More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Brothers Clayton and Jason Hartdegen (Millwrights)

JH: [We learned our craft] from the master himself, . . . my Dad [Gustav (Gus) Hartdegen]. I believe that my Dad said his grandfather was a carpenter also, started out as a carpenter. Before that, they [the Hartdegen family] came from Germany. He was the original. . . . My great-grandfather came off the boat, as they say. My mother's French. I remember going to jobs, going to shops with him, working on stair-work on the weekend when we were. . . .

CH: We were real young. Seven, eight years old probably.

JH: I consider myself his apprentice until he died.

CH: Yeah, really. Still are.

JH: You're always learning things. I mean, he may have taught us everything we know, but he didn't teach us everything he knew, and so I think a little bit gets lost here and there. But we pick up a lot on our own as we get older too. I mean we always felt . . . and I'm sure he felt the same way about his dad, you know, that he was never as good as his father . . . but we feel the same way, you know, when it comes to that kind of thing. He was about as good as I've ever seen. And I've had many, many people tell me the same thing. That he was the best stair man, carving handrails and that kind of thing. He could work any problem out that you might have. He was constantly being harassed on the phone to solve problems by architects of different jobs that he developed over the years. Everybody knew him, everybody that was in his generation. That comes from working in the industry for so long, you know. Now, really, he worked for other people most of his life. He didn't go into business for himself until we got old enough to go into business for ourselves. He worked on the side his whole life at night, and on weekends doing stair-work mostly, doing handrails and installing them and building staircases, curved stairs. And that's where we learned all our trade, 'cause that's really a lost art, the way we do it. Our dad was trained by somebody at the National Sash and Door Company in the 1940s and '50s who was in his eighties at the time. So the way we learned is really an old, old method of doing millwork. We don't do anything using C & C machines or very little modern technology in our shop. Most of it's all the old way. Not only does it look like the old millwork, but it's built the same way.

About training the emerging workforce:

JH: I think you need to get the pros teaching, and not teachers teaching. You know, you need to get people like us-either teaching, or having them sent to us as apprentices. That's where it really needs to happen-here, to learn the trade and put in the time. It just takes time. It's just like going to college, really. You're not going to be worth a darn for a long time.

CH: But [with an apprenticeship] you're getting paid.

JH: Yes, if they can find somebody good to learn from. We face a chronic shortage of people like us, our generation, that were taught by people. . . . You know this is a computer age, everybody wants to sit behind a desk.

CH: Nobody wants to sweat and work hard.

JH: I think [we won't be able to build up the work force the right way] until we have people that can come out of high school—that aren't going to go to college—sent to places like this, that are interested in this. There's nothing to funnel those kids into lathing, or to be plasterers, electricians, or plumbers, all of that. Everybody is short of men.

Brothers Clayton and Jason Hartdegen were interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.