History of M. G. Crouch Lumber Co.
Begun in 1913 as a one-man furniture shop in Hickory NC, M. G. Crouch Lumber Company grew to be a highly regarded building contractor and custom millwork manufacturer in the area. Since starting home construction about 1915, the company built nearly 500 homes in the greater Hickory region, ranging as far as Statesville and Blowing Rock. The company closed in 2011.
EARLY DAYS IN HICKORY
In May 1904 Marshall G. Crouch moved from the Gamewell community in Burke County where he was born, to Hickory “with twenty dollars in his pockets and a wife [né Mary Fleming] and six-month-old daughter [Hazel]. After buying household furnishings and a week’s supply of groceries, he still had some money left with which to get started.”1 Like many other locals, he first worked for Piedmont Wagons, earning 75 cents a day, then opened a barber shop and a small grocery store.
In 1913 a local merchant wanted kitchen tables to sell in his store, so Marshall began making them in the rear of his shop as a side line.2 People liked his work so much he formed Crouch Cabinet Co. and began making wood furniture. Company letterhead at the time shows the product line which focused on furniture.
By 1915 he had branched out into the general contracting business, building homes in the local area. Company records list the first home he built in Hickory was for Arthur Saine at 1832 15th Avenue (now 740, 4th Avenue Drive NW).3 Another early contract dated 23 September 1915 between Crouch Cabinet Company and P. A. Atwood called for “the erection and completion of a one storie Four [sic] room house with two porches… according to contract and sketch…”4
Business grew, so he moved his operation to a larger building on Main Avenue across from the old Latta Martin Pump Company.5 Unfortunately a fire in the spring of 1916 destroyed this facility. The Hickory Daily Record reported the fire and expressed confidence that he would rebuild, saying “…we are hoping that Mr. Crouch, with his reputation established in Hickory with his friends here, and his success assured here, will rebuild his plant as soon as possible, and make a greater success than before.”6 The operation was rebuilt at a new location on Water Avenue across from the Cilley Foundry and Machine Co.
Civic Life in Hickory
After his move to Hickory, Marshall joined enthusiastically into local civic life. He was a charter member of the Hickory Fire Department and was one of the first subscribers to the Hickory Daily Record which began publishing in 1915. Beginning in 1934 he served three and one-half years on the city council as alderman representing the fifth ward, resigning when his family moved to a new house on 13th Avenue (now 3rd Avenue NE) which was in a different ward. While both he and his wife had a limited education, they were great supporters of schools and made sure that all four of their children (Hazel, Vera, Conrad and Bobbie) graduated from college.
PARTNERSHIP WITH J. T. SETZER
In January 1921 he again moved to larger quarters in the Southern Public Utilities Company building known as the “Old Steam Plant” with a lease term through 1 January 1924.7 Here he was joined by Mr. Tom Setzer, who had been in county government, and Mr. Lee Friday, who kept the business records. They began to construct houses and small industrial buildings as Hickory Cabinet and Manufacturing Company.
Company records show numerous houses were built locally during this time along with several major contracts for employee homes at Western Carolina Power Company’s Rhodhiss plant (1924), Southern Power Company’s Buck Steam Station (1925), and Duke Power Company’s River Bend Steam Plant (1928).8
The partnership was dissolved on 25 July, 1928 in a written letter9 with Mr. Crouch keeping the machinery and supplies and Mr. Setzer keeping the real estate held by the partnership. Mr. Setzer also signed a letter relinquishing all rights to the name “Hickory Cabinet & Mfg. Co.” Mr. Crouch began operating under his own name, having licenses for both contracting (N. C. State #1182) and plumbing (N. C. State #141).
In 1922 Mr. Crouch’s son Conrad, then 12 years old, had begun working for the company, sweeping floors and doing other chores, then working during summer vacation while going to high school. He learned to drive on a Ford Model T and later delivered material to jobs driving a solid-wheel Reo truck. After graduating from Duke University in 1931, he became a full-time employee, waiting on customers, estimating jobs, and receiving lumber. He gradually assumed more and more responsibility at the main office while M. G. Crouch spent most of his time checking job sites.10
By the 1930’s the company had added the tagline “Builders of Better Homes” to its letterhead, recognizing the focus on homes and general contracting. This tagline would remain until the 1980’s.
