1964 / 1966
Through the winter the idea of moving on to something else matured finally becoming reality. I had worked up a couple of estimates for Young Construction Co. who were successful bidders on both the Cold Spring and Detroit Lakes MN wastewater treatment plants. They were nearly identical units, with both designs being the work of Larson-Peterson Engineers of Detroit lakes. Owner of Young construction was Richard (Dick) Young whose father had been a small contractor in the St. Paul area. Dick was a giant of a man, standing nearly 6’-6”, nearly bald and when frowning looked as though he was going to eat the nearest person alive.
He had played football for Notre Dame and then gone to work for Walsh Construction Co., ofNew York.Before returning toSt. Paulto start his own business he had been in an intermediate supervisory position on the Strategic Air Command airbase inSpain. While there he met and married a Spanish girl. By the time I met him they had seven children and, I believe, stopped at nine. Dick was one of those who was full of suggestions and his wife did not escape his perceived path of the perfect life. He related to me his repeated suggestions, to his wife, regarding purchasing for the home I, when possible always buy in quantity to get the best price. Returning home one day, while still inSpain, he was greeted by a block long line of loaded burros. His wife had obediently followed his suggestion and bought a ton of potatoes.
The real world of Highway and Heavy and Building Contractors is governed by the bonding companies who ultimately provide the monetary guarantee that the contractors work will be completed as specified in the contract documents. Bonding companies judge contractors by the three “C’s”, that being cash, character and completion. Does this contractor have, or have access to, adequate financial resources for their proposed activities. Do the principal people in the company have demonstrated experience in doing the work proposed. Does the company have a record of successfully completing the type of work they propose to contract for. Young Construction at this time was a new firm without a completion record and as such bonding was limited to projects of $250,000.00 or less. Getting out of this cellar is an exercise in time and patience wherein you must avoid “buying” a job just to have work and completing the work that you do per specification.
So, there it was. Frances, four boys and twelve years later I had made the decision to leave EFCO. Some would say it was a risk, others an opportunity. I saw both, but in the last analysis life is what you make it and I would determine what rewards might be found at the end of road I took.
I was a bit surprised when Wilson Witt, brother in law of the founder and CEO called to tell me he would come toMinneapolisto take care of my turning the office over. It was little more than small talk until I handed him the Republic Forming File composed of the documents and correspondence gleaned from unrelated files. He leafed through the first dozen pages +/-, looked at me and said “the old man (W.A. Jennings CEO) would shit if he saw this”. My only comment was to the effect that whoever followed me shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of thing.
My first project was the Excelsior MN wastewater treatment plant remodeling and additions. I inherited two people from previous work. Bill Anderson and his brother in law, both fromFrazeeMN. It was a learning experience that went two directions. First, there was Dick Young who would do almost anything to avoid a confrontation of any kind; if an employee he hired wasn’t qualified it fell to me to correct it. I found that on past work the sub contractors had left cleanup and other indirect work for the general contractor. When I put an end to this the affected subs complained to Dick and I got a call. My response was simply that there would be a back charge sheet with the time cards and he could decide if the labor costs should be donated to the affected sub . Almost without exception when a disagreement was put in the context of money out of his pocket the issue was never raised a second time and the subs got the message that administration of their contracts was going to be on “as written” basis as opposed to back scratching at the job site.
Relations with the design engineer’s went through a similar metamorphosis in that Dick had never questioned “informal” changes to the contract documents allowing that the contractor was not the designer. When any of these changes involved additional cost or perceived future liability I requested written directions and when additional costs were involved they were documented and submitted for payment as an extra. It didn’t take long to learn that “professional” engineers were not above trying to wangle freebies to cover errors and omissions. Indeed this came to be true of every Civil Sanitary engineering with which I was to work save for Black & Veatch fromKansas CityMO.
In this day and age what was required to remodel Excelsior would not be allowed, specifically the sewage bypass that was necessary to remodel the control building. For the better part of sixty days raw sewage was discharged directly intoLakeMinnetonkaduring the summer swimming and boating season.
