william p. kemp, sr.; kemp furniture
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
DECEMBER 14, 1988
John Tobin, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: This is an interview with Mr. William P. Kemp, Sr., who is Chairman Emeritus of Kemp Furniture Industries. The date is December 14, 1988. I am John Tobin, the interviewer. We’d like to go back and begin with the earliest years in your life, and that includes your childhood. Now, you grew up in Maryland, I believe, didn’t you?
KEMP: On the Eastern shore. Easton, Talbot County, Maryland.
INTERVIEWER: Your father ran a furniture factory there?
KEMP: My father was instrumental in starting a furniture plant in Easton with a group of people who were trying to arrange for a better local economy.
INTERVIEWER: What was your father’s name?
KEMP: William H. Kemp.
INTERVIEWER: And your mother’s name?
KEMP: My mother was Sally P. Kemp.
INTERVIEWER: What was her maiden name?
KEMP: Her maiden name was Powell.
INTERVIEWER: Sally Powell Kemp.
KEMP: Both families arrived in this country about 1640, somehow.
INTERVIEWER: That is pretty early.
KEMP: They were Quakers and came into the northern part of Virginia, and then up to the Eastern shore, about 1660.
INTERVIEWER: Are you still a member of the Friends’ Society?
KEMP: Yes, I’m still a member of the Friends’ Society. My father, of course, was; and my mother was.
INTERVIEWER: How did they come? Where did they land in this country, do you know?
KEMP: The earliest that we have on them is a place called Bolton, which is about 25 miles down along the Chesapeake Bay. Of course, the Bay was the way they got around, by water more than land.
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t have any highway or railroads in those days.
KEMP: Yes. The farm at Bolton came into the Kemp family around 1650.
INTERVIEWER: Is it still in the family?
KEMP: No, no it is not. The old house, which was built shortly after that, is still in existence. It went out of the family some years ago.
INTERVIEWER: Is that the house where you grew up?
KEMP: No, I grew up near Easton, Maryland. My grandfather built the house, as near as I can tell, around 1840, 1845, near Easton. It was a farm just outside of the city limits, on about 200 acres. They were farmers. My grandmother came from Dover, Delaware.
INTERVIEWER: Your paternal grandmother, your father’s mother?
KEMP: Yes, my father’s mother. My grandfather was a native of Maryland, near Easton, on a farm called High Banks, about five miles outside of Easton.
INTERVIEWER: When was your father born, do you know?
KEMP: My father was born about 1870, near as I can tell, maybe ’68, right after the Civil War.
INTERVIEWER: Anything significant that you’d like to tell us …
KEMP: My father and mother built the house and we lived in it until he died. He was, unfortunately, killed by accident when a train scared the horses when he was tending a reaper. He was driving a grinder, harvesting wheat. The track ran near his barn.
INTERVIEWER: How old were you then?
KEMP: My father was young at the time. His grandfather was killed. But, this was early in his life. He was 22 years older than my grandmother. They built Mt. Pleasant, and lived there as farmers. He had an extra business in insurance and selling coal and lumber and some other things, and then became secretary-treasurer of this furniture plant when it was organized in 1898.
INTERVIEWER: The furniture plant was organized in 1898?
INTERVIEWER: You were born when?
KEMP: I was born in 1899. July 19, 1899.
INTERVIEWER: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
KEMP: I don’t have any. I was an only child.
INTERVIEWER: When you were growing up, did you go to school?
KEMP: I went to a public school in Maryland through 7th grade.
INTERVIEWER: Was that a large school?
KEMP: No. The town of Easton at that time only had about 3,000 people in it. It’s just about what you’d expect in a town of that size.
INTERVIEWER: Was that the extent of your formal education?
KEMP: From the 7th grade, I went to a prep school called George School which is in New Town, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It was a Quaker prep school.
INTERVIEWER: How many years did you go?
KEMP: I was there four years and was in the class of 1917.
INTERVIEWER: So how old were you in 1917?
KEMP: I was 17. I was born in ’99. That’s easy to figure. One year before the birth date, it’s the same year number.
INTERVIEWER: So then in 1918, we went into World War I. Did you get into that?