MOVE TO HIGHLAND AVENUE
In 1933 the business again relocated to 1942 Highland Avenue NE in east Hickory, where it remained for the next 80 years until closing. The original 60ft x117 ft, steel frame shop building was purchased from Mr. R. Barr of West Jefferson NC on 24 June, 1933, disassembled, and reconstructed in its present location.11
The same year Marshall’s youngest daughter Bobbie Crouch also joined the company after graduating from Lenoir Rhyne College with a teaching degree. Because of the Depression, she was unable to find a teaching position, so she began as a bookkeeper. Like her brother Conrad, she had grown up around “the Shop” and knew the business well. During this period the building of medium-priced houses and the sale of special millwork were the main sources of revenue.12
M. G. Crouch had started out making furniture, and over the years the company produced furniture on occasion such as small chests, lecterns and seating. Photographic examples from the 30’s are in the company archives held by Hickory Landmarks Society, and some examples are still in the Crouch family. One unique object is a set of snow skis made about 1940 for use in Blowing Rock.
1937 A GOOD YEAR
In an article dated 26 February, 1938, the Hickory Daily Record reported that both M. G. Crouch Lumber Company and Moss Marlowe Building Company, Inc. had a good year in 1937. Mr. Crouch reported that “1937 brought an increase of about ten per cent in his business volume over 1936 and was a satisfactory year in most respects.”13 The article also noted Mr. Crouch had recently resigned from the city council as alderman for Ward Five when he moved into his new home which was located in a different ward.
As the new shop location offered plenty of space, a drying kiln and storage yards for raw lumber were constructed. Company records include contracts for purchasing timber directly from land owners which was brought to the shop, milled into standard sizes, and stored until dry and ready for use.14 This practice of direct lumber buying continued through the 1970s.
Wood shavings were blown over from the main shop building and used as fuel for the boiler.
WORLD WAR II BRINGS CHANGES
After suffering a stroke in 1941, Marshall Crouch had to drastically reduce his involvement in the business, and more responsibility for operations passed to his son Conrad. Marshall never regained his health, and he died on 22 June 1944. Upon his death ownership of the company passed jointly to his wife and two children, Conrad and Bobbie.
That same spring, Conrad had reported for active duty in the US Navy, serving as a gunnery officer on two different Liberty Ships with voyages to Antwerp, Chile and Japan. Bobbie had to assume responsibility for running the company during the remaining years of the war. Construction work had been drastically curtailed, limited by wartime regulations to repair jobs under $200, and building materials were in short supply. The company survived through its older employees who were too old for active military duty and a set of large government contracts to make wooden ammunition crates for artillery shells. The company also made lockers, tables and similar wooden items for the military.15
After the war Crouch Lumber enjoyed the resurgence in the US economy as returning veterans started families and needed housing. In particular for Hickory, the local furniture and textile industries boomed, and many company executives had homes built by Crouch Lumber. Consequently the company began constructing more larger, luxury style homes designed by local architects. Crouch Lumber became known for the craftsman-like workmanship of its carpenters, learned through long experience, and the high-quality of the materials used.16
In order to help customers see and select the components that would be used in their homes, in the early 1960s a showroom and sales room were constructed from old lumber sheds opposite the company office and stocked with hardware, professional tools, and fittings.
Contracts had increased from two or three per year during WWII to ten or more during the 50s. The company expanded beyond Hickory, building homes in surrounding communities including Blowing Rock, Morganton, Statesville and Taylorsville.
Conrad focused on managing the construction operations at job sites and in the shop. Bobbie became well-known locally for designing kitchens, both for new homes and remodeling jobs. While many homes were built using architectural designs, the company also had staff who could take a floor plan from a magazine and produce the drawings needed for a finished house. Remodeling jobs frequently began with a sketch which they would convert into shop drawings for cabinets and millwork.
At its peak during the 50s and 60s, M. G. Crouch Lumber had over 100 employees, many with 20 and 30 years of service. The company organization in 1974 consisted of Bobbie and Conrad as co-managers with five departments:
- Shops, Yards, and Deliveries: Harry Campbell. Job fabrication and custom millwork, lumber and material storage, deliveries to job sites
- Outside Jobs: Dennis Starnes as head foreman, with Robert Stafford, Mallie Clontz Jr., Frank Duncan and Arlet Williams as job foreman. Manage on-site construction work.
- Drafting, Estimating and Pricing: Paul Abernathy and Phil Scronce. Prepare job estimates and draw plans.
- Showroom & Salesroom: Sam Miller, Walter VanHorn and Phil Scronce. Mange the showroom and buying materials.
- Clerical: Mary Ritchie and George Wentz. Bookkeeping, invoicing, payroll, etc.17
Craftsmen of all types were employed including carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and painters. These skills were required to construct the quality homes the company was noted for in the local market. For example they could build a circular free-standing staircase from scratch using a jig located in the main shop building. With the exceptions of digging the foundation hole and electrical wiring, the company had all the needed skills to construct a finished house.