Finally, convincing Dick that we needed a labor organization that worked smart as opposed to being pushed took longer. He had done field work for the Walsh company when “pushing “ was considered the only way to get a crew to produce. I will never cease to be amazed at this mentality especially at those who claimed to have been successful at it. I had been there and witnessed first hand the myriad of ways a group of men could devise to give the appearance of feverish activity while accomplishing little or nothing.
The Excelsior project was a learning experience from beginning to end, but while much needed to be change, change for the sake of change answers nothing. Coherent, even handed project administration took care of many shortcomings and went a long way in bringing an overall harmony to the project.
In total we added two primary clarifiers and an activated sludge tank, remodeled a trickling filter into an aerated activated sludge tank, cleaned the existing digester, installed new lift pumps and control center in the control building and modified the underground piping to accommodate the new treatment systems.
Completion and close out of a project can get to be an adventure. Normally the design engineers will prepare a punch list of items they consider incomplete. Included are small items, after thoughts if you will, that the designer thinks should be added. All the incomplete items are attended to, the after thoughts become the subject of a diplomatic negotiation session and are disposed of and the project is turned over to the owner with returns as required during the warranty period, normally one year.
Thus the new experience was underway and the family benefits were appreciated. Travel was to and from work only and I was home every night. In August we spent a week atChristmasLakewith the boys. A moment of excitement whenFrancesthought it was time for Kevin to start swimming and pitched him off the dock. The water was about ten feet deep and he went straight to the bottom, pushed his feet against the bottom and popped back to the surface in front of me. He locked his arms around my neck with a wailing determination to use me for a ladder to abandonChristmasLake. Had I not been close enough to the dock both of us would have headed to the bottom again.Francesthought it was all great fun. The three older boys were in school by this time. Paul rode a bus to the north side Joe and Frank were at the grade school less than a block from home.
After Excelsior got to the point where it was not mandatory for me to be onsite I would go to the office inSt. Paulto help with the final days of preparing and delivering bids. The delivery routine would put me at a phone near the bid site with the blank bid form and bond. Usually I would call the office in the last fifteen minutes before the bid closing, get the final bid numbers, fill in the form and beat it to where the bids were to be received, usually arriving in the last five minutes.
A trip toBemidjito bid something almost turned into an adventure. The bid got delivered but a snowstorm turned to blizzard and there was no getting home till the weather calmed down. Thus a night at the Holiday Inn. At dinner time it was apparent that I wasn’t the only stranded traveler. Dinner was still in progress when the music began in the piano bar which became the destination for most of the stranded where a sing along got started. This seemed to develop a momentum of its own and the first half of the night was gone before you knew it. Sometime along the way a couple of girls were next to me. As it turned out they happened to be fromManhattan BeachCA. All of you with half an imagination probably already know where this night was headed. But let’s get real, so, their was a couple of girls and everybody was having a good time. Of the two young ladies one was rather shapely with a rather common face, the other a bit plump but with a round happy face. There isn’t much doubt that the happy time could have continued back to one of the rooms for the rest of the night But, there was a girl at home with four boys who could do a lot more for a pair of jeans than either of these younger ladies and a pair of eyes that could charm me out of my socks, and more if she was of a mind But both had a good sense of humor which made for a fun night and nothing more. And we weren’t low bidder either. Would this text have been included if something else happened? I guess we’ll never know.
The next successful bid was the Coon Rapids Lift Station which would be a late Spring 1965 start. Lift stations are located at the low point of a gravity sewer main and does exactly what the name implies. It pumps the sewage to a higher level to start the gravity flow all over again. Getting a road and power into the site can be a project in itself as the stations are often located at the bottom of an inaccessible ravine. Normally they amounted to a wet well and pump room at the bottom level with necessary influent troughs and flow measurement apparatus. The concrete tank and pump structure had a masonry building at ground level housing electrical controls, flow meters and a chlorine room. Nobody is going to get rich building lift stations. Indeed a very small slip in bidding or an unexpected condition at the site might well result in a loss.
