of water, each one of them. I worked with my daddy then. I didn't know, I was out of my class then. I was following him. But he could do it. He built two of them. Mr. Galt asked him could he build them and he said yeah, with old locomotive engines. Said when they come up, they get water. The sawmill, you know it was down below. Built one down there. Well the old one was there, but it had rotted so he built two tanks and gave them information you know on how he wanted them to be with a table so when you go around, you know they’ll fit.

Wyche: Now you worked on the machinery at the sawmill, the planer and everything.

Mitchell: I worked on most everything they had whenever they needed help. A lot of times they’d go out, like some machine was bought and they didn't run it long, they’d go get a man, you know to come. But after his time was out, I worked on all the stuff.

Wyche: Okay, you worked on the little steam locomotives, had three of them there.

Mitchell: And there were two running and they had a spare. It stayed in the lot. We had to keep that spare up so if one broke down in the woods. See in the woods they would bring the logs on track until that road goes over the swamp. Across that road, they made a track there, a side track you know to put the logs on. There would be about 30 cars, that’s how many there would be, 30 cars long. The locomotive engine, they backed up all the way down and they’d hook up on those cars to push in on the 30 cars which were empty and pick up 30 cars and load and come into the plant.

Unknown: But they couldn’t turn around, they just went backwards or forwards.

Mitchell: When they bring them out in the woods and drop it and then go back on another and go back in the woods.

Wyche: They used one engine to go from the woods to Honey Hill to Hallsboro.

Mitchell: And the other one would go back to the _____ machine.

Wyche: How many men worked on the crew for the engines?

Mitchell: Two, the engineer and the ______.

Wyche: They were standard gauge, weren’t they?

Mitchell: They weren’t as big as the Coastline engines, but they were big enough to do what they were doing.

Wyche: And you fired it with wood. And what went wrong with them a lot of times?

Mitchell: They started leaking. See there was water, they were run by steam. They didn't run by gas or oil. It was running by steam and the steam, they had a boiler on the engine and when the wood hit the steamer, it would give the engine power. That’s what it was run by, steam. The pistons and all, a set of pistons on each side of it. They had a steam skidder.

Wyche: It was mounted…

Mitchell: On the car. We had to keep them up. My daddy had to do all that work. You asked about my time, but you know who did that before my daddy did?

Wyche: Who was that?

Mitchell: John Henry Bracey, Jimmy Bracey’s daddy which was my mother’s daddy. They were the one in charge of it. Jimmy would do it when his daddy went out there sometimes. Jimmy started going out. He went to South Carolina to one of those big companies and finally one of them moved back to that Dismal Swamp in Virginia and that’s where he worked. He worked for Green Brothers, my Uncle Jimmy. My daddy was named John Henry Bracey, my granddaddy. When he retired, my daddy took the job over. My daddy was mill _____ for a shingle mill, you know, but he was a blacksmith. Whenever my granddaddy retired, there was nobody else cause Jimmy was in South Carolina and he got my daddy and my daddy stayed there until he retired.

Wyche: Now the way that skidder worked, they ran a pulley up a pole, a tree, didn't they?

Mitchell: No they had drums and ropes.

Wyche: And they just dragged them along the ground.

Mitchell: That thing turned like this and the rope was on the drums and they’d run the line up over a big tree and they’d pull them into the machine.

Wyche: The skidder loaded them on to the cars.

Mitchell: Yeah, they had a loader.

Wyche: It was steam powered too.

Mitchell: The skidder didn't put them on the car. They had a loader to do that.

Wyche: The skidder just dragged them to the track.

Mitchell: Lyle Richardson, you remember him? He was the one running it. He came in from New Bern, North Carolina. They got him to come in and do that. He was good at it.

Wyche: Well now the skidder moved. When it reached as far as it could, they built some more track and send it on down to the swamp.

Mitchell: Yeah, that’s as far as it could go. They had old man Clem _____, was the man that built all the tracks. See he worked on a railroad way back years ago and he had a lot of experience. He was the one that did all the track building.

Wyche: You never got into the track building, did you?

