Folkstreams | Contexts | Archie Green on Pilebutt Lore

Archie Green on Pilebutt Lore

Archie Green on Pilebutt Lore

Two Pilebutt Tales:

Antoine Barada, Hurry-up Man

Antoine Barada was a hurry-up man, always rushing, rushing, can't wait for anything. One time he got tired of watching a pile driver working along the Missouri with the hammer making the up-down, up-down, the driver yelling "Git up! Git-up! Whoa! Back! Back!

Whoa!" and then all of it over again and the piling going down maybe a half inch. So Antoine he picked up the damned thing in his bare hand, throws it high and far so it lights clear over the Missouri where it bounce and bounce leaving ground tore up for miles and miles and making what the greenhorns call "Breaks of the Missouri." But at last it stop and if you dig down in them high ridges you find it is the damned pile driver with grass growing over him, a little poor soil, you understand.... When Antoine had disposed of the Johny Jumper hammer he sees that the piling that is left stands a mile higher than the rest, so he gives it a lick with his fist and it pop down into the ground so deep it strike buried lake, the water flying out like from bung hole fifty feet high and like to drown out the whole country if Antoine he did not sit on the hole first. –Louise Pound, "Nebraska Strong Men," Southern Folklore Quarterly, 7 (1943), p. 141.

Ray Sparrow, Pile Monkey

I climbed the ladder to a little platform aloft. After the donkeyman hauled up the pile, I used a spud-a tool made out of a 2" x 4" board with a short line attached. When the pile danced in the air, I whipped the spud around the pile to pull it into the leads. With both hands full, I used a mouth whistle to signal: Ready. You had to step back fast before the hammer came down. Then, I dropped to the deck on the monkey line. Sometimes, the pile monkey had to jump for the line if it dangled out of reach. Some of the ex-loggers also called me a punk, or whistle punk. If someone seemed reluctant to go aloft, an old timer snorted, "Get your ass up there, punk, come down with the hammer. We don't care how you drop!" (Interviewed by Archie Green, April 12, 1983)


These brief narratives-far apart in time, place, purpose-illustrate the wide range of expressive material available to workers who treasure job traditions or who probe laborlore's meanings. Louise Pound, while searching during the 1930s for tall tales about Nebraska strong men, visited Marie Sandoz, a Midwest regional novelist. Sandoz recalled stories she had heard in childhood told by "half-breeds" around Pine Ridge (the southeast corner of the state). Some anecdotes featured a local strong man, Antoine Barada (1807-86), who picked up huge boulders or pulled stranded boats from sandbars.

Pound's retelling in 1943 of the Sandoz story extolled Barada's physical strength; she could, as well, have accented an etiological purpose-explaining a natural feature's original cause. Native Americans along the Missouri used myth and legend to treat the river's power and course. French voyageurs, Spanish explorers, and Yankee settlers adapted Indian legendry as they contributed their own accounts to explain the Missouri River's passage through hill country.

Seemingly, neither Sandoz nor Pound were especially conscious that they had brought to print an early folk account of a horse-powered pile-driving machine. More importantly, the Johny Jumper hammer drove pilings but a half inch at a time, whereas Barada drove one a mile deep with a single blow. Allowing for some exaggeration, we can speculate whether pile-driving men beyond the Missouri Breaks had ever heard this tale. Could it have been told only by Barada's admiring neighbors without deep reference to occupational setting?

Like the John Henry ballads, ambiguity marked the "boast" about Barada. In a contest between man and machine, John Henry gained victory at the cost of his life. Barada destroyed the horse-powered machine only to drive the last timber by hand. Who, then, emerged victorious? Barada's ultimate role-altering na­ture's landscape-does seem appropriate to the present self-image of many construction workers. Such gigantic changes normally flow from machine use, from technology, not from old-fashioned sinew. What did the "original" storytellers signify in the creation of the Breaks of the Missouri by a man throwing away a machine? Do we lack an ending where Barada, the natural man, dies of battered muscle and broken heart?

In her childhood, Sandoz heard tales about Barada from Omaha "half-breeds"; I heard Ray Sparrow's pile monkey anecdote during a long visit in his California "redwood modern" Mill Valley home. In 1983, he dated the happening back to 1939 on a Pescadero concrete bridge job at the Pacific's edge (San Mateo County). Because of his agility, and perhaps cockiness, he had been sent high on the rig's leads "to monkey"-to physically position piles under a pulsing hammer. In contrast to Barada's storytellers, Sparrow, in self-description, had no need to exaggerate. Descriptive narrative served to explain his work to an outside folklorist.

