Summer Job 1946: Wisconsin Geological Survey: Elliott Sweet

My father, Elliott Sweet, graduated from UW in 1948. As I read through the pages of On, Wisconsin! (my husband is also a graduate) I realize my father, who has written delightful memoirs, might have something of interest to the readers of your magazine. I have extracted a portion concerning his summer work with the Wisconsin Geological Survey in 1946:

Summer Job 1946: Wisconsin Geological Survey
by Elliott H. Sweet, with minor editing by Jacquelyn Sweet Kuehn

I had finished one semester at UW before going into military service. I had had no great aspirations as to what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I had set out on a basic L&S course in pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree with no declared major. English, physical education, and some science were all required of freshmen, so I took geology because I knew I did not want to take my chances with physics. I had already plowed through chemistry and biology in high school, and geology sounded like it did not require a genius rating in math.

Finally, home from the army just in time to begin UW’s January 1946 semester, I found I was able to transfer thirty credits from the Army’s ASTP program South Dakota State College. Somehow I had never even thought of such a thing, and I was elated because it put me well along the way toward my BA degree. One of the few things the U.S. Government did exactly right was to create what was known as “The GI Bill of Rights” for the millions of servicemen now returning to civilian life. The bill provided (among other things) one month of education for each month served in the military, at the University, College or Technical School of your choice. It paid for tuition, books and all regular fees, plus a stipend of $75 month while attending classes. I am sure that there must have been some upper limits beyond which they would not pay, but I never was aware of anyone who was affected by them.

When the spring semester ended, we students parted and went our separate ways. Through the Geology Department I secured a summer job with the Wisconsin Geological Survey, doing work on behalf of the Wisconsin State Highway Department, locating and estimating content of deposits on sand and gravel along or near proposed road construction jobs in northern Wisconsin. One of the major costs of road construction or repair on secondary roads is the cost—not of the necessary sand and gravel—but of hauling those materials from the pit to the actual site.

We were supplied with the credentials necessary to assure the landowners of our legitimacy. We would cruise the area by car and study the topography for evidence of various glacial features that were likely to contain road-building materials. After obtaining permission from the landowner, usually a farmer, we would dig a series of pits to define the perimeter of such deposits and also the depth and quality of the materials therein. The work is accomplished by using pick, shovel, steel pry bar and a whole bunch of muscles we had not previously known to be in existence, at least in our bodies.

A pit measured about 21Ž2’ by 61Ž2’, and as deep as we could go. The most difficult part—and the least rewarding—was getting through the overburden, which might be anything from a few inches or, more typically, a few feet of glacial till. Glacial till is a duke’s mixture of topsoil, clay, sand, rocks and large stones left behind by the last glacier to grind its inexorable way across this beautiful state of ours. Many a beginning had to be abandoned because we encountered a boulder too big or heavy to remove. As I recall, the area around Tigerton was very problematic in this respect.

After reaching a depth of four feet, or so, we left a small platform as a place to stand and continued digging the remainder of the pit down another four or five feet. The platform left us a means of getting out of this grave-like pit. When we had gone about as far as we could go at that level, we then dug a posthole at the opposite end of the pit from the platform, thus enabling us to “see” another five feet or so, into the depths. We kept notes on the various strata that we passed through, noting the character and quality of the material. By digging enough pits and charting them on a scale map of the area, we were able to determine fairly accurately the extent of the deposit and the number of square yards of usable material it contained.

Usually, once we hit sand, the digging was pretty easy and almost a pleasure to work into, at least by comparison to stuff that contained a lot of rocks. Other than rocks, the biggest problems we encountered were layers of hard-pan clay and the very persistent deer- and horse-flies that just loved to settle on a hot, sweaty, bare back and have a little lunch. On some days some one of us would spend all his time beating the digger on his head and back with his cap, just to keep them away. There were four of us on the crew and so we all took turns at the various facets of the work. Of course, since much of the land we were working on was grazing land, each pit had to be filled in again before we could go back to our base camp that night, so there would be no chance of liability for livestock that might fall into the open pit.

Our boss and mentor was a wonderful man listed in the directories as E. F. Bean. He was the state Geologist and director of the Wisconsin Geological Survey, a.k.a WGS. His peers often referred to him as E. “Fireman” Bean. Although he was a rather slight, wiry man, he apparently could walk the legs off most of the rest of the men in any field party, as though he was in such a hurry because he was either on his way to—or fleeing from—a fire.

To us, at his request, he was always “Ernie” as long as we were in the field, and Mr. Bean in the presence of any other adults. He would visit us periodically, always unannounced, sometimes at our place of lodging, but more often, he would seek us out at the work site along the road, late in the day. He would look over the reports and the site and then go with us to our evening meal, where he would regale us with yarns about the earlier days when he and some of our current professors had spent their summers doing field research throughout Wisconsin.

