Lumber mills and custom woodworking played a supporting role in the Academy Awards last night. Named Best Picture was 12 Years a Slave, which tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in 1841 in New York State and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

Rescued by court action in 1853, Northup recorded the horrible tribulation of his enslavement. His book, 12 Years a Slave, published later the same year in Europe and the U.S. became a best seller.

The book also recounts the business culture of the southern plantation, frequently situated in forested areas that supplied lumber mills, in which at one point Northrup labors. He writes:

”We were now in the midst of trees of enormous growth, whose wide-spreading branches almost shot out the light of the sun. . . .The bay and the sycamore, the oak and the cypress, reach a growth unparalleled in those fertile lowlands bordering the Red River. . . We cut down oaks, split them into rails, and with these erected temporary cabins.”

An itinerant worker and self-described jack of all trades, before his enslavement Northup had been employed in building a portion of the Champlain Canal, where he learned construction and carpentry. Once captured, his skills in the wood trades played to his advantage, to the surprise of the Southern plantation owners who were unfamiliar with the trades practices well known in the Northeast. 

For example, Northrup relates of his new owner:

“Upon my arrival at Master Epps’ in obedience to his order, the first business upon which I entered was the making of an axe-halve [handle]. The handles in use there are simply a round tick. I made a crooked one, shaped like those to which I had been accustomed in the North.

When finished, and presented to Epps, he looked at it with astonishment, unable to determine exactly what it was. He had never before seen such a handle, and when I explained its conveniences, he was forcibly struck with the novelty of the idea. He kept it in the house, and when his friends called, was wont to exhibit it as a curiosity.”

Elsewhere Northup describes his owner’s need for a weaving loom.

”He could not imagine where one was to be found, when I suggested that the easiest way to get one would be to make it, informing him at the same time that I was a a sort of 'Jack of All Trades,' and would attempt it with his permission. It was granted very readily and I was allowed to go to a neighboring planter’s to inspect one before commencing the undertaking. At length it was finished and . . . . It worked so well was continued in the employment of making looms, which were taken down to the plantation on the bayou.”

Later Northup works for John M Tibeats, a carpenter.

“I was directed to quit the looms and assist him. For two weeks I was in his company, planing and matching boards for a ceiling, a plastered room being a rare thing in the parish of Avoyelles.”

As the book nears its conclusion - Northup's liberation - he is given another assignment to work on cedar paneling for an estate, noting in humid Louisiana . . .

"the rooms are not plastered, but the ceiling and sides are covered with matched cypress boards. . .Generally the plank and boards are sawed by slaves with whipsaws, there being no waterpower upon which mills might be built for many miles. . .Having had some experience under Tibeats as a carpenter, I was taken from the field altogether."

Northup works as a carpenters assistant for a woodworker from Illinois, who later writes the letters that lead to Northup's emancipation. In the movie the Illinois woodworker is played by Brad Pitt.

The powerful story of Solomon Northup is a gift for the ages, given its first-person account of the horrors of slavery. It may be brought home even more powerfully for thsoe of us in the woodworking industry, with its recounting of a pursuit familiar to our daily endeavors.

More about the story: The first scholarly edition of Northup's memoir, co-edited in 1968 by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, carefully retraced and validated the account and concluded it to be accurate.

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