Working in Oregon through history

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Archives - April 2009
Wednesday, April 01, 2009

It wasn’t that long ago in Oregon when hard-rock mining with a pick axe was a common line of work, when crews of immigrants competed for work laying railroad tracks, when farmers harvested wheat by hand and loaded it into horse-drawn carts, when men waded into the Columbia River to net fish by the thousands, when the idea of a woman wearing pants to work was considered a radical notion, when the notion of shipping jobs oversees would have seemed insulting and absurd.

The new book Oregon at Work 1859-2009, by Tom Fuller and Art Ayre (Ooligan Press; of the Oregon Employment Department, traces the evolution of the workplace since statehood through a lively collection of anecdotes, oral histories, photographs and statistics. In the current climate of layoffs and cutbacks, it serves as a reminder that life and work in Oregon have rarely been easy over the past century and a half.

Consider a typical day for Augusta Clawson, who worked as a poop deck welder for the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in 1944: “The tight band of the helmet makes your temples so sore that it even hurts to touch them when you’re away from the Yard. The gloves make your hands sweat. The arcs give off fumes, and lots of us have burns. But none of us kicks.”

A similar attitude drove Greek immigrant Haralambos Kambouris, who helped build the railroad line from Roseburg to Grants Pass in 1913: “Inside the tunnel there was water and they wanted to replace the supports… It was dangerous for many reasons and, also, very dirty and hard.” Kambouris notes that while some crewmen dropped out, he never missed a day.

The work ethic wasn’t just a means unto itself. It was also a path to innovation, job creation, even industry transformation. Take the story of John West, who started out salting the fish that migrated past his riverfront property and expanded into Oregon’s first cannery. Or Howard Vollum, who parlayed his fascination with the oscilloscope into the creation of Tektronix, the state’s largest private employer in pre-Intel days.

Because Oregon at Work covers such a wide swath of subject matter, it doesn’t delve as deeply into some of these stories as the reader might like. But the details Fuller and Ayre provide in this sweeping account tell a lively story that is brimming with precisely the sort of can-do attitude that will serve us well as the recession deepens.



Above: “coverall girls” at the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill in Salem rebel against wearing dresses to work. Below left: building ships in 1944. Below right: miners in the gold rush town of Quartzville.

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