Continuing a family’s 70-year woodworking tradition
May 24 2012
The aroma of freshly baked bread wafted through Carrboro on May 19 as locals and visitors filtered through booths of community artisans on Main Street.
Louie Graham and his family were not there to enjoy a leisurely Saturday morning or the sweet-smelling bread. They were there to make a living.
Surrounded by wooden chests, tables and the scent of cedar, Graham said he is taking the reigns of the family business. “I’ve been working with wood since I was eight years old,” he said.
In a business that has all but been taken over by mechanized industry, Graham said farming and woodworking are his family’s main source of income. The Grahams are almost entirely self-sustained on their family farm in Silk Hope. Graham furnished and built his house, owns his own mill for processing the lumber, and maintains a produce and livestock farm.
“My wife is a homemaker. So if she doesn’t have to get a real job, so why should I?” chuckled Graham.
But Graham is just following tradition. For the past 70 years woodworking has been the life source Dan Graham, Louie’s father. He began honing his craft at the age of 15 in Ohio before eventually acquiring a bachelor’s degree in education and exporting his skills to the Republic of Philippines.
“While I lived there, I farmed coffee and taught the locals some woodworking skills to help jumpstart their economy,” Dan Graham said. After rumors of insurgence began rippling through the islands, Dan Graham brought his woodworking talents back to the states, North Carolina specifically.
He then spent the next few years raising his family and cultivating the hobby in his offspring. Dan Graham, whose father was also a carpenter, said it runs in his blood. “If you’re a farmer’s son, you’re likely to be a farmer.”
The 83-year old said that although his output rate has slowed due to his age, working with wood remains a favorite pastime of his.
“It takes me a while to finish things now, but it keeps my hands busy and my mind active,” he said.
Despite the family’s extensive history in the business, they have not been able to dodge repercussions of the recession and foreign competition.
“One woman showed me a cookbook stand she found on Amazon,” said Graham, Sr. ”I couldn’t make it for five times what they were selling it for.”
But the Grahams’ prices haven’t stooped to meet the competition.
“We set our price for what we think is fair for the material and the labor,” he said as he motioned to a nearby cedar chest. “That chest right there is $320. If someone offered us $319 we wouldn’t accept.”
Although Louie Graham said the family company has suffered from the economy, it still attracts enough interest to stay in business. One patron, Jeff Manly, said it was the uniqueness of the items that keeps him coming back for more. Manly, the owner of three of the handcrafted tables, stopped by to eye the new inventory and considered purchasing a fourth.
“I’ve never seen anything like them at retailers like Lowe’s or Home Depot, he said. “They’ve held up perfectly for the six or seven years we’ve had them.”
Though the sale of big ticket items like chest of drawers, or in one case, a coffin, is usually a hit-or-miss at the market, Tricia Graham helps to stabilize the family’s income by selling produce and meat.
Tricia Graham, Louie’s wife, said she never planned on making a living as a farmer.
“When we married after college, we were both education majors,” she said. “We decided we could either teach and be poor and hungry, or farm and be poor,” she said with a smile.
Tricia Graham said she hopes her children will continue their interest in the family tradition. To offset the manual chores that accompany farming, she offers her children an incentive.
“Not many teenagers are willing to get up every Saturday at 4 a.m.,” she said. “But we gave them their own plots to grow produce on and told them that they get to keep half of the money they earn at the market.”
But Louie, Jr., the youngest of the clan, doesn’t appear to have been gripped with the thrill of agricultural life just yet.
“What’s woodworking?” he responded after being asked about the business. “On the farm I just do the lazy stuff – like watch TV,” said the 7-year-old.
But Tricia said little Louie helps out more than he lets on. “We give him the easy stuff to farm, like squash and zucchini,” she said.
Although the price of produce grown organically is typically more than the prices found at grocers, it’s the taste that keeps the regulars coming back.
“When people are looking for a tomato, they want an ugly one,” she said. “That’s how you can tell it’s homegrown.”
This article was written for the JOMC 253 Reporting class at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.