KEMP: No, I did not. I went to Swarthmore College, which was the Quaker College near Philadelphia. They had a branch of what they called the SATC, which is a Student’s Armored Training Course. I was in that, but I did not get further.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t get called up?
KEMP: No, I did not. We were mustered in for only about 30 days before the war was over.
INTERVIEWER: That war didn’t last very long.
KEMP: No, it did not.
INTERVIEWER: You graduated from Swarthmore?
KEMP: I graduated from Swarthmore in 1921 with a degree in economics and political science. My family was in a fairly good economic condition, and I didn’t have to have any help going to school. But I did a lot of work in the summertime.
INTERVIEWER: So we have you through college and then did you take a summer off? Or did you go right into something?
KEMP: I went directly from – within two or three weeks of graduation – to work in the furniture plant. I spent about a year in the mill on various machines, and so forth.
INTERVIEWER: What power source did you have for the plant?
KEMP: What do you mean, power?
INTERVIEWER: Did you have electric motors? Or what?
KEMP: Oh, no, no. We didn’t have any electric motors. We had one of those big steam engines with a big overhead drive on everything.
INTERVIEWER: Overhead drive and take-off belts?
KEMP: Yes, there was nothing connected with electric motors at all ... some of the newer machines, later on, but in ’21, there were no electric motors.
INTERVIEWER: Now your father was a principal in this factory, but he was not the sole owner, is that right?
KEMP: No, it was a stock company and he was the secretary-treasurer. The plant ran along very well, and it was quite successful. Around 1920, let’s see the Depression was in what, 1929? About 1927, I’ll say.
INTERVIEWER: What happened then? The orders fell off?
KEMP: Yes, orders began to fall off and provisions for additional sales didn’t turn up. The competition from the southern plants was becoming more acute. Both from the standpoint of labor – and the standpoint of the convenience of having lumber. You see, the oak went out and Tupelo gum and black gum became one of the major woods. They learned how to dry it and it became wood that could be made to imitate walnut and mahogany without much difficulty. We did have a pretty good veneer plant, but only for laying up veneers, not for cutting.
INTERVIEWER: I believe you said your plant was making oak dining room furniture in 1921?
KEMP: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: When did they start making bedroom furniture?
KEMP: We didn’t get into bedroom until somewhere around about 1926 or’ 27, and, then not much.
INTERVIEWER: But almost immediately they switched to gum?
KEMP: Almost immediately after 1921.
INTERVIEWER: Where were your principal markets?
KEMP: The Northeast.
INTERVIEWER: You sold in New York City?
KEMP: Relatively close. We showed at the New York Furniture Market, which was more or less on the ground floor in those years.
INTERVIEWER: That was before Jamestown came up with the Market, wasn’t it?
KEMP: No, Jamestown was before that.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, it was? That was after Jamestown.
KEMP: I mean, when they were so much a part of the furniture business. Of course, Grand Rapids was a Market, too. The Southern plants had not taken the lead like they did shortly after that.
INTERVIEWER: How many sales representatives did you have for this company?
KEMP: We sold largely through a New York connection.
INTERVIEWER: Was it a distributor?
KEMP: Yes. We had our own space that we rented there. We rented along with the United Furniture Company from Lexington, North Carolina. The Philpotts, became very, very close friends of ours.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, everybody liked the Philpotts.
KEMP: They were very close, very close. I knew them so well, that I kind of felt like they were members of the family.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, indeed. Yes, sir.
KEMP: Then the Depression, of course, came on.
INTERVIEWER: Was the Depression coming on about ’26 or ’27, or was it just the Southern competition that was giving you trouble?
KEMP: The Southern competition started the difficulty. When the Depression came along, that wound it up.
INTERVIEWER: So when did this plant – did it go out of business? What was the name of it, by the way?
KEMP: By the way, at that time, it’s interesting to know that there was an organization called the Middle States Furniture Manufacturing Association.
INTERVIEWER: Is that right? I had never heard of that.
KEMP: That included a lot of plants in Southern Pennsylvania, places like Gettysburg, Hanover and York. And Baltimore and plants around there. We had a little association.
INTERVIEWER: I was not aware of that. Tell us where these people were located in this association.
KEMP: Most of them were from around Southern Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Gettysburg and York, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, and up and down the Susquehanna River. Then Baltimore, a couple of plants in Baltimore, and so forth, around that section.
