Sunday, November 17, 2013

Caring About Culverts

I admit it. I can't drive, walk or ride by a culvert without swiveling my neck, inspecting and visually evaluating the structure, judging condition, materials and construction and looking at the drainage to see how well, or if, it is performing its intended function.  

I am particularly happy that for the first time in my lifetime I live on a lot that has a driveway culvert. It's a small pipe, a twelve incher, but plenty big enough to do the trick because the configuration of the land here in our little section of the foothills is such that the high side entry point will flow only in the event of biblical downpours (like Boulder, Colorado experienced last summer) because it drains no more than a 100 feet of frontage. The pipe ends have been damaged by lawn mower assaults, but the pipe remains clear, as we can ascertain when a neighborhood cat (or a skunk) passes straight through during its regular rodent stalking rounds.

My fascination with culverts comes from experience. We built culverts (no, somebody else didn't do it for us Dear President, we did it ourselves).

I was a sophomore in college working for my meals at the Gamma Phi Beta sorority house on Langdon Street in Madison Wisconsin, when I casually mentioned I would like to find a local job so I could stay in Madison that summer. The parents had moved to an apartment out in the boonies in the Chicago area. I wasn't partial to spending another isolated summer there while working a dreary factory job. 

My job at the sorority was houseboy, which meant I did odd job clean, fix, sweep, shove, store and remove it work around the house, and interacted most days with the housemother, the maid and the cook on assignments. Whenever there was extra work I would take it up. The housemother was generous to promise me the princely sum of $2.50 per hour and ended up paying me more like $4.00 or $5.00 an hour. When she went down to Florida for Christmas break she would pay me $10.00 a night to house sit (when the Sigma Chi's broke in one night after a drinking binge you would have thought they saw a ghost when I walked out of the kitchen door). 

Gamma Phi Beta sorority house, 270 Langdon Street,
Madison, WI.  Outside view same as 40 years past.
When the housemother heard of my summer job search she said, "Grady, let me talk to my son-in-law. He has a culvert business. If he needs someone for the summer I think he would love to hire you." She sent me down to Bob and Ken Johnson at Wisconsin Culvert who asked me if I minded working hard, and getting dirty and sweaty. They were skeptical. No problem I said. I've been doing dirty sweaty work since I was ten years old. That 3-minute interview made my next three summers.

Wisconsin Culvert's top customers were town and county road and maintenance departments and private developers and, secondarily, the state of Wisconsin and farmers. The front office was the Johnson brothers plus a secretary. In the shop there were 8 permanent, full time employees, plus up to three university students in the summer. Sales peaked in the summer, but ground to a halt in the winter when the soil was too muddy or frozen to be worked. The permanent crew built inventories to the sky in the winter, but by the time I showed up in late May, sections of stacked and completed pipe were beginning to thin out.

Besides culverts, Wisconsin Culvert Company had a going business in farm pond dams (we called them dams but they were actually drains that siphoned off excess water once water rose above a specified level) and hay wagon covers, and would give a go at building anything transportable on a semi flat bed trailer that could be constructed using corrugated steel sheets, angle irons, arc welds, rivets and/or nuts or bolts. I recall a project fabricating rest stop restroom dividers from heavy corrugated steel bolted on angle irons, designed in hopes of thwarting the most motivated vandals. Back in the day, Wisconsin Culvert even fabricated nuclear fallout shelters (see below) to protects households from the impact and residue of atomic blasts.

Fallout shelter display ad, Wisconsin State Journal, November 5, 1961

Vintage Wisconsin Culvert Company notepad with
nail file and comb.  Note phone number AL 7-2593.
The manufacturing operation was in two buildings, with most of the pipe built in the front shop that was attached to the rear of the offices. The back, much larger building was about half devoted to raw material storage and the other half used for building exceptionally large pipe (always custom jobs). In between the buildings was a massive press that was used to squeeze round pipe into arched (oblong shaped) pipe and a tar shed used to coat and protect pipe exposed to highly acidic water like that commonly found in bogs.
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern
May 30, 1964
It was a pretty typical blue collar environment where most of the employees teased and hazed the college kid unmercifully in the beginning. In time, if you proved yourself, you became one of the guys; they trusted you to partner with them and assume increasing responsibility. In addition to being dirty and tiring, parts of the process were dangerous work, one of the dangers highlighted some years earlier when a trespassing adolescent boy was tragically crushed playing with a friend among completed six foot radius pipes. 