Over the years the company focused almost exclusively on wood-framed construction, often with brick veneer, primarily for homes. Construction involving steel, concrete and high lifting was avoided because the men had little experience in these techniques, staff did not know how to bid them, and the company did not have the specialized equipment. In addition, these types of construction deemphasized detailed carpentry, one of the company’s major strengths. However other local contractors often relied on Crouch Lumber for wood components in their commercial projects such as molding, cabinets and window frames.18
Little advertising was conducted, primarily in the local newspaper, the Hickory Daily Record. However some special campaigns were run. Company records include a 1931 contract with Consolidated Advertising Corp. of San Diego for advertising slides to be shown in movie theaters. The contract called for 52 slides (four per month), two for lumber and one each for paint and plumbing. In the ‘60s and ‘70s commercials were run on the local radio station, WHKY, during Lenoir Rhyne college football games. To some extent advertising was discouraged as both Bobbie and Conrad believed that, “If you want everybody to know you are out of work, you advertise here.”19
Most contracts came via local reputation and personal recommendations from clients. Conrad stated that “If we can’t build the next house better than the last one, there is no point in staying in business.”20
NOTABLE HOMES IN LOCAL NEWSPAPERS
Several times the local newspapers wrote special articles about notable houses built by M. G. Crouch Lumber Company. The Charlotte Observer’s feature section “For and About Women” for November 12, 1964 had “Family Built Replica of Historic Mansion” describing the new home for the Cass Ballinger family based on Carter’s Grove, an historic Virginia mansion. Built using old brick from a demolished Methodist church, the home featured a curved stairway with matching curved moldings, built-in latch cabinets, and lowered counter tops to match Ms. Ballenger’s diminutive height.
The new home for E. M. Fennel was described in the Hickory Daily Record on December 11, 1965 in “Home Results of Extensive Research, Expert Counseling, Master Craftsmen.” Extensive research by the owners and a unique design by local architect Allen J. Bolick produced a Williamsburg-looking home in the Georgian style. Incorporating features from several historical homes such as a recreation of a Federal hallway from a New Hampshire mansion, the house was constructed by Crouch Lumber with several local firms contributing specialized materials and furnishings.
On March 27, 1971 the Hickory Daily Record reported on the Marion Corbett home in “Area Old English Tudor ‘Castle’ Features Overall Harmonious Effect.” While resembling an old English tudor castle, the home was designed by architect Stewart Penn for a more modern lifestyle and minimal upkeep. Materials such as hand-hewn wooden beams, glazed floor tile, and sand-blasted wooden walls and doors were some of the unique materials included in the construction.
In addition the James and Nancy Phillips home, designed by James Sherrill, was featured in the October 1963 issue of House and Garden magazine as an example of Modernist architecture.21
M. G. Crouch Lumber Company did make national news in the late fall of 1971 (possibly early winter of 1972) when robbers spent the weekend breaking into the safe located in the company office building.22 They broke through the concrete roof which was hidden from the street and ransacked the safe looking for cash and valuables. News coverage noted that there was a sign on the door to the safe stating it was unlocked and there was no cash inside. The robbers had wasted considerable time and effort, when all they had to do was break into the office, open the safe door, and walk in. While no valuables were taken, some company records and photographs were lost during the cleanup afterwards.
As part of the Hickory Landmarks Society Parade of Homes in 2012, the doll house built by Crouch Lumber for Ernest Whisnant was mentioned in the weekend brochure.23
HOME BUILDING ENDS
By the late 1970s the workforce had shrunk to about 50, as many older men retired. It became increasingly harder to find the skilled craftsmen needed, and the market for larger homes was changing, so at the end of 1982 M. G. Crouch Lumber Company ceased building new homes.
Even though home building had ended, the company continued to provide custom millwork and cabinets for local projects and renovations. All the old millwork knives were kept, so the company could duplicate exactly the patterns used in homes 50 and 60 years old.
Molding knives were kept to be able to accurately reproduce old patterns.
This period was also a time of change in ownership. In 1986 Conrad retired from the business, and his interest was bought by his sister Vera C. Hewitt. Upon her death in 1990, sole ownership passed to Bobbie, who continued to run the company until shortly before her death in 1998. She then left the company to her nephews and niece, Charles Crouch, John Crouch and Virginia Crouch Slack (all children of Conrad), and long-time employees Phil Scronce and Mary Ritchie.24
The new team of owners continued to operate the company, with Mary and Phil providing on-site management as none of Conrad’s children lived in Hickory. As time progressed, this arrangement proved challenging, so in the fall of 2007 they sold the company to next-door neighbor Dave Bumgarner of Bumgarner Oil Company. Dave had worked for Crouch Lumber for a couple of summers in the late 1970s, and he wanted to see operations continue as a custom millworker and cabinet company.
