Story and photos by Teresa Roca
Norm Pederson arrives at his 19th century style workshop on Staten Island at dawn most mornings. Inside, wooden buckets hang from the ceiling above him; spoons, butter churns and presses and rolling pins sit on tables beside him; scraps of wood are scattered around him. As Pederson picks his way through the cluttered room, sounds of wood shavings crackle beneath his work boots. He gathers his tools and prepares to split and shave wood for his next creation.
Pederson isn’t a professional carpenter. He is a volunteer at Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island.
“I portray the farmer who would be working in a shop like this in the 1850s,” said the 17-year volunteer. “I make things the way they were made at this time. That means style, materials and methods.”
A Staten Islander for all of his 66 years, Pederson dedicated his post-retirement to fulfilling two passions that began during childhood: carpentry and history. With Historic Richmond Town becoming more volunteer-dependent, Pederson helps the village stay alive and inform people of America’s history, just as he was informed as a child.
“My grandfather came to this country from Norway in the 1890s as a carpenter,” says Pederson. “My father taught me carpentry when I was a little boy with my grandfather’s tools. He taught me how carpentry was done during my grandfather’s time. I still use some of my grandfather’s tools, which is a pleasant connection with my own past.”
As a boy, Pederson frequently visited Historic Richmond Town, the only living historic village in New York City, now 25 acres with 15 restored buildings but once just a museum and the Voorlezer house, a national historic landmark.
Despite his passion for carpentry and history, Pederson didn’t pursue either as a profession. After flunking out of college (“I had a lot of fun in college”), Pederson enlisted in the army. He later worked for the city as a deck handler on the Staten Island Ferry, cleaning litter and handling lifeboats. But he never forgot the carpentry skills his father taught him and he never lost his passion for history. Pederson got involved with Civil War reenacting and returned to Historic Richmond Town for an event in 1994.
“I got talking to some of the people who work here and they were very interested in other people who were interested in history,” said Pederson. “Then an offer was made and I got involved. One day I saw the shop, which hadn’t been used in 10 years or so, and I said, ‘Can I kind of hang out in this shop?’”
When people come to Pederson’s shop, he always makes sure to follow one simple rule: grab their attention.
“Sometimes I go for a cheap thrill, such as splitting wood,” says Pederson. “Showing how it splits seems like a very simple thing, but it actually catches people’s imagination. If you can do that, then you might go a little further and talk about the technical part of it. You don’t want to start out with the technical part, because we don’t want to bore people to death. We want to entertain them.”
Felicity Biel, the director of education and programs at Historic Richmond Town, says, “Norm is a wonderful asset. He relates well to all ages of visitors and makes the story of earlier American life so accessible to people who visit his shop to see his demonstration of farmer and carpentry skills.”
Pederson’s wooden pieces aren’t just for show. His items are displayed in museums, sold to visitors, used to furnish historic houses and more. Pederson also helps Richmond Town by performing American folk music, playing the fiddle with band member Bob Conroy at Richmond Town events, helping the maintenance team pick up litter and fixing things around the village.
“Beyond what visitors can see, Norm has also helped behind the scenes,” says Biel. “He has repaired spinning wheels that are used in the school workshop programs and carved wooden yokes so young visitors can try them out.”
Despite school and camping trips that visit Richmond Town, the village still suffers because of the neighborhood’s development throughout the years. As Richmond Town continues to modernize, becoming more upper class, people are beginning to forget about this rustic village that has been at the center of Staten Island’s history for hundreds of years.
“You get a lot of people from other countries; you don’t get many Staten Islanders,” says Pederson. “Since the bicentennial it has been down. Europeans are great listeners because they are interested in our history. Americans are not interested in their own history anymore. That is partly why this place doesn’t have much money.”
Although Pederson doesn’t receive money for his long hours of work, he does get paid in other ways.
“I am a very lucky person in the sense that Historic Richmond Town needs something like this and they’re nice enough to let me do this,” he says. “When you are teaching, it’s really rewarding to have people pay attention to you. Having people ask intelligent questions and being respectful, what could be better than that?”
Listen to Teresa Roca’s audio report: