Building Highway 52

About 1933 they started building Highway 52 through Ashby and widening the road on down past where the motel is now. Up till then there had never been a road along the lake there. [32.186-2]

Strom Construction Company from Moorhead brought in a bunch of 1928 to 1933 model 4- and 8-cylinder Ford trucks with about two-yard hydraulic boxes but no cabs or windshields, two Model L Allis Chalmers "cats" with hand-cranked gas motors, a big "mucker" or "elevating grader," a big pull-type blade, and a gas shovel. [32.186-3]

Jobs were scarce and there were many men trying to get the jobs driving those open trucks. I managed to get on with them. The going was rough when we loaded dirt under that big belt. If you hit a chunk of dirt and your engine died, you got the whole pile of dirt in the seat, before the "catskinner" could stop. [32.186-4]

The foreman (everyone called him "Dillinger" behind his back because he was so ornery) delighted in firing anyone who made a wrong move. There were always plenty of men standing around waiting for that so they could get the job. [32.186-5]

They had to use trucks and back out on the grade and dump along Pelican Lake because a lot of it was across water and slough, and "cats" and scrapers hadn't been invented yet.

I had learned enough down in the gravel pit to get by, driving those beat-up trucks, pretty well. Then, one day the cat and mucker had to wait for me to dump and come back past them before they had room to turn around. Dillinger was standing where I dumped and he usually hollered (mad-like), "Get going!"

I was nervous with the whole outfit waiting for me to get out of the way, and the only way there was room to get back was to go under the big mucker conveyor. [32.186-6]

The first thing I knew, the front of the truck was going straight up. I had forgotten to let the box down and it was up against the conveyor. I guess I acted fast and kicked in the clutch and shoved the box-lowering lever at the same time, and we came down -- fast! [32.187-1]

Dillinger was headed my way and he was almost up to the back of the truck, but I got into gear and out of there and drove up to the other end and got in line again.

"I would have fired him," he told the cat skinner, but he got away, so..." [32.187-2]

When it got too frozen for the mucker to work, we hauled dirt from the shovel almost up to Christmas. It could load the frozen stuff okay if it kept a hole open. It would load up on top of one of the humps that stuck out into Pelican Lake along the track and we would climb up there with the trucks and bring the loads down and back out on the grade with them. That was really a cold job.

At noon they would let us drive in to the repair shop, an old barn where the Elevator's storage building is now, and eat our cold sandwiches. The "company personnel" ate in the City Restaurant, but the common help carried ours in what Orville Jacobson always called the "damn' bucket." [32.187-3]

One morning it had snowed and I was the second truck up to the shovel, just starting at the top of a new hump. The first truck polished the snow off the track coming down and the road was greasy. My truck turned sideways and we went down that steep hump that way, in super-low. At the bottom, my duals hit a big chunk that was frozen down and the truck flipped over. I jumped out and was 20 feet away by the time it landed -- upside down on top of the load of dirt. [32.187-4]

Luckily Dillinger was through for the season when the mucker quit. (We never saw him again.) The foreman for the shovel crew happened to be right there and saw the whole thing. They tipped the truck back up with the blade "cat" and the foreman only said, "Get one of the other trucks to tow you in and bring out another truck." The only damage was that the battery fell out and the oil and water drained out. [32.187-5]

The next spring when the company men came back to town I hunted up that same foreman, to see about a job. I didn't know if he would remember me, so I said, "I'm the one that tipped the truck." Hardly a conventional recommendation, but I was one of the first ones back on the job. [32.187-6]

The first year they were there, there were so many unemployed looking for those jobs that we had to go to Elbow Lake and get them assigned to us in the government employment office. They weren't "relief" jobs, but still most of the applicants told a tale of woe to the man there -- like how many kids they had and how much they needed the job, etc.

I didn't say anything, but it happened that Walter Schulz went over soon after I did and the guy over there asked him about me. Walter said I was a good, steady, hard-working kid who didn't waste my money, etc. (all the right things, I guess). I think the reason they only hired their men through that office was to keep all the unemployed from hounding the foremen over on the job. Anyway, my name was on the list when they sent it over from Elbow Lake. [32.188-1]

After the grades were built and the trucks were done with the dirt, all the finishing was done with horses and scrapers and drags, etc. -- even with men with garden rakes. There were a lot of uneven places to fill in and we had a couple of teams on that.

We had an awfully cold spell just before the first of July (unusual) and I was driving a team. I asked the foreman if he cared if I wore my big sheepskin coat. He said, "No, I sure wish I had one here." [32.188-2]

When we drove those open trucks in November and December we really learned how to wear warm clothes. I remember counting Gilford Jacobson's collars -- he had five wool shirts on under his jackets and overcoat, etc.

