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


Russell Plessy (Carpenter)

My daddy was a carpenter and his daddy was a carpenter. Everybody but Homer was a carpenter. Homer [Plessy, of the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court case] went into the shoemaking business. I learned it through my uncle Antoine Plessy. I didn't learn it; I was just gifted to it. Just like a kid that go to school who's gifted to books, I was gifted to woodwork. . . . I went [to grade school] but I didn't learn nothing. I didn't want to learn nothing. I said if I couldn't get it with my hands, I couldn't get it with books.

Oh, he was the best in the city [Antoine Plessy]. Anybody that knew him they will tell you he was the best. He worked all out in Metairie all kind of houses built there. No cheap houses—$100, $150,000 homes. That was back in the 1930s. I was ten years old, 11 years old when I went to work for him. I was working before that, but when I was 11 I started doing carpentry work.

You have to like it, love it, and want to do it. To be a carpenter, a brick layer, plasterer, sheet rock man, you can't go into it if you don't like it. I used to like all of it. I wanted to learn it all.

They want to know how I can put up a building so fast and it take them so long. I said, "Well you don't use your head." I started a building out with four slabs. Before that day is over I had my box on that slab that evening, ready for in the morning. Got the walls up the next day. I had enough bricklayers to finish that building that day. My truck was out there waiting with all the equipment to come in there and form it. Three days and I was forming on that building. The fifth day I was pouring again. Five or six days. Everybody wanted to know how I could put a building up so fast. I said it was just a matter of having men and knowing what you're doing. I had men to do my work the way I wanted it. I had a good crew. I had fifty bricklayers. I had seventy-five carpenters and laborers and plasterers. We had that work going like a train. I had 21 jobs from one to the other in the ground.

I never used no power tools. All I had was my plane. My ratchet screwdriver. I never liked hanging a door with a power screwdriver. No matter how hard the wood the door would fall off the hinges. I used my screwdriver, put wax on it, went through just like a drill.

About repairing the bell tower on St. Patrick's church:

The water was coming in the church. It hit that wall and it kept that wall wet. I had to fix that first before the concrete. I had to pour a slab all the way across that church. I had two foot on one side. We did that. Then we went underneath the church. I had to clean out underneath the church. We dug it down three feet from the joist deep and four foot wide. That was a lot. Then after I did that I had to do the brick work. I pointed up all the bricks, dug them out, fixed the brick work and then another guy was working on the joists. We couldn't use no hard mortar. If you put hard mortar in there, . . . you see a lot of that church was built with salt, sand and lime. There is really two grams of salt in that mortar. I dug out an inch to keep the brick from falling but it wasn't enough. It pushed it out. I had one five-gallon bucket to one little cup of cement, not to make it hard, just to have it check.

Russell Plessy 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.