If the "moral" in Barada's story is now obscure or lost, it seems clear enough in Sparrow's account, where an old-timer com­manded: "Come down with the hammer. We don't care how you drop!" Such gallows humor (a pile-driving rig's leads can resemble a gallows frame) referred to the pile monkey's potential death under the hammer. Sparrow's reminiscence offered no hint to his acquisition of skill over the years, his "graduation" from "whistle punk" to "super" (superintendent) on New York's Guggenheim Museum job. Instead, his report clued listeners to the stylized verbal patter, the constant exchange by which seasoned hands educated newcomers.

I have accented the differences between two work accounts, traditional tall tale and personal reminiscence. A common element in each demands of listeners a minimum knowledge of pile-driving technology. Born in 1807, Barada would have been involved with horse-powered equipment as a young man. His "pile driver" referred to the whole machine; his "driver yelling" referred only to the crew member teaming the horses. Sparrow's reference to a "donkeyman" in 1939 keys us not to an animal but to a crafts­man/engineer and his gear, a steam-propelled hammer raised by a donkey engine mounted on a barge or scow. Sparrow pulls listeners away from Barada's slow world of limited power to the present complex of booming change in construction techniques.

How can readers visualize machines in which horses were harnessed to a hammer-not a hand-held tool used to drive nails, but a massive cast-iron weight dropped onto a wooden pile head? How can anyone who has neither seen nor heard a modern rig in action "see" a pile monkey on his monkey board (platform)? Does the loggers' term whistle punk (the individual who passes signals from the rigging slinger to the donkey engineer when yarding logs) offend or amuse? Whether or not we seek a relationship between the accounts of Barada and Sparrow or place them at their respective ends of an array, each leads to the arcane world of pile-driving crews, tools, and lore.

All crafts-skilled and unskilled, as well as those judged demeaning in contrast to those prized-hold dramatic elements. However, not all work is blessed with compelling novels or mem­orable films. Countless tasks remain hidden to the writer, artist, or documentarian. Pile-driving crews, which construct waterfront docks, shore freeway bridges, or underpin city skyscrapers, are neither subjects within popular fiction nor screen heroes; they have also eluded labor economists and social historians. Clearly, pile work is as significant as that of the seafaring whaler or steamboat pilot. Perhaps a Melville or a Twain will yet emerge to discover the pile rig; meanwhile, its toilers (pile butt, pile buck, or pile doe in their vernacular) continue to craft legends and treasure lore.

Pile drivers, who have established a considerable coherence as a work group over centuries, shaped their names and tales in a manner parallel to that of speakers within other occupational communities. Workers do not haphazardly acquire special tra­ditions or terminology. Rather, they favor a bright phrase or anecdote that comments pungently on technological continuity, job anxiety, work reward, or labor solidarity. New speech must ring to the ear as it comes to life in settings of shared values. The best job narratives help workers gain control over demanding conditions and complex social relationships.

Pile drivers, like brothers and sisters across the land in diverse occupations, contribute both to lore that is known to all Americans (e.g., "John Henry") and that known to but an infinitesimal section of the citizenry (e.g., "Hurry-up Man" or "Pile Monkey"). The tale about Barada and the remembrance by Sparrow, then, can be shared inside and outside the pile community.

No matter how we distinguish the categories of occupational folklife, we can sense in the opening tale and reminiscence a further distinction between broad traditions (American boastful­ness) and narrow accounts (an individual's specific experience). Ultimately, if novelists, film makers, or historians approach the pile rig, they must listen to and absorb the locutions of various children of Antoine Barada and Ray Sparrow; those who could throw whole machines across rivers and those who have come down to deck safely with the monkey line.

Where pride and skill join on a job, workers turn to the rhetoric of jurisdiction, often understood as a charter for good deeds. Before the rise of modern labor unions, artisans combined in guilds, lodges, friendly societies, or worshipful companies. Such associations-civic, celebratory, quasi-religious-asserted their members' special roles in written ordinances, covenants, and con­stitutions. Unions, today, claiming jurisdiction in a variety of doc­uments including by-laws and collective-bargaining agreements, continue to lend strength to workers' consciousness of their worth and place.

