By Enoch P. Young
(July 3, 1824 - January 11, 1910)
The Exeter News-Letter
Cabinet Makers & Carpenters of 65 Years Ago - Part XIII -
Editor, EXETER NEWS-LETTER. -- Many of the generation of carpenters who were in active service 65 years ago were skilled in their chosen profession, as samples of their workmanship richly attest. They taught unsparingly to their apprentices all the best points in their trade, especially those of the cabinet branch, much of which was the acquired skill of previous generations. The apprentice with such a master, when he attained his majority, was generally fully prepared to start in life, possessed with that of which no one could rob him, a good trade, which, if he was persistent and prudent, was sure to provide for him an independence.
The carpenter's day's work was from sunrise till sunset, with one hour off for dinner. Their pay was one dollar a day with dinner. Please let me relate a sample of the one dollar a day and dinner carpenter. I was intimately acquainted with the parties, so perhaps in this case my voucher may be sufficient.
There is a dwelling house in this town, 28 by 36 feet, two stories high, built about 40 years ago. One man did the carpenter work, with the exception of what the owner and his two boys, none of whom were carpenters, did at odd jobs, snatched from their farm work.
There was then no planing nor circular saw machinery in town. The carpenter took the frame timbers as the trees, unhewed, were hauled from the wood lot, the boards and plank as they came from the old up and down sawmill. He worked from sunrise till sunset. When the house was finished, ready to occupy, he had worked 99 days. The owner was so well pleased that he paid him an even $100. That building is the David B. Elkins house on the Exeter road. The builder was David Stevens, one of Hampton's master builders.
The apprentice then must serve not less than three years for his board and clothes, and what he could learn of the trade, the master promising his best efforts to teach him. Then the carpenter had to take his building material largely in the rough, from the old up and down mill saws, with no planing mills, his broad ax and fore plane supplying the want. There were no circular or jig saws, but the hand saw took the boards and plank and did the splitting with usually an apprentice at the handle end of the saw. The clapboards came into market unplaned and unjointed. Often they were packed one side, to be prepared on rainy days, one of the amusements supposed to belong to the apprentice. Doors, blinds, window sashes and moldings, all then had to be worked out by hand. The man who then laid claim to being boss in the trade must provide himself with a large assortment of tools specially for that class of goods. Now all can be procured ready made, doing away with what was then a large part of the shop work of the carpenter and his apprentice, on stormy days, and through the cold months of winter.
The carpenter was then only the one who had served regularly his three years' apprenticeship. No one then could get himself a pocket rule, hatchet, hand saw and a pair of overalls, and let himself as a journeyman carpenter. One week, and often less, of such service was enough to convince the boss how little such a one knew of the trade. His call to the office to settle was usually convincing enough without the boss being particular to give a reason why.
Although we have to-day many good carpenters, honoring their trade, yet the apprentice element seems nearly to have waned. To be a successful teacher an intelligent education is a necessary factor, so in the mechanical arts is needed intelligence, with practical experiences to be obtained only by methodist instilled by apprenticeship.
The cabinet branch of the trade has not occupied a very prominent place during the past 50 years. About the beginning of this period cabinet working was made a specialty, and was ever after done almost entirely in large shops, with steam or water power. The making of coffins was almost the last line of work that remained for the carpenter, who had learned the cabinet branch of his trade.
Now frame lumber all comes sawed to required dimensions, boards planed and matched, doors, blinds, window sash all glazed, and mouldings all ready made and in the market in every variety and style, and in quantity almost limitless. Their putting to place in the building only requires a small assortment of tools, a plane or two, two saws, tri square, pocket rule, hammer and hatchet, possibly a spirit level. The ready made parts are nice for the owner and contractor. But the man who has knowledge of only part of his trade, where is he? Where is his independence? His employment is only wanted when his work cannot be procured cheaper, built by machinery. To what condition of things is the carpenter business drifting without proper service, and sacrifice as learners? It looks very much as though the business, so far as benefiting the employes is concerned, is advancing backwards.
Has physical endurance deteriorated during the past 65 years, or why is it we see no more examples of these times, of men who seemed never to know what it was to be tired? One of the old-time carpenters was Jeremiah Hobbs, a hewer of timbers and framer of buildings, which was his leading specialty; a man well known in several of the towns of southeastern New Hampshire, not only as master framer of buildings, but as one of the master workmen in the construction of the dams across the Cocheco and Lamprey rivers, when the first cotton mills were built at Dover and Newmarket.
The frame timbers of those times were much heavier than used now, not stinted in quantity nor quality. After the several pieces for the frame were prepared, and pinned together, they were hoisted a whole broadside at once into the position it was to occupy in the building, often taking several scores of the strongest young men of the town, with long pick poles and ready hands. In buildings then strength and endurance were among the virtues sought, and oak [illegible] were not a wanting factor in their construction.
I have heard tell, for it was some score or more years beyond my memory runneth although all the persons referred to were in connection with circumstances. I knew well for many years, of the raising of a large barn in this neighborhood 60 feet in length, where Mr. Jeremiah Hobbs, who was then a young man, was master workman. The whole town turned out to help. Such occasions took much the form of a holiday, with baked beans for supper, and wrestling matches for side shows. At this raising among those present as witnesses were eight young mothers, each with a nursing boy baby in her arms. And what seems remarkable those boys all lived to be old men, none of them dying younger than 76 years. All are now dead. Their names are John Perkins, Sherburn Locke, John Johnson, Jonathan Palmer, Simon Moulton, Oliver Lamprey, Simon Brown and Obed S. Hobbs.
Master Builder Hobbs was often employed in neighboring towns. Being skillful in his calling, he was much sought for. He was not only skilled, but he was a busy worker, a man of few words. Those who worked under him found no time to spin long yarns during working hours. His time to cross a bridge was when he got to it.
His brother, whose home was in Effingham, desired him to superintend the building for him of a barn. The time was set when he was to be there, and the brother was to meet him on the way. Mr. Hobbs started early in the morning on foot with his broad ax and square on his shoulder, for Effingham. He had traveled more than half the distance when he met his brother. After the barn was completed he footed the same distance on his return, arriving home late in the night. Before breakfast the next morning he was seen out in his cornfield hoeing, being one of our larger farmers. Deacon Hobbs not only had a strong will, but nerves as of iron. His home was what is now the Curtis DeLancey place.
E. P. YOUNG