Many of these stories involved F. T. [Fredrik Turville] “Freddie” Thwaites, currently our professor of Glacial Geology, but at the time of the story, probably only a graduate student. Freddie was a short, bumbling, introverted and socially inept sort of man who was certainly not inspiring as a teacher, but was a world-renowned glacial geologist.

Much of the work in the field involves mapping of topographic areas, following certain strata of rock formations. The work involves the use of an alidade, a telescopic sighting instrument, and a stadia rod, a 1” x 4”, ten-foot-long board which can be doubled in length by opening up a similar board attached by a hinge hinged at the top), which is the target of the alidade.

One day, Freddie had been sent out ahead with the stadia rod to a certain spot some distance away, the sighting was made and notations made and then they called Freddie in so they could move on to another spot. Time passed and Freddie had not shown up so after waiting a while longer with still no sign on him, they started searching the terrain between them and the point where Freddie had last been seen. They finally spotted him at the bottom of the hill. He had leaned the stadia rod across the top wire of a barbed wire fence, perhaps to deflect it downward so he could step over it, but somehow he had managed to end up astride the stadia rod and hung up by the seat of his pants on the barbed wire, with his feet off the ground. They took turns watching through the alidade, but since Freddie had not called out for help they did not want to embarrass him by going to his aid, and eventually he was able to extricate himself from his predicament.

Another story concerning the foibles of this man happened some time after the death of his father, who was a man of considerable girth around his waist; Freddie was a man known far and wide as being tight-fisted to the point of pain. From his recently-departed father he inherited a pair of pants which, although waaaay too big for him around the waist, but with the addition of a stout pair of suspenders, would be perfectly adequate for fieldwork.

On a beautiful, hot late summer day as the crew were on their way to the work site, they passed a farmers’ roadside stand where watermelons were being offered for sale, and thought that would be just the thing for later in the day when they might need something cool and wet while they took a little sit-down. In those days, all Wisconsin-grown watermelons were dark green, 8” -10” in diameter, 20” – 24” long and, of course, had hundreds of seeds in them, although the seeds have nothing to do with this narrative.
They inquired of the vendor if the melons were nice and ripe; he allowed as how they indeed were, and to back up his claim he took a knife and cut a triangular hole in the side of the melon and proffered the plug to the men for their approval. Having obtained it, he replaced the plug, received his money and the guys placed the melon in the trunk of the car, to be taken out when the time was deemed appropriate.
Later in the day, that time arrived. Freddie offered to go retrieve the melon from the car—which had been parked under a tree to keep things as cool as possible, but which, by now, had been sitting in the hot sun for quite some time. He carried the fruit cradled on his outstretched forearms, against his chest.
Now, a full-grown melon is a weighty object and as he walked back to the site, his arms began to tire. He gave the melon a little hitch so as to get a better purchase on it, and the triangular plug popped out, allowing a large amount of mushy melon flesh, seeds and juice to pour out of the melon and down into the gaping top of the ill-fitting trousers, past his unmentionables, down his legs and onto or into his socks and shoes. How could anyone keep a straight face at such a sight? Obviously, they couldn’t and didn’t!

All of our work was in the northern part of the state. We stayed, occasionally, in small-town hotels, once in a private home, but mostly in tourist cabins at lakeside resorts. Don’t let the word “resort” fool you. In many cases the resort was merely a collection of little white cabins the size of an old detached single car garage. Enough room for a double bed, a dresser, a couple of chairs and a kitchen table. Some cabins had an attached bathroom, if you were lucky; if not, an outhouse, or if a little more deluxe a separate building with toilet facilities and possibly a shower. That describes one of the first in which we stayed, and I loved it. There were eight or nine little while cabins strung out along the shore of Butternut Lake at Butternut WI. Who needs a shower when you four are the only tenants and the lake is only steps away from your cottage door?

Somewhere up near Cable, I believe, we stayed at a similarly undistinguished resort whose property was adjacent to a rather upscale resort named Virginia Beach. This place had riding horses, a dining room, a bar, shuffleboard courts, tennis courts, and a great beach area complete with a large raft. On the raft was an eight-foot-high superstructure, and there was a diving board on both the raft and the superstructure level.

One Saturday night while at a dance, we were talking to a tall, well-built, well-tanned young man, who turned out to be the son of the owner of Virginia Beach Resort. Recognizing that we were obviously not from around there, he asked what we were doing in that neck of the woods and where we were staying. When we told him that we lived right next door, he generously offered us the use of the premises any time we wanted. The resort was not crowded so there would be no problem. Should there be a sudden influx of tenants at his place so that we might become personae non grata, he would let us know, but in the meantime we should feel free to come over whenever we wanted. We did. Of course, we did not make use of the bar or the dining room because that would have been way beyond the limits of our expense accounts and would not be very politic, anyway. It also turned out that there were two pretty girls who waited tables in the dining room, and when they were finished with their duties after dinner, they were free to enjoy the facilities also, and so we had some playmates.