Medieval craftsmen who built pile wharves and bridges mainly handled timber; at times, they used iron devices fashioned by blacksmiths (shoes, ties, rods, bolts, straps, plates). However, masons laying below-ground stone foundations also drove wood piles for building supports and for bridge footings. A master mason who could conceive, design, and erect an arched bridge felt no qualms in beginning at the bottom with timber piles.

As wood-working pile men sought to demark their particular craft, they had to distinguish it from that of rival workers with stone and mortar. While some pile drivers set themselves apart from stone masons, other pile men drew guild lines between themselves and fellow woodworkers (carpenters, shipwrights, mill­wrights) and from watermen (inland boatmen) on barge, scow, and lighter. We deal here with codifying rule books over centuries, not decades.

With the construction in 1779 of England's first major cast-iron bridge on the Severn River, its builders extended their reach from traditional wood and stone to metal. An entrepreneurial ironmaster then set up a blast furnace at the water's edge to cast ribs on site. With some imagination, we can look back at the flow of techniques from the furnace or foundry to bridge carpenters and iron and steel erectors. About 1800, an English engineer introduced cast-iron piles at Bridlington Harbor, and for the fol­lowing century, pile drivers slowly increased their mastery over metal.

The perfection of the Bessemer steel-making process in 1856 led, two decades later, to steel bridge construction. When rolling mills fabricated piles of steel, pile men added the riveting gun and acetylene torch to their hammers and saws. In 1892, the French engineer François Hennebique patented a reinforced con­crete beam. Despite initial resistance, European and American crews accepted concrete as a "natural" material similar to wood or iron.

We can grasp the enlargement of each pile driver's competence by observing today's crews at work. For example, we may see an auger-cast pile "grow" within the earth by grout pumped under pressure into a continuously bored hole. This pile forms itself underground without the driving machine pulsing or booming overhead. We see pile crew "supers" struggle with computer printouts supplementing "old-fashioned" blueprints. We marvel at the power bottled within new science-fiction-like machines.

Today's pile workers become conscious of their craft's continuity (through centuries of time and above the demands of technological change) when they dismantle docks or bridges and discover pilings in place long after their drivers have vanished. Perhaps the best instance of such continuity dates from Venice: The St. Mark's campanile fell in 1902; its preservationists found good foundation piles more than a thousand years old and still serviceable. To unearth an ancient pile becomes an archeological adventure. To find such a relic is not unusual; to search for and find an aged document on pile driving is.

In the years of rebuilding after San Francisco's earthquake-fire of 1906, eager craftsmen from the world's corners flocked to the Golden Gate. The "earthquake mechanics" carried tools and templates, codes and loyalties. About 1911, in their then-new Local 77 hall, a pile union committee drafted working rules for the entire state. At least one printed copy has survived in the University of California's Bancroft Library. The local's brochure asserted extremely broad jurisdiction, based on work actually performed as well as ambitions articulated by a craft conscious membership. At this juncture, I present the 1911 claim, breaking it down into discrete units:

Construction, reconstruction, repairing, removing, and wrecking of wharves, piers, docks, bridges, viaducts, towers, masts;

Coal, rock or other bunkers;

Hoists, "A" frames, derricks, trestles, hoppers, travelers' false work, pile drivers, structural steel or iron work;

Building and placing cylinders, caissons, cofferdams, retain­ing walls, jetties, weirs, timber and concrete dry-docks;

Pile driving in all its branches;

Cutting off and capping of piles, abutments, foundations, submarine or other work in connection therewith;

All light iron or steel used in any of the above work-riveting, cutting, or bending of same;

Operation of all derricks, tools or machinery necessary in performing any of the aforesaid work;

All work in sewers and tunnels where any of the above said machinery is used.

A few terms such as therewith and aforesaid obviously came from the legal fraternity, stretching back ultimately to ecclesiast­ical law. Behind this canonical language, the ontological tone of proud tough craftsmen resonates: I am a pile driver because I hammer, cut, cap, lift, place, climb, crawl, bend, burrow, dig, dive. My command of work shouts identity. My daring deeds contribute to the human endeavor. I am that which I do!