Sooner or later most of my co-workers took me privately aside, and encouraged me to continue my education, lest I not end up just like them, in a dirty, dangerous, and tiring dead end job. A couple of them had dropped out of the university in favor of a regular pay check. I appreciated their advice and friendship and resolved to visit a time or two during the school year to let the guys know I was thinking of them. When I stuck my head in they'd chirp before I could say a word, saying uh oh, here he comes, dropped out, looking for mercy and begging for work. They got in enough digs that they were happy to see me even though my visit kind of reminded them they were stuck in a rut.

In the front building we constructed standard 15, 18, 24, 36, 48 and 72 inch circular pipe. Any larger circular or large arched pipe we built in the back building that had more powerful equipment, higher clearances and a raised platform. Anything smaller than 15 inches we stocked as spiral welded pipe from other suppliers.

Riveted corrugated culvert pipe.
Our basic building block for pipe construction was three foot wide sections (actually  39 inches to allow for overlap) of galvanized corrugated sheet metal, sized in standard lengths to produce the standard size pipes.We had two work stations in the front building where the borders of rolled pipe sections were hole punched and riveted to secure the pipe crosswise and to connect sections with one another lengthwise. We built pipe extending to as much a 39 feet (limit for truck transport). If longer pipe runs were needed they were created by knitting together sections in the field with bands fabricated using more flexible steel that wound around and joined sections, secured by facing flanges that bolted together. 

One work station was staffed by red headed brothers Rodney and Ron, who specialized in turning out high volumes of the smaller pipe. The other work station was operated by Tom and Chris who specialized in building the larger, more technically demanding 48 and 72 inch pipe, though either team could produce all sizes, depending on demand. Each station had a pit that was opened up to give clearance for large pipe, while staying covered and closed for small pipe construction.

Input material, corrugated metal sheets.
Bob-O as we called him, quiet and phlegmatic, rolled the pipe in a powerful pneumatic metal roll former before passing the resulting "cans" to the two work stations. There was also a shearing press that was used to cut sheets down to size when necessary. Bob was a good guy. Everyone said Bob-O consumed a liquid diet by night. By the smell of it I can attest you didn't want to light a match near the fellow early in the day.

In the summer the two most senior employees, Bill and Jim, were constantly on the road, driving semis to make deliveries. Though they preferred to make up their own loads, we had extra trailers in the yard so loads could be made out when they were still on the road. Bill as the eldest with the most seniority got the most distant loads (some weeks I wouldn't see him) which normally meant he was on the road by 5 or 6 in the morning, not returning to the yard until after the shop was closed. He racked up incredible overtime, as did Jim here and there. Tom lived for the days when we needed a third truck on the road so he could escape from the monotony of continuously building three feet sections of pipe. 

I did not know it at the time, but  a couple decades previous, it turns out that Bill had been involved in a tragic incident that killed a four-year old girl.

The Winona Daily News, June 24, 1955
Bob-O was the primary and most able crane operator who loaded trucks and unloaded raw materials skillfully. He commuted to work with Rod and Ron. I never saw Bob drive off site, which I took to mean that his liquid diet resulted, at one point or another, in the suspension or revocation of his drivers license. 

Guts of a metal roll forming machine, the sharpness
of curve determined by distance between rollers.
Everyone called the foreman by his last name, Warner. Warner was intent on not becoming chummy with his employees lest he lose objectivity. They cooperated in not returning a whole lot of love. Warner was a working foreman. He built big pipe out back, ran the arch press and tarring operations in the yard, and helped Bob-O on the front end, as well as pitching in on special projects here and there. He was the interface between the front office and the shop. Warner allowed himself to be friendly with me because he knew I was not a permanent fixture. He ran a side business manufacturing high end, custom, translucent window well covers, which he advertised in one of those tiny single sentence, back section classified ads scattered throughout The New Yorker. We discussed whether it would be worthwhile to advertise in the Sunday newspaper insert. Parade Magazine (I thought the costs too high and the readership would be too low brow to for it to pay off).

