Tuesday, December 11, 2012

New Beginnings

Christmas 2012 Roebling Village House Tour 
The new fiscal year has begun, and with it the Perkins Folklife Project is active again, following the usual summer hiatus.  In picking up the fieldwork threads for this year, my plan was to take a dual path -- following up in areas where I’d already been working, as well as striking out into new territory.  

On the new territory side of the picture, I spent a few days in and around Roebling, talking to people who’d been associated with the Roebling Mill and are now involved in the museum that’s grown out of the ruins of that mill.  I also spent time in Camden County -- in and around Camden City, Lindenwold, Lawnside, Berlin, Collingswood, Pennsauken, and other towns.  These are complex and interesting places, and I'll have more to write about them in coming months as I extend folklife project fieldwork activity more fully into these and other places in Camden County. 

In Roebling, I attended the annual Christmas event, spent time walking around what was once the company town, and crossed the tracks to look around the unaffiliated town (which was where the ethnic churches and clubs were located).  These tracks once served an industrial function; today, they carry the New Jersey Transit RiverLine, which is part of a statewide commuter light rail system.  Anyway, I took photos, and spoke casually and at times more deeply with people I met, or arranged to meet, in that place.

While working in Roebling and Florence, I met and then interviewed Don Jones, an artist whose art is various and interesting, and includes depictions of life and work in the Roebling-Florence area, at Roebling mill and elsewhere.  Don classically has a foot in both worlds -- he grew up on a farm in Florence, but his father worked for Roebling.  Don himself took a different path at a time when so many of his contemporaries were graduating from high school and heading for work at the mill: he enrolled in the Tyler School at Temple University, earned a degree in art, and made a career in advertising and marketing.  I’ll report in more detail on my conversations with him, and take a closer look at his work, in a future post.

Returning to more familiar locales, I revisited people I know in the Floodgates area, south of Paulsboro, whom I’ve worked with over the past couple of years.  Some things have changed.  Last year I published a blog post about Boots Hughs, a member of the greater Repaupo community and an astute collector of old tools that were used on farms in the area.  Boots died several weeks ago.  He was cremated, and his ashes spread around a section of Repaupo Creek where he and his son owned property.  Calvin Fisler, remembering his friend Boots (I wrote about Calvin last year, too), told me that Boots had often helped a local landowner who owned land along the creek, and in gratitude for that help she offered a piece of property to him.  All she asked for that land, Calvin said, was one dollar – but she said it had to be a silver dollar.  Boots got hold of a silver dollar, and that property is now in Boots’s family.  I detect an eloquent symbolism in that transaction over the property, as Calvin told it, which says something important about community values and relationships along Repaupo Creek.  I’ll try to explore that “something” in future posts.        

Dick Toone with Tankard in Process

Following what has become the vitally important thread of wood and woodworking, I visited Dick Toone at his workshop in Arneys Mount.  Dick expertly reproduces historic artifacts, mainly from the Colonial period, based on meticulous research and painstaking experimentation.  I'm fascinated with Dick's work and deeply impressed by his knowledge and skill.  When I stopped by, he was working on a set of wooden tankards for a local customer.  I took some photos of a roughed-out tankard, and of the tankard components.  

Dick Toone Demonstrates Treadle Lathe
These tankards are closely based on a traditional model, and are put together using the "loose cooperage" method, though Dick applies glue to hold the pieces together when the tankard isn't in use, meaning, when it dries out (when wet, the wood swells out against the iron bands that wrap around the tankard; when dry, the wood shrinks and separates).  Later, Dick and I went up to the upper level of the barn, where he showed me a reproduction 18th century lathe he's built, based on a model he discovered at Old Salem, the historic Moravian settlement in North Carolina (the North Carolina settlement is an offshoot of the older Moravian settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania).  

Still following wood around the project region, I stopped by for a chat with Bill Robbins, another fine woodworker.  (I reported briefly on Bill's work in a recent blog post.)  By the way, I recorded an interview with Bill Robbins earlier this year, which I'll report more fully on at some other time, and if possible will provide audio clips from that interview at some point, featuring Bill discussing his work.    

But for now, I’ll conclude this post with some further brief notes and indications regarding Bill Lucas (I've reported on him briefly in previous posts).  As of this writing, however, I've only scratched the surface of what I believe is a fabulous story, which I can only hint at here.

Bill was a member of a large extended family, who lived in the Pemberton area and had deeply historic roots in that town and in nearby places (I'm thinking here of Birmingham and Juliustown among others).  One Lucas ancestor was an early settler of Pemberton, who established a grist mill just a few doors west from where Bill later lived.  

Bill was a woodworker, and many other members of the Lucas family have been woodworkers too.  However, most of the stories seem to have clustered around the person of Bill, probably because, by all accounts, he had a very special feeling for wood, and was a capable and competent craftsman.  And perhaps also because his life was so intensely focused on wood.  I’m eager to learn more of this story, and perhaps in the process, to discover ways to view local history and culture in Pemberton through the multiple lenses of wood, woodworking, and Bill Lucas.  This should prove to be exceptionally rich ground for ongoing exploration.  As of this writing, I’ve already had some small amount of luck talking with a number of people about Bill, family members as well as others.  As Bill Robbins told me, “Everybody has a story about Bill Lucas.” 
Most of Bill’s tools, much of his equipment (some of which was made locally, at the A.B. Smith Company), and most of the wood he sawed and stowed away in a giant shed over many years, were sold at auction last spring.  The property where Bill lived out his life is being tidied up and reorganized  by surviving family members.  That property has been in the Lucas family for many years, and adjacent properties are currently occupied, or were formerly occupied, by relatives.  

