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Interview #3 with William Tasse Alexander

Alexander, William T.
Alexander, Sarah Land
Date of Interview: 
Spring 1992
Union Central; Depression; U.S. Army; Raleigh; Asheville; World War II; 85th Division
William T. Alexander decided farming wasn't for him and moved to Charlotte in search of a job. It didn't take long in the late 1920s for him to find one. He worked for Retail Credit Insurance Service. With them, he was transferred to Asheville and Raleigh. He shares some of the stories about interacting with the mountain people of western North Carolina. Mr. Alexander traveled extensively from Canada all the way down the East Coast. He had several more jobs before he was called into the army when he was thirty-eight years old.
Charlotte and Western North Carolina; 1920s to 1940s
Interview Setting: 
Interviewed at family home at Mallard Creek Church Road and US Highway 29. Mr. Alexander was in declining health at the time of the interview.
Piedmont Stories
Collection Description: 
This is one of a series of three interviews conducted by Mr. Alexander's daughter, Sarah Land Alexander.
Interview Audio: 
WA (William T. Alexander): ( ) I just worked around on the farm out here. And it rained, it seemed like for thousands. And I went over to Charlotte. And ( ) was George Otis, and he was working for Union Central Life Insurance Company.
SA (Sarah L. Alexander): New York Life?
WA: No, Union Central.
SA: Oh, Union Central.
WA: Before he went to--,
SA: New York Life.
WA: New York Life. He was a tycoon of the 1930's. I, there was some other Carolina fellow, I don't know who it was. And, and he was, oh that fellow was up from Statesville. I asked him what he doing in Charlotte. He said he came down here to ( ). I said, well, I haven't heard about that outfit. Where are, where are they? He said they got an office down a while ago. He said down at the corner of 3rd and South Tryon.
SA: Is that building still around or not?
WA: No, it--,
SA: It was torn down?
WA: torn down. And I went up, and it was on the fifth floor, interviewed for the job and got it. Well, what I went there for ( ). And I ended up getting a job that I earned fifteen dollars a month. And it, it opened a school that's over there near the College of Education were worth two hundred and si--, I mean thirty-six hundred dollars at least.
SA: A month?
WA: No, not a month.
SA: A year?
MA (Ms. Alexander): A year for your lifetime.
SA: Not a lifetime, surely?
WA: Three hundred dollars a month.
SA: Three hundred dollars a month was a good salary in those days.
WA: Yeah. And I turned down maybe twenty-five or thirty jobs during the year. Because they didn't pay as much as I thought I was worth. [laughter]
SA: [laughter] This was--, was this during the depression or the beginning stages?
WA: Well, it was between college and--.
SA: Not, but, it was before the 1929 crash, I guess.
WA: Well, no, I, I wasn't work, working regularly for anybody until--, oh in fact, I didn't work regularly for anybody [pause] no it was in '28 that I went to work.
SA: For Retail Credit?
WA: Retail Credit Insurance Service. And in '29, I worked here on the farm.
SA: All right. Now why did you go to Retail Credit and then come back and work on the farm? I tell, you want me to--?
WA: No. I didn't do it that way.
SA: Well, let, let me ask you about it later.
WA: No. All right.
SA: I think we better take a nap first. That's the first order of business. RECORDING INTERRUPTED. RECORDING RESUMED.
SA: You started, you worked on the farm in 1927 and 1928. And then you got your job at Retail Credit about 1928?
WA: May the, May the 15th.
SA: May the 15th, 1928. And where did you work? Did you work in Charlotte at first?
WA: Yeah.
SA: How long did you work in Charlotte?
WA: Oh I don't, 1928 and '29. They transferred me to Asheville on January the 1st, '30. No, I'm, I want to say 1930. 1930, they transferred me there in '31, January the 1st, '31.
SA: 1931.
WA: And I worked about two years and seven days up there.
SA: That was Raleigh?
WA: No.
SA: Asheville?
WA: Asheville.
SA: Excuse me.
WA: They transferred me to Charlotte for about two months. And they transferred me to Raleigh. Raleigh office.
SA: Which of those places was the most interesting to work? Was that up in Asheville?
WA: At the time, ( ). I believe I preferred Asheville to--
SA: To Raleigh?
WA: To Raleigh. Raleigh was ( ) patched over. They came in there almost everywhere and ( ).
SA: Everybody was moving around, coming in and coming out?
WA: It was ( ). They didn't allow anything ( ). And they weren't making any money to speak of.
SA: Well, when you worked in Asheville, did you go to the Biltmore Estate in your--?
WA: Went by there everyday.
SA: About everyday? For employees that worked at Biltmore--?
WA: Well, checking up.
