By C. Harris-Lockwood | Photos by the late Anne LaBastille
The year was 1971. I was 19 years old and between my freshman and sophomore years of Kirkland College. I was looking for a job.
At that time in employment agencies and help wanted sections of newspapers were labels for jobs for men and jobs for women. Back then the standard job for a young woman would have been a secretary, a waitress, a barmaid, a baby sitter or salesperson in a department store all at minimum wage. Minimum wage back then was $1.65 an hour. I wasn’t having it.
I was looking to make some money over the summer so that I could buy a car. Back then you could get a decent car for $500. At $1.65 I’d have had to work for over 300 hours!! In any case I wasn’t interested in any of those positions. In fact, I determined in high school I would never learn how to type because I didn’t want to have to take a job as a secretary as a last resort.
For a brief time I took a position stripping; furniture that is. I worked in a shop in Whitesboro. My first assignment was a grand piano with about 4 coats of paint on it. I worked diligently for a few days until the toxic chemicals made me think better for my health than the slightly more than the minimum I was getting.
I happened to meet a friend one afternoon to pick up something from her sister who was a barmaid. I was bemoaning my plight when her sister mentioned that a businessman who rented an office in the complex was hiring for his construction company. She said the pay was really good. $3.27 an hour, almost twice the minimum wage, and what a blast it would be to work outside all summer as a construction worker!
The owner’s name was Spartacus DeLia of DeLia Construction. Everyone called him Spot. Spot DeLia. I took down his name and number and called the next day to make an appointment.
Construction has always been a good-paying job and the means for the uneducated man to make a good living, feed his family, and be able to send his kids to college. This girl was already in college and wanted that car. So, there I was standing outside of the big wooden door about to step into my future.
I was on time for my appointment with Spot. I knocked on the door and let myself in when he called for me to enter. It was a long darkened office with his desk at the end in front of a curtained window. He asked how he could help me. I introduced myself and said that I had heard he was hiring.
At that time in my life, I was about 128lbs, had a medium-sized afro and was probably wearing a t-shirt, bell-bottom jeans and sneakers. I don’t recall what Spot was wearing. He never stood up but the conversation went something like this…
Me: Hello, Mr. DeLia. My name is Sandy Harris. I heard you were hiring and I‘d like a job.
Spot: Well Sandy, thank you for coming in. I’m hiring but we don’t hire girls.
Me: That’s ok, Mr. DeLia, I’m not a girl. I’m a woman.
Spot: Yeah, well, we don’t hire girls.
Me: I am a woman, Mr. DeLia, not a girl. And New York State prohibits discrimination based on age, sex, race and national origin.
Spot: We don’t hire girls.
Me: Mr. DeLia, New York State prohibits discrimination based on age, sex, race and national origin.
Spot: We don’t hire girls.
Me: New York State prohibits discrimination based on age, sex, race, and national origin.
I truly don’t recall how many times we went back and forth with those lines and me standing in the middle of the room and him sitting at his desk until Spot said, “Ok, you’re hired. Be there tomorrow at 7 AM sharp. Ask for Ed and tell him you’re the new hire and to put you on flagging.”
Me: Thank you Mr. DeLia. Thank you so much. I’ll be there,” and went running out the door. I was shocked, floored, and ecstatic at the same time. Also, terrified as to how I was going to get to the job at 7 in the morning!!
First Day on the Job
I think I borrowed my mother’s car that day. My mother, Georgetta Harris, ‘Georgie’ as she was called, was both an OR and an ER nurse at Faxton at the time and got a ride in with a fellow nurse so I could get to my first day on the job on time. I was on time but on another planet.
I found Ed who gave me a flag and a vest and a hard hat and pointed to a wide unpaved lane coming from a quarry onto the highway and said, “hold up those trucks til the cars pass,” and walked away.
I was working in concert with another flagger who would wave to me for coordinating the flow of traffic. The only thing was, the truckers driving what they called pans, the huge dump trucks with no back gate, decided to run through my flag, driving by and refusing to stop.
I knew that this was a direct challenge to my authority as a woman, an insult to my position as the new ‘girl’ on the job, and a test of my will. I wasn’t going to go running to daddy, the boss, and whine about how mean the guys were and weren’t respecting my flag. I decided to take direct action. I jumped in front of their trucks and stuck my flag up in their faces while they were in their huge monster trucks.
