1985 / 1992
Homecoming was April 15, 1985 when with one car driven and one towed behind a rented moving van that we moved into the unfinished house on Lake Eunice. Just being here made a difference. WE-FEST had started their annual concerts and Frances and Toni actually worked out there for a couple of years. They loved the entertainment and music, but I was content to stay at the lake.
The first work done on the house was to replace the electric boiler with a propane unit. The original boiler installation was done at the time of the OPEC oil embargo when propane dealers would not take any additional customers. Consequentially, Dad had the 100 Amp electrical service removed and installed a 200 Amp service along with an electric boiler Not only did it not work well in heating the house, it cost a fortune to operate. $300.00 per month during the cold months was common and then the house was not warm. Melted fuses were common.
We not only replaced the boiler I also installed a Jotul wood burning stove using the fireplace flue. At the time wood costs were in the neighborhood of $10.00 to $15.00 per cord and the unit kept the house comfortable throughout the winter. An indoor wood stove, however results in a dirty house no matter how careful you are with the firing and ash removal.
At work I started bidding relatively small school structures following the owners cautions to use conservative numbers. We got close but no cigars. There was a good school project that Hammers Construction beat us on only because he had the benefit of a sheetrock bid that had a $10,000.00 error. On the development side of the coin there was the remodel of the Case Tractor Co. building in Moorehead into an office and apartment building, the beginning if the RV park and golf course on highway 10 West and the remodel of the oldDetroitLakesfirehouse and adjacent building into a single office building. All of these were with investment money raised by Craig Anderson who set up a Limited Liability Corporation for each project.
Another potential project came our way from aFargoNDdeveloper for the conversion of the upper floors of the Gardner Hotel in downtownFargointo one and two bedroom efficiency apartments with a different Fargo Architect. He had told the developer that the project was not feasible and it was about to be abandoned when the Developer showed up at our office.
The stumbling block was a Building Code Study that would show the building in compliance with current Fargo building code, the standard Uniform Building Code (UBC) I had passed the Minnesota Test and been certified as a Building Inspector the previous winter and did my own study which indicate that if the one bedroom units were limited to single person occupancy the building would be in compliance with UBC standards. I completed the study related to other requirements, had it typed and made an appointment with a fellow by the name of Berquist, the Fargo Building Inspector.
With introductions out of the way and his observation that they had never had a contractor show up with a Code Study he began to read what I proposed , page by page as I sat silently on the opposite side of the desk.. Finishing this preliminary review he looked up, smiled and told me that I had covered all the bases, then got up front and personal , explaining that he was due for retirement in less than a year and he wanted me to take the Study to the Fargo Fire Chief as insurance that nothing was going to come back to bite him. This was no problem for me, other than another trip back toFargothe middle of the week to accommodate the Fire Chief’s schedule. He kept the study for review, but had it approved by the following Monday, subject only to the addition the addition of fire alarm pull stations in certain locations.
I returned toFargoand hand carried the study back to Berquist who added his approval in letter form and took it back toDetroitLakes. Our people had already been in contact with the architect they had worked with on previous projects and the Gardner Hotel project plans needed for bidding of sub bids was underway. As it turned out the major one was painting and redecorating. The key to this was a product to seal the existing surfaces such that the new finish could be applied without major demolition of the existing walls.
All seemed to be going well with all the sub contractors and supplies under contract except for the cabinetry. Of the people I was working for had decided to build the cabinets in his own shop inFrazeeMN. The cabinets were more on the order orange crates than wall cabinets and I said so. So did one of the major investors and the whole project began to come apart.
With One two bedroom apartment finished the Architect had the bright idea that the whole building could be approved for occupancy by the Building Inspector on the basis that all the other units would be just like it. This would have the net effect of allowing the Architect to release the investment funds to the Contractor for a completed building. There seemed to be two things at work here. Some body was sniffing something funny that emitted a foul odor.. I took the request to The Fargo Building inspector but told him that this came from the Architect, not me. His response was that it was not going to approved no matter where it cape from. The building would be certified when complete.
