Saturday, March 19, 2011

My Apprenticeship in the Stone Business

As a kid I suspect most children of the 40s and 50s generation were given household chores by their mother ranging from doing the dishes to hoeing weeds in the garden, or farm chores if you lived on a farm. I remember the first outside the family job, my brother Tom and I were hired by a man named Krebs to dig a foundation for a building at his lake side cottage.
I don’t remember getting much out of this other then income toward buying a Columbia deluxe bicycle from Sears & Roebuck which arrived by train, in a crate, at at great northern depot in town.
At 14 “Woosht” (Marlin Worstfield) asked me to clean the bowling pins in the six-lane bowling alley in the basement of St Boniface High School. I those days bowling pins were painted wood, which got quite beat up each season. Cleaning was done with steel wool and lacquer thinner. The vapors in the unvented back alley basement room were horrendous. Good thing as pending freshmen I had not started smoking yet. My friend Spitz told me 55 years latter that I came out of there in a daze, something, only he would remember.
Only lesson here gave me some insight on the nature of home town advantage in competition. In the 50s Bowling tournaments with prize money has held at all local bowling alleys in the early spring as the season was winding down. My dad won one year, seemed like big money, this was how the competition was rigged. Old beat up dried out pins like I cleaned were set out the weekend local bowlers played, new heavy plastic coated pins with good bottoms were set out the weekend neighboring town contestants bowled. A early lesson in competition, of course everyone knew.
Going into the freshman year at St Boniface High School I got my first big work opportunity, which when I think about it, eliminated all extra curricular activities of high school, like sports, or theater, or band etc. For the next 4 years. I had a job, which came first. At 3:30 right after school I went to the basement, I must have had a key to the bowling alley. In those days, bowling was communal drinking and smoking activity among friends, for both men and women. It helped get you through harsh Minnesota winter nights. Women didn’t need group therapy sessions to deal with there situation, they had women's league bowling nights, and men could compete twice a week. But it created a awful mess, the place reeked of spilled beer and dirty bathrooms, just as any tavern must be every morning. After every school day then I started out by picking up beer bottles and putting them in empty’s cases, then I filled the cooler behind the bar with pop and beer. Next I wiped down the all the spectator and bowler seats with damp cloth. Then I sweep ed the place out, and mopped the floors. And cleaned the bathrooms. Next, the alley maintenance. The runways were cleaned of all dust, sometimes steel wool to remove any marks, with a special large mop, just for this purpose. After everything else was clean, a special continuous roller cloth the with of the alley was pushed up and down the alley. Then in stocking feet of course a hand pump spray of just the right amount of oil was applied, and moped in with same roller device. . This left a sparkling clean alley, which you could kind of smell as you first entered the bowling alley at 7 pm for the first shift at 7:15.
I then went home 2 blocks and ate supper, which in our house was always remnants of dinner mother served at noon in our German tradition. My brother Tom and I washed dishes and usually fought over who was to do what and I headed back to the bowling alley to spot pins, 7;15 to 9;30. I never spotted pins second shift 9:30 to 11:30, many guys did. We hated certain bowlers who threw the fast bowling ball since 3 pound wooden pins could hurt when they hit you. I could pick up 4 pins at a time big guys could handle 6 at at time, Most bowling balls were between 14 and16 pounds, which you handled around 100 times per single shift.
Not that it matters, but we got 7 cents a line per bowler, five bowlers three games, thirty-five times seven cents, paid one dollar and seventy five cents per two hour shift, for a single lane. Some guys could easily do two lanes at a time. I never did. Two lanes would pay two dollars and fifty cents per two hour shift. That would have been fifty cents a hour above then minimum wage at one dollar per hour. Two cents per line was held by Woosht to be given to pin spotters in the spring, at the end of bowling season, as a bonus if you did not quit Some guys would run up a charge account for cigarettes and candy and pop in case they got fired or quit to beat the two cent bonus rule. Sort of a company store plan back then. I loved it, bought my first car and insurance as junior in high school. '47 Plymouth with suicide doors in the rear. Like any dumb teenager I ruined it trying to be trendy.
More then any other memory of the bowling alley is the memory of walking home from from the bowling alley and seeing rabbits in the garden, on bright moon lit snow and the stillness of the night before snowmobiles, maybe the sound of crunching ice snow under the wheels of a car driving home somewhere. Snow seems to be a great peaceful dampener of sound which sticks in my memory.
I left high school with a felling of failure. I passed geometry and physics quite well but failed chemistry and algebra, was a poor speller but a good reader. Seems to me to be a strange combination but I was glad it was over with. Father Vernon the vice principle agreed, and told me I would not amount to much as I left.
