Week 36: #52 Ancestors – Labor
By Eilene Lyon
My grandfather, Laurence M. Smith, has made many appearances on this blog. I’ve shared a couple stories he wrote about his work in A Short Load and A Secret Mission. Laurence was a 1931 graduate of the University of Idaho with a degree in electrical engineering.
Starting a career during the Great Depression must have been challenging. He started out as a lineman for the Washington Water Power Co. (WWP). His work involved surveying lines and substations.
Around the time Laurence married Clare Ransom Davis in 1934, he got a job for the federal Bureau of Public Roads working in Montana, at Glacier National Park and surrounding areas.
“There he recalls working 12 hours a day making sure that the contractor’s men worked no more than eight hours a day. However, the pay was a satisfactory $105 a month, and the scenery was magnificent.”
He still didn’t have the opportunity to use his degree in a meaningful way.
After a year or so, he went back to work for WWP, which he did until 1941, living in Spokane. They didn’t have any electrical engineering work for him at first, so he started drafting surveys for a transmission line, a temporary assignment.
They kept saying they would have to let him go, but they never did. He had a variety of other assignments over the next five years, which helped him get back into electrical work. But he needed new challenges. So, he moved the family to Portland and took a brief job with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).
He had this to say about his time with WWP: “I could have stayed there and worked all the years of my career, as some of my contemporaries did. No doubt it would have been a very good and safe course to pursue. I seemed to be always looking ahead to more interesting challenges. Actually it worked out for the best. There were however, some very distressing difficulties along the way which I have no intention of looking back at.”
Because he was married with children, he did not get drafted in World War II, but did work for the Civil Defense. The family returned to Spokane and he worked at Fairfield Air Base, then under construction. According to my mother, “My dad’s biggest job was electrical design for opening & shutting aircraft hangars.”
This revelation came about long after her dementia set in, and I haven’t been able to verify this, but given he worked on an air base, it is plausible.
After the war, he and two others formed an engineering firm. Since the company name was Daugherty Engineering, I assume Daugherty financed the enterprise. The company succeeded, but the Korean War created a shortage of construction supplies, so back to Portland and the BPA. At last, Laurence had found his dream job.
When the war ended, returning veterans reclaimed their old positions. Laurence was out of work again, but not for long. The Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had a position in Little Rock, Arkansas. In some respects, living in Arkansas was difficult for Laurence and Clare, but they stuck with it until retirement. Then they moved back to Portland, which truly felt like home.
My recollection is that his job in Arkansas involved electrical control of weirs on the Mississippi River. I hope to get his service records from the National Archives at some point to learn more about his work for the USACE.
(Note: Laurence’s memoirs never mention working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, but family stories and photos suggest that he did. I have further research to do!)
Featured image: Laurence M. Smith, second from right in rear, at a dinner for the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. (Family collection)
Smith, Laurence M. unpublished memoirs.
Letter from my mother.