The San Francisco committee charged with composing these work rules in 1911 assumed that all its clauses were understood by peers. It never entered the minds of compilers to explain to outsiders such terms as "A" frame, travelers' false work, caissons, or jetties. Often, a pile man's safety depended on certainty that his fellows shared familiarity with the relevant techniques and tools, that they had internalized these jurisdictional claims. To work by the rule signaled leaving the job alive.

Job jurisdiction translated itself into identity, authority, com­petence, and safety; for ideologues, it also conveyed conflict. Oc­casionally, a correspondent offered a vignette illuminating the tension packed into by-law brochures. For example, the Industrial Worker (October 10, 1912) carried a San Francisco report entitled "Craft Unionism Fails on the Waterfront" This pronouncement concerned Pile Drivers Local 77, affiliated with the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers.

Local 77's members worked constantly with timber (piles, caps, braces, bents, planks), hence overlapping the traditional jurisdic­tion of carpenters. With the shift from wood to concrete in dock building, iron workers also "infringed" on wood form builders, common laborers who spread concrete, and cement finishers. One IWW activist characterized AFL dock work as a "moving picture show" where rival craftsmen shifted props from scene to scene. Stepping into the "show," the IWW organized concrete laborers who worked side-by-side with skilled AFL pile drivers.

Essentially, alert IWW members in this century's opening dec­ades had responded to a technological transformation, to "prog­ress." The Industrial Worker correspondent touched an underlying chord separating craft from industrial proponents: "The labor skates [AFL business agents] are stampeded and . . . clustered around the bars in the waterfront saloons devising ways and means of keeping hold of their jobs, while the I.W.W. members are busier than ever agitating on the job."

To delve into any trade's lore demands knowledge of job tech­niques, work rules, and craft rhetoric. When IWWs called union rivalry a "moving picture show," AFL officers fell back on con­stitutional language. No set of activists held a linguistic patent on work description. In treating union claims, I have been helped by an unpublished research paper (1968) prepared by John Rogers for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. It traces jurisdictional difference between ironworkers and carpenters, much of it centered on pile driving.

These two international unions faced transitions from wood to iron and steel in setting false work and scaffolding for bridges and skyscrapers. Erectors complained justly of death and disability when "other men, be they mechanics or laborers," put up scaffolds or false work (temporary timbers to hold steel in place during construction). In a Chicago meeting of the Structural Trades Alliance, 1906, both unions sought awards based on material handled, wood or steel. No written "no-raiding" agreements or legal formulas hold forever; jurisdictional battles respond to tech­nical advances and political power. We need to ferret out lore that echoes workers' fears of others who encroach on their live­lihoods.

Young artisans absorb extensive on-the-job vocabularies without sensing how foreign these words sound to outsiders. At building sites across the continent, observers see hard-hatted pile men mired in muck at the foot of towering machines. Few opportunities arise for crew members to explain themselves to those beyond the fence-those who peer in amazement into the excavation pit and see or hear machines in action.

Dialogue hardly exists across "keep-out" and "hard-hat zone" fences. Imagine an encounter between a pile driver and a sidewalk superintendent in which the former tries to explain his essential gear: the pile is like a peg hammered into the ground; our crane lifts each pile to place it between leads or guides under the hammer; the leads look like tracks or cages or pogo sticks; some leads are fixed while others swing; that telescoping brace at the crane's bottom pushes the leads to the right place, just where we need to drive each pile; some of the gang call this bottom brace a spotter, but others name it spider, kicker, stinger, or apron. Enough! Do onlookers focus on the brace's mechanical function, its funny "handles," or the purposes served when workers give their tools insider's names?

All of us are outsiders when facing the work of others. We glimpse their job routines in talk and text, or by pictures in the press and on the screen. To fathom the complexity within strange tasks we begin, in one instance, by asking pile drivers to make their work known. It then becomes our choice whether we wish to decipher their occupational lore. We help ourselves in self-identification by using the job anecdotes and narratives of others to frame their humanity as well as our own. . . .

Young workers, regardless of their status, ethnicity, gender, region, language, or craft, face similar problems in job entry. How does one learn the mass of rules, formal and informal, governing each trade, assembly line, sales counter, or office module? Some green hands, thrown into the water, survive by observation and imitation; others benefit from long-codified apprenticeship pro­cedures; still others thrash about and move by trial and error until "luck" lands them in the hands of a congenial old-timer, a friendly teacher.