Mr. Bumgarner continued the focus on custom millwork and sold off about half of the property that was not needed to a landscaping service. However the economic slowdown of the first decade of the new century greatly reduced the construction industry, and the company finally closed its doors in 2011. The equipment and machinery, much of which dated from the original shop in 1933, was sold at auction by ToolingAuctions.com in January 2012.
HICKORY LANDMARKS SOCIETY ACQUIRES M. G. CROUCH LUMBER COLLECTION
When Crouch Lumber Company was sold in 2007, the principle owners, the three Crouch children, decided to donate the company records to the Hickory Landmarks Society which has a specific interest in old buildings in the Hickory area. The company records included house plans, job books, contracts and miscellaneous documents dealing with the construction of over 500 homes and buildings by the Crouch family, who had run the business since its inception about 1913.24
In addition, the collection includes letters, deeds, ledgers and Hickory City directories. Among the artifacts chosen as representative of M.G. Crouch Lumber Co., HLS has acquired a desk and drafting table and stools and portraits of Mr. and Mrs. M. G. Crouch. A further component of the collection is a library of approximately 250 volumes on homes and house construction donated by Mrs. Conrad Crouch. These books were used at Crouch Lumber in many of the construction projects over the years. The books add significantly to the HLS library focusing on architecture and design.
As noted in Landmarkings in September 2007, “From 1915 until 1982 M.G. Crouch Lumber Company built more than 500 houses in the Hickory area. They were one of only three or four major contractors to have such a significant impact on the built environment of Hickory. A Crouch house remains a mark of excellence and many women in Hickory are proud to show visitors their “Bobbie Kitchen” designed by Bobbie Crouch Landis.”24 Even today, more than thirty years after the last home was built, local real estate listings still mention as a selling point that a home for sale was “Crouch built.”
Prepared by Charles E. Crouch, February 2016
1. Hickory Daily Record, “M. G. Crouch Started Building Firm in 1913,” article about 1960 ↩
2. Dorothy Spratt Crouch, email correspondence, August 2007 ↩
3. Crouch House List database, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
4. Signed contract in M. G. Crouch Lumber Collection, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
5. Hickory Daily Record article ↩
6. Hickory Daily Record, Wednesday, May 10, 1916, Page 2. Retrieved from: http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/63095623/ on 4 Nov 2014 ↩
7. Signed lease in M. G. Crouch Lumber collection, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
8. Crouch House List database, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
9. Letter dated 25 July 1928, signed by M. G. Crouch and J. T. Setzer, witnessed by J. L. Friday, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
10. Responses to company questionnaire conducted by Charles E. Crouch, 1974, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
11. Signed contract in M. G. Crouch Lumber collection, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
12. Responses to company questionnaire conducted by Charles E. Crouch, 1974, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
13. Responses to company questionnaire conducted by Charles E. Crouch, 1974, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
14. Contracts with Will Austin, W. L. Crouch and R. G. Moore dated 1937, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
15. Dorothy Spratt Crouch, email correspondence, August 2007 ↩
16. Responses to company questionnaire conducted by Charles E. Crouch, 1974, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
17. Responses to company questionnaire conducted by Charles E. Crouch, 1974, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
18. Recorded interview with Conrad Crouch and Bobbie Landis conducted by Charles E. , August 1974. Recording and transcript in M. G. Crouch Lumber collection, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
19. Recorded interview with Conrad Crouch and Bobbie Landis conducted by Charles E. , August 1974. Recording and transcript in M. G. Crouch Lumber collection, Hickory Landmarks Society archives ↩
20. Dorothy Spratt Crouch, personal recollection ↩
21. Article on website North Carolina Modernist Houses, http://www.trianglemodernisthouses.com/sherrill.htm ↩
22. Virginia Crouch Slack, personal recollection, 2016 ↩
23. Hickory Landmarks Society ↩
24. Dorothy Spratt Crouch, email correspondence, August 2007 ↩
25. Landmarkings newsletter. Hickory Landmarks Society. Volume 27, Number 3, September 2007 ↩
26. Landmarkings newsletter. Hickory Landmarks Society. Volume 27, Number 3, September 2007 ↩