A Carrboro Century: Fitch Lumber turns 100

~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, November 2007 ~~

Friday morning at Fitch Lumber Company had a decidedly festive atmosphere. Flyers were posted announcing Fitch’s 100th Anniversary. Working folks were gearing up for one last day before the weekend. Homeowners were making household purchases.

David Fitch was on the phone.

A couple of guys were tussling by the counter, where Marc and Mike were ringing up orders. Someone was in a headlock. Marshall was passing around a tin of butter cookies, encouraging everyone to have some. Michael Brown was pointing to the horns of former UNC mascot, Rameses #11, up on the wall.

“Carolina was playing their first game of the season,” he said to Tate and Damian. “I went out to Rob Hogan’s before the game. Rameses had to have his urethra rerouted, and his scrotum was stained. Rob said we couldn’t show up looking like he had diarrhea, so he decided to shave his scrotum. I had to hold Rameses. Rob had his scissors and a razor. Our wives were just laughing.”

“We have to push people out of here in the mornings and get them to go to work,” David Fitch explained from behind the counter. “People will drink coffee in here for an hour and a half.”

In the front of the store, Beth Bradshaw was talking to Carol Fitch Walker about her 17-year-old dog, Josephine. Josephine had been a dream dog. “I could push a button,” Beth said, “and say, ‘Josephine, do this. Josephine, do that. Josephine, go to the store for me.’ She was great. But I went and bought a standard poodle,” she sighed, “who just doesn’t get it.”

Carol nodded understandingly. “I just brought home three new dogs,” she said. “The kids were excited, but now the responsibility has been pushed back on me and I have to clean up all their mess.”

Ronnie Mann stopped to say hello to Carol. He retired as Fitch’s Executive Vice President in 1998, after working for the family more than 37 years. “I grew up in Carrboro,” he said. “My father was a builder who traded exclusively at Fitch. I was working for him, but Fitch needed to expand. They approached my father, and I came to work in April of 1962, in the old tin-roofed building. Mac was 14 when I came here,” he recalled. “Carol was six.”

“My earliest memory,” Carol said, “is Daddy bringing home those little Cokes. That, and taking inventory – counting all the little plumbing pieces and nails and screws.”

Mac Fitch claimed to have been Fitch’s worst truck driver. “I dumped a whole pallet of shingles down a manhole in Colony Woods,” he said. “I had to put one bundle on my shoulder at a time and climb up to the street with it. Michael Watson sat in the truck and laughed at me. I said, ‘Michael, I’m gonna get my dad to fire you when we get back.’ After he stopped laughing, he got out and helped me.”

“I’ve known all four generations of Fitches,” Ronnie said. “They’re a wonderful family. I hope they can keep it up. They look after the builders and treat people very well – the people who work here, and their customers. We’ve had a good, fun time, and I try to stay in touch. I come to buy general household things, like watch batteries and light bulbs. But mostly I come to visit.”

~~~

David is a fourth-generation Fitch. Son of Mac. Grandson of Miles, Senior. Great-grandson of founder, Mr. A. B. Fitch. David’s older brother, Miles III (a.k.a. Sandy), is an engineer in Raleigh, but his younger brother, Brad, has also joined the family business. John, the youngest, is the bass player and lead vocalist for 3 Dollar Hostage. You can check out their myspace page.

David graduated from Appalachian State University. He’s been back home and working full-time at Fitch since 2001. “Really,” he said, “I’ve been working here since I was six. As a kid, I put up lumber. I still do that. I’m trying to carry on a tradition. Downtown Carrboro has been a good location,” he said. “Like Cliff’s, we’ve been here a long time. We’re one of the last few surviving original businesses.”

And the legacy doesn’t just belong to the Fitch family, as Carol is quick to point out. “Peggy Hearn, who did the books until recently retiring, took over the job from her mother-in-law,” she said. “Bobby Squires just retired from working the counter, although he still comes in to clean. His father, Ping, worked here. And Billy Alford works in the shop. His dad, Tommy, was 12 when he started working for Fitch.”

“I went away to college,” Mac said, “but I’ve worked here all my life. It’s a cruel world out there. There’s a lot of comfort here.” In 1975, Mac was curious about the average length of time employees had been at Fitch. “I calculated,” he said, “and the average employee had been here 19 years. The younger ones had grown up and had a lot of ties here. Most of the second-generation employees came in at the same time as me.”

~~~

James Arndt is a residential contractor who has been doing business with the Fitches for 25 years. “It’s amazing,” he said, “the loyalty Fitch generates with their employees and builders. It speaks volumes about the place.”

“I plan to stay as long as they’ll have me,” said Roger Heflin, and 11-year employee. Roger started at Fitch making deliveries and loading and unloading trucks. Then he did inventory before moving to hardware and counter sales. Now he’s in accounts receivable and inside sales. “It’s a good family environment,” he said. “They’re great people. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked.”

Marc Atkins has been working at Fitch for 13 years. He started as a driver, and he worked in the warehouse before moving into the store to work at the counter. “Fitch is in great shape,” he said. “With the younger generation of Fitches, they could go another 100 years – if the market allows and homes keep being built. But we have to get the infrastructure to support the growth.

“Fitch is a great family environment,” Marc said. “Some of the older generation started work right out of high school. It helps the younger generation appreciate what Fitch means to the community. If you put your time in, there’s room for advancement. You can have a career here.”

Ted Elkins worked for Lowes 20 years ago. He’s in outside sales at Fitch now. “This is unbelievably different,” he said. “Working for someone like Mac is a privilege. The family aspect of it is a big change from working for a big company. In the big store everyone is doing his own thing, but here everyone is helping everyone else. It doesn’t seem like I’ve been here 16 years.”

