Construction Life in the 1920’s

Post 3 of ’90 Years in the Making’ – A W.W. Clyde & Co. Blog Series

The Highway Contractor

In the 1920’s, the contractor was the most essential asset to a construction company, and W.W. took his role seriously. He was the superintendent, bookkeeper, blacksmith, storekeeper, veterinarian, and, sometimes, the cook. Other valuable components to a successful construction company included: a corral full of horses, Number 3 and Number 5 plows, scrappers, a good cook, a large tent, pots and pans, and a collapsible dining table.

W.W.’s crews lived on the project site. Gloves, pants, shirts, socks and drawers were stocked at the contractor’s tent as well as Bull Durham, smoking tobacco, chewing tobacco and candy bars. Each man had a charge account with the contractors’ tent and was able to purchase these items from the contractor. The men were rugged, proud, independent, and accustomed to outdoor life.

Construction Camp1In each tent, there was a dirt floor, four single bunks, a small stove and a washbasin with a stand. In order to keep the dust down in the tents they would sprinkle water on the floor. If mosquitos got bad, they would place a piece of damp burlap in a gallon can and hang it in front of the tent to keep the bugs away at night.

In the biography, W.W. Clyde: The Builder, author Leonard Arrington further describes camp life for Jim and W.W.’s crews.

“The men were paid $2.25 plus board per day, six days a week. Teamsters would harness the horses, hook them up to plows and scrapers, and be on the job by eight o’clock. They would “come in” at noon. If the job was some distance away, they would take an hour and a half at noon so the horses would have time to eat. At six o’clock, after nine hours of work, they would unharness the horses, feed them, and then have their own “supper”. At night one of them might bring out his harmonica or guitar and make some music. Some might read a magazine, or play cards for a while, then it was time for bed”.

The men and the livestock needed a rest day, which was always Sunday. Construction companies rarely allowed overtime for their crew and only paid for 9 hours of work even when it took more. Straight time was paid for Saturday and Sunday work. The crew usually paid $0.75 a day for room and board. If the crew didn’t supply their own bedding they had to pay $1.00 every month to rent bedding. $1.00 went toward a hospital fee. After paying for tobacco and gloves, workers were doing well to have $30 left.

Over time, working conditions improved, including, nine hour days were reduced to eight.

The Cook Shack

W.W. Clyde provided good meals. The contractor prided himself in feeding his men well. If he didn’t, his crew would not want to continue to work with him. When construction workers got together, it was always mentioned that W. W. fed his workers well. It was easier to recruit men if the employer had a good reputation of good food and lots of it. If the men were fed well they would work better.

Springville Contractors Camp1“W. W. liked to eat well and would tolerate nothing less for his employees,” noted Leonard Arrington, author of W.W. Clyde: The Builder. W.W. always ate with his employees. He would often make surprise visits to the kitchen, where he would remind the cook “not to take liberties with quality or quantity.”

Cornell, Blane and Bill (W. W. Clyde’s sons) all started from the bottom up in the construction business working as helpers in the cook shack. Blaine said the following about his first experiences working on a construction project:

“When I was twelve years old, I went to work on construction during the summer as a cook’s helper and dishwasher. We washed the dishes in large washtubs and I remember that doing the pots and pans was the worst. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning because the men ate breakfast at 6:00. The tables were set the night before. I’d help dish up the hotcakes, eggs, and bacon. There was always plenty of hash-browned potatoes, too. We would cook the hotcakes on the back of the stove just enough at a time to keep the men supplied with hot ones.

We had no refrigeration, but we had a meat cooler on the north side of the cook shack with burlap around it where we would pour water, and as it evaporated it would cool the contents. Another of my chores was to carry water from the creek. I would dip buckets into the creek and carry one in each hand and pour it into a barrel. We had a coal stove with a pipe running through the firebox to heat the water. I also had to peel potatoes or whatever the cook wanted me to do.

I had most of the afternoon off, because it only took a few minutes to get the lunch dishes done up, because most of the men took lunches into the field. Sometimes I would go down to the creek and “skinny dip.” One time I remember rolling tires with Cornell for amusement. Each of us took turns climbing to the top of a nearby hill and rolling a truck tire down into the campsite. When I couldn’t stop the tire when Cornell took his turn, it went sailing right through one of the men’s tents.

It was a pretty rough life out there. Generally, in the tents at night the men would play what they called “penny ante.” Sometimes Cornell and I would sneak down to their tents and watch. Their worst problem was that every other word would be a swear word. They would really cuss. But there was always excitement in getting ready for the construction season each year.”

While the construction work in those early years was hard and often kept the men from home, W.W.’s jobs were always well-regarded places of employment. Workers received a good wage, full bellies and fair treatment from their employer.

*Historical photos of W.W. Clyde & Co. construction camps and camps of other Springville-based contractors from the 1920’s.

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