Oak Tree School > 3. Breaking New Ground

“None of us who were helping to form the construction company had much money, so we needed to borrow money – get lines of credit – because one is not paid in advance for the work, one needs to be able to operate on one’s own funds for a while. … It was pretty scary! But we were very committed to trying to make the project happen … with local labor and materials.”

—Holly Tornheim, employee of the construction company and craftsperson


As the construction drawings worked their way through the labyrinthine State bureaucracy, a group of new San Juan Ridge residents – “back-to-the-landers” –decided to pursue the audacious idea of forming a construction company to bid on the new school. This group was especially inspired to fulfill the School District’s vision to use local labor and materials to the greatest extent possible. To accomplish this, they would take on considerable risk navigating the process of attaining general contractor’s licenses, acquiring bonding and securing financial backing.

Bruce Boyd: An idea early on – stemming from how we built Gary Snyder’s house with this group of ten or twelve people – [was] that maybe the community could build this building and we wouldn’t have to import outside contractors. And it didn’t come to fruition until later on. But it was all in the back of our minds that we would build this as a community.

Jeff Gold: During that period at Osborne and Stewart we developed the idea of actually going back up to the Ridge and spearheading the construction of it. And not knowing a whole lot about public school construction at the beginning of that process, it was kind of a steep education.

Bruce Boyd: Yes, Zach [Stewart] really had the vision here. He really did have the vision. We’d realized that somehow or another that we wanted to build it.

Bob Erickson: It was a very creative kind of vision – very fresh and new – to think of building a local school. And Osborne-Stewart, to their credit, really wanted to teach us something about the complexities of working in the public format.

Jeff Gold: We had to become licensed as general building contractors and go through a bonding process, and the financial requirements are really significant. [During] that year-and-a-half period in San Francisco, we were really focused on the school as the impetus for us returning to [the Ridge] and preparing ourselves to do something that we really hadn’t ever done before. And that’s the genesis of it.


Bruce Boyd: Shady Creek Construction Company was a partnership set up in California between Jeff Gold and I, as a construction company. And we operated as an independent business entity.

Jeff Gold: [It] started out, more idealistically, as an association of six or seven of us. We were prepared to commit ourselves to trying to undertake building this school. Then it got reduced to just Bruce and I, as partners, to form the company. And that occurred because of the complexity of having more people, the financial requirements, the bonding, and some of the external forces.

Bruce Boyd: It’s not like building a private project. Number one, we weren’t licensed contractors. We had no formal company. We had a few projects under our belt, but we had no history. So one of the things while we were in San Francisco that both of us did was get our contractor’s licenses.

Bob Erickson: And I got my millwork contractor’s license, because I was more interested in furniture making and that angle of things. The idea was we all had to know what it meant to take that test and to see the State regulations, and become familiar with them. [We were] literally off-the-grid and away from those things, but the whole project was intimately engaged with State government, and even federal government.

Bruce Boyd: Then we went and got bonding. Public works projects are publicly bid, and you have to provide labor and materials and performance bonds for 100% of the work. And you have to have all that lined up before you can bid on anything. So we moved up [to the Ridge] and worked on that so we would be ready to bid on it when it went up for bid.

Holly Tornheim: None of us who were helping to form the construction company had much money, so we needed to borrow money – get lines of credit – because one is not paid in advance for the work, one needs to be able to operate on one’s own funds for a while.

Bruce Boyd: It was a huge bond. And that’s where our investors came in because they pledged – they didn’t have to come up with it [right then] – but they pledged to back us. You know it wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it was a lot of money back then. It was a huge amount of money for us.

Holly Tornheim: It was pretty scary! It was scary. But we were very committed to trying to make the project happen.


In late December 1974, at a public bid opening, Shady Creek Construction Company was announced as the lowest bidder at $340,000. Only one other contractor had submitted a bid. After independently certifying that they could indeed build the school according to the submitted bid, the San Juan Ridge Union School District later signed a contract with Shady Creek Construction Company to build the school.

Previously, the newly formed District – in anticipation of the school construction project – had approved a “Local Labor & Materials Policy” requiring “the employment of the maximum number of qualified persons living within the District or County” and that the “the maximum amount of materials be purchased within the County whenever practical.” At the time, the State law gave the awarding agency of a public works project – in this case, the School District – the authority to determine the prevailing wage. In urban areas, the prevailing wage was effectively established by the labor unions. However, with no unions locally – and most workers engaging in a variety of odd jobs – the prevailing wage was legally determined to be a minimum rate of $2.50 per hour for a new all-purpose classification called “craftsperson” based on a statistical survey of the District.

Having been formed with the express purpose to fulfill these objectives and make the project an educational opportunity for local residents, Shady Creek Construction Company proceeded to organize its sources for local materials and labor according to the District policy.

Bruce Boyd: Jeff and I were 23, 24. We had our construction company. We bid on the project. We got the bid. My dad who has a lifetime in steel construction helped us put together a bid. We just assumed that we were going to use people that we knew up here who were really good carpenters. We knew we could pour concrete and we had a whole list of sub-contractors – plumbing, electrical – all the subs were laid out. We hadn’t really quite put together our crew completely yet, but we had some commitments from a number of people up here. Because we didn’t know if we’d got the job. So we started construction with a crew of about twelve – not all terribly experienced, but willing to work.

Jeff Gold: Early on one of my responsibilities was to do the procurement of all the materials. And the Sierra Mountain Mills in Camptonville was the closest mill to the school. In the spirit of trying to use local materials ­– which nowadays is kind of referred to trying to keep your carbon footprint low and not consume huge amounts of energy in moving the material from source to its final use – the idea of using lumber from the closest mill was very attractive to us.