INTERVIEWER: How long did that association exist? When did it quit operating?
KEMP: It quit operating about the time of the Depression. But things after ’27 began to get bad and the opposition from the plants down there. For instance, we found later that the hourly rate here in the South was 15 cents an hour on common labor. The best we could do in Maryland was from 25 to 30 cents, which was practically double. It made for a situation that was just impossible to handle. That, plus the difference in lumber.
INTERVIEWER: They were closer to their supply.
KEMP: Yes. So, I recommended that they close up and disband the plant.
INTERVIEWER: When did they do that?
KEMP: They did that in ’29.
INTERVIEWER: Then what did you do?
KEMP: At that time, they didn’t know exactly what to do with the plant but I ran it personally for about a year, making small tables and living room tables, and things of that kind.
INTERVIEWER: With a reduced workforce, no doubt.
KEMP: Yes, with a reduced workforce. I tried to get rid of the lumber at the firm’s cost and not have to help with the liquidation.
INTERVIEWER: Then did you sell off the machinery?
KEMP: Then we just sold it off and there was something left for the stockholders. But not a great deal. Then came the Depression.
INTERVIEWER: Are you married yet, at this point?
KEMP: I was married in 1922.
INTERVIEWER: What was your wife’s name?
KEMP: My wife’s name was Elizabeth Atherholt. Elizabeth Middleton Atherholt. Her maiden name was Middleton. Her mother’s name was Middleton. They were from Philadelphia.
INTERVIEWER: She was from Philadelphia?
KEMP: Yes, from Frankfort, which is just outside of Philadelphia.
INTERVIEWER: We want to get your whole life on tape. Somewhere along you graduated from college. You were in business.
KEMP: Yes. I had three children in 1929.
INTERVIEWER: That wasn’t a very comfortable time for you?
KEMP: Unfortunately, it caught our family in the worst kind of shape and we were practically cleaned out, because the Baldwin Trust Company in Baltimore, in which we had a considerable interest, completely went bankrupt. So that was the beginning of a new kind of life, as far as our family was concerned.
INTERVIEWER: Absolutely. It had to be. What did you do next?
KEMP: After working a good deal of the material off, I got in the car and drove down through the South.
INTERVIEWER: This was what year?
KEMP: This was in 1930. The first thing I did was go to see Mr. B. C. Philpott.
INTERVIEWER: Now he was before my time ...
KEMP: He was really almost like a daddy.
INTERVIEWER: Was he? He was older than you, then.
KEMP: I went to see what was going on around there. Then I went on to several other places in North Carolina and went down to Sumter.
INTERVIEWER: Who’d you see in Sumter?
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Corn?
KEMP: Yes. I was offered a job there, with the possibility of becoming superintendent.
INTERVIEWER: That’s plant superintendent?
KEMP: Yes. But at that time, I was still making those little tables and selling them to some extent. I sold the tables through a jobber in New York City, if I recall, by the name of Meyer and Danziger. Mr. Danziger told me about a plant that might be available in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He said that it had been sold at bankruptcy about a year or so previous to that and that they might be in position where they want to get rid of it.
INTERVIEWER: So you came to Goldsboro? Where did you see Mr. Danziger? In New York?
KEMP: In New York, and he said that if we could, that he would be glad to try to sell our product.
INTERVIEWER: Was this the man who’d been selling your product for many years?
KEMP: No, this was a completely new association. Our product was being sold by our own salesmen prior to that. As I say, I wasn’t in a position to buy anything, but I had to get something that maybe somebody else didn’t want. So I came down here (to Goldsboro) and talked to a Mr. Herman Weil. They had this plant on their hands, here in Goldsboro.
INTERVIEWER: Was he a furniture man or a lawyer?
KEMP: No. He had bought the plant two years before. He and a group of associates had bought the plant at a bankruptcy sale. They’d not been able to do anything with it during the two years, and they were getting tired of just supporting the insurance company and the night watchman and so forth. So they were willing to do most anything if they thought something could get started here, and maybe at some time in the future, they could get something out of it. So I was very fortunate because that was the situation I was in. That’s what I was looking for.
