Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Some People Build Shoe Hooks. I Built a Building

During my junior year in high school, I had the option of taking home economics or a shop class. Being male, I took shop. I don't remember the title of the class but the goal was to build a major project be it metal or wood over the course of the semester from beginning to end. You had to demonstrate your planning, budgeting and of course building skills to the instructor. There were only three boys in my class (counting myself) and two of them were fraternal twins and next-door neighbors. The twins decided to build a big round bale trailer that would require the metal half of the shop so naturally I decided to do a wood project to stay out of each other's way. I decided to build a three-crate overflow farrowing unit.

My parents had a 120-sow farrow to finish operation back in the 90's when the hog prices were pretty good and everyone was getting into the business. For non-farmers, farrowing is the term given to the whole breeding to birthing process with the sows. To finish a hog means to raise it until market weight and sell it to the slaughterhouse. Well to make sure the economics worked, farmers always tried to keep their farrowing buildings, where the sows gave birth and watched over their piglets until weaned, full. We farrowed sows in groups of ten every two weeks, staggering them between two different farrowing units with ten crates each. In order to make sure these units were full, we often bred as many as eighteen sows in order to make sure that we got at least ten that became pregnant. As expected, sometimes the success rate was greater than ten and we had more sows than room at the proverbial inn. In fair weather we planned to shut them off in open-air pens out in the barn, or manger, but we needed some place for them to call home when it was winter. Enter me with my shop project.

I designed a ten by twenty feet building that would be built on skids so that it may be dragged around as necessary to butt up next to our gestation barn. It would contain three crates for expectant sows and used when the weather was cold. My father approved my plans first since he obviously would have to fork over the money for materials and then I got the approval from my shop teacher who thought that the project was ambitious. A week later a pallet of lumber appeared out behind the school and I began to build. To continue the biblical reference, I became a carpenter.

Over the course of the semester as late winter turned into spring, I could be seen out the north facing school windows during shop or study halls, tacking everything together, just past the steel tube conglomeration being built by the twins. As spring was coming to a close and thus the school year, I even stayed after school to get the project done on time but with a week to go, I had finished insulating and sheathing the interior in plywood and was putting on decorative touches like making some windows and a door. Fortunately, I got graded and received my A before moving it.

We hired a local lumberyard to move the structure, which was still sitting on skids out behind the school. They were able to lift it up with a large fork life and sit it on a flatbed trailer for the five-mile ride out to the farm. In theory... and when you start a sentence like that, you automatically know something went wrong... but in theory, we were going to tilt the flat bed to allow the building to slide part way off and then slowly drive our from underneath it. But theory often doesn't work in the real world. The bed tilted and the building slid and hit the ground as supposed to but because the ten foot wide structure had four skids underneath and only two center ones were in contact with the bed and thus carrying the entire load, they snapped in half when their leading edges hit the dirt. So there sat my brand new building, tilting at a forty-five degree with one end in the dirt, the other end in the air, and my floor had a four-foot bubble in it.

I was devastated, I was upset, and I wanted to kill the delivery guy, who was a new graduate who had been two grades above me in school. He had said the building would slide off "slicker than a bean," whatever the heck that meant. We knew that there wasn't much to do except get it the rest of the way off the truck and sort out what could be done with the rest. So the delivery guy pulled forward and it fell to the ground with a bang. I opened up the door to look at what I was sure would be a floor with a gaping hole or at least splintered all to pieces and instead found myself looking at a floor completely intact and no longer with a four foot bubble in the center. As it turned out, because I had used nice long ring shanked nails to fasten the flooring to the skids, they had also held the two center skids together even though they were now broken in the center. But unless you were a raccoon and could crawl underneath, you would never be able to tell the difference.

My father got the tractor and we drug my building along side the gestation barn and worked the rest of the afternoon joining the two buildings together. By days end, my new overflow farrowing unit was plumbed in and ready to go. My father used that building for ten years with nary a problem until finally he sold the hogs and got out of the business. No kids left to help chore on them cold winter mornings. On a whim, he ended up putting an ad in the paper to see the building and by the next weekend, we had four buyers standing outside looking at it. They got into a bidding war over it and it ended up selling for around five times more than our material cost that went into it. The winner turned it into a horse paddock of some sort and for that I'm sure it worked out quit nicely. Fortunately, he had one of those trailers that the axles slide off and it lays flat on the ground so that we could just slide it right on. We of course told them about the two broken center skids but they didn't concern him much. Why should they? They hadn't bothered us.

I don't remember where that overflow building went too but I often wonder if it is still standing. I only wished I had carved my initials on it somewhere to "tag" my work. It may be a collectors item one of these days.

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