Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 32
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: April 1994 Volume 32 Number 2, Pages 67–74
Fritz's Lumber Yard
Since much of the early history of the Fritz Lumber Yard has been recently discussed in your club meetings[*], I plan to focus more on the more recent history of the company and some of the changes that have taken place in the past 50+ years since I first became active in the business.
I need to give you some original history, however, to set the current scene. Our earliest records indicate that my great-grandfather, Henry Fritz, and William Lobb began the business in the year 1860. Henry Fritz married Mary Lobb, the daughter of William Lobb, a few years later. In 1870 he was killed in an accident and survived by his wife Mary and two young sons. The two children were young Henry and my grandfather, William Howard Fritz Sr. Young Henry was called Harry.
At Henry Fritz's death his father-in-law, William Lobb, and later his brother-in-law, Preston Lobb, vowed to carry on the business until young William Fritz was old enough to take it over, which occurred in 1885.
After a distinguished career in business and community service, William H. Fritz Sr. passed away in 1938, leaving the business to William H., Fritz Jr., who was my father. He had his own wholesale business in Philadelphia as a broker selling railroad cars of white pine to lumber companies in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, New York, and Ohio, and was not particularly interested in the business in Berwyn.
Accordingly, on the death of his father my father hired George Jacobs to manage the lumber yard. Prior to that, in 1936, Howard Yohn had been hired by my grandfather as secretary and bookkeeper to help out in the office. (As an aside, Mr. Yohn retired this past December 31st, after 58 years in the same job.)
On December 18, 1941 my father died, leaving my sister Jean, then 14 years old; me, 13 years old; and his widow Marion, who was only 39. (An inter- esting thing here is how history in a sense repeated itself: my grandfather was a child when his father died, and I was a child when mine passed away.) As my father was in a one-man company, when he died the sales, and thus the income, from the wholesale business dried up, and our only source of income was going to be the lumber yard in Berwyn.
My mother Marion was a woman who had led a very comfortable, leisurely life. The product of a private girls' school, Sweet Briar College, and then marriage to my father, with two children she had had a pleasant home life. She had never worked a day in her life. But this all came to a crashing halt, with no one to help her settle the estates of both my father and his father, with insurance problems and those of state and local taxes. In addition, she now had to go to work to support the family.
You can imagine how delighted all the employees, carpenters, masons, farmers, and so on were to have a woman boss, who didn't know a nail from a hammer, walk into the place! Fortunately, as was the case of my grandfather, there were two people, George Jacobs and Howard Yohn, who cared enough about the business to run it as if it were their own. My mother received an extremely rough time from some of our customers, who refused to place an order for supplies with her because she was ignorant of their needs, but gradually over the next fifteen years she earned their grudging respect and, eventually, their admiration.
I came into the picture about 1937 when I was nine years old. I went to work at the yard in the summer, and was given the title of sweeper. Each morning I swept the tiny store and office we had then. Then I went on to all the outbuildings and swept and cleaned them. Then I swept the yard and various lumber bins. It was a boring job, and I grew to hate it! My salary was 25 cents a day. (The Fritzes have always been frugal.) In my earliest memories I can remember that at that time we still had two horses and a wagon, as well as a Ford pick-up, a flat-bed lumber truck, and two high-lift coal trucks that doubled as dump trucks. Our business then consisted of the sales of lumber, coal, masonry supplies, cement, plaster, and feed.
Now I will jump ahead about six years, to when I could actually take part in the day-to-day activities and get more involved in the business. For the most part, I was assigned to work with one of the truck drivers, to help him load and tie down the materials and then to deliver them to the various jobs or homes. We might have one order on a truck or as many as four or five small orders. They knew everybody and where he lived, and so we would load the truck in whatever order necessary to deliver the orders in sequence. And every stick of lumber, every bag of cement, every ton of stone, sand, or coal was loaded by hand.
One of our biggest producers of income was the sale and delivery of coal. I would guess that in those days probably half of our business was the coal business. Stove coal, chestnut, pea, buckwheat, and rice: these names designated the size of the coal.
Coal was always delivered to us in fifty-ton railroad cars, on our privately owned railroad siding. (It still runs along the entire north side of the property, parallel to the railroad tracks.) The siding ran over the top of the coal bins. The cars were brought onto it by a coal-fired steam locomotive and placed over the proper bin. Each car had two pockets or doors on the bottom, held closed by heavy metal hooks. Once the car was placed and blocked in the proper location over the coal bin, we took sledge hammers, laid on our backs, and swug at those metal hooks. Eventually, if you hit them hard enough, the pocket door would release with the roar of fifty tons of coal escaping through it. Invariably in the wintertime, some coal would freeze inside the car and I would have to climb in, with a crowbar and pick, to break it loose.