Things completely unraveled. The major investors began to take the developer, architect, and the contractor to task, the two partners in the contracting company had knock down, drag out fisticuffs on the walk in front of the office and I went home but only after having my office key photo copied and signed as received by the secretary. I had learned that there were all manner of strange people creeping around Detroit Lakes MN.
The Developer for the Case building called and asked if I would take a look at the Case building and tell him if I thought it was complete, which I did, putting my findings in a report which was delivered to his office with no comment. It identified the items not yet complete and indicated payments in the amount of the total contract value, but most interesting was the implied relationship between the architect and contractor.
Then it was off toDetroitMIwhere the Super 8 corporation had purchased a property which needed utilities an a stabilized surface before a Motel and parking lot could be constructed. Site work sub contractor was a company whose employees and owner were Sicilians. The person responsible for supervising the work came each day in a bright red Corvette convertible and very well dressed. This did not detract in any way from the way their people went about their work. It always got done promptly and with a resulting quality finished product.
My only problem was that they worked where they pleased without regard to other activities on the property which led to no little confusion and words which seemed to go in one ear and out the other. Still, Frances and I were invited to a week end gathering which, I thought, would be the construction people that I worked with. This turned out to be untrue as it turned out to be a nearly a park full of the local Sicilian community. There was no way thatFrancesand I could meet each of those present but we did our best, finding that many were still not fluent in English. It was a very pleasant day for a couple of strangers.
As we said our good boys and started across the park to the car there was off to our right an elderly lady, dressed in black and setting slightly apart from the rest of the nearby group of ladies. The arrangement was such that I guessed that this was a person of deference to those about the park and asking Frances to wait for a moment Walking to where she was sitting she extended her hand, palm down which I took, kissed very lightly and thanked her and her family for a gracious afternoon. Returning to Frances who gave me a “what are you doing” look we took our leave.
The following Monday the atmosphere with my Corvette foreman was entirely changed and I had a friend who went out of his way to accommodate my instructions.
The masonry foundation for the building had been sub let to a colored block layer who was both competent and conscientious. The only other person with him was his wife who was his brick tender. Just under six feet, dressed in denim cut offs , abbreviated blouse and tennis shoes it was obvious she was solid as a rock. With a knotted pony tail she was on that very fine boundary between very lovely and beautiful. Ten hours a day, day in and day out she mixed mortar and carried 12” concrete in order that her husband had no wasted time, all the while with a baby in a carrying arrangement on her back.
Stopping me mid afternoon on a Friday the block layer asked if I could be at the job on Sunday to shoot grades for him in order that he would have no lost time. There was no doubt that I would but with a straight face I responded that I didn’t usually work on Sunday. His immediate response was “I don’t either boss but right now my ox is in the ditch.”
CertainlyDetroitwas for me an insight in two cultures. The Sicilians, usually associated with the underworld, just working class human beings but with pride in their culture and background extending the same kindness that we had found in many another community and a black family who might have been able to be equally proud but for the grinding indignities of slavery.
We had come to Lake Eunice near the end of Toni’s Sophomore year in school and finding that we were in the Audubon School District enrolled her for the balance of the year and again in the Fall. The Junior year was little more than a waste of time. Nearly all of what the Audubon school had to offer was already behind her thus the year was wasted working in the office and making a wooden box for the wasted time class.
She could have been in College atMoorheadif it were not for theAudubonpolicyStateFunding first and education when convenient. Not only did the administrative incompetent waste her entire Junior year but did his best to keep her doing nothing during her Senior year in order that the district would not lose the state funding for one student.Franceswon the argument and Toni went to college for her Senior year.
Upon our return there was a call first from the developer of the Case building and then Bob Irvine a local attorney. There had been a suit filed over incomplete work in the building and my report had become a central issue. On my first visit to Irvine’s office he pointed to the report on one end of the conference table and said he had asked everybody that came to his office to read it but apparently nobody thought it important enough to bother with. He asked if I was willing to testify that the building was incomplete and he got my stock response. I would testify to what was in the report.