At some point, Wisconsin Culvert Company had been a 6-day a week operation, working full days Monday through Friday and a partial day on Saturday.  At the request of the employees it transitioned to a 9-hour day, 5-day a week operation, which I thought great because that guaranteed 5-hours a week of time and one-half overtime, plus weekends off.  We worked our tails off all summer long. I understood the pace of work was more relaxed in the winter months.

Work started at 7:00 am, which meant I got up around 6:30 am in my room on Langdon Street, left for work around 6:45, rode my bike uphill for a couple blocks past the Wisconsin State Capitol and then tore ass downhill for a couple of miles down to Ingersoll Street on the east side of Madison, where Wisconsin Culvert was located on a pie shaped lot along a rail spur. On the way home, my bike ride was in the heat of the late afternoon and uphill most of the way. I'd be dragging. 

Sometimes I'd have a summer meal job set up for the evening, other times I'd get out my electric frying pan and whip up tuna cheese melt or some other delicacy and yet other times I would go out with the guys, almost invariably to all you can eat specials. There was a pizza joint on the outskirts of town that had an all you can eat night. There was another restaurant that had an all you can eat fried chicken night. Occasionally I'd catch a cheese Plazaburger. The best deal of all was the old Madison Inn on Capitol Square whose restaurant had a delectable, melt in your mouth, all you can eat fish fry (apple sauce, veggies, rolls and french fries as well) on Friday nights, which we were sure to scrub up for and catch. We tipped well and ate well. The help loved us.

The Capital Times, July 6, 1960
Wisconsin Culvert tar vat overheats.

When I first worked at Wisconsin Culvert Company I was a helper. Up, down, higher, lower, hold this bolt, turn this wrench, grab here and let go there, and operate this saw (sawing through steel is a great way to burn holes in your clothes) were orders I responded to. I would unload rolled sections from the roller to help Bob. I'd fabricate hay wagon covers.  I would help the boss on his forays out to the pipe press or the tar shack. And I would spot and chain up loads and pull chains off unloads. 

Schematic of large arch pipe construction,
built in the rear shop at Wisconsin Culvert.
Where I was the most productive and felt the most needed was in putting together the sections of large arched pipe. We would punch holes along the borders before the sheets were rolled. I would help to load and unload the roller as the boss rocked back and forth, back and forth, turning the sheet until it, measured by the radius from end to inflection point, was formed into the desired shape. After rolling, we would support sections in the air with a system of chains and pulleys, positioning the holes of adjoining sections over each other, before air wrenching nuts, washers and bolts together through the holes. Since the holes seldom matched up precisely we would manhandle the sheets by sticking long sturdy steel prongs into the holes, using their leverage to re-position sheets by fractions of an inch. Some of the holes still didn't line up so we would use drills (ooh, I can still feel the peeling red hot shards falling onto my skin) or the prongs to force a larger opening in the slightly off kilter holes. 

Though we had ear protection and were told to wear it, the muffs were quickly discarded when we learned they made it impossible for Mr. Inside (air wrenching the bolt) and Mr. Outside (attaching the washer and nut to the spinning bolt) to reliably communicate with each other, with frequently bloody results. It was an environment of slivers and shards of steel each trying incessantly to find its way under your skin and into your flesh.  

