Oak Tree School > 4. Building the Foundation

“They were very joyous days, because it really was in the spirit of barn raising. There were men, and women, and children all working. That many people working harmoniously together – that normally don’t do a task such as that – was very inspirational. And to do that at the beginning of the project clearly set a tone and a feeling of bonding – the community has made this school.”

—Jeff Gold, contractor


 

Neither the School District nor Shady Creek Construction had anticipated such staunch opposition from the labor unions. While the “picket line” was modest with only one or two picketers out by the road, the job was at a standstill. Despite honest attempts to explain the exceptional nature of the project and hear out the objections of the unions, the dispute continued unresolved. With summer fast approaching, in June 1975 Shady Creek Construction prepared to mix on site over 300 cubic yards of concrete for the foundation with the help of enthusiastic – yet unskilled – volunteers.

 Jeff Gold: We had to galvanize community workdays to actually mix and pour the foundation, which was a daunting task in itself because there are these technical requirements for measuring all the materials they use in the ready mix: it had to be tested, it had to come up to a certain strength, and [then] how do you move many, many tons of material? It was really the collaboration of many people putting together those workdays.

Bruce Boyd: We poured [all the] concrete using two third-of-a-yard mixers to State standards for concrete. It was a special design mix, so all the sand, all the cement, all the gravel had to be weighed and put in the mixer. And there were test cylinders taken and it was all up to standards. It was great concrete – probably way richer than it needed to be, but we were testing out a four thousand [pounds per square inch] concrete [Ed. note: this refers to the ultimate strength of concrete when loaded in compression]. It was all poured by hand in wheelbarrows.

Jeff Gold: We saw this coming – we had several weeks where we prepared for it. And we had to find the mixers, we had to find the Fairbanks scale, to get it to the County Weights and Measures office to get it certified so that it was accurate. That scale was watched through the whole process by the continuous site inspection that was done by Steve Winkel.

Bruce Boyd: We split it up – there’s no way you could pour that much concrete in one day. We could probably pour [the equivalent of] six trucks. If we had trucks! Yeah, [about] sixty yards. So we split it up into the buildings – the log cabins, the Lodge, the North Columbia building, and the [continuous classroom building].

THE MIXERS

Bruce Boyd: We didn’t even know that third-of-a-yard cement mixers existed. We’d seen the little drums that hold like a third, or two cubic feet of mortar, or something like that. [So] Jeff and I started driving around and people would say, “Oh, gosh there’s a cement mixer over there by Bullard’s Bar.” So we’d go over there and find a guy who had an old cement truck and he said, “oh, yeah, maybe. It hasn’t run for 20 years, but I heard this guy had an old cement mixer over by his place.” So we went over and found Dan Schiffner’s cement mixer.

Shelley Spalding: It was called “Clyde Kididdlehopper” as I remember, and it came from Sage’s Sawmill, or something like that.

Bruce Boyd: And [Dan] said, “Yeah, there’s one more up here, and it’s up the hill in Graniteville.” And these people lent them to us!

Bob Erickson: Rod Coburn and I went up to Graniteville and went to Mehrkens’ cabinet shop up there.

Ron Mehrkens: And one day [Bob] stopped and said, “We’re gonna build a school.” Okay, and he says, “I’d like to borrow it.” And Rich [my brother] and I are [skeptical] at the beginning, because it was an antique, you know? And he said, “We’ll keep that thing clean and we’ll grease it everyday” and all that. And they did.

Bob Erickson: We totally rebuilt the thing, Rod and I did, I mean Rod mostly, but I did what he asked me to do – and rebuilt that thing, rebuilt the motor.

Ron Mehrkens: It came from the San Mateo Road Department – out on the 101. I think it was 1920 or ’20-something. Vintage. Dandee. I think that’s what they call it. D-A-N-D-E-E. Third yard dump cement mixer. The only thing I wanted to do was I ran it. I went down there every day [with] my brother and I’d run it. And they would load it and take the cement out.

Bruce Boyd: Neither one of them had run in twenty years – they had bad valves, and, [we said], “Rod, just get them to run!” So he was like a full-time, on-the-job mechanic, keeping those things running. Pouring in stuff to keep the radiators from leaking… to keep the valves from sticking. He [and others] kept them running, for a lot of concrete. That was just amazing.