Mitchell: No, we had to keep up the materials and everything they used and put in different things, all that equipment, but just working on the track, no. We didn't have to work on it. But it was something they needed, to work on the track.

Wyche: They’d come to you and you’d make it.

Mitchell: Yeah.

Wyche: You made a lot of stuff like that, a lot of parts cause you couldn't buy them.

Mitchell: No, you couldn't buy them then.

Wyche: And you were doing that by welding and brazing.

Mitchell: All kinds of welding, electric and gas.

Wyche: Well now when they laid those tracks in the swamp, they would cut off the trees and just put the cross ties across the stumps or did they build up sort of a crib to put the track on?

Mitchell: No, what they did, they would decide where they wanted to built the track. They would just take and cut the timber of it and you know fix it so they could build a track. They would put them big logs down to put the track on. They used a lot of timber to put under those tracks, but they tried to use a certain size. It wasn’t the great big timber like cypress. The cypress is as big as that wall there.

Wyche: Yeah, I knew some of it was big.

Mitchell: That’s some timber.

Wyche: Well now when you went to the woods, say something broke down in the afternoon, they’d send word back by the engine and you might be down there half the night, hadn’t you.

Mitchell: Yeah, most of the time that’s why we had that spare engine. It was setting there waiting. If one broke down, we’d repair it and then it would be setting there and that’s what we did, they would come get that engine and pull that engine into the shop. We didn't have to go out there, maybe once in a while like if a pipe busted or something. Everything was run by steam.

Wyche: Now when the engine broke down like that, how did they get word back to you?

Mitchell: They had lever cars and stuff like that.

Wyche: And you had to keep them running too.

Mitchell: Everything we had, we had to rebuilt it.

Wyche: And the tracks ran all the way into your shop.

Mitchell: Right by it.

Wyche: And you had to work out in the rain and the cold.

Mitchell: Yeah, but most of the time they had that spare engine. When they’d come in, all they had to do was fire it up and go. We could work on it when we got ready.

Wyche: Yeah, that’s right. Well did it break down much?

Mitchell: Not too much.

Wyche: But you had to replace the _____.

Mitchell: Yeah, that’s the biggest thing to replace and those rods that run on the wheels.

Wyche: Driving rods.

Mitchell: Yeah, driving rods. They’d last a long time, but Mr. Galt built a spare engine. See that gave us all the time we wanted to repair it like it ought to be and they didn't lose production.

Wyche: Right, he had the crews working down there.

Mitchell: See all the time when we were repairing, there was a spare. See they come off the main track into us.

Wyche: You had the spare going and you had the other one there to work on. Well now the company owned those log carts and they were just about like the Coastline cars, weren’t they?

Mitchell: Yeah, we built them right there in the shop and kept them repaired, everything they had. I don’t care what they had to run with, they had to come by the shop.

Wyche: And you could build everything that they needed.

Mitchell: And the mill would cut the timber like we wanted it. If we wanted timber, we’d put in an order and they’d cut it and they’d bring it down there and we’d take it and build a new car or whatever you had to have.

Wyche: Well those boxcars, they were built out of…of course they had the trucks with the wheels on them there.

Mitchell: Yeah they had wheels on them.

Wyche: But then they just took some logs and sort of tied them together.

Mitchell: Yeah, they put heavy timber in them.

Wyche: You made them saw the timber like you wanted it. So you built the cars too.

Mitchell: Yeah. They had a man on the last end, we done all the middle one. What was that man’s name, it’s been so long. He was a good carpenter. He came over there and he did the woodwork and we had to do all the middle work.

Wyche: You had to get it ready for him. When they bring those logs out, how many would they bring.

Mitchell: Thirty carloads.

Wyche: Thirty cars and 16 foot logs, weren’t they?

Mitchell: Yeah.

Wyche: What’s the biggest one you ever saw? Did you ever see one fill up a car, one log to the car?

Mitchell: Oh yeah, many times.

Wyche: How big was that band built, could it saw 48 inches?

Mitchell: Yeah, but at that time, they had the shingle mill when I first went there. You know they finally got rid of it. They had the shingle mill and all of the big cypress come through the shingle mill.

