Form-stripping was risky, but paid well at $2.15 an hour

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Francis VanRinsum, 89, worked on the Hungry Horse Dam in the last year of its construction. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

During the final year of the Hungry Horse Dam’s construction Francis VanRinsum, known as “Red Dog” on the job, was part of the form-stripping crews.

“Everybody wound up with a nickname. I used to have red hair,” VanRinsum said.

VanRinsum, of Somers, was 23 when he arrived for work in 1952. By that time, the dam was roughly two-thirds completed. He needed the work after the family farm, located by the north shore of Flathead Lake, sustained years of flooding that led to meager crops.

“Things were starting to bind pretty good around the farm, so I told Dad, I says ‘I’ll go to work,’” VanRinsum recalled.

Basically, the job of form-strippers was to dismantle metal and wood forms outside and inside the dam. Then, crane operators moved the forms — and the men who were connected by safety belt cables — to the next area where the forms would be bolted into place, and another block of concrete could be poured.

Inside the dam was typically where wood frames were located.

“There’s a lot of tunnels inside the dam,” he said. After one or two concrete pours, “we had to go down in there and pull all those forms out and pass them out piece by piece. Every little sliver had to come out.

“Once in a great while, one of those would get overlooked and they’d be three or five pours down and then we’d just have to shut everything down and they’d have to start stripping them [the forms] out. There’d have to be anywhere from 25 to 100 guys up that [tunnel] stairwell passing [the pieces] out,” VanRinsum said.

As a form-stripper he would sometimes use a catwalk, but was often suspended over the air, or what he called “going over the side.” For putting himself out there, VanRinsum earned $2.15 an hour. He recalled that general laborers made around $1.95.

“I used some of my money to buy our first brand-new piece of [farm] machinery. We needed a plow real bad and I paid $475 for that. Boy, that was a fortune then.”

Thursday was payday. The first check was the most money he’d ever seen. He’d cash the check by Friday and take his wife Jan, who was his girlfriend at the time, out on a date. It was also the first time he had spending money to buy something other than necessities.

“I bought a leather jacket. Boy, it was a pretty fancy leather jacket. Boy, I’ll tell ya,” he said, reminiscing. “I had it for a long time. It was $34.95.”

Tragedy hit not long after he started working on the dam to supplement the family income when his father had a heart attack. VanRinsum saw what needed to be done and after putting the hours in at the dam seven days a week, he would spend the evenings tending to the farm. He recalled the only days off were Fourth of July and Labor Day.

“And my poor little girlfriend here,” he said patting the shoulder of his wife “sittin’ there every night [worrying].”

VanRinsum said he had no prior construction experience when he went to work on the dam.

“I went up there as a green farm kid straight into construction,” he said.

What he did have was a good work ethic.

“I was always taught to work, and work hard,” he said. “If I saw a job that needed to be done I’d just go do it,” he said.

He quickly learned, however, that he’d have to change his approach. At the dam, there were unions. You did a specific job and that job alone, according to VanRinsum. This sometimes meant waiting for a carpenter to saw timber, for example, and then another person to move it.

Working on the dam boiled down to one critical skill in his mind.

“There was one thing that you had to learn before you could even go to work up there. You had to learn to tie a bowline knot. If you couldn’t tie that there were certain jobs you couldn’t even work on,” he said. “They had to make sure you knew how to tie that knot and tie it fast.”

VanRinsum noted he had been a Boy Scout, but the bowline knot frustratingly eluded him.

“Everybody showed me special ways to tie that knot, and, finally, one day, this old carpenter comes up to me and says, ‘OK Red Dog, do it like this, and when he done it, for some reason or another, it hit me. I could tie a bowline in my sleep,” VanRinsum said, tapping the tabletop with satisfaction.

VanRinsum was selected to join the form-stripping crew when a boss needed “two husky young bastards,” and looked in his direction.

The other man standing beside him was concerned if the job description entailed “going over the side”— basically being suspended in the air.

“[The] boss said, ‘no, you don’t have to, that’s the carpenters’ job, but he says, ‘you’ll be over there.’ And he was right. We didn’t have to go over there until we were over there like everybody else,” VanRinsum said.

This was why it was critical to wear a safety belt that was attached to the form and crane

“Those sections were 12-feet long and we’d have to step over on a catwalk. Those sections were bolted together. We’d have to take out those bolts and they had a special crane there they’d hook up to that 12-foot section and you’d have to ‘ride’ that 12-foot section. You’d look up to see the cable to see if it was straight up and down,” VanRinsum said, otherwise if it wasn’t a certain way, well, “when you pulled that last bolt you’d go swinging out into space.”

And it did happen.

“I go up there now I can’t even look over the side,” he said.

“It was a worry for me every day because I knew he’d be hanging over the edge,” VanRinsum’s wife Jan said. “I went up there many times just to observe.”

There was one instance where a carpenter named Spike, possibly because of his tall and slender profile, was not wearing his safety belt.

“One day he was outside taking out one of these forms with the air gun and we were working — Dale and I — was working right above him settin’ up the A frames. We heard the air gun stop running,” he said, and didn’t think anything of it until another worker started screaming that a guy had fallen. It was Spike.

“He’d lost his footing and he slid down the face of the dam and when I looked over — why, he was bouncing from bolt to bolt going down,” he said, his fall finally stopping after he got hung up across some piping.

A pipe-fitter working near where Spike had fallen ran down a catwalk, dove and grabbed the man’s collar as he began to slip according to VanRinsum.

VanRinsum went to help.

“Dale and I climbed down a side ladder. I remember myself shaking, going down,” he said noting that it was a matter of time before the man lost his grip. “And Spike would have slid 300 feet all the way to the powerhouse.”

“But he lived. He got out of it,” VanRinsum said, although Spike never returned to work on the dam. VanRinsum said he visited Spike in the hospital, but couldn’t recall the extent of his injuries.

Eventually, combining season arrived. By this time the dam was close to completion and hundreds of men were laid off weekly. VanRinsum asked to be let go because he had to harvest the crops, but the boss wanted him to return, to his surprise.

“I was the kind of guy, they could put me working somewhere and I’d work without having someone standing over me with a club,” he said with a chuckle.

By the time he returned to the dam fall had arrived. The wind blew, the snow and rain fell, and after 10 days he had enough of the dam. He went home to work the farm full time.

Every once in awhile VanRinsum returns to the dam. While most people see it through eyes of impressive awe — “I get up there and keep looking at the cracks,” he said with a laugh, the industrious worker inside him alive and well.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com

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