15-year-old worked hanging power transformers

From our January 2014 issue

By Herb “Buster” Brown – Pinawa, Man.

In the spring of 1947 the Manitoba Power Commission (MPC) came to the Holland/Treherne area to electrify the countryside. They needed labour so I decided to apply. The foreman said, “Be here at eight. We’ll see what you can do.”

At 8 a.m. the next morning, we were taken three-four miles east of town to a marsh that needed two hydro poles installed. I was given a shovel, spoon, and crossbar. I also had a 45-gallon barrel with the top and bottom cut out which I was to sink into the marsh.

The marker for the pole was about 30-feet out from the road in about three-inches of water and a foot of mud. I decided I couldn’t dig a hole in that wet ground so instead, I cleared an area of swamp grass and cattails then stood the barrel on end so it sunk into the ground about 18-inches.Then I climbed in the barrel and, using the blade end of the bar, chopped and pushed round and round until I got the barrel sunk down to the desired depth.

A pile of rocks and a pole had been left waiting at the side of the road for the next steps in this labour-intensive job. Right up until quitting time I moved these rocks from the roadside and piled them up around the outside of the barrel. All this was done in bare feet and rolled up pant legs. The next morning, four of us were dropped off to install the poles.

We carried the pole out from the roadside and stood it into the barrel. Two men held the pole upright with pike poles while the others placed the stones into the barrel. We piled stones into the barrel and around the outside until the pole seemed firm. Then we moved to the next pole to repeat this heavy process all over again.

I must have passed the foreman’s test because the next day I was assigned to a hole digging crew. This consisted of one man operating the machine and two of us, equipped with hoes, keeping the dirt from running back into the hole.

Fortunately we worked north of Number 2 Highway as the land is fairly level and with few stones. The only drawback was if there was an area that the machine couldn’t access, you had to take your turn digging by hand.

Digging by hand meant you shovelled for a few feet, than you used a ‘spoon’ and bar. The spoon was shaped like a metal frisbee with a six- to eight-foot handle. The bar was also six- to eight-feet long with a two-inch blade on one end. The bar was used to push the spoon into the dirt in a twisting motion to dig the hole. You also prayed there were no stones or rocks!

I was on the gang for around two months. We were well-paid at 50¢ an hour. I got my first cheque for $40 before deductions and I felt like a millionaire. I bought my first pair of jeans, a belt, and new boots.

In July the wire gang came to the area and I hired on as a groundsman. My job was to supply hardware or tools to the linesman by hand by a hand-line system but with practice (and if the linesman was a good catch) you could throw most of this up to him. Throwing really speeded up the process.

Shortly after starting, I began borrowing a set of spurs and a climbing belt so that after work I could practice on the hydro poles in front of our house. One day the foreman came and said he had a complaint from the district man that I was ruining the poles in that area. I thought I was in trouble but the foreman went to his truck and came back with a pair spurs and a belt and said “Show me.”

I went up and down the pole two or three times. The next day he gave me a set of spurs and climbing belt and said “The gang leader will show you what to do.”

That day was Aug. 19, my 15th birthday. I never told anybody on the gang as hazing for birthdays was pretty rough. I work hanging transformers, installing hardware, and tying-in.

When you’re tying-in you don’t carry much equipment so it’s easier to climb. Tying-in was wrapping the wire with a piece of aluminum tape approximately an inch wide and 1⁄8-inch thick and 18-inches long coiled up for easier application.

You taped the wire and placed it on the insulator and then you took aluminum wire and tied the wrapped area to the insulator.

At the end of September the gang was moving to Teulon. The foreman asked me to go but it was only 3 weeks work and having never been away from my home area before, I regretfully declined.

In my 50 years in the labour force, these were the two best foremen I ever worked for. All they said to me was “Show me.”