The trial had been moved to Perham and I rode down each morning withIrvineand another attorney from their office. It was a fairly straightforward affair which was settled before it went to the jury. The same developer asked me to come out to the Golf Course on highway # 10 west. The same trio had started this development but the developers father in law seemed to have an ongoing presence at this site along with a couple of partners and a sales crew fromBemidji.
This development at the time I arrived consisted of an 18 hole golf course, a club house, a well house and 35 developed lots out of some 250 proposed. Periodically there would be an open house sales affair for invited and walk in prospects for the sale of RV lots and club memberships. Within ten days of my coming there was a trip toMinneapoliswith the Developer and his Father in law to meet with an attorney at Dorsey Whitney. While I was introduced to Attorney, who struck me as being a very sharp lady, my presence was as a silent listener.
The father in law seemed to be driving the discussions and as the meeting went on I could not help but get the feeling that he was a major investor. Back at the golf course there were more local individuals that were obvious investors, two of which were farmers fromLakePark. It was the developers attitude toward these people that started raising questions in my mind together the sales crowd.
But the awakening came in a conversation with the Dorsey Whitney attorney. In the course of the conversation she kept making references to the “completed Development” and it finally became clear to me, at least , that we were not on the same page and I stopped her to explain that the development was not near finished, going on to enumerate exactly what was complete. At this point there was complete silence on the other end of the line leading up to “I’ll have to call you back” I don’t know what she was going to do but I began looking at the sales operation who would periodically, in a humorously make reference to “tombstone Contracts.”
Two of the other people that I felt had money in this venture were the principals in the Larson Peterson Engineering firm that I had become acquainted with in bidding work. They filled me in on a limited liability partnership development onLongLake. It was more than obvious that the younger of these two was convinced that they had been bilked out of a sizeable investment in more than one of these local investments. Then the developer was arrested on an unrelated charge and jailed. Like most any small town theDetroit Lakescommunity who had yesterday thought him to be a great guy now joined the crowd in condemnation. He was still a person and I still didn’t know all that was going on and I took time to visit with him in Jail. It was rather pathetic. It was the first time he had been arrested and he hadn’t come to grips with all the implications, complaining that they wouldn’t even give him a computer to work with so there was nothing he could do but sit idle. All in all, his naive attitude was a bit amusing. As I recall he was released in less than a week and returned to the golf course site office. I had talked to an attorney who suggested the involuntary bankruptcy route for the investors to recover their investments and explained what I had learned to the pair at Larson Peterson including the legal costs that would be involved.
They agreed that something should be done and to make the third plaintiff I used my unpaid services billings which turned out to be next to nothing compared to the investors. But before proceeding I called the developer and ask him to have coffee with me the following morning at the Audubon Truck Stop where I explained what was going to happen. He asked why I would want to go ahead with something like this. At this point in time it was hard to believe that he could ask such a question but I explained that he appeared to be selling nothing but blue sky with lots that didn’t exist and memberships in a non existent Club. He smiled and allowed as how I was right and we parted.
By this time I had pieced together the mechanics of the financing arrangements for the golf course/RV development. They had a commitment from a firm inGlastonbury CTto fund 75% of the face value of each sale as evidenced by a recorded contract with the payment balance being paid by the buyer directly to the CT financing firm.
Following the bankruptcy filing I spent two days in the recorders office researching each of the recorded contracts involving the # 10 west development and found that a “Tombstone Contract” was one in the name of a person who was non existent or deceased. The developer, in this case had been in the accounting business locally and had a wide acquaintance with many affluent people. Together with the sales group they had affixed forged fictitious the names to the contracts, had them recorded, forwarded to the CT company and kept past payments current with money from current sales. This is commonly referred to as a Ponzi Scheme, a federal offense when involving FDIC funds or crossing state lines.
At the end of the second day at the recorders office I walked directly to the Firs National Bank, known to have a considerable amount of money in this development via the father in law who was one of their directors, was admitted to a VP’s office and told him that I had found every recorded contract to be a “tombstone contract” to which he replied simply “we know that” I had a very difficult time with his nonchalant demeanor, but went no further with the conversation.