On a Sunday afternoon our friend, Rick, and his family were away from the resort and we were out on the raft. We got to rocking it back and forth, and by running from one side to the other got it moving in ever-increasing arcs. Suddenly the inevitable but unforeseen happened … the whole thing flipped over and ended up standing on its superstructure with the raft and its flotation barrels sticking up in the air above the water level. We were not particularly concerned because it looked so top-heavy that we thought it would be a cinch to flip it back over, but we also though it would be prudent to get at it and turn it upright before the family returned.

We worked our way down to the sand and found that we could barely budge it before having to come back up for air. We could not coordinate our efforts and all heave at once because we could not communicate under water. The fact of all the weight of the raft and barrels being completely out of water meant there was no buoyancy … just dead weight. We tried repeatedly, but were never able to lift it enough to get it past the balance point.

Finally, we were exhausted and decided that we would just have to wait until the folks came back, and face whatever consequences there might be. We did not have long to wait. Rick came down to the water’s edge and said, “Got it tipped over, huh? That’s no problem, I’ll be right back,” and he left and shortly returned wearing his swimsuit. He dove into the water, swam out to the raft, took a deep breath and submerged. Moments later, we watch in awe as the overturned raft lifted up on one side and then continued its journey and with a big whoosh and splash it regained its upright position. “It’s all in knowing how to do it,” he said. “Yeah,” I thought, “that, and being built like a Greek god.” There were no repercussions, no revocation of privileges, and life went merrily on its way.

In one small town, we got a room in the town’s only hotel, a spare, frame building located across the street from the railroad station. This was a typical businessman’s hotel, and catered to traveling salesman who rolled into town on the train, set up display tables in a large room and then invited the local merchants in to inspect the latest merchandise and to place orders—a sort of temporary indoor market place. It was a unique way of doing business and saved everybody a lot of trouble and money. The salesman slept on a rollaway cot in the same room.

The four of us slept in one of these large rooms, each on a cot of our own, of course. The bathroom was down the hall. These accommodations were not especially lavish, but they were adequate and the price was certainly right. We each paid a dollar a day for the room and a dollar and a half per day for half-board … breakfast and supper.

These meals were almost unbelievable, even for those days: a typical breakfast might consist of hot cereal, bacon, or ham, and eggs, fried potatoes milk, all served family-style at long tables and all served at the same time. If you overslept by too much it was your own tough luck. The evening meals were equally amazing: There was always some sort of meat: it might be roast beef or pork, pork chops, meat loaf or ham; mashed potatoes and gravy, side dishes of two vegetables, platters of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, stacks of sliced bread and bowls of jam, and again, pitchers of milk and coffee.
Dessert was usually a pudding of some description—tapioca, chocolate, bread or rice—and once in a while, pie or cake. The food was always plentiful and was always served hot; all this for only a dollar and a half a day. We were sorry when it came time to move on from this place.

One day while on the job, I was driving down a gravel road, going fairly slowly so as to not raise too much dust, and also so as to not throw up any stones against the sides of the car, we came upon a group of three small boys. The two larger boys were carrying a small washtub of water, one on either side. The smaller boy was carrying a pail of water, and as we passed they set their loads down to rest a moment, and the smaller boy picked up a handful of gravel and threw it at the car, hitting it on the side. I speeded up and pulled into the next driveway, turned around and sped back to the scene of the crime. When the boys realized that it was the same car coming back, they set down their containers and lit out across the ditch and in three different directions into the woods and shrubbery and out of sight. I was pretty angry, but I am not sure what I would have done if I had been able catch one of them … take hum home and tell his parents, I suppose, but since I didn’t, I did the only thing I could think of to do was to teach them an object lesson. So I dumped out the water and loaded the containers into the trunk of the car, turned around and took them up to the top of the hill, in the same direction in which they were headed, where I left them beside the road.

Before I actually left with the containers I called out to the boys and told them where I was going to leave them. I figured that by the time they went to retrieve them, hauled them back to where they got the water in the first place and then completed their journey, they would have figured out that maybe that hadn’t been such a good idea. Later on when I related that story to my folks, my mothers, with her “best of all worlds” outlook on life said, “I think you should have said, ‘Come on boys, I’ll haul your water for you in my car.’” (Sure, Mom, and end up with a trunkful of sloshed water, and a sore back!) My father, in his typical fashion, said nothing.

We worked as late into the fall as we could but finally headed back to Madison in time to register for the fall semester of 1947.