Large arch pipe after construction
and prior to installation.
My second summer at Wisconsin Culvert Company, the economy was humming and the storage yard was bare of virtually all inventory by late May. Unfilled order sheets were stacked up 6 inches high. The second week the foreman looked at me and said "Grady go out back and build the big arch pipe and take Bob (another college student) with you." Fortunately, I had paid attention the previous summer and knew what to do, even using my prior year assembly knowledge to advance the state of the art of big arch pipe construction a step or two. My co-workers gave me hell for a 3 inch bend in the path of my first 39 foot pipe, before acknowledging the spec had a 12 inch tolerance. The guys in front were rooting for me to screw up, not because of any antipathy towards me, but so the foreman would come to the back building more often and get out of their hair. 

By then I had pieced together the material costs that went into our pipes, and learned that the work orders included sales prices. By my calculation the gross margin on big pipe (labor and materials) was on the order of 500 to 700 percent. This was an incredibly profitable business that paid me better than I had ever been paid before.

This was back in the days of high marginal tax rates that a lot of big government advocates and progressives look back fondly on. But that was only half the story.  The Johnson brothers who owned Wisconsin Culvert each drove Cadillac company cars (as did their secretary) for business and personal use. They tooled around in their restored Model T (restored by staff) with Wisconsin Culvert's logo painted on the side door. They would take off in their private four seat plane for pleasure and to entertain clients.

Janesville Daily Gazette, December 14, 1967
One time they crash landed their plane in a corn field and the crew went out to retrieve and haul back the wreckage.  

Daily 3 hour gourmet lunches, nighttime dining and afternoons at the country club were the norm. All of this done on the company dime, plus we helped to build, expand or maintain their personal homes.  

Under the laws of the day, the Johnsons didn't pay a dime of taxes for any of the perks or in-kind income, something that would get them an appointment with a federal prosecutor in today's tax regime. I would wager that their tax rate based on actual income was less then than it would be today.

Old Wisconsin Culvert site operating components mapped 
on today's green field, 201 S Ingersoll St. Madison, WI.
I have no idea when it went out of business but Wisconsin Culvert is no more, its manufacturing process likely doomed by high cost and obsolescence. These days virtually all circular pipe is spiral welded, rather than circular riveted or bolted as back in my day. We used to scoff at the spiral welded pipe because we knew it was not nearly as strong or as long lasting as our product. The former site of Wisconsin Culvert Company is now green fielded and for a time was used by the Eastside Tuesday Farmers Market.

Spiral welded culvert pipe
My third summer at Wisconsin Culvert was cut short by an old fashion rip roaring recession, the type of recession that led to layoffs for sure (including my own) but which ultimately (meaning by sometime the next year) transitioned into a rip roaring economic recovery. By late August I was off to California and Stanford judging that continuing school was a wise choice in a bad economy. I sometimes wonder whether that recession was the beginning of the end for Wisconsin Culvert, or merely a bump in the road before some other set of circumstances (likely OSHA induced) led to its ultimate demise. 

The last time I sat down with the Johnson brothers we talked about my future plans going to law school. I mentioned I might want to go into Antitrust law. They blanched and suggested that might not be an honorable pursuit. Now that (below) we can see they were repeatedly in hot water for price fixing, I can understand why.

The Winona Republican Herald, November 30, 1948

The Post Crescent (Appleton Wisc.), April 11, 1962


Janesville Daily Gazette, February 24, 1961

And here are a couple more Wisconsin Culvert clippings.
The Capital Times, July 2, 1939

Burglary at Wisconsin Culvert. Hitler tightens his grip on Poland, The Capital Times. October 24, 1939


  1. I've placed miles of culverts, including precast, poured in place and corrugated pipe.

    In my neck of the woods, corrugated metal pipes will eventually rust away, unless they're made of aluminum, which is usually too expensive. They're never used on state, or municipal projects, except in unique circumstances.

    Concrete is the preferred choice in culverts. They're heavy, require specialized equipment and the installer better have a damned good pipelayer in the hole. Poor grading can lead to offset joints, which will eventually leak and cause problems.

  2. What a truly beautiful story.

  3. I enjoyed your story- I too, have oldtimer's disease. Those were the good times, back then.
    Dawn Marie, the little 4 year old girl who was killed by a culvert, has no one to tend to her grave, since her parents and sister have died- please, someone, keep her gravestone open and clean.