So, I went and met John Casey who owned and operated the mill. He and his wife actually are really big supporters of education in Nevada County. After learning about the project, he made us a wonderful deal to provide [about] ninety per cent of the lumber, all stamped and certified, because the State required the grading of all the lumber.

We [also had] some wood cut by Clarence Sage, who had a small, one-man jippo mill. That lumber came ungraded, and the grader from Sierra Mountain Mills came to the site and actually graded the unmarked lumber, as well as certifying the grade of the poles that were used for the log cabin and some of the free-standing poles in the library.


Steve Winkel: One of the major strings attached to state funding is that the wages that are paid on site have to be what’s called “prevailing wage.” The way the law is structured and the way that the Bureau of Labor Statistics [part of the Division of Industrial Relations] in Sacramento deal with it is that prevailing wages really mean union wages. It doesn’t say it has to be unions, but it’s structured in such a way that once you’re required to pay prevailing wages, it’s a union job by cost. So [typically] there’s no advantage or disadvantage in cost in hiring a union contractor, because you’re going to pay those wages anyway.

Bob Erickson: And of course, this was a huge issue because up to that point there had been – in recent decades – no public works built non-union. But there were no union carpenters, no union plumbers living in what was considered to be the local area, the San Juan Ridge. And the idea was for it to be built by San Juan Ridge people, for their children.

Jon Klingelhofer: Materials are materials – you can’t really save any money there [on a bid]. You’ve just got to buy the materials. Really, the only place you can go is labor.

Bruce Boyd: A couple of things had to happen. A prevailing wage, had to be set, which, at the time, was [the responsibility] of the School District.

Steve Winkel: [The school board had] to try to determine on the San Juan Ridge what the prevailing wage was – which was an exercise in getting all of the statistics together so that the funding would be released. Then, once that’s done [you had to] figure out what you had to pay people in order to not be subject to a legal action for not paying the prevailing wage.

Bob Erickson: The school board had to create a special classification and publish the rates of pay for what was called a craftsperson. A craftsperson was $2.50 an hour, whereas carpenters were [probably] making at that time [about] $10 an hour.

Holly Tornheim: And to actually have a way of having local people be able to work on the school as employees, there needed to be a guild – a union – that would then have people who, through it, would bargain to set a [base wage rate].

Jon Klingelhofer: So The Ridge Guild got formed basically to establish a labor organization to build the school. And it was, you know, all the local yokels, all the local builders.

Jeff Gold: I think that’s how people thought of their work as being rooted in the tradition of craft guilds.

Jon Klingelhofer: And I somehow got assigned the task of collective bargaining agent for The Ridge Guild. [Since it was] a prevailing wage job, [the contractor] had to pay what the prevailing wage was in the area, which is usually union scale. And so we formed this guild, which was like a labor organization, and established the rate at $2.50 an hour.

Bruce Boyd: The Ridge Guild started signing up people. People joined the Guild as a craftsperson, and then we could hire them as craftspeople. [Ed. note: Shady Creek Construction Company still retained the right to hire employees who were not members of the Guild and to pay rates higher than the base prevailing wage.]

Steve Winkel: So it was basically a non-union job, but it was done in strict accordance with what the state law requires. In that sense, there was nothing illegal or devious about what was done, but it was certainly not the standard issue school construction job.

Holly Tornheim: [Everyone] worked for a lot less than union wages, but one of the problems was there weren’t union jobs in the area. The unions who were down in the Valley were not interested in signing people up from up here to be members of the union. They wanted their people who were already in the union to be able to come up and work. [But] one of the major ideas behind the building of the school was to build it using local labor and materials, sub-contractors also, as much as possible. And there really wasn’t a way of doing that, combining both those things together.

Bruce Boyd: We were being noticed by [local material suppliers]. … You know, I support unions, but we were breaking the union’s hold on public works. So it was a big deal. It was a very big deal in Sacramento.

Steve Winkel: The union contractors and the carpenters’ union and laborers [union] were all over this job. They did not want this project to become a precedent for doing things other than sort of a standard way, which is union wages and union labor.

Doc Dachtler: But it wasn’t like this was gonna be some kind of a whirlwind upwelling [where we’d] march across the country and suddenly everybody was gonna be building their own schools. That wasn’t gonna happen. Let’s face it. It was just a unique set of circumstances.

Steve Winkel: So there were a lot of difficulties in getting material deliveries and particularly things like concrete, which is typically made at the batch plant and then delivered by union labor drivers to a job site. And a lot of deliveries couldn’t or wouldn’t be made because the construction company was not a “union shop.”

Bruce Boyd: And we got a visit from the carpenter’s [union] – from Sacramento. [They] said, “you guys need to go and hire your carpenters out of Sacramento.” And we said, “Well, we have a provision in our contract that we have to hire local labor and use local materials. And here it is.” And he responded by saying, “well, public works is union work.” And we said, “well, we’ve got some really good carpenters here, can they come down and join the union?” And he said, “No.” At that point, we went back to the School Board – basically we were stuck between a rock and a hard place. And that’s when the community said, “No, this is our school – we want to build our school.” People within the community came to us saying, we want to build our school. So we [told the unions]: “Sorry, we’re going to continue, we’re going to follow our contract.” And they said, “Well, we’re going to strike you.”

Shelley Spalding: So that was the impetus for the Teamster strike of the concrete trucks coming to the School District to pour the concrete foundation. So they actually boycotted the school to keep us from having concrete deliveries. And that was when we said, “Okay, we’re gonna have to do this ourselves.”