The end of this story for me was an interview with an FBI agent from theBemidjioffice in our living room, over coffee and cookies, filling him in on the details and personalities of this scheme. The last information I had on the developer was that he was selling ice and bottled water inPhoenixAZThe gang of creditors for the development, excluding myself followed the involuntary bankruptcy route with the father in law and the First National Bank ofDetroitLakesis no more. Many of the people associated with this operation are still local and I meet them here and there. I saw the father in laws obituary during the winter of 2010-11
Life was interrupted by the passing ofFrances’ mother and we were off toDes Moinesfor the funeral. She was the last in her family A sister and three brothers had gone before all from heart attacks. Emma was 75 and the end wasn’t easy . It was one heart attack after another until the hospital staff couldn’t do anything further. We were at her house the day after the funeral and I came into the dining room from somewhere to find the four girls dividing the personal and household items by rolling dice.
This sad story was no more behind me than there was a call from Milt Willman from the Young Construction days who was now with Twin City Construction, ofFargo, but in theirMinneapolisoffice. He had led them into the civil sanitary construction business and had been successful on two WI projects atMiltonandLakeMills. He indicated that the total of the two projects would exceed $6 million and wanted me to supervise the construction. With this preliminary information I drove toMinneapolisto meet him and go into more detail.
As it turned out Twin City had nothing in Wisconsin and nothing in MN or ND to send to WI and thus the first thing that would have to be done was find and purchase the equipment necessary to mobilize the projects. This was an important factor as under the scheme of things as Willman had led Twin City into this heavy construction endeavor the sale of the equipment at the completion of the work was to be a sizeable part of the profit. Unique, but this apparently had been worked out to the satisfaction of the Twin City people so I came to an agreement for my services and we got on with what needed to be done the first of which was to go to Fargo to get a company pick up.
In my arrangement there was an amount separate from salary for living expenses. Frances and I agreed that would go for the purchase of an RV, for living quarters to be brought home for personal use at the end of the work in WI. What we needed was found at Wolds inDetroitLakesand we were ready to leave for WI. Since the plant atMiltonwas to be first we took the RV there. Finding no RV park the trailer was parked on a property adjacent to the wastewater plant where we connected to a city power and water outlet. Wastewater went to the plant in a caddy.. This done we started scouring southeast WI for the equipment needed. First was a 35 ton mobile crane forMiltonto be a second crane forLakeMillswhen no longer needed inMilton. Then a 65 ton track mount crane forLakeMillsalong with a 2 yard end loader dozer.
Several pieces of smaller miscellaneous equipment were located and I was able to get a foreman, from the days at Young forMiltonfromIowaand with him on boardMiltonwas underway. This was fairly straightforward with the out of the way access to the site the only real problem and the concrete work was complete before Fall and we moved the RV to Lake Mills to get the excavation underway.Miltonwas turned over to the foreman and required only part of a day per week for me.
There was an RV park about two blocks from the project and getting the RV settled and ready for winter was no problem and site work was underway almost immediately with two turn pulls helped along by the dozer when the underfoot became slippery. A large volume of earth had to be removed and stockpiled to get the concrete underway and the only real problem was a power pole and overhead line to the existing plant that we had to work around.
There was miscellaneous concrete work underway through the winter with work on the major basin structure not started until early spring, By then the two clarifiers were ready for the installation of the process equipment and work was started on the aeration basin which was all crane handled concrete formwork which I stayed with myself. These form panels were 40’ long and 25’ high and getting them moved efficiently and safely was important to the progress of the concrete work, I signaled the crane movement of these panel from the top scaffold and was carried along with the form. The operator of the 65 to crane was a young lady about 35 years old who flew me along and set me down ever so gently time after time.