Jon Klingelhofer: [Steve] Beckwitt [also helped] get ‘em running. Beckwitt worked on ‘em and got ‘em chugging along.

A COMMUNITY EFFORT

Bob Erickson: Jeff and Bruce got two drivers, local truck drivers, to deliver huge amounts of gravel and cement.

Jeff Gold: We were boxed in not being able to pour the foundation and the only way out was to find a few local truckers who were sympathetic with the spirit and the use of local labor for their school, who were willing to truck in the raw materials of cement, and sand, and gravel.

Bob Erickson: We poured, I don’t know, three hundred cubic yards of concrete for the foundation. All done by hand with ninety wheelbarrows and one hundred people working.

Ron Mehrkens: Nobody got any money. All volunteers. They supplied all the gasoline and the expense, but they didn’t pay any wages. But we knew that going in. They had a bunch of nice people down there.

Hank Meals: I was so impressed with the overall choreography of such an ordinarily unruly group.

Shelley Spalding: It was quite a remarkable feat. And, for sure, you know, it definitely brought the community into building that school. It was a real sense of purpose, a sense of “this is our school.” I think that was probably one of the most unifying moments of the whole experience of the school building project, was that cement pour.

Jonathan Keehn: Quite a scene! So there were mixed ages and men and women all working together. Those were wonderful big work days.

Shelley Spalding: A lot of people came. A lot of people came both weekends, both days. It was our school, and this was like “okay, we can do this!” We can wheel wheelbarrows of gravel around and do this amazing thing! And we can show that we want the people of San Juan Ridge to build this school… That was a very exciting and empowering event.

Jeff Gold: That community effort wouldn’t have taken place without the fact that you had this community very tuned and dedicated to the idea of building the school together. So really, it goes back to the seeds of that – the School Board and a number of community leaders, and parents [who] were looking forward to having their children go to this new school [and] really celebrated the idea of creative learning. So, it took some planning, but the seeds were all there. And people were stepping forward. We didn’t know how many people were going to show up, but we knew that it was going to be like a weekend picnic feeling. We made sure there was food for lunch, that there was water, that there was a sense that it was going to be well-orchestrated.

Steve Winkel: Things kind of calmed down after that. The labor thing never quite went away, because the labor unions did not want this to be a precedent – I think from their point of view. But they realized that this was not your suburban model that was going to be replicated pretty much anywhere else.

AN ARMY OF WHEELBARROWS

Shelley Spalding: So we had to have a uniform, measurable, concrete mix for those three hundred cubic yards of concrete foundation that went with the school we were building. And so in order to do that, we put the word out we needed work parties. We needed big work parties, and we needed work parties with people bringing their wheelbarrows and shovels.

Jonathan Keehn: Everybody brought their own wheelbarrows – you had to have a wheelbarrow – we had marked [them so] you knew how much you were carrying. A big army of wheelbarrows and people to operate them.

Shelley Spalding: It always stayed in my mind, we were like ants on an anthill with these big piles of different size of aggregate and people’s wheelbarrows had a certain weight and aggregate size that they were to contribute to this mix. And so they would go over and load their wheelbarrow up. And to make it accurate, the wheelbarrows had to be weighed. So we needed five wheelbarrows of this size, to two wheelbarrows of that size, to one of this size to make the right mix.

Jon Klingelhofer: And so the aggregate, you know, the sand, the gravel, and the cement was dumped in this hopper – there was basically a convoy of wheelbarrows and everybody had the weight of the wheelbarrow spray-painted on the side of it with whatever it’s contents were supposed to be, so that you could keep track – you could actually keep track of what ingredients were going into each batch. So you took 300 pounds of rock, and whatever sand, and cement into this hopper. And then the cables would pull it up and dump it into the mixer and mix it, and then dump it out into the wheelbarrows that were wheeling it to dump it into the footings.