Wyche: How long were those logs that they made the shingles out of? They were 16 feet until they cut them up?

Mitchell: Yeah, they cut them. They had a saw there at the shingle mill. They had a ripsaw and a cutoff saw going like this. They cut those things, I believe it was 6 inches. They come out and then you had a table saw. You put them up there and run them across and cut them how many inches you wanted this way. Then there’s another machine going there like this. You put them in there and that’s where the shingles are made. It’s set up in there and you go back and hit the saw cut.

Wyche: When you first started Ben, what time did you go to work in the morning?

Mitchell: Well most of the time when I had my daddy was working at 6:00. But it was mostly 7:00.

Wyche: And how long were your days?

Mitchell: Once you get there, you don’t know when you’re going to get back home (laughter). After I got married, I stayed there all night and had me a _______. From 6:00 in the band mill, I’ll never forget that. Didn't even have supper, stayed there the whole night getting the mill ready. So my daddy was gone then. To get the mill ready so they could put the employees back to work the next day.

Now they didn't like to shut them down because you know they would have to lay the men off. So we kept it going.

Unknown: How many men were working out in the woods at any given time?

Mitchell: Well I reckon there was 100, there were a lot of men in the woods.

Wyche: What’s the longest crosscut saw you ever remember seeing there?

Mitchell: They had one that was a little bit longer than the average saw. They had to use it sometimes to cut the big cypress, but they didn't have too many of them because the cypress would be about from here to that wall over there. They were big trees. They’d put one tree on the car.

Unknown: What were they cutting most of it with?

Mitchell: Well in the woods, they had those crosscut saws. That’s the only way they could get that tree down. They didn't have machines like they have now.

Unknown: They didn't have any chainsaws or anything?

Mitchell: No, they didn't know anything about chainsaws and tractors and stuff. When I came there, they didn't have anything like that. They didn't have anything that didn't run by steam. Everything had to run by steam.

Unknown: Steam or sweat (laughter).

Mitchell: Nothing that ran with oil or anything like that, like diesels, none of them were in existence.

Wyche: You didn't have anything to do with the crosscut saws? You didn't have to sharpen them or put new teeth in, did you?

Mitchell: Well my daddy, he done a lot of it, but in later years, they were able to buy ______ saws. They would find out where they could buy them and put in an order. But most of the timber they cut there for a long time was with the crosscut saw.

Wyche: That’s hard work for sure. Do you remember how much money you made per hour when you started Ben?

Mitchell: You know they wasn’t any money. It was about a dollar. I’m kind of thinking at one time they were paying people about a dollar a day.

Wyche: And that was for about a 10 or 12 hour day.

Mitchell: Yeah. Then it was so bad, you remember when the _________ come out, the people were making nothing. My daddy, they paid him good, but the laborers, they weren’t paying them any money. You think about a dollar a day. I worked for a dollar a day when I first went there. You know everything went haywire.

Unknown: Was this in the 1920’s?

Mitchell: In the 1930’s, early 30’s until about ’34. President Roosevelt got elected. That’s when things started changing. We got social security, all that stuff came under him.

Wyche: Were you ever paid in tokens or what they called script that you couldn't spend anywhere but the company store or did they manage to give you cash?

Mitchell: They gave you cash, but you weren’t making much.

Unknown: Were they pretty good companies to work for?

Mitchell: Oh yeah.

Unknown: Did they treat their employees pretty well?

Mitchell: Yeah, the did.

Unknown: Did you get any kind of holidays or anything?

Mitchell: Oh yeah, like Christmas, you know, not a whole lot of holidays, but Christmas, 4th of July.

Wyche: Way back then, did you work on Saturdays, half a day on Saturday or all day?

Mitchell: All day. People had to work. Labor couldn't make a choice cause you see business wasn’t like it is now, plenty of them. There was just this one company and nobody else had any money and everybody else were farmers. You understand what I mean. They were scraping and doing everything they could.

Wyche: Did they lay anybody off during the Depression?