MA: OK, this is your two pills.
SA: So you had worked at Retail Credit in Raleigh and Asheville and then Charlotte. What, what was the experience when you worked for Retail Credit in Asheville where you went out and this mountaineer was sitting on the porch with a shotgun?
WA: Well, I had a postmaster up at, oh what was that thing?
MA: How about Saluda?
WA: ( ) a highway ( ) that went up the mountain about twenty miles. And it was a, [pause] a, seemed like a cliff. It was Sunburst Mountain, chances are, it was Sunburst Post office.
SA: Town?
WA: And this fellow that was, I want to say he was assistant postmaster. The postmaster was out making hay over in Tennessee. And we didn't think that was very disabling.
SA: Disabling to be out making hay in Tennessee?
WA: I mean, totally disabled that he was entitled to the insurance. So, I went out to where this fellow Webb lived. And I, they told me I could drive down this road like I came in. About half a mile and I could start up the creek here at the old mill. And I finally drove up the creek about three-quarters of a mile. And it was just a sheer drop all the way across the creek about from about here to the door. That was as far as you could go. A car couldn't even start climbing it. It's just a sheer cliff. So I backed up a little bit and parked in a shallow part of the creek near a cabin down there. And [pause], and I crossed it to a rail fence over a stile. And this was Webb's. I asked them if he was home, the kids playing in the yard. They all say he's up in the cornfield watching out for [long pause] whatever he was ( ) varmints ( ).
SA: Hedgehog or something?
WA: Hedgehog. They were eating in his corn. He was trying to shoot some. He told me before I got to him ( ) that he'd seen me coming up the trail for about half a mile. And that fella prep--, was prepared to shoot anybody that messed with him. But I went on and told him what I was looking for. And he told me that this postmaster was over in Tennessee making hay. And he had been doing that for the last two or three days. And I had him repeat to me and I wrote it down. And I, he agreed to it and signed it. So I got ready to go on back to the post office, back to where my car was parked. That old man said he was going back, too. And I told him to come go with me. I was parked right down at the foot of the hill next to that cabin. Said he couldn't go down there ( ). I said I don't mind. What's wrong with this ( )? He said but I just can't go. Finally he admitted to me that fellow that living in that cabin down there where he, where my car was parked promised to kill him if he ever passed his door again. I said ( ) he couldn't even take the shortcut to the post office. [coughs] He gave me the information. And I [coughs] backed my car up. That fellow was out there in the yard eyeing me as I passed him through the corner of his yard. And I got on out of there safely. [coughs] But I, I met maybe seven people that day from post office there ( ) trust ( ).
SA: How is that spelled?
WA: T-R-U-S-T. [coughs] And every one of them had a, usually a rifle or a .45 on his hip.
SA: Oh goodness!
WA: And usually they had a bag of liquor on them ( ). But I didn't mess with their liquor. I didn't ever try to interfere with them at all. But I was back in Asheville the next day. Talked to ( ) the cashier of Wachovia Bank. And he said that was one of the worst and meanest sections of the mountain up there. He said they'd kill you for nothing flat.
SA: Now was that near the Tennessee line somewhere?
WA: Well, it wasn't more about two or three miles--,
SA: From Tennessee?
WA: from Tennessee line. This post office was the end of the road. And it had the ones still out on ( ) and then they had the mill down there ( ).
SA: Well--,
WA: That's about all there was to it then.
SA: Well did, was that the only time you had a problem with people with guns when you were working for Retail Credit?
WA: No, you'd have some wild ones ( ).
SA: I think that's somebody coming in the driveway. I'm going to turn this off now. RECORDING INTERRUPTED. RECORDING RESUMED.
SA: What kind of a vehicle did you ride over that in the good old days?
WA: I don't know what all I was driving at the time.
SA: What, what were you driving mostly when you were up in the Asheville and that area?
WA: Well, I had a 1932 Chrysler. We drove Uncle Mode's new Dodge a time or two. And I had a [pause] a '41 or a '42 Plymouth.
SA: Is that the black Plymouth that we had when I was little that I remember?
WA: Yeah.
SA: Sometime in the 1930s, about the time that Uncle Mode got married, you used to go up to Canada. What, what car would you have driven up to Canada?
WA: I drove a Dodge.
MA: A Dodge?
SA: How many times did you go up to Canada over those years? Do you remember?
MA: He was telling that tale the other night, or maybe the lawyer was here--, was it six times?
WA: I believe so.
SA: Now when we were up in New England, you had been up there, too. When, when did you go up to New England? Was that when you were going to, up to Canada, when we were up there in Maine?
WA: Most of the time it was driving through up to Canada.