I grew up in a central Minnesota town population of 2500 which was the home of the largest stone fabrication company in the world. This may seem strange to many readers. Blocks of granite from25 upper Midwest locations were shipped, mostly by rail, to be cut and fabricated for architectural projects all over the United States in this little town. The glaciers did the heavy work, removing the top soil uncovering many colored granite deposits. Variates of color helped provide a steady job source for this company. My father and his three brothers and my three brothers, and many other family members worked there in many different capacities. My dad made an appointment for me with Bob Tice, vice president in charge of engineering, where my two older brothers already worked. He hired me as an apprentice pattern maker, I am sure because of my dad and brothers.
In order to better understand what this job was, think about the next time you see a large urban plaza granite job with sweeping curves or complex shapes, or stone fountains, or slopping walls of stone. Each stone was fabricated to fit in a certain place, based on architectural drawing as interpreted by shop drawings and individual shop work tickets and zinc patterns for durability and accuracy in the fabrication process. I, like everyone else, started out in the office basement floor, it was great, minimum wage, and an opportunity to learn, 19 years old as a apprentice pattern maker.
Architects provide general information, site specific, for stone engineers to make shop drawings for stone fabrication, as per their general plans. These stone fabrication shop drawings were made by senior draftsman. And approved by the architectural design firm before fabrication was begun. Stone mill blocks could then be ordered from the quarry the correct sizes and quantities to produce the project. Apprentice draftsmen would make a individual shop ticket for each individual stone on the project to be sent to shop with fabrication instructions for that individual stone. If adequate information could not be put on the individual shop ticket a pattern was made for that stone.
This is how this was done, my first job in stone. I did this for one year.
In the office basement was a space, from my memory, about 40 by 50 smooth concrete floor. There was a large roll of very heavy paper about six feet wide. This paper was pulled out and taped to the floor to make area large enough, to draw out the project full size. Then with the aid straight edges, snap lines, long sticks and points to swing arks, hundreds of pre-made zinc radius templates and other aids, a drawing was made with 6 h pencils, in stocking feet for clean lines. As a example a plan view, of a given radius on a curved wall with given end points defined by architectural drawings, could be lay ed out full size, so equal individual stone pieces could be arrived at. Granted all of this can be done mathematically with the help of logarithms etc. But full size patterns are needed for shop fabrication nevertheless. Full size layouts help to eliminate errors, and often provide a visualization that is hard to in vision mathematically (I wrote a article about this published in Stone World magazine in 1996). The process helps to see three dimensional forms developed from two dimensional drawings.
These full size layouts were inspected by a senior draftsmen and he would then tell you to proceed to the next step, making zinc patterns for the fabrication shop if he found no errors in your layout.
There was a pallet of zinc sheets about three feet by five feet that you placed over the paper layout, of the stone you were working on, and with a sharp scratch awl you scribed the shape of the future stone, the zinc was then bent to break on you line, edges filed, and felt pen ink piece numbered with all the specific information pertaining to that stone. This pattern went to the fabrication shop to be used in connection a shop ticket to fabricate the stone. That was pattern making. Of course I was also every draftsman’s errand boy as well to fetch whatever from the fabrication shop.
The next time you see a Notre Dame football game on TV, look at the large stone mural of Christ and his disciples on the campus profile, made up of many stone colors. I did not do much on this project, but it was all laid out with patterns on the office floor, the first year I was there, I remember fetching stone for a couple of weeks when the project was being cut and cast in panels to be assembled on site.
After one year of working there, it was my turn to go on active duty in the US Navy for two years, were I served one year on a Island and one year on a troop transport hauling American troops to SE Asia and back, 12 pacific crossing in one year, we rarely stopped.
This was my introduction to the stone industry. As stated Cold Spring was the largest stone company in the world, may be 1500 people at that time, so there were many opportunities to learn many trades or professions there. By spending much time running errands in the fabrication shop I could see many aspects of how high production architectural fabrication was done.
I learned how to read shop drawings and was introduced to general drawings which served me well all my life.
I was taught to be precise and neat, which is fundamental to stone work were the product is so unforgiving. And mistakes so costly.
And I got my foot in the door of the stone industry with maybe the best architectural stone company in the world. Few could argue that.
Originally posted December 4, 2012

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