INTERVIEWER: So they didn’t want to sell it. They just wanted to get it operating, is that it?
KEMP: They wanted to sell it, but they knew they couldn’t get any money down. So I finally made a deal with them for around $5,000 cash and the balance ... when I could pay it.
INTERVIEWER: What was the balance?
KEMP: They were glad to get the $5,000. They didn’t get the other money for quite a little while. So that used up about all the cash I had, but I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow some money from family and friends, which was enough to get me started.
INTERVIEWER: How big was this plant?
KEMP: Do you want kind of a history of this plant?
KEMP: After I had made arrangements for the purchase of the plant, I went back, of course, with my family. We arranged to see just how soon we could come down and take over and start business here. So, rather to my surprise, there were about six other people who had been working with me at Easton who were willing to take the risk of coming down with me.
INTERVIEWER: Oh. Wonderful.
KEMP: Of course, that was a big help. Unfortunately, none of them had any money, but they were willing and knowledgeable.
INTERVIEWER: Were these plant workers or …
KEMP: There was one man from the office that helped me a lot and the rest of them were from the plant. One man who was an expert at bandsawing and one who, fortunately, could run a lathe without any trouble and make knives, which was a big help. So they all came down here in May.
INTERVIEWER: Of 1931?
KEMP: Of 1931, and got together a force of about 50. The plant was really in rather miserable condition. It was just in the process of moving from a steam overhead control power to motor power. Of course, we had to immediately get into electric power.
INTERVIEWER: That was expensive?
KEMP: It was. It took a little doing. So the thing that I had been doing was to make these tables, mostly for living rooms and so forth. So I was able to get together a group of small living room tables and made them. We sold them for 82 cents a piece.
INTERVIEWER: What style were they?
KEMP: We had an end table and we had what we called a console table, which was the same as an end table, but about three or four inches higher. The size of the top was 12 by 24 and was shaped and molded. They were made from Tupelo gum or sweet gum, which we were using. Then we had a bookshelf end table and we had two coffee tables, one with a Duncan Phyfe top style with a post in the middle and four legs.
INTERVIEWER: You sold them for 82 cents a piece?
KEMP: Yes, we sold them for 82 cents a piece.
INTERVIEWER: They were a shipped set, were they?
KEMP: The jobber later sold them for a dollar.
INTERVIEWER: Looks like his freight would have been more than that.
KEMP: The object was, at that time, and it may sound foolish, but at that time it was a door opener for them to get a group of tables of that type to sell at a dollar and they were willing to sell them for a dollar as an advertising special. So that’s what we concentrated on. It took a little while, but very soon we could make 500 or 600 tables a day.
INTERVIEWER: You were making that many?
KEMP: We were making that many.
INTERVIEWER: So you became one of those southern competitors that gave you such a hard time in Maryland. You followed the precept: “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.” Is that right?
KEMP: I tell you. It sounds silly and sounds like we were trying to cut wages and everything else, but people here in North Carolina were delighted to get any kind of job. I have the time books here, if you want to see them.
INTERVIEWER: So you started out with about 50 workers?
KEMP: That’s right. I really am ashamed to go over what we had to do. But there were so many people that were completely destitute, and most anything they could get was received with open arms. Our opening wage at that time was as low as – I’m looking here at the time book – we had some at $1.25 a 10-hour day, which is 12.5 cents. There were also some at $1.00.
INTERVIEWER: How many days a week did they work?
KEMP: They worked six days a week. That’s 60 hours a week at 10 cents an hour, which was $6.00 a week.
INTERVIEWER: But that was enough to keep them going?
KEMP: To feed them and some of their family. Amazingly so. At 82 cents a piece, if I had made a mistake in figuring my costs to a penny, I would go broke quick.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, indeed.
KEMP: Because we were making about 500 tables a day.
INTERVIEWER: One thing you were doing: You were furnishing employment for people who desperately needed it.
KEMP: That’s the only way that I can put it to you, and I think I was along with them at the time.
INTERVIEWER: You were one of them, weren’t you? You needed employment, too.
KEMP: I certainly did. But it worked out all right in the long run. But it took awhile.
INTERVIEWER: So when did the country come out of the Depression and when did this plant begin to do ...