SA: What were the roads like? Were they mostly two-lane back in those days? You didn't, and, or, did they have the turnpike in Pennsylvania then? Or New Jersey?
WA: They had the New Jersey Turnpike.
SA: Did you stay at motels along the way?
WA: Well, I stayed at hotels the most. Stayed at the old [pause] ( ) in Boston. I stayed at the Queensberry, in Queensberry, New York ( ).
SA: Now when did you start working for Auburn Stoker Company?
WA: About 1935.
SA: Was that when you or--, organized William T. Alexander--?
WA: No, no. I was still working ( ) doing this on the side.
SA: On the side? Now when did you form William T. Alexander Company partnership?
WA: Well I, I was quietly in it. ( ) I was involved for two years before I actively got into it. In other words, we fi--formed a partnership in 1937.
SA: That was two years after `35.
WA: Yeah.
SA: Well, what made you decide to, to go with Auburn?
WA: Well, we were looking for [pause] a growing industry. Stoker industry was in it's infantism. And at the start, we thought it had a potential, which it did 'til--.
SA: John L. Lewis struck? What, what year did he have his strike? Do you remember, more or less?
WA: Well, he had one every year.
SA: Well what, what was the year that he put, put the business out of business? About--?
WA: He took the business, our business in a big way in May of 1947.
SA: So that's about the time you decided to form Alexander Tank, is that right?
WA: Well, it was about the time we started looking for another ( ). And [pause] we were rapidly going out of the stoker business from May '47 through December '49.
SA: Now you had stokers, I remember in the barn, on occasion. Did you use, sell stokers even after that? Or did you officially get out of the business?
WA: Well, we, we didn't officially get out of the business until after we'd been in the tank business--.
SA: From several years?
WA: We were, had been selling about 2000 oil furnaces a year. And I figured that with the oil furnaces that we were selling, we could start off running with manufacturing--,
SA: Fuel oil tanks?
WA: fuel oil tanks for the fuel oil industry. We had to get out, either get out of the tank business or stay in the fuel oil business. But we would'a been living through what we could sell in the--. And we, if we wanted to make a general sale of things to the public, we had to get at it because we could, ( ) become competitors that sell oil furnaces. And we couldn't, couldn't exist on the sales of 200, or 2000 oil furnaces. And we thought it was a better part of valor to get out of it going--.
MA: Now Daddy, a stoker goes with coal?
WA: What?
MA: What does a stoker stoke? Is that letting the coal in the fire? Were stokers with coal? Or were they with fuel oil?
SA: No, they were with coal.
WA: Coal.
MA: Oh, OK.
SA: Now, ( ) during World War II, you supplied a lot of textile mills, didn't you, with coal stokers, didn't you?
WA: Yeah.
SA: What other kind of businesses did you supply? Big businesses usually, factories--?
WA: ( ), armories, dry cleaners.
SA: What about schools? Did you ever supply--?
WA: Yeah, we supported and supplied the schools.
SA: Prisons or anything like that?
WA: We were bidding on a state, state school bid. The reason we got the distributorship of all of it was--.
SA: Did you have any competitors in the stoker business?
WA: Yeah. About five big commercials.
MA: Were they in Charlotte or were they somewhere else?
WA: Well, they were wherever the salesman's headquarters was. ( ) was in Atlanta, two of them actually. ( ).
MA: OK, so they were just all over the Southeast?
WA: Detroit started a company.
SA: Well, now that kind of answers the question. You, there, you did have competitors in that business?
WA: Yeah, there were definitely competitors all of the time ( ).
SA: Now you were selling stokers when you met mother during World War II, weren't you?
WA: Yeah.
SA: Could you tell me something about the circumstances when you went up to see her?
WA: Well, when I went on a business trip. I went up there to chauffeur Aunt Margery to that conference. And Sarah was attending the conference.
SA: And so that's where you initially met.
WA: Uh-huh.
MA: Did you really pick her up out of the gutter, Daddy?
WA: Yeah.
SA: [laughter] What was the name of the street? Do you remember?
WA: ( ). It was the main drag in front of the university. And Euclid Avenue is the street that runs up beside the building on the campus where the hole in the chimney is.
SA: So you were meeting her there on the corner?
WA: Well, I mean, she, she was walking down the street. And I asked Dr. ( ) if that one was married, single, or divorced. He said he didn't know it, but he'd find out. So he pulled up to the corner--
SA: And asked her?
WA: [laughter] And we invited her to ride with us to go see the horses.
SA: Now that was the Kentucky Derby or some other race?
WA: No.
MA: What kind of a horse farms there?
WA: ( ).
SA: Oh, the horse farms.
WA: And that was the breaking up of the dinner meeting and the last [pause] she went on ( ) horse farm tour. And [pause] I called her up for a date that night.