We picked up another lift station in Moundsview and submitted a proposal to the Design Engineers to add a drive shoe to the bottom of the walls, build the station on top of the ground and sink the building to the proper level. The critical items with this method is keeping the building level as it sinks and stopping it at the right elevation +/-½”.
We got the building into place, installed the dewatering system and I gave to another man to construct the bottom floor. With this in place the dewatering system could be shut down and the balance of the concrete and masonry completed.
I went to South St. Paul to put a small treatment pant in service which went without a hitch and allowed me to spend Christmas eve day at home. All was fine until Dick called asking me to come to Moundsville. There had been an accident and they needed help completing placement of the concrete floor. To complete the pour Dick and I worked in the bottom of the building . He dumped the concrete buckets as they came down and I vibrated the concrete into place. In the course this work I dropped the vibrator into previously placed concrete and found it to be hollow and while we were able to “complete” the floor we both knew it would leak if the dewatering system was shut down.
The cause of all that had taken place was the wrong decision at the outset. It was another one of those gotta get it done demands of that period in the construction industry. This one being that there was a concrete pour ready there could be no defensible reason on earth to delay or postpone it. Pouring concrete in some cases reduced otherwise rational, intelligent supervisors to unthinking, uncaring irrational automatons. The morning had dawned with the ground covered with ice from a mist that had continued throughout the night. Three truckloads of concrete had been ordered to be onsite at eight o’clock, which they were. But the underfoot conditions were nothing but ice. At this point everything should have been cancelled for a dozen reasons that should have apparent to anybody. Everything from this point was driven by the sole fact that there was eighteen cubic yards of concrete on the jobsite and it had---had to be poured. The option of canceling everything was not even considered. Canceling a concrete pour could not be justified and madness ensued.
Sand was spread through the site to facilitate equipment movement, a plank system was arranged for people to work at the to level of the building and pouring concrete was started after ten o’clock. By this time the concrete had been hydrating in the truck for nearly four hours and should have been wasted. Trying to use this partially set concrete was the cause of the hollows that were found before the pour was completed. Then the human tragedy. The top platform plank slid out of place on the ice and two men fell to the exposed rebar twenty feet below. The concrete operations were stopped again to await an ambulance and crane hoisting of the men to the surface. Canceling the entire day and wasting the onsite concrete would have cost a thousand dollars+/-. Grout pumping the voids in the floor cost three times that amount. But no amount of money can repair broken bodies . One of the injured was Forest Nystedt, the second EFCO Forman that I had worked for in Stratton NE the winter of 1952-53.
The superintendent returned to the project for three days, all of which were spent in the project office, then just walked away without a word to anyone. This person cannot assign blame to him. He was a victim of a madness that was rampant in the industry.
Most of the balance of the winter was spent in the office. In the course of the Moundsview project we had acquired a crane operator< Gordon Maukstad by name, who had been in business for himself at one time and had come to the Twin city area after his business had closed down. His background was such that he was retained as a supervisor to complete the Moundsview project.
Then a County bridge north of Princeton MN which involved removal of an existing steel truss bridge with the new structure with abutments on either bank, two mid river piers and precast concrete deck with galvanized pipe rails.
I sold the existing bridge to a scrap dealer in Princeton. The price included removal and we never had to touch it. It was here that I began to see a thread weaving through my life. When I mentioned selling the bridge to Dick he nearly laughed out loud. I and Gordon followed the crane to the bridge, Gordon drove it off the truck and on the return trip I mentioned that I wanted to stop in at a scrap dealer in Princeton to see if he might be interested in the bridge. After all it was a good chunk of iron and that was their business. Gordon was of the same mindset as Dick. Nobody sold bridges. The plan was to remove it, cut it up and haul it to the dealer. Everybody follows the plan. The initial response from the scrap dealer was slight amusement turning serious when it was apparent there was no joke. Then we started down the check list of necessary conditions. No delay in removal, agreed weight confirmations, and price per pound of iron. When I exited the scrap dealers office all the labor and material expense in the bid for bridge removal had been moved to the profit column along with the undetermined amount to be paid for the iron.