The house Bill lived in all his life had been built by his father.  Due to life’s many unexpected twists and turns, Bill himself never left home.  He worked alongside his father at first, in the older man’s shop, and at the sawmill his father had acquired.  Right out of high school Bill  established his own workshop on the family property.  Bill’s father died at the ripe old age of 100, and then Bill simply carried on, until December 2011, when he himself died. 

Successful Bidder at Lucas Auction with one of Bill's Rocking Horses and Child's Chair

Bill’s lifelong interest in wood, his activity as craftsman and as collector of wood, his relationships with with the community of artisans, craftsmen, and builders who knew or interacted with him, suggest interesting perspectives on the relationship between natural history, cultural history, and social history in the place we know as the Pine Barrens.  Bill lived his entire life in that culturally complex region, but it’s unclear whether he self-identified as a so-called “Piney”, or whether for that matter any of the Lucases have done so.  Some of Bill’s relatives have engaged in activities that are closely associated with the culture and economy of the Pine Barrens, such as gathering pine cones, sphagnum moss, grape vines, and other materials for sale to the floral industry, or working seasonally in the local blueberry patches and cranberry bogs, or dabbling in the local building trades.  Some Lucas family members are enthusiastic hunters too, but as far as I know, Bill Lucas focused most if not all of his life energy on wood, on his sawmill, and on his equipment and tools.  I’m hoping to learn more, and understand more about Bill’s life and work in coming months, and will report any progress here, at this blog site.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012



Bill Lucas at his Sawmill (date and photographer unknown)

As I’ve continued working on the Perkins Folklife Project, I’ve been able to pursue a longstanding interest in the various woodworking traditions of the South Jersey region.  I’ve already reported in this blog on the decoy carving traditions of South Jersey, and on various related traditions.  I’ve maintained an interest in wood (as natural resource) and woodworking (as cultural activity) for a number of years now, in South Jersey and elsewhere.   
Bill Lucas Storage Shed; photo by Tom Carroll

In recent months I’ve been working with individual woodworkers and artisans, in order to refine my knowledge and understanding of woodworking traditions in the project region.  In May, I recorded an interview with Bill Robbins, a furniture maker and designer in Southampton, in which we explored his development as a woodworker, the sources of his design ideas, the varied influences on his work, and the South Jersey area as context for that work, among other topics.  (Bill maintains a website at williamrobbinsfurniture.com, where you can see many examples of his fine woodworking.)  I also paid a visit to Tom Lederer at his shop in Columbus, to take another look at his work and continue what I hope will become an ongoing discussion with him.  (You can see more of his work at ledererstudiofurniture.com.)

Bill Robbins Working on Chair Components; photo by Tom Carroll

Tom Lederer and Bill Robbins are part of a larger community of artisans working in various modes and genres, who have adopted wood as their chosen material.  In addition to these two furniture makers, this group, broadly conceived, would also include the decoy carvers I've mentioned, and people like Dick Toone, who expertly reproduces Colonial era artifacts for museums and collectors in his Arneys Mount workshop (livinghistoryshop.com).  In future fieldwork I plan to continue investigating these and other woodworking traditions, within the wider framework of South Jersey artisan wood traditions per se.  I plan to look for linkages between the work of all of these individuals, and understand them as part of the ongoing dynamism and historical development of south Jersey culture.  

Bill Robbins Assembling a Chair; photo by Tom Carroll
While doing fieldwork in the Pemberton area, I met a man named Bill Lucas, and wrote about him somewhat obliquely in an earlier post on this blog.  Bill passed away in December of 2011, and some time later, items from his shop and other buildings on the property were put up for auction.  I  attended the auction where his wood, his woodworking equipment (including his sawmill), and other artifacts he’d collected over the years were rendered up for bidding. 

Bill was a longtime sawmill operator, craftsman, and above all, conservator of wood that he milled from trees harvested or salvaged throughout the Pine Barrens region.  I had a number of conversations with Bill Lucas in the past couple of years, and since the time of his death in December 2011, have spoken with a number of people in the region to explore and try to understand his legacy.  My plan for the coming year is to initiate an oral history project to document and record memories of Bill Lucas and link these with ongoing wood-related artisan activity in the project region. 

Bill Lucas’s work dovetails in interesting ways with that of the woodworkers mentioned in this post.  For example, Bill Robbins purchased wood from Lucas, and visited him occasionally over the years.  Dick Toone also bought wood from Lucas.  Both he and Robbins know of other woodworkers who bought wood -- or tried to buy wood -- from Bill Lucas (he didn’t readily let go of his wood in later years), or who had other sorts of business or personal dealings with him.  I’ll be reporting on the progress of this work in future posts as the new fiscal year gets underway.

Long Rifle by Dick Toone; photo by Tom Carroll