Mitchell: They shut the whole plant down.

Wyche: They did shut it down for a while.

Mitchell: Yep, cause see that was before my time. I got in there right after things started to move. Mr. Hoover was in there and things didn't go too good. He couldn't get anything going. Finally President Roosevelt took it over in the 30’s. Social security, that came from Roosevelt. People were in bad shape. They couldn't get any money when they were out of a job.

Wyche: They’d get any job they could get.

Mitchell: Yeah, now you pay so much into it, you know into your social security. They take a certain part of it and lay it aside so you can get some, but there wasn’t social security then.

Wyche: Did you have any kind of hospital insurance program?

Mitchell: There was Dr. Tom Johnson and he’d come by (laughter). He had a little office. That was before I even went there, I saw that office. He had quit working in the office and moved when I got there. He put an office in his place down there by the lake. I had a brother, my daddy had two boys, I was born in 1916 and he was born in about 1922. He had double pneumonia. He came by the house one day and he was doctoring and I was a little boy. He told my mother “I can’t help him. He has double pneumonia”. Double pneumonia and then you die, they had no cure for it. My little brother died.

Wyche: Well did you ever see anybody get hurt in the woods or in the mill?

Mitchell: No, I never saw it. I’d be out in the shop. Maybe they would shut it down long enough for me to fix something to get it going, but I never saw anybody get hurt.

Unknown: But you heard about guys getting hurt on the job every now and then? Did guys get hurt out there working in the woods?

Mitchell: Yeah, there in the woods, they’d get hurt. But none of them got killed. I don’t remember anybody.

Wyche: Yeah, some of them got killed logging, but not a whole lot.

Mitchell: That finger, that was the only time I ever got hurt. I had a table grinder in the shop, my daddy was there. Don’t ever wear a glove grinding anything. Had one of these cloth _____ and I had a hole and that cloth caught that rock pulling it into it and snapped my hand off like that. It was done that quick, just like that. I’ll never wear another pair of gloves. Nobody tells me to grind anything.

Unknown: Well it cut off the top of your finger there.

Mitchell: Just left a piece, but it never bothered me. You know I don’t miss it, but it just left nail part, that’s all.

Unknown: Did they call the doctor or take you to see him?

Mitchell: I went and saw him. That was back when I first started.

Wyche: Well you learned a lot about steam engines since they had I don’t know how many over in that plant.

Mitchell: Steam engines, they had for the ones that carried the logs, there were three of them.

Wyche: What did they pull the band saw with?

Mitchell: Steam engine.

Wyche: They had a planer too, didn't they?

Mitchell: Yeah, sometimes we’d have to take them out and sell them to Wilson Iron Works to rebuild and put on bigger pistons and stuff like that. But we kept them up, all of the engines. We didn't have a machine shop, but we finally got one. We could do all that ourselves.

Wyche: Well now there were a lot of bearings. You poured a many a ______.

Mitchell: Oh yeah. I bet you this room wouldn’t hold all the ______ we milled. It was all lead bearings.

Wyche: Yeah, melted the lead and poured it in a little contraption there.

Mitchell: I made some, we made them. You had a handle on them where you could take them and heat them in the forge, set it in the forge. We had great big ones.

Wyche: The shaft was already in ….

Mitchell: We’d have to put it then and pulled them. They didn't have ball bearings.

Wyche: They were always wearing out.

Mitchell: In later years as time went on, they bought machinery and they started putting ball bearings in the machines.

Wyche: You didn't ever set the planing machinery?

Mitchell: No, I didn't bother with the planer.

Wyche: Did you ever have to work on that other than the steam?

Mitchell: Worked on everything, worked with planers and anything else.

Wyche: If anything broke.

Mitchell: Yeah, we had to go get it and stay all night to get it going by the next day if we could.

Wyche: You would work on everything that had anything to do with metal out there then.

Mitchell: I went to South Carolina with Mr. Bob Medlock.

Wyche: I remember him.

