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


Edwin Romain (Carpenter)

I'm 77. I started off working as a young man before I got out of high school. I started doing carpentry work and I took two years of manual training in high school. Then during my high school years, I was recommended to work summers in a casket factory, so I used to build caskets. It was somewhat like cabinet work; I used to build caskets for about three years in New Orleans making twenty-five a week. I could do any phase of caskets, the woodworking, the cloth cover, and putting the interiors in. All of that is considered cabinetry or carpentry. Not general carpentry, because casket building is a little bit more refined than general carpentry and construction. After I left the casket factory I had to go into the military service. . . . After coming out of the military I started carpentry work [with] my uncle Leon. That's where I learned my basic carpentry from. I worked with him building houses, and after the framing he'd put me in the inside and do all of the trim work. I was putting in the doors and windows and the baseboards and whatnot. I did that for some time until I decided I could do a little better than that and went off by myself. I started contracting my own.

There are Romains right now that are over in New Orleans and they are contractors, carpenters, and brick layers. Most of our family were tradesmen—brick layers or carpenters. And plasterers too. Many of them did stucco work too. Not many roofers in our family. But most of them followed building trades and at that time they didn't have many electricians or plumbers. They weren't licensed. You didn't have to be licensed to be a carpenter or a brick layer. You can join the union if you like, but most of my family didn't join the union either.

When I was working for Jason Bordenave [as an apprentice], we had a little mechanism they called a "preacher." You sit that over the weatherboard and scribe it and then you have to saw it, and you had to kind of pop it in place so that it would leave a crack right here. I'm watching my son-in-law with that modern technology that they're using, with a skill saw, and he's got a crack an eighth of an inch wide. He said, "Don't worry about it; we'll take care of that. After the weatherboard is up the painter comes back with a caulking gun and caulks all that along there." Man, they would have kicked me off the force as a youngster doing carpentry work [like that]! But is the technique the same? There is so many more machines they are using that we didn't even hear about. When I was working in the casket factory they did have a few machines there but I can remember using a hand rasp to round off the top of the casket, to make the casket nice and smooth on top. Now they have a belt sander and you just run that belt sander over the top four or five licks and everything is finished. Took me an hour to run the top of a casket off like that! We didn't have those tools but we did the best with what we had.

Creole, honey, Creole. We called it Creole, but Creole is patois and it's broken French. In my younger days they didn't call it patois, they called it Creole. The Creole, if you spoke to someone from France that spoke good French, I'd say about sixty percent they could understand whatever we would be speaking. But a lot of our family [spoke Creole] and some of them still do out there in the country. . . . My mother's mother came to live with us from the country and she didn't learn English. My mother and Leon, my uncle that built this house, spoke it very well. My grandmother died when I was still young so I didn't retain enough of it.

Edwin Romain was 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.