Those who had laughed gave me the proverbial pat on the back but at home it was nothing extraordinary. Frances was not a bit surprised, to the contrary, I came to believe that she would have been surprised only if I had failed. The constant, quiet, unyielding, unwavering faith that I would never fail was a simple fact of life from beginning to end. I could look backward to 1954, when but for her presence I would have found my space cramped in an early grave, to Baraboo where the youngest person on the site became a leader, to U.S. Steel where I was accepted as an equal to the best in the field. We are not given to see the future, but I would, in reality , see the day when far more would depend on the unyielding support of this lovely rock .
We rented pile leads and drove our own piles for the abutments and the piers. This was followed by the concrete for the abutments then the pier caps. There were local farmers who had asked what would become of the plywood from the pier cap forms. When the last cap was poured I told one of them that they could have the plywood if they wanted to strip it from the concrete. We left the job on a Friday night with the forms in place on the pier caps and returned Monday to find all the dimension lumber cleaned and stacked neatly on the roadside with the plywood gone. The farmers had been better than their word.
Several weekends during this project the whole family came on to Detroit Lakes and spent the weekend at Lake Eunice. We would return to the bridge and Frances and the boys would bring the car on home. I would come home with one of the men.
Again it was back to the office where we had a new estimator. It was Jim Vogelsang from Mankato. He had his own business for a time and I had sold him Special EFCO forms for a concrete bleacher project a Mankato State College. Dick was not aware that we were acquainted until I met him in our office. He was working on a bid for Holy Rosary Catholic church in Detroit Lakes MN.
It fell to me to deliver the bid for this job, which was to be opened at 2:30 PM. I thought I was running a little late by the time I got the final numbers and completed the bid form. When I arrived at the church, however, I found a small crowd at the door to the dining room area of the existing church. Someone finally responded to the knocking and everybody went downstairs and found seats in the dining area and waited and waited. Shortly after 3 PM a person appeared from the kitchen and asked if there was anyone present from Young Construction. I went to the kitchen to find that we were the only contractor that had responded to the advertisement to bid on the project. I was further advise that they would not go forward with one bid. If I requested that the bid be opened (which would oblige them to comply) the bid would be rejected. They went on to say that the expected another contractor to have a bid ready by 7 PM and that the plan was to delay the bid opening until that time. My response was that unless I was directed to ask for a bid opening we could plan on meeting in the evening.
With that I went back to the Erie Jr. restaurant to get a bite to eat and call the office. Vogelsang was the only one in the office and when I explained what had taken place he said I should tell them to open the bid and come home. My response was that wasn’t going to happen unless Dick agreed and left the phone number so Dick could call if he returned. When he did call we agree that it would be foolish to expose our numbers for nothing
Back to the parish rectory for the anticipated 7 PM bid opening which never happened. The other bidder didn’t show and I continued to protect the privacy of our numbers by not releasing our bid. It was after midnight by the time I got home.
I dropped the unopened bid in Dick’s desk next morning. After a soliloquies about bid openings that never happened I told him they were going to try again at the Architects office, in St. Paul on the following Wednesday and he was welcome to try his hand at getting the bid opened.. There was finally a bid opening and we got beat. We were not low bidder. But, both of the bids submitted were over the building committee budget and were rejected. The project was revised eliminating much of the basement area included in the original plans and put on the market again.
It fell to Vogelsang, of course, to prepare the new bid. In doing so there was the reduction in bid numbers resulting from deleted work, but Vogelsang further reduced prices by changing unit prices of work which was unchanged in the revised plans. Dick reviewed all the numbers of every bid and picked up on the unwarranted price changes and added an amount equal to the reduction back into the profit column. If the unit price assumptions were correct for the first bid there could be no justification for a reduction. I was an insight into why Vogelsang was no longer in business for himself. We were successful with the second bid and the project mobilized immediately with Vogelsang as the superintendent and Bill Anderson, from Frazee as carpenter foreman.