Mike Greenhill grew up on Pine Street. He began work as a stock boy at Fitch right out of high school, 31 years ago. “I was looking for a job,” he said, “and I found a career here. Wherever they needed to put me to work, that’s where I’d work. They trusted me with everything except driving.” He laughed. “It’s probably a good thing they kept me off the trucks. But there’s always been something to keep me busy. It’s hands-on, and I’m always learning things. These are the people I grew up with. They’re a good family.”

~~~

A woman and her young daughter found exactly the right light bulbs for the girl’s desk lamp. A young couple arrived on bicycles to have the key to their new home copied. A woman brought her dog in with her. She got the plumbing fittings she needed, and her dog got a treat. This is the Fitch that most people know, people more likely to purchase a doorknob than a door.

UNC football legend Don McCauley stopped by for provisions. “The greatest running back ever,” Mac commented as he walked by.

“He broke OJ’s record,” Carol added.

“Or did OJ break his?” Mac asked.

“Well,” Carol said, “either way, Don didn’t kill his wife.”

“Yeah,” Mac said. “He’s a heck of a nice guy.”

“People come looking for ideas as well as products,” Marshall Murdaugh said. “They know what they want to have happen at the end but don’t know how to get there. They don’t know the questions to ask, but they can paint a picture of what they want. There’s a lot of good help from the guys in hardware and in the shop.”

Marshall has been at Fitch for 17 years. “I sought them out specifically,” he said. “When I came, they were rearranging the store, and I moved inventory for about six months. Then they had an opening at the counter and asked me to join them. I was tickled to death. Fitch is the best employer I ever had. I hope it’s the last I ever have. They’re the greatest folks to work with. And I enjoy the customers. The customer base is top-notch.”

An older woman came in and saw the flyer for Fitch’s 100th anniversary. She announced to all the men behind the counter that they should wear fedoras this week. She moved here, she said, right out of college. Now a retired schoolteacher, she first came to Fitch in 1953. “In those days,” she said, “all of the men were wearing fedoras, shirts, and ties. And they had trouble relating to women.”

Damian Hoffman creates the sand sculptures featured at Weaver Street Market. He also builds housing for developmentally disabled children and adults. He, too, emphasized a feeling of connection. “I grew up with the Fitches,” he said, “in the same neighborhood. And Carol and I were in the same class together.” He buys lumber at Fitch, to make the forms for his sculptures. “It’s great to come here,” he said. “It’s local. I’ve known them all for years. They’ve been heavily involved in the community for ages. They give very personalized service. I utilize the whole property.”

“Fitch sometimes feels like a home away from home,” said James Arndt. “They thrive and survive on their superior service and relationships. From the forklift operators to the customer service personnel to the counter guys to the office workers… it’s like family down here. And try to get this level of knowledge from a superstore. It’s not going to happen.

“This is the lumberyard I go to,” James said. “The shop custom-makes things for me. They provide so much service to their contractors,” he explained, “that dealing with Fitch keeps me from having to hire another full-time guy.”

Locally-acclaimed danseur, Tate Hamlet, agreed. “I come to Fitch,” he said, “because it’s a family-owned business, and they treat me very well. They know me here.”

Artist Michael Brown has been painting murals around Carrboro for 20 years. He’s also the one to thank for giving The Streets at Southpoint a certain Carrboro feel. “If I want to know the dirt, I come here,” he said. “I buy a lot of paint and equipment here.” In addition to murals, Brown also paints on large canvases. “I might spend a month in the studio,” he said, “and the only people I’ll see in the course of the day are the people behind the counter here.”

Walker Brown, roofer to the stars, entertained employees and customers with a video he had made on his cell phone. The footage showed a certain local contractor, clad only in a pumpkin shell and work boots, strolling down Franklin Street on Halloween night. He was met with a lot of laughter, but not so much surprise.

“I come here to tell stories,” Walker said, “and to see everybody I know. It feels like home.”

~~~

Mike Greenhill showed a real feeling of pride when discussing Fitch’s Centennial. “One hundred years,” he said in amazement. “Whew! In an age when most small businesses and families sell out and leave, this business has enjoyed its connections with the community and has wanted to grow with the community. It’s an accomplishment.”

Curtis Brown, a 26-year employee, works across the street in shipping and receiving with his brother, Charlie. Their stepfather, Willie Green Atwater, worked for Fitch for 42 years as a truck driver. Curtis never even considered working anywhere else. “I’m family,” he said. “But I never thought they’d be here that long. Time flies.”

Mac spotted Cleve Fogleman as he came into the store. News was just getting out about the previous night’s fire that heavily damaged F & F Automotive, Cleve’s Weaver Street shop. Mac didn’t want to miss the opportunity to speak to Cleve and offer his support. “In the lumber business,” he said, “fire has always been a potential nightmare. I hate for anyone to lose his business.”

“There’s a reason Fitch Lumber is in Carrboro,” Carol said. “They wouldn’t let us have a custom woodcutting shop in a university town, with all our big industrial saws. That’s what Carrboro is: the industrial part of Chapel Hill.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” she said. “I can walk in downtown Chapel Hill and point and say, ‘that used to be Foister’s Camera Supply. That used to be Roses 5 & 10. That used to be the Carolina Theater.’ But people can’t say, ‘That used to be Fitch Lumber.’”

On Saturday, November 17, the folks at Fitch Lumber Company blow out their 100 birthday candles. And the town of Carrboro will make a wish for them to be around another hundred years.

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