Mitchell: Well he came here and he came when Ritter bought it out. I was there. I was in charge of the shop. Up north they go to school for drying lumber, you know go to college. Mr. Bob came down here and he wanted to change that dry kiln down there. He came here with Ritter from Ohio. He worked on all the jobs, you know they sent him everywhere.

He came here and he’d go down there and work and look at the mills. He went down there and put in a regulator, a steam regulator on the kiln, about that big around. You ran the pipes down and it regulated the steam going to the dry kiln. What came from the boiler went to the dry kiln. Burned the lumber sometimes, dried out too fast. He came there and put it outside the kiln where a big line ran down and cut it out and put one in.

The next time, he hadn’t been working that long with me. When he came back, he said you’ve got a man there better than me. He said he beat me. One boy came by who was driving the log truck one day and he was talking with him down there. He was just walking around when he came in. He’s the one that had to go out there. I didn't. I stayed there. But he didn't have anybody there that could do what he and me could do, everything.

So he put the thing in when he first came and put in that control valve where you could set it for so much steam going to the dry kiln. When he came back the next time, he had seen the work I had done and he told them, you’ve got a man that can do better than I can do. I didn't pay it no mind.

Wyche: Did you ever have to change the flue in the dry kiln?

Mitchell: Oh yeah.

Wyche: Cause that steam eventually would rust them through. That was the nastiest job in the world, wasn’t it.

Mitchell: Yeah it was.

Wyche: Getting smutty.

Mitchell: We’d take them all out. There’s about 72 flues in those things. You know they’re small, they’re not big flues.

Wyche: When you came to work, the steam engines were already here?

Mitchell: Yeah.

Wyche: Somebody said they sent a man down from the factory to teach you people how to run them and work on them. Do you remember that?

Mitchell: I wasn’t there when that came along.

Wyche: He didn't stay long.

Mitchell: No, cause they knew he knew how to do it. I learned from him (laughter). My uncle Jimmy, every once in a while, he would leave South Carolina. He’s the one that started, I wanted to learn how to weld. He worked there for a while and he gave me the idea and everything. I learned how to weld. I learned how to do all welding, all kinds. So nobody that came in there could do any welding. You know what I mean. He was a crackerjack. He made a pistol and you couldn’t tell if it came from the factory.

Wyche: He made it himself.

Mitchell: I didn't ever tackle that and it fired. It ran in my family on both sides. On my daddy’s side, his daddy ahead of him and my granddaddy, he came from Bracey, Virginia, that’s the name of the place. They hired him.

Unknown: He went from ______ and worked in the same plant that you did.

Mitchell: No, it was another company. They had to give him more money and everything to get him. But my daddy was a young man. See cause my daddy married his daughter, you understand what I mean.

Unknown: So your grandfather on your mother’s side, he worked in a lumber company also.

Wyche: He was a machinist.

Mitchell: Yeah, he came from Virginia. The name of the town in Virginia is Bracey.

Wyche: So you’re a third generation machinist.

Mitchell: I’m the second generation.

Wyche: Well it was your mother’s father and your father and now you.

Mitchell: My uncle, he was one. He went to the highways, working on the highways. Finally the highway business played out and he came back. He rented that old building.

Wyche: I remember him. He was kind of a little man, but he was a good blacksmith. He had a good business. When you started welding, they weren’t many welding machines around.

Mitchell: They finally got one there, Uncle Jimmy did. He asked them to get one when he came. He’d do the welding for them. He stayed about 6-7 months and went back to the other job. I learned all I could from him. I knew about steel and all that, but the welding, I didn't know what to use. I got smart and found out you could buy books and you know what you use steel on, different types of steel and different types of iron. I didn't have any problem selecting and he didn't either being a blacksmith.

Wyche: That’s the way they welded, two pieces of metal white hot and they’d put them together.

Mitchell: Yeah, take a rod and if you got a 20 foot one, just keep running.

Wyche: Did you ever make any tools or was it mostly parts for machinery?

Mitchell: We made them and we worked them, but then you could buy them cheaper than you could make them.

Wyche: But when you started, you said that you hurt your hand in a grinder. What kind of electrical grinders…

Mitchell: Table.

Wyche: Did they have that when you started?