MA: You're a fast mover, Daddy.
WA: What?
MA: You're a fast mover.
WA: Well, when I meet somebody that's what I look for and interested in, I check it out.
SA: Now later you were drafted? Or did you sign up for--?
WA: I was appointed a second lieutenant in a medical group that was being formed in Charlotte. And Dr. (Paul Sanger) was a, the person who ( ) actually organized it. And ultimately Dr. Paul Sanger actively headed up a ( ) particular surgery during the, in the war. He developed quite a reputation as a surgery man.
SA: So then, then you--.
WA: George Snyder, a classmate of mine, was [coughs] I guess he was, I don't know what, at least a first lieutenant, maybe more a captain by the time he got back. He was administrative officer for the ( ) altogether, making them work. And that was using his training as a businessman. He said it was Coca-Cola.
SA: Yes. That was the Snyder House back over near Queens College, wasn't it?
WA: Yeah. He, he was accustomed to organizing folks to get work done.
SA: So what year was that, or month? Do you remember?
WA: Well, they were inducted sometime about October '42. Then he--.
SA: Can you--?
WA: I got my notice about the first of October that I wouldn't be accepted by Washington as second lieutenant. And, and the draft board had been holding off my, any action on me on account of seeing if my clearance through Washington. And they told me they wasn't accepting any more civilians. It was really nice to, it was sort of sad. And I don't know whether ( ). Anyway, I told, I asked the woman when, when she had her next shipment of troops. But she, must have been October 1st. And she said that would give me about seven days notice, ten days notice. I could have quit it all, but if I had, I wouldn't have gone in the army at all.
MA: All.
WA: Huh?
MA: All. I was saying I didn't know that you were that close to being not in the army.
SA: You, your, your age was getting up. You were at least thirty-eight, weren't you?
WA: I was thirty-eight then. But they were still calling at the time. They quit calling sixty days to the date.
MA: Oh OK.
WA: But if I hadn't had an application in--,
SA: Already.
WA: or, or--.
SA: Second ( ).
WA: I don't know whether they'd accept ( ) just to get it over with. Since I had already got all my papers ready to go, I just went on in.
MA: Sarah, see if you can ( ) the tape.
SA: Well, wait, let me stop. START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
SA: --you go to get your basic training? Was it Fort Bragg?
WA: Well, I was at, no, I was inducted at Camp Croft, which is a one-day operation.
SA: And where was that?
WA: In Spartanburg, South Carolina. Stayed here about a week. And I was inducted at Fort Bragg, South Carolina.
SA: North Carolina.
WA: North Carolina. And. [pause]
SA: And you had your basic training at Fort Bragg?
WA: No. I had my basic training at Camp Hood, Texas.
SA: Oh, so you went all the way out to Texas for your
WA: Yeah.
SA: your training. And then, were you out there just for the basic training? And then, you went to Mississippi. That was later, was it?
WA: Yeah. That was when they were synchronizing our battalion for the, the divisions. And I was then assimilated by the 85th Division.
SA: So you had to crawl around through the swamps when you were out there?
WA: Yeah.
SA: How long, long were you in Mississippi?
WA: [pause] I got there in January, and, I think it was--. [pause] And I had [long pause] and my ( ) didn't have an IQ of over 110, which is [pause] much higher than the average--
SA: And you, when you were in Texas, you had to peel potatoes a lot?
WA: Some.
SA: And then you had to make lemonade with lemons one time.
WA: Yeah. That was for telling the cook how nice it would be.
SA: So you got the chore doing it. [laughter]
WA: ( ) teach me to tell him what to do.
SA: So you were about ready to ship out overseas from Fort, Camp Hood, is that right?
WA: No, from Camp Croft.
SA: In Mississippi? Is that right, Mississippi?
WA: Yeah.
SA: And then at the last minute, you got your papers saying you didn't have to go overseas.
WA: Yeah. I had all, all my discharge papers worked out except the ( ) off from 85th Division. And I signed for the move order on a Sunday. [pause] ( ) And usually my move order come to cancel everything. And Captain, I mean, I mean General Mayes, who was in charge of the 893rd Destroyer Battalion, said he wasn't going to hold, hold me up for that. So he put me in the jeep and sent me up to the 85th Headquarters. And I got paid about 10:00 in the morning. Came on back. And I went that-a-way and they went that-a-way. They were, they moved out about 12:00. [pause]
SA: So you, you got on the train and headed out of there? Or some other form of transportation?
WA: It was a train. And. [pause]
SA: I think you're getting sleepy now, Daddy. Is that right? We'll, we'll pick up later on. I'm going to stop it now.