KEMP: The very lowest part, I believe, payroll part of it was, I think, around 1932 or 1933. You may remember … what was it, The Golden Eagles?
INTERVIEWER: The NRA (National Recovery Act)?
KEMP: NRA and everybody agreed they wouldn’t pay less than 25 cents an hour.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, was that the figure?
KEMP: Yes, and we had at the time had gotten up maybe as high as 15 cents, but we did go onto 25 cents an hour and we had to change some things. But by that time, we were able to make things more economically and so we ran on that group of tables for a long time. We began getting some veneers and making the tables a little bit better.
INTERVIEWER: Where were you showing this merchandise at that time?
KEMP: At the jobber’s office in New York. We were selling exclusively through the jobbers.
INTERVIEWER: You had one customer?
KEMP: That’s right. He would send us a check each week, whether we completely met the quota or not, which was a big help.
INTERVIEWER: This was Mr. Danziger?
KEMP: In two or three years, we began to make a bed.
INTERVIEWER: That was about 1934?
KEMP: About 1933 or ’34. It was a poster bed. We were able to buy dimension stock very reasonably and found that there was really quite a market for odd beds. It slowly became a product that took over instead of the tables. We varied the style. We began to make a Jenny Lind bed. We found we could make a bed for $4 and sell it for $5. That was the first time we ever began to really make some money. That was a right good percentage and that helped a lot.
INTERVIEWER: That’s better than you’ve ever made since, probably. Most factories don’t make that much.
KEMP: But we gradually developed our own sales force and got away from selling through the New York jobbers.
INTERVIEWER: How did you do that? Did you start putting out men in the South?
KEMP: Yes, we went into territory that wasn’t covered by the jobbers. They were largely covering New York.
INTERVIEWER: This was about 1934 or ’35?
KEMP: Around ’35.
INTERVIEWER: What territories did you begin with?
KEMP: Of course, we got into the local territories of the Carolinas, Atlanta and Florida. Then we got into Philadelphia and we gradually got so we didn’t have to depend on the jobbing outlet and were able to get away from that kind of business.
INTERVIEWER: But he gave you a good start, didn’t he?
KEMP: Oh, he gave us a good start, and it wasn’t easy to get away. But we were able to get away from jobbers.
INTERVIEWER: So then you continued selling tables and beds?
KEMP: Yes. Frankly, we finally got entirely away from the table line, but that was around, oh, ’36, I guess. Something like that. We became known as the real source to purchase beds – odd beds – and then bunk beds became very popular.
INTERVIEWER: What year was that?
KEMP: Around 1937, something like that, ’36, ’37. We got to the point where we were making about 1,000 beds a day and were probably one of the biggest bed manufacturers in the country.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, I remember when Kemp was known primarily as the source for bunk beds.
KEMP: Yes, yes. That was very helpful.
INTERVIEWER: We’re getting up close to World War II, which began in 1941. What did you do in those years just prior to the war?
KEMP: Just prior to the war, we were making the beds.
INTERVIEWER: The bunk beds?
KEMP: Yes, the bunk beds. So when the war was coming on, we were able to supply some of the training centers with bunk beds because everybody had to have a certain amount of defense business. And ...
INTERVIEWER: This began about ’39 or ’40, did it?
KEMP: Yes, we were selling the government bunk beds and some desks. Small desks.
INTERVIEWER: At the same time, you continued selling to the trade?
KEMP: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any of your sons in your business yet, by that time?
KEMP: Bill, Jr. came into the business in 1948.
INTERVIEWER: This might be a good time to talk about your sons and what happened. Can you tell me about your sons? Bill, Jr. came in 1948?
INTERVIEWER: So that would be after the war.
KEMP: Yes. Let me see. The two older boys were both in training.
INTERVIEWER: What are their names?
KEMP: William P. Jr., and Robert L.
INTERVIEWER: Now William P. Do you know their birth dates?
KEMP: Yes, all the boys were born in March.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know the year?
KEMP: Bill was born March 1, 1923. Bob two years later, March 23, and Phil was born on March 24, four years later, which would have been ’29.
INTERVIEWER: Bill, Jr. then came into the business in 1948.
KEMP: That’s right, after graduating from the University of North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: Did either of the two boys enter this business?