With this project, a small parochial school addition and the bridge we had finally crawled out of the bonding level basement. There wasn’t a lot of cash laying loose but we had demonstrated that we were both functional and responsible in our corner of the industry.
It was during the construction of the parochial school project that I got an evening call from Bill Anderson relative to Dick’s mental state. Apparently Bill had gotten a call from Dick instructing him to count the brick in the building. Laugh, it was one of the times I just let go. I was almost teary eyed by the time I was stable enough for Bill to explain. We had always used a subcontractor for our masonry work because this work on our projects was very limited in scope and quantity. Dick, however had been monitoring the bid quantities, vs. purchased quantities vs. material returned to the yard and came to the conclusion that the subcontractor was absconding with brick. Bill was convinced the who thing was a waste of time in that he visualized a physical count up and down a ladder all the way around the building which I tried to help him reduce to estimates and extensions both for in place units and reductions for openings. Dick often lost sight of the big picture and detoured on time consuming microscopic examinations. In the case of the missing masonry it was my feeling that he failed to take into account the cuts, clips, chips and broken units that are disposed of in normal clean up operations.
We had acquired a second car and Frances took the boys to Des Moines for a visit with her folks. Somewhere along SE 14th street a lady with a terrible thirst made a left turn across southbound traffic to get to her favorite bar. Her miscalculation resulted in a collision in the area of the left front wheel of our car, causing body damage, miss alignment of the wheel and a Mild whiplash for Frances. It was unfortunate and was not so serious that Frances, with her sister’s transportation, could not have handled . The biggest problem was the insurance adjuster, who was insisting that she drive the damaged auto to Minneapolis for repairs, thus I flew to Des Moines to deal with this fellow and get the family home. I met with him after arriving in Des Moines which turned out to be surprisingly easy. I simply told him that the car would be repaired in Des Moines, that we would be flying home the following day and that I would return to get the auto when ready. In addition the airline costs would be submitted for reimbursement. There was no objection at all which was what bothered me the most. Why had Frances been badgered to bring the damaged car home before being repaired? We dropped the car at a body shop the following day and flew home.
The church in Detroit Lakes far more masonry than we had ever dealt with before and Dick was in a quandary as to how to handle it. His suspicions about being swindled by masonry contractors had him almost immobilized. I suggested that he might talk to Dad about supervising the work. This was Dads trade and really felt he would enjoy the challenge of the massive curved masonry walls They came to an agreement and Dad was hired over the phone.
My next project was a pump gallery and building modifications to the Screen and Grit building at the Pigs Eye Island Wastewater Treatment plant in St. Paul. This involved dewatering the entire area of the existing building, excavation necessary for construction of a sixteen foot wide pump and pipe gallery under the building, a building addition to house vacuum drying equipment and the installation of the necessary pumps and piping. It was a relatively high risk project that fell into place far better than expected. The sequence of the masonry work was such that Dad came from Detroit Lakes to supervise. He put together a six man crew of bricklayers. Of these save for one thirty five year old D, at 68 was the youngest.
We sold the house in Brooklyn Center and moved to a rented home in St. Paul Park. When Dad came from Detroit Lakes both he and mother came to live with us. A household of eight with two families has its moments but all in all things went well. Frances’ and mothers first attempt at peanut brittle stirred with a wooden spoon embedded with the hardened mass, spoon, pan and all going into the trash can. They did better on the divinity so we weren’t without sweets. Dick and his wife stopped by for a couple of hours. The conversation ultimately turned to Vietnam. While we had no one in service it was the consensus that we had been there far too long. This was a decided change for Dick in that only a few years earlier with all the fervor and arguments of a hawk.
