A black-and-white photo in
Missouri Rural Electric Cooperative’s 75th anniversary book shows a lineman changing out a streetlight lamp in West Quincy, a Missouri River town north of Hannibal, where Mark Twain spent his boyhood. Across the street, a big neon sign marks the entrance to a drive-in movie theater.
The lineman reaches up from near the top of a long, narrow extension ladder held up in the bed of a 1950s-era Chevy pickup truck by two spindly struts. His precarious situation makes it look like he’s performing some kind of stunt.
The photo is a reminder of that time before bucket trucks and other line work advancements, before today’s ideas and laws about job safety took hold and Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
Morris Kroeger, the lineman, recalled working off these shaky truck ladders when he was interviewed for the book in 2010. He knew it was dangerous.
“When you were up there, you prayed no one came along and hit the truck,” he told Jim McCarty, the book’s author, who is also editor of Rural Missouri, the monthly magazine for the state’s co-op consumers.
Kroeger worked for the co-op from 1946 to 1985. He was just back from World War II when he came on board. Another photo in the book shows him climbing a pole wearing nothing more protective on his head than a ball cap.
Kroeger’s first boss was line superintendent Pete Disselhorst, whose son, Dick, dropped out of college to join the line crew in 1961. He and Kroeger worked together for 14 years, often as partners on nighttime outage calls.
Safety, training, tools, and equipment—everything is different today, the two retired linemen told McCarty.
“You learned on the job,” Disselhorst said.
Kroeger finished the thought: “We dug holes by hand until we got the digger trucks,” he said. “You would go out there, and they would give you a spade and a spoon and a dirt bar.”
If that didn’t work, they got a hand drill out of the truck, and if they still couldn’t make a hole big enough for a pole, they blasted. The dynamite “might make room for two or three poles in there,” Kroeger said, grinning.
No one wore hard hats when Kroeger started out, although by the time Disselhorst joined the co-op, they were mandatory.
To work on live lines, they used wooden hot sticks that were kept in a heated trailer to dry out any moisture in the wood that could conduct electricity.
“Linemen took special care with the hot sticks, knowing they were all that stood between them and possible electrocution,” McCarty wrote.
When bad weather drove crews inside in the winter, they worked on their hot sticks the way professional baseball players work on their wooden bats, “boning” the barrel and rubbing pine tar on the handle.
“You refinished them, varnished them,” Disselhorst recalled.
A-frames mounted on truck beds were sometimes used to hoist poles.
“On more than one occasion, teams of horses pulled wire into hard-to-reach places,” McCarty wrote.
Bucket trucks were a luxury Missouri linemen didn’t have until the late 1970s. Kroeger or Disselhorst had to strap on their gaffs to climb a pole every time.
Disselhorst remembered the first pole he ever climbed. “It’s still there,” he says, just west of Emden, Missouri. “I didn’t fall off of it. … Dad was on the ground coaxing me.”
Besides being difficult and dangerous work, line work did not pay well. Kroeger started at 35 cents an hour in 1946. Disselhorst started at $1 an hour in 1961. The 25-cent raise he got sometime later was “the biggest increase I ever got, percentage-wise.”
Despite the hardships, they loved their work. And co-op members were grateful for it, especially in the really rural areas.
“If they knew you were coming back the next day, you might get some fried chicken for dinner or a piece of pie, maybe some cookies,” recalled Disselhorst.
Most of all, he remembered how primitive it seems compared to today’s linework.
“We weren’t hard on the equipment because most of the work was by hand.”