September 1991

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Working for Fred Hines

Fred's work interested me, and he noticing that, began to send me into the field to learn skills of line and grade, excavating techniques, pipe laying, and the like. I became conversant with such terms as elevation, bench mark, cross-section, radius and plan reading.

In good weather Fred's work week could be seven days at eight to twelve hour days. This allowed me to work a few hours in the field after I closed the office. Here I drove dump trucks, operated shovels, bulldozers, rollers, or just plain labored, depending where we were short handed.

After some haggling Fred agreed to pay me seventy-five cents an hour for such extra work, and I was eager to learn from such skilled mechanics as the Jacobsen brothers, Christian and Theodore. I recall operating a ten-ton roller one Thanksgiving morning, and that it caused some discomfort for Esther who was entertaining my parents who were visiting from Dundee for the day. Dad had to come to the jobsite to see me at all in the morning, but I did finish around noon.

Fred, our dictatorial leader, was harsh, loud, vulgar, and he ruthlessly took advantage of any weakness of others. I often heard him answer workmen's protests by declaring, "If you don't like it here—there's three more men waiting at the gate to take your place." To get a workman's attention he would let out a roaring "Ho-boy!" and all within hearing looked to see who he wanted. Union leaders could be driven from the jobsite by his grizzly-like physical threats, ironic considering that Fred had been a charter member of the Hoisting & Portable Engineers, Local 832, originally formed to combat harsh and unfair labor practices by employers. Once more the formerly persecuted became the persecutor.

As my personal feelings toward Fred developed into love/hate, I learned that if I was confident that I was right, I could face him down with just quiet words. He loved the way I transcribed his coarse dictation, the sixth-grade grammar all cleaned up, and his threats and curses softened. "I write a pretty good letter at that, don't I Ed?" I'm sure he believed it too.

"Yes Fred, you do quite well."

When he overstepped his bounds with his crew, he seemed to be content to let me act as mediator to recover some really good men that had quit in despair when he refused to pay them their rightful wages, or for other torments. Fred's stubbornness left him little room for conciliation or concessions, but he honored those made by me. Fred saw himself as a good employer who used appropriate business approaches. To me he confided:

"These birds have it soft compared to what I had working on the Barge Canal." And he followed by describing the dangerous and mutilating conditions on that project, where he had worked his way up to steam crane operator, a height that made him one of the elite, entitled to wear that trade's badge, the derby hat.

Fred's first venture into business had been with a fast-talking partner named McCabe who absconded with the cash and left Fred responsible for a promissory note he had cosigned with his partner, and a stack of bills payable. Fred, now broke, got banks and other creditors to stick with him. After much strain, they were paid in full, a wise action that assured a good line of credit for Fred's future in business. The creditors appreciated Fred's not entering bankruptcy.

By volunteering, I involved myself in estimating for new work, and prepared bids for at first small, then larger projects. Fred was pleased when we won a contract award with a bid very close to the second contender. Fred made money, raised my salary to thirty-five dollars a week, and Esther and I moved into a house at 220 West Elm Street, East Rochester, that Fred had acquired and moved when he excavated for a new East Rochester Post Office. Fred's rental fee was modest enough for that house.

It was during this period that I played a small part in the career beginnings of Henry J. Kearse, an earth moving contractor that we often employed, and Arthur V. Towner, a young bulldozer operator from Avoca, New York, who I put on the payroll early one spring. Towner, broke, had no place to stay when he first came to town, and I gave him a place in Hines's equipment repair shop back of the office, until he could find a room. Art, always the quick mover in any situation, lost little time in becoming the dear friend of Minerva, his landlady, who he later married.

Both Kearse and Towner were to become millionaire contractors operating state wide. Over time both invited me to join them. In 1947, while I was at Finewood's, Towner offered me a half share of A. V. Towner, Inc. if I would co-sign notes for equipment he meant to purchase. During the booming post-war years many such new enterprises were brought to life in just this manner, and a fair number prospered. Of course it was not easy to perceive, and, under the arrangement we discussed, there would be no specific date for pay-day until cash flow permitted it. Esther and I had two young children who could be put at risk, and I passed.

Hank Kearse first asked me to come with him in 1946, and again in 1966. The 1966 offer implied that if we got on well, I would prepare to take over management to allow Henry to retire.

By this time I had little trust in implied arrangements, was happy enough with W. R. Grace & Co., and did not respond to his beckoning. The man who took Hank's offer eventually owned the business after Hank's death. I have no regrets over opportunities missed, for I prefer to follow my own dreams, modest though they may be.

The job with Fred Hines, in the late depression days when jobs were still scarce, I view as good luck. It was a place where I gained early and wide knowledge, and the hardening I would need down the road.

© 1991, Edwin N. Harris
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