Mitchell: Not when I started. I didn't do that when I started. It was maybe 10 or 12 years. I had the shop and my daddy was gone and everything when this happened. See all of them had retired.

Wyche: You had an old hand turning grinding wheel to smooth stuff with or not?

Mitchell: Well they did when I first went there.

Wyche: Because when you welded a piece, you had to grind off that weld.

Mitchell: That’s right, but this one was just a portable grinder.

Unknown: How far was the plant that you worked at from your home, Mr. Mitchell?

Mitchell: About a mile. From my daddy’s house up there, it was a mile from there to Hallsboro and I stayed close.

Unknown: And how did you get to work?

Mitchell: Walked, everybody was walking. Not many cars.

Wyche: And it was a dirt road. Didn't matter what the weather was, you walked.

Mitchell: I walked every day to the job. Some rented the company houses and they were closer than I was.

Wyche: Houses that they built for people who worked at the plant?

Mitchell: Yeah. They had places for them to stay.

Wyche: They had a lot of houses, but now they didn't have any land. You owned your own land.

Mitchell: Where I was, no. Mr. Galt owned that land where he built the houses and he allowed them the chance to buy.

Wyche: Later on they could buy those houses. Where did you buy your supplies? You did a lot of work with Wilmington Iron Works I know.

Mitchell: Yeah, there’s another company.

Wyche: Was it Murchison? Broadfoot?

Mitchell: Yeah, we bought from all of them, but there was another company that we bought from for all my young life, I’ll put it that way. They finally went out of business. I can’t recall the name of the place.

Unknown: You brought your own lunch to work I suppose?

Mitchell: We had to bring it, there was nowhere to buy a lunch.

Wyche: But they did have a commissary, a store, didn't they?

Mitchell: Back then, you could go to a store like Uncle John’s and buy some knickknacks. They had a company store, they had one. When Ritter came, they put one right there. Before it was Honey Hill.

Wyche: They lived at Honey Hill and they would ride the train into work every day into the woods on the train. Because that train spent the night in Honey Hill. They kept firing the boilers all night.

Mitchell: Yeah. They’d bank the fires so in the morning, it wouldn’t take long to get it going.

Wyche: How often did you get paid, do you remember?

Mitchell: Every two weeks.

Wyche: And they paid in cash?

Mitchell: Yeah. A lot of people, they didn't ever get any cash. They spent all the money in the store before they got the cash and would charge it.

Unknown: So they let you charge at the store and then you paid when you got your money.

Mitchell: They took it out of the payroll. They had taken it out.

Unknown: How many were in your family?

Mitchell: Five of us, but my daddy never had to do that. He was lucky. He had his own little shop at home. He was a carpenter and all that.

Unknown: So he did a lot of work on the side besides working for the company. Did you do that also?

Mitchell: Yeah.

Wyche: Well he had a blacksmith shop before he ever started with the company.

Mitchell: Yeah, he had a blacksmith company before he ever started to work for the company.

Wyche: Now you fired that forge in that blacksmith shop with coke?

Mitchell: Yeah, coal, there’s a certain type of that coal you could use and coke. Now coke for welding was the best.

Wyche: You bought the coke. You didn't make your own.

Mitchell: You buy it.

Wyche: And you had a crank on that. Did you ever have an electric motor.

Mitchell: You had to turn the thing.

Wyche: You had to turn it by hand.

Mitchell: Yeah, to keep it hot.

Wyche: And the secret in it was looking at the color of that metal so when it was right to do whatever you wanted to do with it.

Mitchell: There were some hard days back in those days. A lot of people had it harder than we did, you understand.

Wyche: That’s right, you were in a pretty good job.

Mitchell: Yeah, my daddy was a carpenter and everything. When he wasn’t working, he’d work for other people and help them out. So we got along pretty good. Uncle John was running the store.

Wyche: Mr. John kept his store going.

Mitchell: But he was sharp. He got on the road hog, had trucks go to Wilmington and buy fish and ice and deliver it all the way from Wilmington.