I must tell you that the price for coal when I started was $6.00 a ton; it was over $130.00 a ton when we stopped selling it.
We delivered coal in the summer as well as in the winter. Coal that was delivered in the summer was cheaper than it would be in the winter, and many people took advantage of this and would fill their bins during July and August.
Delivering coal was no easy task for our employees. First we had to load the coal truck. By then we had a bucket machine that ran on electricity, with buckets on a conveyor belt. The buckets would pick up the coal and carry it up the belt and dump it into the truck. It sounds easy enough -- except that you had to shovel the coal into the bucket and shovel the coal in the bed of the truck to fill the truck and keep the coal from piling up in one place. After we got the truck loaded, we then carefully weighed it, hosed down the coal with water to minimize the dust, and headed for the customer's coal bin. (In the wintertime, after being hosed down the coal would be frozen by the time we got to the customer's house.) At the house we would then position the truck as close to the cellar window as possible, and begin to hook up 10' to 12' steel chutes to the end of the truck. On the tail of the truck was a little door, operated by a lever; when you pulled the lever the door would open and the coal start to spill down the chute. Next, with the truck engine running, you would operate other levers in the truck to raise or lower the body. The idea was to raise the body of the truck to the proper height so that the coal would run down the chute and into the bin in the cellar. The front of the body could be as much as 30 feet in the air, and there would be one man high in the truck guiding the coal down the chute and another down in the coal bin moving the chute from left to right to fill the bin. Eventually the man in the bin would have to crawl on his_ belly to get out of it when it was filled. It was back-breaking work; the only time it was worse was when the cellar window was inaccessible from the street or driveway and we had to take big canvas bags, fill them from the truck, carry them around the side of the house, down the cellar steps, and dump them into the bin. As I said, delivering coal was no easy task.
In the early '40s, and later too, almost all our lumber also came in by railroad, in enclosed rail cars, not the open flat-beds you see today. Our rail siding passes behind our two-story, 250 feet long lumber shed. The shed is open on the side that faces the lumber yard, but closed by a series of sliding doors on the side facing the railroad. We would slide these doors back and forth to open them to unload the lumber from the car directly into the proper storage bin. The cars were completely enclosed and contained one or two sliding doors that had to be pushed back to gain entrance into the car. (It usually took a super-human effort to open the doors because they had been damaged by countless openings and closings.)
There were generally about 40,000 board feet of lumber in the car, meaning that the smallest guy -- and you know who that was -- was boosted up into the car to begin pushing out each piece of lumber, stick by stick, to those waiting to receive it and store it in the shed, by hand. There wasn't a breath of air in that car, and in the summertime the temperature was well over 100 .
We were allowed two days to unload a car and release it. Anything over that two days and you paid a demurrage fee that got bigger each day. We tried to keep four or more men working a car until it was unloaded., usually one or two inside and two or three outside, separating the boards by length and storing them in the proper bin.
The lumber shed has two floors, and the siding came in at the second floor level. To put lumber on the second floor was easy, but when you had to put it down below on the first floor, that was more difficult. We would instruct the railroad to leave the car in a large open area before reaching the shed, open the car there, and then carry the material to the proper storage area.
In 1940 we found it more and more difficult to get help. Some men went into the armed services, others went into defense jobs. The American Bronze Company, just east of our location, made parts for the defense department. Some of the men would go to work there from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and then come to work for us. These men also worked for us on their days off. Since we were otherwise short-handed, we would unload the rail cars from about 3:00 p.m. to as late as 9:00 at night. Thus we might have as many as ten men working to unload the car. The method was to have one or two men in the car, who would pass a piece of lumber-out to a man on the ground, who would then put it on his shoulder, march down the alley between the sheds, and put it in the proper storage area. As the hour grew later, the men became more tired. Working from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. is a pretty long stretch.
At that time we hired a little black man of indeterminate age, very strong, and with a great wit. His name was Billy Thomas. On this particular night we had two men in the car, and six men walking the lumber from the car to the bin in an endless circle. As the hour grew later Billy got slower and slower, until, without anyone noticing, he dropped out of the chain, walked out of the circle of light, and leaned against a pile of lumber to catch a little nap. My father was in the office, doing some book work and for some reason decided to come out and see how things were going.
As he walked up the alleyway between the two sheds he could see the men carrying the lumber -- and also Billy, leaning against the wood pile, taking a snooze. My father decided to sneak up on him and catch him in the act, but the driveway between the sheds is gravel, and as my father drew close to Billy the crunching noise was enough to waken him. Through the slits in his eyes he could see the toes of my father's shoes, shining in the dim light. Without moving a muscle, but in a very audible voice, Billy said, "... and God bless Mr. Fritz too."