We develop personal competence by acquiring mechanical skill, as well as by adapting to a complex of social norms. Job training remains far from a passive process, especially when certain tra­ditional codes involve resistance to a domineering boss, overly demanding production quota, or inhumane workplace. Newcom­ers who reflect on their entrance into trades often comment in­itially on their growth in command of the trade's lingo. A vessel has more than a thousand parts from keel to crow's nest. Office keyboarders, today, face a lexical jungle in computer terminology. The mastery of nomenclature signifies the first control over job demons.

As do other workers, new pile drivers strive to identify their tools and equipment. A crew that can handle conventional tasks (carrying a building's load, wall off earth or water) can also pioneer. Challenging "specs" (plans, blueprints, specifications) face pile butts on preservation sites and in calls to stabilize loose soil, burn metal under water, and use sonar or laser devices in precision surveying. Each fresh technique demands names; no pile but on the job had to know sonar before 1950 or laser before 1960.

Men drove piles by hand for countless years before the de­velopment of primitive machine contrivances. Essentially, the early devices held hoisting frames of sheer-legs and rope pulleys to raise heavy hammers of wood or metal. Just as seamen raised sails, pile men hauled up gravity hammers to be dropped onto pile heads. A cagelike set of guides (leads) kept the pile erect as the drop hammer fell. Although such hand labor sanctioned by tradition seemed changeless, pile-driving technology did change slowly over the centuries.

Before 1800, inventors had perfected steam engines to pump water out of mines, propel locomotives, and operate factory equip­ment. Generally, building-construction engineers and their skilled workers resisted steam's appeal. However, in 1838, Smithe Cram patented a steam-powered combined double pile driver/cut-off saw for the Syracuse & Utica Railroad. Cram's machine used steam power to complete the tasks of men and horses, that is, to lift the hammer. W. T. Brande, in his scientific dictionary of 1842, accounted for the pile driver's energy source: "It may be worked by men or horses, or by a steam engine."

The steam-activated pile hammer dates to July 3, 1845. James Nasmyth, a Scottish mechanical engineer, had invented a steam hammer for iron forge work in 1839, thus preparing the way for his efficient steam-hammer pile driver. Introduced at the Royal Navy Devonport Docks, his machine revolutionized pile construc­tion technology.

Before Nasmyth, energy in various forms powered the necessary equipment, but initially, it was human energy: muscle for direct pounding with a hand maul on a pile head; muscle for lifting and dropping a hand-held ram; muscle for lifting an iron hammer by windlass or treadmill. These latter winding and turning tools depended entirely on strong bodies. In time, horses harnessed to lifting lines and waterwheels rigged to similar gear supplemented human labor.

With the initial application of steam to pile driving, a mechanical hoisting engine fitted with a friction clutch raised and dropped the hammer. Seamen, loggers, and pile men generally named such engines donkeys. But steam could do more than raise a weight by turning a winch drum; it could feed into and propel the hammer itself. Symbolically, James Nasmyth strengthened the ravenous hammer by giving it a diet of steam, as he gave his crew members the mythic power not of plodding donkeys but of countless herds of wild horses.

About 1900, diesel hammers followed steam, using an oil-de­rived fuel to generate internal power within the hammer, thus propelling its downward blows. In recent decades, gravity, steam, and diesel have all been complemented, but not replaced, by compressed air, electricity, vibrators, hydraulic jacks, and water jets. Laymen who observe modern pile-driving apparatus can demystify such gear by asking questions. What raises the pile, guides its descent, and drives it into the earth?

The word rig took more than four centuries to journey from mariners making a ship ready for sea to oil well drillers accepting a short name for their platform/derrick/drill. Two other old words, ram and monkey, have been tied to pile-driving gear; each opens doors to considerable lore: jest, prank, boast, tale. . . .

By penetrating meaning in language, we can understand that workers use wordplay to reduce huge machines to human scale. When a pile driver turns the technical name for a piece of heavy equipment into that for a toy, he gains a degree of mastery over his circumstance. The joke lore built into linguistic conversion-leads into pogo stick, man into monkey, hammer into ram-serves to neutralize the machine's looming danger. The imaginative in­dividual who leads words as easily as vertical leads guide piles lightens an entire crew's load.