Mr. Duane Manning worked for Roberson Lumber for 7.5 years, from 1947 to 1955, starting at age 18. His father worked there as well. He started working in the door room with a dozen other men, which was on the second floor of the three-story factory. He was the youngest among his coworkers. Mr. Manning often worked as a "floater" working at each different station. His starting pay rate was $0.75 an hour.
Roberson Lumber manufactured interior and exterior doors, storm doors, windows, windowsills, floor sills, spiral staircases, wooden exterior blinds. The company had its own fleet of trucks for delivery.
Mr. Manning described the process of making a door. Lumber (mostly ponderosa pine) arrived by rail. The train stopped right behind the factory. Boards were unloaded by hand one at a time. Men would climb into the boxcar, slide the boards down onto sawhorses and iron wheeled wagons. The large boards were balanced so that they could pull the cart from one end. A tractor with an extension arm that hooked onto the cart pulled the wagon. The lumber was put on an elevator to go to the upper floors (storm doors and windows were made on the third floor).
The foreman of the door department laid out all the boards for each type of door, and marked them with a pencil. The cutters, at the chainsaw station, were given a list of what length and width to cut the boards and how many of each size. The chainsaw station had a table that moved up and down, as the saw remained stationary. The door then went a machine called the "style." This machine cut the outside of the door, smoothing and rounding the edges. The style was also where the crosspieces or "tendons" were cut. Each door normally had at least two tendons - a top and bottom rail (depending on the type of door there were more tendons). Doors are two pieces at this point in the process, a "front" and "back" side. Door pieces were loaded on carts and wheeled around between each workstation. Then the slots for the windows were cut at the machine called the "chopper." The chopper could cut 45-degree angles. The chopper was operated with a foot press/pedal. Moldings were also cut with the chopper. The moldings were attached after the door had been sanded. The sanding machine could handle doors up to 4 feet wide. The doors went through the sander twice, once for each side. Then the doors were put into a squaring apparatus. This machine made of iron allowed workers to square the edges of the whole door and the window slots. After that the pieces of the door were "sandwiched" together using one-inch pins to set it and then gluing and hammering it together. This "sandwich" process was all done by hand. The hammers used had heavy steel handles with rubber heads, so that the head of the hammer didn't damage the wood.
Mr. Manning said they made about 100 doors a day. The doors were stacked against a pole and pushed around the corner onto a cart. Then the doors had windows inserted before they were shipped.
Mr. Manning enthusiastically spoke about how the factory was powered. All of the equipment was twenty years old when he started working there. Every machine, except for two electric saws, was run by a steam engine. There was a system of boilers, pulleys, and a flat leather belts (approx 4 inches wide) that worked together to power the whole factory. This system was basically self-propelled. The steam engine was on the third floor of the factory. It ran on 100lbs of steam pressure. The pulleys and belts for the machines were above the workstations at the ceiling level. There was a line shaft system housed in between the ceiling and the floor of each level. There was also a central shaft that acted as a vacuum. Each machine had a pipe coming out of it. These pipes connected to the central "vacuum" shaft that ran to the top floor. The sawdust was constantly being sucked through the pipes. If there were chips or dust on the floor, workers would just sweep it up and take it to the central shaft. The central shaft had sliding doors where workers could open the door and the pile would be sucked up the shaft. Mr. Manning said there were only two maintenance men for the entire factory, which employed approximately 100 people. The steam engine heated the factory as well. Factory floors were hard wood (he thinks it might have been maple) covered with sawdust. This combination made it easy to slide heavy items from place to place in the factory.
Mr. Manning emphasized that Roberson used every bit of wood to its advantage. When a board had knots, the knots were cut out, collected and burned in the steam engine boilers. Wood chips and scraps from the factory floor were burned to fuel the steam engine. Any five-inch scrap pieces were sold to Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company (for women's shoe heels). Thin scraps were sent to the blind room. Scraps that were 1" thick, depending on the length, were used as moldings for storm doors or windows or other products.
Mr. Manning remembers working with cypress wood to build the doors for the Broome County Airport. Manning recalls keeping the wood wet with a mixture of water and sawdust. Slivers from cypress are poisonous. Workers did not wear gloves. If they got a sliver they picked it out with a sharpened jack knife, which Manning called a "sliver picker."
Sometimes, when work was slow, Mr. Manning also cut screens to size and inserted them into doors or windows. The mesh screen was attached to the frame with a tool that was essentially a rolling bar with wheels. The edges of the mesh were rolled into the groove that had been cut by the chopper. Roberson purchased the screen mesh from Cortland Wire Co. in NY. Then moldings were stapled over the top. The staples were pins that were hammered in by hand with a rubber mallet.
In 1953 or 1954, the State came to inspect the factory. Inspectors told the Roberson management not to run the steam engine system any more, because it did not meet state standards. The company switched to electric power. A 50 hp motor was installed where the steam engine used to be, at top of the line shaft, to run the belt system. A 100hp motor was needed to power the fan. After the first electric bill, company ordered another smaller steam engine to run the fan (vacuum). It was shortly after this that Roberson began to go out of business. A company from Pennsylvania bought Roberson. The new parent promised innovation and growth, but the employees felt the end coming. Manning said he know he was going to be laid off, before he actually was. When he was laid off in 1955, he was making $1.25 an hour.
Mr. Manning's favorite aspect of his time at Roberson was coming in and knowing that he might get to do any one of the jobs in the door room. He liked the variety of being a "floater."
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