KEMP: No. Bob had no inclination to come into the business. Phil came in at a later date on the sales end.
INTERVIEWER: Is he still with the business?
KEMP: No. Phil did not stay with the business. He was with the business for five or six years and then decided that he wanted something away from the office.
INTERVIEWER: What business did Bob get into?
KEMP: Bob went into the pharmaceutical business, and later went down on a farm on the Eastern shore of Maryland and farmed, where he lives at the present time.
INTERVIEWER: He went back to where his roots were?
KEMP: Yes, he went back to the family hunting grounds. That’s his picture up there, on the right-hand side. Now where else do you want to go?
INTERVIEWER: Bill came in 1948, and until that time, you’d been carrying most of the load yourself, hadn’t you?
INTERVIEWER: So, what did you put him to doing?
KEMP: He went through various aspects of the whole operation, and spent some time in most every branch.
INTERVIEWER: He did what your father did with you then?
KEMP: Just about.
INTERVIEWER: You put him out in the plant? At what time did he assume a management position?
KEMP: Well, of course, that was gradual. My retirement date was in 1971. But at that time, at the time I retired, he was practically running the plant.
INTERVIEWER: How many grandchildren do you have?
KEMP: Do I have to admit that?
INTERVIEWER: Not if you don’t want to.
KEMP: No, I have 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
INTERVIEWER: That’s quite a tribe, isn’t it? Do they ever get together?
KEMP: It’s right hard to.
INTERVIEWER: You’d have to hire a hall.
KEMP: No, we never, as a matter of fact, we’ve never had a family reunion. Most of the family is up on the Maryland Shore with my son, Bob. He had four children and all of his children have children.
INTERVIEWER: That’s wonderful.
KEMP: All of my sons had from one to three children.
INTERVIEWER: Bill is the one that stayed in the business?
KEMP: Now he has Billy, who is his son.
INTERVIEWER: How many children did Bill have?
KEMP: Bill had three children.
INTERVIEWER: Billy and ... ?
KEMP: Two daughters. One daughter which was, who was about a year – a little over a year older than he was, and a daughter who was younger.
INTERVIEWER: So now – Billy then, is the fourth generation ...
KEMP: Fourth generation.
INTERVIEWER: In the furniture business.
KEMP: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a pretty long span of time, and he’s not through yet. Let me recap just a minute We’ve gotten up to World War II here and we’ve got your family pretty well established. Of all that time, starting in Maryland and coming to, say 1939, what were your best products and who were your best customers, other than the jobber?
One of the things we haven’t touched upon is your work in the Democratic Party and in the legislature, and all of your work as a businessman in the State of North Carolina and making an impact on legislative matters. Can you tell me something about your political career?
KEMP: I had no idea of getting into politics. But, one evening in about 1950, we were at a party, sitting around after the party was over, trying to decide who should run for the state legislature. It looked as though we might have a man that wasn’t as acceptable as the one that was just retiring. They asked if I would do it. It was an amazing, kind of a startling thing to me, because I hadn’t thought about it. Finally, I decided to do it. I had a lot of friends. My friends helped me, so I went into the legislature.
INTERVIEWER: What year was this?
KEMP: This was in 1952, session of ’53, ’55. I stayed in the legislature for four years, and found out that I had to get back to my business if I wanted to have any business. So I told them that I was through as far as running for the legislature was concerned.
INTERVIEWER: Are there any particular legislative accomplishments that you’d like to talk about during that time?
KEMP: The man who was our previous representative, Frank Taylor, was head of the House and helped me a good deal. I was fortunate in getting on the sub-committee that decided on appropriations the first year I was up there. I was a freshman and appropriations that year just happened to be the important big committee. The second two years, I was lucky enough to get on the subcommittee on the finance end of it. Fortunately, finance that year was the most interesting thing to be on. So I was very, very fortunate in being able to be on the two subcommittees that really made the decisions.
INTERVIEWER: Since your active terms in the legislature, you have continued to maintain an interest in the political process. Isn’t that true?
KEMP: Yes, to some extent. I became very much interested in mental health and Governor Hodges was good enough to appoint me to the state mental health board at a time when the board really made more decisions than they are making today.
