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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Making Braman’s brush blocks in Carthage

September 14, 2018
By AMY FEIEREISEL - NCPR correspondent , Lake Placid News

CARTHAGE - If you were walking through downtown Carthage in Jefferson County 120 years ago, you would have seen dozens of wood-based factories - making everything from paper to department store boxes to shutters and blinds.

Business was booming up and down the Black River, with timber arriving from logging operations in the Adirondacks. And Orman Braman, a Pennsylvania native looking to strike out on his own, wanted in.

In the early 1900s, Orman traveled to Carthage and started looking for a wood manufacturing mill. He eventually found a factory making brush blocks and handles in West Carthage, which he bought in 1907 and renamed the Braman Manufacturing Company. At this time his nephew, O. Clyde Stalker, moved to Carthage to help run the business. Here's an excerpt from an announcement Orman wrote after buying the factory:

Article Photos

Interior of the Braman Manufacturing Company’s sawmill. Circa 1930s-1940s. Carthage, NY. Photo: courtesy Pamela and Jeff Cole

"Having had many years' experience in wood turning and polishing lines it will be my aim to continue to conduct the business in the same satisfactory manner ... that has marked Mr. Mason's management of the business for so many years."

The original factory burned, and the operation was relocated to Alexandria Street in Carthage, but the business always stayed in family hands. Jeanne Place (nee Stalker), Clyde's daughter, became vice president, and her husband, Robert Place, married into the Braman family and ran the company.

Pamela Cole is Jeanne and Robert's daughter; she grew up in Carthage and still lives there. Pamela spent much of her childhood in and out of the factory, a long brick-and-mortar building with three floors. She remembers:

"The top floor was the lacquer area. The bottom floor, I remember walking into the front of it and they had huge boilers which they burned all their scrap and all their sawdust and everything and that's how they heated it. They bailed shavings for many, many farmers around the area that used it for their livestock. The middle floor was basically the machines."

She says she loved walking the factory with her grandfather: "It was a big deal for us to go down there and walk around with the big honchos."

Also on the grounds were a pond, sawmill, and lumber yard. Loggers dumped hardwood logs into the pond to soak, then the logs were pulled out of the water and into the mill, where she says: "... they started sawing off the bark and whatnot. These huge, huge saws, they would cut them into the lumber that they knew they were going to need to make the blocks."

The blocks she's talking about were brush blocks - that's the part of a broom that holds the bristles. Before plastic, all brooms were made of wood, shaped by lathes and covered in a layer of lacquer. The company also produced specialty orders like feather duster handles and wooden dowels to hang maps on.

One of their customers was the U.S. Department of the Interior; they placed orders for wooden dowels that Jeff Cole, Pamela's son and Jeanne and Robert's grandson (also known as an anchor for WWNY in Watertown), believes could still be hanging in buildings in Washington, D.C.

Jeff has spent years combing over company records he got from "Grandpa Place," who carefully filed away decades of purchase orders and correspondence, and kept examples of the different blocks they made. Much of it decorates his home in Watertown.

"When he gave me all of this memorabilia, he would take a block and he would explain to me how it was made. And I would say 'Grandpa, you had to run the company, you had a lot more to do. How do you know how to make this stuff? You had employees of 70 or 100 people working at the mill.' And he said to me, 'You can't expect someone to do something for you if you can't do it yourself.' So he knew how to make everything that Braman's did."

Pamela says the factory was never far from her father's mind. She remembers that often when Robert couldn't sleep, he would head on down to the factory and check on the "fireman" who stoked the fires in the boiler room and was the only employee to stay overnight.

There was always the looming fear of fire. Braman's was filled with wood blocks, wood shavings, stacks of lumber, and an entire floor of highly flammable paints and lacquers. Pam remembers the old fire system in Carthage, because it was something her father was always listening for. Like in most small towns, the fire system was a horn on a sort of morse-code system. Different locations had different fire codes - Braman's was a 2-8:

"That horn went two times and then it rested for a minute and then it would blast off eight intervals. A 28. And that meant Alexandria Street in this area, in the Braman area. So morning, noon or night, if that alarm went off, my father would get up and come out in the middle of the night just to make sure that the place wasn't burning down."

Unlike many larger factories in the area - which were mostly owned by corporations - Braman didn't do 24/7 shift work. It essentially ran from 9 to 5, and the employees actually decided to de-unionize early on. In the Braman records is an old employee ledger from the 1930s and 1940s; in it are records of each employee, the hours they worked, their rate of pay, even the social security deducted, or a dollar taken out because an employee purchased fire wood from the company.

Jeff says it's fun to go through because "Mom looks at the names, and we know of the families that still live in the Carthage area."

Pamela finds the entry for a Gerald Mulaney.

"I remember that family very well. He worked 44 hours, 38 and a half cents per hour, $16.94. And they had to deduct social security back then, which would have been 17 cents. His total pay for the week ending March 25, 1939 would have been $16.77."

"Grandpa Place" sold the company in the 1970s to American Brush Company, and it closed in the late 1980s. The factory no longer exists; it was destroyed by a series of fires - the last in 2005 - and then torn down. But in 2007, Jeff Cole organized for the property to be donated to Habitat for Humanity, and since then four homes have been built on the property, with room for one more. They call it Braman's Block.

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(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out www.northcountryatwork.org/)

 
 

 

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