The wind was the worst when we drove fast on that mile back and forth to town. We never drove slow when the road was smooth enough to drive fast. I had a wool mackinaw with a big collar and I put that on backwards with the collar in front of my face; that worked real good. [32.188-3]

Willie Hoff was driving one of our teams on the finishing along Pelican Lake and he was nervous. He drove the team down the bank too far toward the lake and the horses slid down into the water. It was deep there where the lake had been filled in and the horses all but disappeared. Fortunately, they were good, steady horses and didn't thrash around.

The foreman hurriedly got the big "cat" off the blade and they hooked it onto the harnesses some way and "snaked" the horses out of the lake, damaging the harnesses some. The foreman took the harnesses in to the harness maker and had them repaired better than before and told Willie to wash and rub the horses down until quitting time. I was working a mile or two away and didn't know what was going on until that night. [32.188-4]

They never overhauled any of the trucks, just put in another rebuilt when the motors went. We like the 4-cylinders better than the V-8's for mucker loading, because they weren't so jumpy. One day I told the mechanic my motor (a 4-cylinder) was "knocking" and he said, "Drive it till it goes."

Toward night, all of a sudden one of the connecting rods flew right out on the front wheel. [32.189-1]

The last job I had on the new Highway #52 was hauling rocks for "rip-rapping" along the lake from the gravel pit across from the motel. There were some extra men in the pit loading rocks in our trucks by hand and the "rip-rap" layers were complaining because we were hauling rocks that were too small. We found some big planks and rolled in rocks so big that two or three filled the dump box. We didn't hear any more about bringing bigger rocks. [32.189-2]

The next year (1935) the same construction company was building Highway #55 through Barrett and Hoffman and I got a job there with the same old trucks. My job was hauling gravel from the shovel in the back end of the pit out to the crusher on higher ground. Three of us were ferrying enough gravel that way to keep a big fleet going out onto the new road. My experience observing the truck drivers rocking the trucks out instead of burying themselves in the loose gravel in the big pit in Gust's hills really paid off there. [32.189-3]

They ran two shifts and mine was 4 a.m. until noon. They were the hot days in June and July and I wasn't spending much time in bed. One day, coming home from work about 1 p.m. with the Chevrolet coupe, I felt a bump and "came to" driving in the ditch on the west side of the road just north of the hunting camp. I had gone to sleep and bounced over a big rock. It bent the front axle, but it steered okay anyway; the axle is still bent -- it's out in the north yard with a hay feeder on it. Luckily, I turned to the left when I went to sleep. [32.189-4]

Some of the boys on the crew at Hoffman were too far from home to drive back and forth, so they were living in tents in the woods near the gravel pit and were doing a lot of "spreeing" nights.

One night they hid all of one guy's work clothes and the next morning he drove one of those open dirt trucks into the pit wearing a nice white suit, white socks, white shoes, etc. One of the old Strom owners from Moorhead happened to come around that morning and he looked and blinked and looked some more, but he didn't say anything. [32.189-5]

Things were cheap then. One of Mrs. Knutson's brothers worked on the same job for a while and rode with me. He gave me 25 cents a day for his half of the gas. I don't remember what we got paid, but it was probably 30 to 35 cents an hour, and it was 22 miles to drive from home. [32.190-1]

The Plymouth was new that summer and Marj and I (and others) made some mileage with it. She worked until "all hours" almost every night in the week. The Equity was open every night and Carl Iverson would aim to get the bookkeeping done after the store customers went home. I would get to go in and wait for Marj so she wouldn't have to go home alone at night. She stayed at home, except in the winter.

Eventually she got nerve enough to ask Carl Iverson to get off early, like at 7 or 8 o'clock, and we would take off for somewhere and come home at her usually getting off time. We worked that more and more until we went to California in the fall of 1936. [32.190-2]

Sometimes if I had a "date" along from Fergus or somewhere Marj would have to take me home first so I could get to Hoffman for the 4 a.m. shift and then she took my "date" home. From Battle Lake to Ashby to Fergus and then back to Ashby, for instance, was 60 miles and it would be too late for me to make half of that and get to work on time. [32.190-3]

One night we were in Underwood and it rained and froze glare ice and on the big curve south of Underwood the new Plymouth slid against the guard posts and bounced from one to the other for some distance and damaged both the front and rear fenders. We put it in the shed when we got home and shut the door. The next day (Sunday) nobody went anywhere, even into the car shed, on account of the ice.

We tried to figure out how to explain how we "bunged up" the car while Marj was working in the Equity. She was in the habit of staying in town nights during the winter and still keeping the car there until it snowed.

Monday morning she took her clothes for the week and left early, while Pa and I were milking in the barn, to move into her room at Earl Anderson's. She backed the car out and backed all the way past the house before she turned so Ma, if she looked out the kitchen window, wouldn't see the side that was dented up. [32.190-4]

Marj took off for Fergus, left the car at Minnesota Motors, and got a young car salesman to bring her back to the Equity. Carl Iverson was just coming to work and he really blinked when that young guy let her out at the Equity door, a little late for work.