INTERVIEWER: Now they’re made in Washington, aren’t they?
KEMP: That’s correct. I was chairman of the board for two years, and was on the board for about 15 to 16 years. It was a very interesting experience that I enjoyed.
INTERVIEWER: This was about 1976 when you started on there?
KEMP: Right. Something like that.
INTERVIEWER: You served for 15 years. What were the accomplishments of the mental health association during that time?
KEMP: It was a time when they began to have more to do with the local communities. Various sections of the state had their own committees and their own facilities for taking care of mental health. There was
more disease and overcrowding, and development took place during that time.
INTERVIEWER: In other words, helping patients get well, instead of just warehousing them?
KEMP: Yes. Also, when I was chairman of the board, about the same time the racial discrimination was done away with, the Cherry hospital here in Goldsboro had over 3,000 inmates. They had to be scattered around different places, some going to other hospitals and some going to the counties themselves.
INTERVIEWER: It was initially a hospital for blacks, was it?
KEMP: Yes, entirely.
INTERVIEWER: You had worked actively on behalf of other candidates on occasion, too, have you not? You have actively supported other candidates for public office?
KEMP: Not too much. I really didn’t get too involved in politics. I did right much in the local community. In other words, things like the United Way, which I had charge of for two campaigns, which were successful.
INTERVIEWER: You were chairman twice?
KEMP: I was chairman of campaigns, twice, and president of the United Way, three times. So I was interested in local development.
INTERVIEWER: In the area of community service, you’ve also been a Rotarian most of your adult life, isn’t that true?
KEMP: Yes, I was president of the Easton club before I came here to Goldsboro, and was also president of the Goldsboro club.
INTERVIEWER: In addition, you have worked with the Boy Scouts most of your life.
KEMP: I started being a Boy Scout in 1912. So that’s a long time ago. Then while I was in Easton, I had a troop. I was Scout Master.
INTERVIEWER: When you came to Goldsboro?
KEMP: When I came to Goldsboro, I devoted more time to the Tuscarora Council here in Goldsboro as an adult, and helped, of course, with the drives that they had, the money drives and I also was president of the council for four years. On a broader scale, the division of scouting including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, I was the council representative and was awarded the Silver Antelope, which was the award that they give on a sectional basis.
INTERVIEWER: How about other hobbies that you have?
KEMP: I guess my biggest hobby was with my wife and the flower business. She was very devoted to flowers and did a good deal in the horticultural line, particularly with camellias, which is a rather difficult flower to raise. We became involved with the national organization, American Camellia Society, largely through her influence. I was made president of the American Camellia Society, which I enjoyed for a year or two.
INTERVIEWER: Now I know that you were president at one time of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association, which was the predecessor of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. Tell me about your work in that.
KEMP: I was fortunate enough to be president at the time Jim Ryan was still in his glory. He, as everybody knows, was one of the finest secretaries that any organization has ever been blessed with. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any definite things that were done. I remember going one time with Cloyd Philpott, who was a very good friend of ours, and getting Governor (Luther) Hodges to be the speaker at the annual dinner, which was held at White Sulphur. We didn’t know until later that the dinner was to be only two weeks before the election. We didn’t realize the closeness of the date when we went into see Governor Hodges. After he had said yes, he told us about the conflict. He didn’t much like to fill the date, but as we long as we asked him, he went along. We had a very successful meeting as a result.
INTERVIEWER: In looking over my notes, it seems that we passed over your college experiences rather quickly. What can you tell us about those?
KEMP: It looks like I spent more time with athletics than I did with classes, but I did play on the football team for two years, on the basketball team for two years and was captain of the track team for three years. I held the college record in pole vault and broad jump. I also had a lot of fun with the debate team. We came down to visit the old Trinity College before it turned into Duke University.
INTERVIEWER: Was it located in Archdale then? Or in Durham?
KEMP: It was in Durham.
INTERVIEWER: Sounds like you had a lot of activity when you were in college. How were your grades?
KEMP: I just barely had enough to get out with a diploma.
INTERVIEWER: I can see why, with all that activity. Now this goes into kind of a summary situation. This is a question that has been developed by the American Furniture Hall of Fame and one which they’re going to ask each person who narrates their life story. What, in your opinion, has been the most important and significant changes in several aspects of the furniture industry? We’ll start with this one: The type and sizes of furniture manufacturers in the past 25 to 30 years.