Wyche: I remember, we used to buy ice from him. He had Simm and Fuller and I don’t know who else toting that ice. We’d go out there and cut it and knock off a little piece, pick it up and eat it (laughter). I remember that. They paid you every two weeks.

Mitchell: Yeah when I first went out there, yeah. Then they started paying every week.

Unknown: Well you made enough to support your family.

Mitchell: Yeah and they had a store there and most of the people could get something to eat.

Wyche: If they didn't have any money…

Mitchell: They could go there and charge it.

Unknown: What would you consider a good lunch?

Mitchell: I didn't ever buy anything there. I was lucky. My mother and them cooked for me.

Unknown: What would you still consider a good lunch?

Wyche: You carried vegetables and meat and cornbread or biscuits?

Mitchell: I carried a bucket when I went to work. Nice bucket with a handle. You could set it up over the boiler and when dinnertime came, you were ready to eat.

Wyche: It was good and warm (laughter). I remember doing that. I remember seeing those dinner buckets lined up on the side of the boiler and there were people who had a hot lunch.

Mitchell: Yeah, you bring it when you came to work. You eat breakfast at home. And when you came to work, you bring your lunch.

Unknown: What would they usually eat for lunch, chicken?

Mitchell: Well just about like we eat – most of them were raising stuff, you know out in the country. Chickens, hogs, some of the stuff they had to buy like rice.

Wyche: Rice and coffee and sugar. Where you got your water was a pitcher pump.

Mitchell: Yeah.

Wyche: And if one of them broke, you had to work on it.

Mitchell: Right.

Unknown: What was the hardest part of your job? The most difficult thing you did in your line of work.

Mitchell: Working on boilers. You had to go inside and take all the flues out and put them things back in. See if you can work where you can walk around, it’s not too bad. But you’ve got to go inside the boilers and take all the flues out, about a hundred of them and take them out and put them, roll them back into the wall and cork them. That was nasty, black.

Wyche: You were as smelly as you could be.

Unknown: It was probably hot.

Mitchell: In the summertime, it was rough.

Unknown: No air circulation. You were probably cramped also in a small space.

Mitchell: They had a pipe that went into the boiler. The flues would go through there, the fire, to heat it.

Wyche: They’d burn out.

Mitchell: See the pipe would go through the flues and that’s where the boiler made steam.

Wyche: Well now how long would a flue last if you run it there?

Mitchell: That’s according to how good a building, if you had a building that was burning high grade stuff that had a lot of heat, they wouldn’t last as long as if you were using natural woods with no tar. That’s what they’d use most times because we didn't cut pine.

Wyche: The trains all burned hardwood and that made the flues last a little longer.

Mitchell: Yeah.

Wyche: But you still had to replace them. They’re going to burn out eventually.

Mitchell: Yes sir, that’s the hottest, nastiest place in the world to work.

Wyche: I remember seeing people come out of that boiler and they were just as black as they could be.

Unknown: How many people worked at this plant that you worked at?

Mitchell: I don’t know, but there was a lot of them. Then we went from the sawmill and had a shingle mill. Then after they changed, they came back with a big veneer mill. The dryers, they put in there cost over a million dollars a piece.

Wyche: They heated by steam?

Mitchell: Yeah, whenever they came off of the lays, they turned it and go right into that machine, had two of them, two lays, and they go through the million dollar machines and when it came out on the other end, it was dry.

Wyche: Bone dry.

Mitchell: Then the plant, they’d send it on down where they make plywood. That’s where they made the plywood.

Wyche: Well did they just make veneer to start with or did they put it all in together?

Mitchell: They sold a lot of it.

Wyche: They sold a lot of veneer.

Mitchell: They sold a lot and made it into plywood. They were making ply board out of gum and maple and stuff like that. They sold it, but they could make pine if they wanted to cut it.

Wyche: But they never did made any pine. When they brought those logs in, they cut it into what, about 4-5 feet lengths and then they dumped it in a big vat of hot water.

Mitchell: Yeah, to take that moist out of it.

Wyche: Cook them sort of. Then they’d pick them up with a hoist and run them.