They made the car "like new" and we went up and got it one night during the week. She put it in the shed again that Saturday night. Again, nobody went anywhere on Sunday, but the car smelled so strongly of fresh paint that we spent just as restless a weekend as the week before. She took it back to town for another week and by then the paint smell had subsided. Nobody ever knew it had been farther than Ashby (we think!). [32.191-1]

I was lucky enough to be born at the right time to see the conversion of farming from horses to tractors and to see the evolution of road building from all horses to all motorized machinery. [32.232-2]

I watched a good share of this right up here on Highway #78. When we were first on the farm, Highway #78 was only a township dirt road, a crooked path across the fields up on the Lee farm, following the tops of the hills as much as possible in the general direction it goes now. Then it wound its way through the woods up to the Skaar corner and over to the mountain. [32.232-3]

The township gave Pa a dollar a trip to drag it periodically, with an iron drag behind two horses. Big water holes developed in the flat spots in the woods and he would plow the outer edges with a walking plow and fill the dirt into the hole with a team and slush scraper. [32.232-4]

Alfred Evavold had started building roads out in the open country by pulling a big steel-wheeled blade behind a huge old Rumely Oil Pull Tractor on steel wheels. He bought the first Caterpillar I ever saw. It was a Caterpillar 30 and replaced the Oil Pull. Then he bought a Caterpillar 60 and roll-over tumble bugs for each of them. [32.232-5]

We hired Alfred Evavold's first Cat and scraper to ditch out sloughs like the one by Ask Lake, etc. and then we had them back several times to expand the barnyard up at the "old" (Knutson) place. There was not a level spot in it before that. [32.233-8]

Alfred Evavold got the job of building the first new Highway #78 where it is now on the south end, and then up to the Skaar corner. The barn on the corner place was moved up on the hill by the house and the two Evavold Cats worked for weeks, bringing dirt from the hill on the east and building up the first grade above our cranberry marsh. [32.232-6]

The Cats ran on gasoline and carried about four yards of dirt between them. The Cats were low-geared and you couldn't see from one day to the next what they had done. [32.232-7]

I got "Cat fever" every time I saw one and just itched for the chance to drive one, just like I had itched to drive a steam engine every time I saw a threshing rig go by. I would have worked for nothing for the chance to run one. [32.233-1]

By that time, new machinery was being developed quite fast. A different contractor had the job along the mountain and Lake Christina. They had a couple of Cats; one pulled a blade and the other an elevating grader (or mucker) that loaded dump wagons pulled by horses and mules.

The dirt was cut like a furrow with a big disc and elevated on a wide belt over the wagons. [32.233-2]

The original road ran up over the top of the low part of the mountain, where the gravel pit has taken it away now. While they were working on the ledge down by the lake the sand slid and covered the blade, but luckily didn't cover the Cat and Cat skinner. They had quite a time shoveling it out. [32.233-3]

Those first bigger road outfits were all self-contained, with a portable or knock-down horse barn and big wooden bunkhouses on steel wheels for the crews to sleep in. They also had a cook car to cook and feed the men in and a small bunkhouse for the lady cooks to sleep in. [32.233-4]

Quite often the cook would be the middle-aged wife of one of the crew and a hired girl would help her. The hired girl didn't necessarily have to be good looking to attract the attention of the young mule skinners and teamsters who had the boring job of riding a rough-riding dump wagon back and forth over rocks and dirt chunks all day. [32.233-5]

The working days were at least 10 hours and six days a week. The rate per hour for Cat and driver was $6 at first. [32.233-6]

The first improvement was small Cats pulling bigger dump wagons and the horses were slowly phased out. Soon after that the LeTourneau scraper was invented and that was pulled behind a Cat. The first ones only hauled from six yards and up. Diesel-powered Cats were in by then and got bigger and bigger. [32.233-7]

Rubber-tired equipment soon followed and made the high-speed Turnapulls possible. [32.233-9]

When Highway #78 was rebuilt in the fifties, it was built with Cats, bulldozers and LeTourneau scrapers. That was when the Skaar corner was abandoned and the highway was routed down across Sam Lee's farm at an angle to the mountain. [32.234-1]

The highway was laid out to follow the lakeshore from the mountain right past the hunting camp buildings that were then owned by Old Man Trow, who owned the Queen Oil Burner Company at Albert Lea. He had money enough to persuade the state to re-route it, back away from the lake, so he would be able to fence and control a strip of land between the road and the lake. Nobody knew how he did it, but the state came and surveyed and rerouted the road right while the contractor was working on this end of it. [32.234-2]