KEMP: There’s no question, the increase in the size of the furniture manufacturers has been remarkable. Of course, now a great many are with conglomerates and that has enabled them to develop this method of showing – what do they call ...
KEMP: The gallery method of showing. It places the small manufacturers at a very great disadvantage because there’s no way that he can put up a gallery, including both dining room, bedroom and living room, and occasional furniture while the big conglomerates can handle it and go ahead and rent a store if they need to. It’s been a tremendous change and a very difficult change for what used to be the family ownership of factories in North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: Obviously it has worked against some small manufacturers. For the industry as a whole, would you say the effect has been good, or bad, or a mixture of good and bad?
KEMP: I can’t help but say it’s a mixture of good and bad. It has also allowed a lot of furniture to be imported, to the point where price is a very hard thing to handle for the smaller manufacturer.
INTERVIEWER: What would you say would be the most significant development in manufacturing processes in the last 25 to 30 years? You went through from the time we started with the overhead conveyor …
KEMP: The development of the overhead. That, was of course, a tremendous change.
INTERVIEWER: But in the past 20 or 25 years, have we had anything more significant?
KEMP: The introduction of computer-operated machines has about come to the point where it’s very difficult again for the small manufacturer to keep up. It is necessary to have large, complicated machinery which is operated in a manner that the small man can’t compete with.
INTERVIEWER: It requires a large capital expenditure to buy the machines.
KEMP: That’s right. The necessity of having big capitalization to go ahead with and compete with imports. That’s absolutely necessary at the present time. That’s changed the complexion of the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say there’s no end in sight, that this trend will continue?
KEMP: I don’t see any change, any possibility. The day of the mom-and-pop store is definitely gone. While they can exist in outlying communities to some extent, so far as volume is concerned, it makes it absolutely necessary for the manufacturer to be able to play to the large retailer.
INTERVIEWER: In order to do that, he must be big himself.
KEMP: He must be big himself.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s get into furniture materials. What significant change has taken place in the materials? You just showed me a chair and table made of wormy chestnut. I believe you had another ...
KEMP: Wormy chestnut was the grade of chestnut.
INTERVIEWER: Which was made in your plant in Easton, Maryland many years ago. Now you certainly wouldn’t introduce any grouping of wormy chestnut because it’s not available.
INTERVIEWER: Many new materials are available. What materials would you say have been significant?
KEMP: In the beginning of the century, oak was the main species used with the cheaper furniture, oak and poplar. That changed when you began to use gum and learn how to dry it so that it’ll stay straight instead of turning bows. That allowed the use of stains to imitate walnut and mahogany, which couldn’t be done with the open grain material like chestnut and oak. Later on, as things developed, the price of lumber became so expensive, so high, that you had to make some substitutions and at the same time, this pressed wood came into use. First thing, you know, they were making the cheaper furniture which was all being made out of pressed woods. Then you got the big machines for printing it. You couldn’t tell whether it was mahogany or walnut or maple or what. That has been a tremendous change in the method of manufacturing.
INTERVIEWER: So it started with the new kiln drying and machinery, equipment, and then it went onto veneers, and then to hard board?
KEMP: Yes. I think Bill’s got it here. It is in the company history Bill gave you.
INTERVIEWER: OK, we’ll get it out of there. Talking now about association activities in North Carolina and Mr. Kemp has a comment on that.
KEMP: I had a pamphlet sometime ago, which I can’t locate at the present time, which indicated that a Mr. Bordon from the Goldsboro Furniture Company here was instrumental in the formation and the successful operation of what was called the North Carolina Cabinet Makers Association in about 1890. This later on was developed until it became the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association.
INTERVIEWER: While the recorder was off, you said something about the type of factory you operated in the 1930s.
KEMP: Yes. A furniture plant the size I was operating had only one chance. They had to specialize with a particular line. For a long while, we didn’t go anywhere except with Colonial-type furniture. We developed, for ourselves, a little niche in which the people, for low-priced Colonial pieces, knew they could get it from Kemp Furniture Company. That kept us going for quite a little while, from 1931 until 1988.