As I got older I was given more responsibility and was taught to drive heavier and heavier trucks, though not without supervision. At first one of the experienced drivers always went with me, which explains their occasional haggard look when we returned to the office. Instead of plywood for roof sheathing and sub-flooring, in those days, we sold 1"x6" T & G yellow board called roofers. The lumber was hard and very slick. I had 3000 feet of it on a flat-bed truck to deliver to a place on Irish Road in Berwyn. There was a steep driveway, and as I started up it the whole load slid off the truck and down across Irish Road. Fortunately, no one was passing by. But if I had listened, and tied the load securely, that would never have happened.
I worked every summer while going to and graduating from college. In 1951 I married Joan MacFarlane from Paoli, and went off into the army. My wife moved into an apartment in Wayne. I was in the army from September of 1951 until February of 1954. When I left the service in 1954 I was a first lieutenant and a company commander. So when I got back to Fritz's, I was going to take charge.
I wore a coat and tie and sat in the office, twiddling my thumbs. They didn't need me in the office, so after two days I went to my mother and George Jacobs and said that I was going back out into the yard. But as time passed and our business grew, I spent less time outside and more time inside. I helped Howard Yohn do the bills when needed, and answered the phone or waited on customers.
Howard Yohn kept immaculate books, all by hand. At the end of every month we spent all the day and often as late at night as twelve o'clock adding up each person's account, making out bills, and folding them ready to be mailed. We would run a trial balance, and if Mr. Yohn was one penny off we would start all over again. In frustration, I would say, "Let's call it quits, Howard, and I'll give you the penny."
Inventory was another real hassle, and as our business grew, so did our problems. It's a particular problem when you carry so many little items. We kept a daily inventory by hand in a loose-leaf notebook. Every item we stocked, in every size or length, was in that book. Each night, after we finished work, we would go through every cash and charge invoice for the day and deduct each item by hand. In the same manner, we would add to the book whatever inventory came in that day. It took anywhere from an hour to two hours every night, depending on what the sales were that day, to do it. We often got tired, and easily made mistakes.
Advertising was something we hardly thought much about, if at all. We knew everybody in town and everybody knew us. And there wasn't much competition around; we were about the only lumber yard in the area. So we gave out pencils, cigars, candy, and so forth to our customers, and that was about it.
The first really big change we made to bring us out of the "dark ages" was to mechanize, with the purchase of a fork-lift truck. The fork-lift truck has really changed the way we do business. Today we no longer use our railroad siding; everything comes to us by tractor trailer trucks. Allour sand, crushed stone, concrete blocks, cement, pipe, lumber, steel, and whatever comes in by truck. And now it takes one man on a fork-lift truck to unload and put away in an hour items that it took a minimum of four men up to two days to do. (Of course, we are now completely out of the coal business.)
The second big change, and perhaps the most important one, was the introduction of computers. Around 1980 I became more and more serious about going to a computer system. During the next two years I listened to my peers in the lumber business and to computer people. Finally, in 1982, we decided to go to a point-of-sale system that would do everything that we then did by hand, including inventory, sales, billing, and so forth. So for one year we ran two systems, the old one by hand and the new com- puter program. Each day, week, and month we compared the two systems. And at last we were comfortable with it, and went totally to the computer. Now, at the end of each month, we tell the computer to run off the billing totals and turn out the lights, go home, and the next morning when we come in, it's all done.
Another change is in our advertising costs. Our advertising costs today are more than we used to gross when I first started. Now we are into newspapers, circulars, direct mail flyers, magazines, radio, television.
As for the future, we look forward to it with a cautious optimism. I have two sons in partnership with me, William Howard Fritz IV and Andrew M. Fritz. Howard has spent his time in the field, and now runs the office. Andy is doing his apprentice work in the day-to-day operation of the yard. George Jacobs Jr., the son of the man hired by my father 46 years ago, is the office and hardware manager, and his son works in the yard with Andy. Bill Ewing, the son of the late Tom Ewing of Malvern Federal, after six years in the yard was brought in to help Howard Yohn. Upon Mr. Yohn's retirment, the full responsibility of that department falls squarely on Bill's capable shoulders. Tom Scanlon, who was formerly our yard foreman, is now our inside counter person. Many of our outside help have been here for years, and their knowledge is so helpful to our customers. Fortunately, we have been able to get good people and hang on to them.
That's one thing that has not changed -- the people who work for us. Their names may change from time to time, but the attitude is always the same, and the people who come to visit us appreciate it.
Page last updated: 2009-06-09 at 17:30 EDT