Mitchell: They had a shingle mill and then the plywood mill when Ritter came. No, when Wells came. The Wells went to sell out. He had to pay for the million dollar dryers and he let them run the mill and use the timber. We thought they were running it and come to find out they were still running it. They bought it, but they would have to pay, you know run it until they paid the bill on it. Two million dollars (laughter).

Wyche: Now those little steam engines would come out to the main line inside and pick up an empty boxcar and take it back and load it with veneer, lumber. Did they ever haul shingles like that?

Mitchell: Not too much. They’d sell them, but most of the shingle they made, yes they did. On the railroad down below the veneer mill, they had a house down there and fix them up for sale.

Wyche: The company engine would bring them out.

Mitchell: Yeah, they had a _____ to use the key to open the switches to put them on there and pick them off the spare. There would be a spare rail out there.

Wyche: I know they had a lot of derailments out there in the woods and all over. Did you ever have to get called in on that or did you let the train crews worry about it?

Mitchell: Unless it was the mill where something was torn up or broken up, then we would have to repair it. The railroad man worked on the railroad. Mr. Ayers, he did all the work.

Wyche: So he kept the railroads going.

Mitchell: Yeah, he was good too.

Wyche: Well the train jumped the track right often back then, didn't it?

Mitchell: Yeah, once in a while, but he got it straight. He would say don’t run it until I’ve got it. He would look at the track and see where he needed to go to repair it. If they didn't tell him, he’d find it, but usually they’d tell him. The engineer would tell him, tell this man that they needed to repair a certain place. They didn't even have a car with a motor on it.

Wyche: Well Ben if you had to do it over, you were right lucky, you had a skill more than most people in Hallsboro had, didn't you? You learned machinery work.

Mitchell: I was interested and that’s why I did what I did. I tried to teach some people, but they didn't want to learn. Every one of them backed out. They said it was too much, they didn't want to do that kind of work.

Wyche: You worked as hard as those people out there stacking lumber, but you made more money than they did. But your job was more important than theirs too because like you say, if something was torn up, you had to stay there until it was fixed so you could start the next morning. Is that right?

Mitchell: That’s right.

Wyche: So you think you’ve had a pretty good life of it then?

Mitchell: Well I’ll put it this way. If I was a lazy person, I probably would like the work, but my daddy made me work and I say to this day, my daddy taught me how to work.

Wyche: Well he taught you a good trade.

Mitchell: And he wouldn’t let me run around all over the place, no sir. He kept me with him.

Unknown: We could use a little more of that today probably.

Mitchell: And I’m the only one that is left out of the family that kept it up. They go to Wilmington Iron Works and places like that and then the cost of going down there, shutting the mill down. I went to South Carolina. The colored boy had to been to New York and they gave him to me to help me. They had a white young man, he wasn’t too old, he was sitting in the shop over there. Every time I went down there, he had his legs crossed like this. He wasn’t doing anything.

They got him to build on a conveyer to the machine where it dumps the chips out of the mill which I put in. They thought he would be able to put this man down there…old man Tate, Vernon Tate’s daddy, he was in charge of him. He came back and said that man worked two weeks and he doesn’t have but one pole out. I didn't know about this. I found this out afterward. They came back and asked me if I’d go down there and build that conveyer. I’d been going down there all the time.

So I told them if I went down there, I would have to have the money, I can’t drive and spend all my time on the road and go down there to do the work they can’t get anybody to do for nothing. I told them I couldn't do that and they paid me well. So I went down there and put the thing in. When it got up to the railroad track, they got a railroad track down there, Coastline, that goes behind the mill to pick up the cars. I had to have that chute there 35 feet high. They had two chutes. Then the boy was working with me, when I got through, he looked at me, the colored boy from New York, he said, “Where did you come from”. I said about 43 miles from here (laughter).

Wyche: He wasn’t used to people working like you worked.

Unknown: The only thing wrong with this interview is you’ve got a lot more to say and we’re out of tape. We sure do appreciate this. We may need to get you back to talk to you again.

Wyche: You did a good job of telling us what it was like to work in the mills.

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