Doc Dachtler: I guess it was Bruce and Jeff – and maybe Steve Winkel too – to make sure it all worked. A certain amount of aggregate in a wheelbarrow, and then you had to add a certain amount of cement to it before it went in to the mixer. And so each wheelbarrow weighed differently, because some were one kind or another, so they weighed the wheelbarrows and then weighed how much went into them and got one of those big feed lot scales, that you could drive the wheelbarrow on and sit it there with a load of rock, and if it said “285” on the wheelbarrow, that’s how much it had to weigh. So you took in and added a little bit, as each one came in, before you dumped it.

Jon Klingelhofer: All I know is they put me on the mixer. Because when every wheelbarrow had to be dumped into the hopper, you had to pick it up. Because you couldn’t quite just dump it – it was a little too high – so you actually had to get a guy on each side, sort of pick up this wheelbarrow and dump it in. And they were like 300 pounders, you know? I can’t remember who was on the other side. It was me and somebody else all day, man, picking up wheelbarrows! And somebody else choreographed what was what. I was just dumping wheelbarrows sets, that’s all I was doing. Was taking the wheelbarrows and dumping into this hopper. I remember getting the shovel and anything that slopped out and shoveling it into the hopper before it went out. Jerry Tecklin – I remember Jerry Tecklin being on the mixer with me. But he wasn’t picking up the wheelbarrows, he was operating the cable or something. He was, you know, in more of a supervisorial position.

Doc Dachtler: [The other mixer] had such a battery leak that we couldn’t fix it. So we just stuck a garden hose in it, when it was runnin’, and then it ran out the radiator because it was leaking so bad, and we just left the garden hose left on. You’d just take care of those issues, you know? But they worked well. They worked well.

THE INSPECTOR

Bruce Boyd: Jeff and I went down to see the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] guy in Sacramento. And we sat in this room talking about safety issues and he was giving us books. It was like one of the most boring meetings I’d ever been to and I think one of us, each of us in turn, fell asleep for a little bit. It was just bad! [Laughing]

Doc Dachtler: So about 10:30, this white car comes through down by the gate, and it’s got a brown circle on the door, which means State of California.

Bruce Boyd: It was fortunate that we’d pre-met him before this issue – somebody [probably] complained that it was unsafe. And we had this huge, long line of wheelbarrows going by, and everyone had hard hats.

Doc Dachtler: So, he pulls in and [the inspector] gets out, we start talking to him, and he says, “Well, I got this report that you guys are mixing your own cement.” “Yes we are!” He said, “Well, I have to, I have to see what it’s like.” We said, “okay.” So he said, “Well, mix me up a batch. So we mixed up a batch, poured it into the first wheelbarrow. He said, take that one away.

Bruce Boyd: So then Tanya Rentz-Keehn came by in a halter-top and wheeling a wheelbarrow, and I think she had sandals on.

Doc Dachtler: And he says “okay,” rolls up his sleeve, past his elbow, he sticks his hand in the mud, and he brings it out and kind of goes like this, you know, feeling it like dough or something. And he throws it down. Then he takes a hose and washes his arm off, and he says, “Hey, that’s great mud. Just keep mixing it like that and you won’t have any problems.” He said, “I mixed a million yards of cement through mixers just like these in my time, and they’re just fine.”

Steven Winkel: And the labor inspector asked me, because I was the resident inspector, whether these people were being paid prevailing wage. And I looked at him and I said, “they’re all volunteers. No one’s getting paid!” And the guy looked at me, and he looked around, and then left.

TESTING

Doc Dachtler: So the way it turned out, each batch was as perfect as you could get it. Because, the thing was, you sent these samples to the State in these stainless canisters, and they took them to their lab and smashed them. And if it didn’t measure up, then your foundation was no good. So we wanted to make sure we didn’t have to do it over, you know?

Steve Winkel: It was controlled chaos in the sense that, you know, people were, there was a small third of a yard mixer and people were batching concrete and filling the mixer and putting it in wheelbarrows and taking it over and putting it in the forms. I was taking test samples because, as inspector, one of the things I had to do was to sample concrete in these metal tins, which are then cured and then taken to a testing laboratory where they’re broken to make sure that specified concrete strength was being maintained. And that – concrete is a very flexible material, but you can really screw it up if you get the wrong set of ingredients in the wrong proportions, so that people were mixing the stuff by hand, so I was taking a lot of samples to make sure. And they all passed.