As we were putting the work at Pigs Eye Island to rest Dick bid the additions and modifications to the wastewater treatment plant in Rochester MN. At $1.75 million it was far and away the largest project for us. The Bid Form included nearly twenty alternates, a mix of add and deduct items of such dollar value that until they were decided upon no knew who the successful bidder was. We were substantially low with the base bid but at one point in the game of preferences and arithmetic that margin was shrunk to $75.00 recovering somewhat with the final alternates selected. We had our first project over a $million.
Young was able to bid this on a Joint Venture basis with Sheehy Bridge Construction Co. which was managed by Dicks’ brother. Bonding on this basis is not free. There was $130,000.00 total profit estimated for the project half of which would go to the Bridge Company in return for the borrowed bonding. All construction activities would be our responsibility. I would be the site project manager and Milton Willman was hired from Acton Construction Co, a competitor, .as the Contract manager from our office. Willman was numbers oriented, a sharp estimator and was quite at home with critical path scheduling. He was a zero as a people man, anti union without reason and seemingly determined to oppose human rights for no other reason than because. In this regard he seemed determined to oppose the incoming tide and tended to categorize people which inevitably results in a class that is less than me.
I spent the balance of the winter in the office getting familiar with Rochester and left Dad and Gordon to finish our work. As the weather permitted I would travel to Rochester to familiarize myself with the existing plant, the local people I would have to work with and to look for a house.
With each trip I would climb to the top of the Trickling Filters and look North across an elevated berm to the north. Beginning at the far north end of this berm our project called for a Blower building to house four Roots Connersville blowers which would supply air for the activated sludge treatment system that was the bulk of our work.. From the blower building there would be an enclosed central north south pipe gallery connecting the blower building to the south east west pipe gallery. To each side of the central gallery were first, the Proliferation tanks then the Aeration tanks. To facilitate the aeration and liquid flowing the tangs the walls of these tanks were configured in a “Y” configuration being eleven feet +/- wide at the base with an inward radius to one foot width at the center foe about five feet vertically then radius outward again to a four foot width with two six inch vertical walls continued to the top configuring a three foot wide by three foot high trench. Perimeter trenches carried liquid into the tanks with the central trench providing a raceway for the air piping. With aluminum grating over the open top the trenches provided walkway access to all parts of the tanks.
South of the south gallery were two Primary Clarifiers each ninety feet in diameter which were to provide for settlement of the accumulated activated sludge flow to pits in the floor for pump withdrawal and return to the sludge tanks or digester as required. The effluent from the clarifiers was lifted by pump to the existing trickling filters where I was standing.
The treatment complex involved the placement of six thousand cubic yards+ of concrete which was the primary responsibility of our labor force. Excavation and mechanical work were both sub contract activities scheduled and coordinated under our supervision.
There were three or four trips and each time I stood looking out across the grassy berm below the Trickling Filters I was visualizing movement of the earthwork equipment. Anybody could let the excavator do his thing and begin concrete activities after this phase of the work was nearly complete but to forget that winter returns is foolish. There was plenty of room for two in this massive excavation . The key was priority sequencing and direction. As this evolved in my mind I would work with Willman to integrate the image of activity into the lines of the critical path schedule for the work. By the time I walked on this site I wanted the details and sequence fixed in my mind such that I could communicate to each person who would be responsible direct supervision of an activity what I expected. The primary function of meaningful and productive supervision id education. The curriculum was “How to build a sewage plant in the shortest possible time” and I wanted the entire course study committed to memory.
I found a house across the street east of St. Mary’s Hospital . It wasn’t everything I wanted but it would do until we became more familiar with the city. Frances was with me on the last trip before we moved to get an idea of what the best arrangement of furniture at the house and get a tour of the city.
I made a trip to Fargo to buy a load of concrete construction accessories from a company that was selling out and toured the Holy Rosary Church project on the return. Just talking to a person next to you in this building was enough to tell anybody that there were acoustical problems that would have to be addressed. It was a very expensive echo chamber, a fact that was overlooked when the architect received a national award for the design.