During this period there was a phone call with Willman in which it was suggested that the two of us might “take over“ theTwinCitycompany. I didn‘t give him the time of day Willman was a very gifted numbers man, but was down right dumb when it came to dealing with people. He had his own company after the BEB project but that apparently didn‘t work out completing, as far as I know only one project.
Twin City‘s founder had passed away just a short time previous and Frances and I had sent a bouquet which was noted with a bit of surprise by the people in Minneapolis. A nephew was in charge of theFargooperations. He was an electrical engineer by training, not the sharpest tack in the box, but was who the family had chosen. Willman had some screwball ideas but coveting somebody else’s company , to me, was a bit far out, even for him.
It was becoming evident, so I thought, that I needed a new pair of glasses and I went to a one hour retailer on a Saturday to get my eyes checked and pick up new glasses and was told almost immediately that I should see a specialist who told me I had a cataract that should be removed immediately. There wasn’t much room to argue as I was at the point where if I closed my right eye a truck halfway down the block would disappear. I thought this should be done at home and even drove back toFargoto see a specialist there. A tentative appointment was set up but it was not until the return trip to WI that the amount of travel involved in returning toFargowould entail. There would be the trip for the surgery and two return trips in a three week period for follow up exams.
Thus I picked a name out of a phone book in Lake Mills who gave me an examination, scheduled the surgery and told me to get a physical exam in the interim. A 300 cubic yard concrete our was scheduled for the same day as the surgery so I was there to see it get started and the a 20 mile drive to the hospital for surgery, then breakfast at the hospital cafeteria and back to the project where the concrete pour was winding up, checked my fax and home to rest. Then back to the doctors office for next day follow up. Two weeks later I had my new glasses and could see with both eyes.
Toni wanted to get married and was anxious for Frances and I to come home. As I recall she wanted a summer ceremony but I prevailed on her to delay it till November. When I could get away without leaving something important up in the air.
On the trip home funny things began to happen. Without warning of any kind I could feel my pulse begin to accelerate and I began to time the rate with a watch in one hand and the other on the arteries in my neck finding rates ranging between 125 and 140 beats per minute. Nothing was done till after the wedding and everybody was gone when an appointment was scheduled at Dakota Clinic. I told he doctor what the symptoms were noting that I thought something had gone wrong with my heart. Without putting a stethoscope to my chest or a blood pressure cuff on my arm he said ”I think I see some depression here” and gave me a prescription of something. I thought he had lost his mind and am still inclined to that conclusion. The prescription was flushed down the toilet.
We returned to WI but it was more than apparent that something had gone wrong and the closer we got the less I wanted to be there. My strength was gone and for the first time I gave in. The major thing at Lake Mills was the Influent structure which could be completed without me and I called Willman to tell him I was going home. He was fit to be tied but there was no way that I contribute anything . I needed a rest and maybe more and that was that. We went home first, bought a car from Kevin, Returned Twin City’s vehicle to Fargo and then on to Joplin MO to visit stay with Frances’ father for the better part of a month. I took a two mile walk each morning and rested spending time with Frances sisters, Darlene and Lillie who also lived in Joplin. I wasn’t only a chance for me to rest Frances was able to get reacquainted with her family.
Bruender Construction Co, of Eagle LakeMN contacted me to inquire if I would do some sewer and water line estimating for them and we had the RV moved there by Wold’s in the spring. In addition to the estimating there were two or three jobs, supposedly complete, this had “punch list” inspection sheets which were very lengthy. We were successful on one project at theMankatostate campus and while that award was pending I was with a field crew working on incomplete items on a previous project when a radio transmission came from Mr. Breunder to one of the crew regarding black topsoil that was to be spread over the site.
The specification requirements were for 4” to be spread over the entire planting area and the field man had called to confirm if that was what he should do. The radio reply was that “¼” would be enough to turn the ground black”. Immediately it dawned on me that the long list of deficiencies were all deliberate short cuts and my reaction was immediate. I drove to the office, picked up my brief case left the keys to their vehicle on the desk, went to my car and drove to the RV, picked up Frances and we came home. While it wasn’t apparent right at the moment my life in the construction industry was at an end.