April 1992

 
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Harpending's Corners

by

Edwin N. Harris

Chapter Index

"The Ridge"

In the early 1920s the Farrell Construction Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, was engaged by George Eastman to construct buildings for Kodak Park. Within a few years it was acquired and made a subsidiary that was renamed "The Ridge Construction Company." For years "the Ridge" operated pretty much independently under the leadership of Stacy Campbell, who I believe was the only Ridge man on Kodak's payroll. In 1946 when I arrived on the scene the Ridge had over 1200 employees, many of whom had migrated from Tennessee after working on Kodak's Kingsport installation. From there came such names as Carl Smith, Emmett Lang, Clarence Perrin, John Crumley, Walter Stone, their relatives, and others beyond my recall. They called themselves "Ridge Runners." I found their happy-go-lucky ways and soft colorful speech hilarious and enjoyed being around them for the next ten years.

The Ridge's connection with Finewood started slowly in the depression stricken 1930s when their orders for dump trucks were often for only a few hours at a time, or perhaps for a project that lasted for a week or two. Such work was not very profitable, and it did not improve significanly when World War II regulations limited materials for private construction.

The war effort did provide financial relief for Finewood in the form of a joint venture with B. R. DeWitt that furnished trucks for construction at Sampson Naval Base, and the Romulus Ammunition Depot. Here both L. B. and Byron DeWitt profited enough to form a good financial base for their future growth.

After the war, the Ridge, now booming with new buildings at Kodak Park, rewarded Finewood's loyalty through the lean old days with generous work allotments, so well, that to this day people ask, "Did Ridge own Finewood or did Finewood own the Ridge?" Such a display of loyalty in business in the 1990s is rare indeed.

Some of Finewood's old timers told me of the 1930s when they hung around the garage until after noon on their own time, waiting for a possible chance to work. Sometimes they were sustained by a gallon of hard cider L. B. had furnished in an effort to keep them in sight, in case of a customer call for truck service. They also told of waiting for part of their pay for months ("How much do you need to get by with this week?" L. B. would ask), and of moving trucks in the dark of night to avoid creditor's attachments. Driver, little Robert "Pint" Male told of buying repair parts for the truck he drove, out of his own pockets in order to go to work. Small wonder that I would find it difficult to discipline the three or four old timers that were still there when I became their boss. They acquired bad habits from L. B. years ago when he was driving a truck along with them, such as, parking their loaded trucks at Gussie White's bar on Scottsville Road on the last trip of the day from the Scottsville or Avon gravel plants. Here with L. B. they would make out their time cards, then enjoy a happy hour or two. When I came on the job I was concerned for the public's safety, and even more so for the bad tricks the old timers were teaching our newer and younger men.

I took the matter up with them, explaining that the good old days were no more and that henceforth new rules would apply. Pint Male very explicitly told me where I could stuff my new rules, and promptly headed for L. B.'s office at the front end of our garage for the purpose of giving "that lard-ass bastard" the same instructions. L. B., who was probably listening on his intercom, beat it out the front door, and took off in his Cadillac with Pint yelling maledictions at the departing vehicle.

When I took the matter up with L. B., he became very uneasy and snapped, "Damn it Ed—that's partly what I hired you for—you'll have to figure it out," then walked away with an over-the-shoulder, "But you can't fire him." So I promoted Pint, gave him a raise, and made him parts chaser for the repair shop where he would be away from the drivers. L. B. said nothing about my change, apparently not too displeased.

When I hired on L. B. spent little time explaining my responsibilities. On my first morning he led me into the drivers' "day room" where the men were awaiting assignments for the day and declared, "Boys this is your new boss, and if you want to keep your jobs you better do what he says." End of introduction.

In his office he advised me to not have more than one "Eyetalian" on the payroll at one time, and that Tony Montulli was the one for now. "When you get mor'n that together they can start trouble." I promptly disregarded that directive, wisely it turned out, as men became very scarce and we could not afford to be too choosy. I heard no more about it from L. B.

He had been handling most of my work before I came, and turned it over to me in what seemed to me a confused state. Of course he could operate with a few notes from the backs of used envelopes, a trait common enough to the entrepreneurs of that time, but impossible for me to follow. I consider myself an organized man, thus my first task was to bring some order to the operation. L. B. had assured me he would work with me for a time but he found my methods difficult and soon defected in favor of other pursuits: The farm on Long Pond Road, the summer home on Lake Ontario, and the new high-speed Century power boat that was sometimes used for business entertainment. In fairness, he spent many hours in the interest of the business. He was good at public relation (a great party man), and generated the business contacts we needed. While he did this I had the freedom to manage and enjoyed the cherished independence for which I was willing to work flat out for unreasonable hours to keep the operation flowing "my way."

Still a compulsive worker, I neglected my family much of the time, reasoning that if I could manage this job, they should be able to handle the rest. Grandma Dillistin would approve—had I asked her.

Again it was on-the-job training. The operation included some forty dump trucks, a total of a dozen or so power shovels, cranes, bulldozers, air compressors and miscellaneous other equipment, with over half of them working for the Ridge in Kodak Park on a per-hour rental basis. The post war expansion strained our ability to grow fast enough to keep apace.

The management structure was as lean as a "Skunk Works" venture. The office staff consisted of one dedicated spinster lady, Iris Woodams, so overloaded with just the essentials that she could provide no meaningful cost numbers, even with her working nights and week-ends. The service and repair shop manager, Al Stocum, worked overtime almost continuously alongside two assistants. I, with the nebulous title of Dispatcher/Foreman, dispatched the trucks, managed the heavy equipment (which seemed to include carrying fuel to it) serviced the customers, other than Kodak and Ridge Construction. It also fell on me to estimate and prepare bids for new work.

Recently, L. B. had purchased a half interest in Valley Sand & Gravel, Inc., a major supplier of concrete aggregates to the area. "Valley" had two aggregate processing plants located in Livingston County, one near the Village of Avon, the other three miles south of Scottsville. Finewood trucks hauled a large part of the output. By 1948, the Finewoods had bought the balance of Valley's stock, with one-third of the shares allocated to their oldest son, Robert.

It was not long before the two Valley Superintendents began calling on me (encouraged by L. B.) for occasional support, as if I needed more to do. It was in the dead of winter, however, when a call from Ed McGuire, superintendent of the Scottsville plant, led to my first and only experience with marine salvage and "Hard Hat" divers.

© 1992, Edwin N. Harris
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