They had walkie talkies back in the day and word must have gone out fairly quickly that the new Black girl out there flagging was not one to mess with, you better stop for her flag or she’ll be in front of your truck.
I made it to work on time that first day but had to figure out how to get there and back not in my mother’s car. Dad’s ¾ ton pickup truck was not even an option. My father, Vernon J. was a subsection manager at General Electric with a top security clearance.
There was one other Black guy on the crew. I think his name was Nate Washington who lived in Utica. I spoke to him and he agreed to pick me up and take me home every day for $5 for the week. Back in the day, gas was $.36 a gallon! He was making money on me!!
Living on the Mountain
That lasted for a few weeks until I found a guy named Gary whose family owned a cabin up on McCauley Mountain. He and a roommate friend of his, who drove the red corvette in the photo, lived in the cabin. But there was a woodshed out in the backyard. Half of the building was the woodshed. The other half was a hunting cabin. The hunting cabin was probably 12’x12’ square with a bunk bed on the common wall, a dresser and small closet on one side and a pot-bellied stove and a pop-up desk on the other wall.
There was a cute little Dutch door that opened to the common yard. My two cats Grey Tmu and Black Tmu kept the mice out of my stuff and loved to sit on the door shelf and wait for me to come home. There was an outhouse further back and across the yard. From my door, I looked across the yard at the back door of the guy’s cabin.
Gary didn’t have a refrigerator in camp so I traded the one I had to him in exchange for residence in the shed for the summer. It was a good deal for both of us.
Every morning I would get a ride down the hill from one of the guys so for that summer I lived on McCauley Mountain and get a ride home most days from one of my co-habitators on the mountain.
Drinking on the Job
I learned how to drink beer that summer. I was never much of a beer drinker, especially after watching so many of my high school friends puke their guts out at beer parties. But, standing there out in the hot sun, hour after hour on Route 28 between Old Forge and Eagle Bay on the Fulton Chain of Lakes, the vacation capital of NYS, by the end of the day, it got hot. And watching those vacationers roll by in their cars with their tops down, tanned bodies in swimsuits, laughing and talking, music blaring made that $3.27 an hour less than.
One day at around 4 o’clock on a particularly sweltering day, a very merry crew rolled by in a convertible and I had just held up traffic for a piece of machinery to pull onto the job. Traffic was backed up. One of the sun-tanned occupants popped the top of a cold Budweiser and handed it to me. I guzzled that thing down like it was cold beer on a hot day. Suddenly I understood beer.
I pretty much learned to drink that summer. There was a Howard Johnson in the middle of town that the guys would go to on Friday after work. I had my first gin and tonic there and was amazed here and was amazed at how cooling it was. I thought it was the gin until I eventually found out it was the tonic and switched to vodka. The gin gave me a headache.
The Howard Johnsons stop became somewhat of a regular event on Friday nights but getting a ride home could be hit or miss. One particular Friday I ended up walking home back up the side of the mountain in a bit of an inebriated state. There I was walking alone in the dark on a completely wooded narrow Adirondack road. I was very much aware of the wildlife in the woods especially carnivorous predators like bears and wild cats and coyotes. Well actually the bears are pretty much omnivores but I wasn’t splitting hairs nor taking chances, any more than walking alone on a dark night half-drunk up a mountain road anyway.
I could hear rustling and movement in the woods and got a little scared. I know you can’t outrun a bear. They’re faster, and you can’t climb a tree to get away from them either. They climb better than we do. But they don’t like a lot of noise, so I started singing. LOUD!! There was no way any bear was gonna miss the fact that I was in the territory and stumble upon my drunk ass getting home. I was just about hoarse when I got back to my little hut and passed out on the bed.
The best bear story however, was when my buddies who lived in the cabin and I decided to have a yard party. Gary and his roomie bought a turkey and beers and I made mac salad or potato salad and other stuff and we all invited our friends.
The first wave of the party started in the early afternoon. We partied hard and had a lot of fun with the first crew. There were kids and dogs and a big bonfire. There were guitars and songs and smoke and food. People brought hot dogs and sodas and the smells of that food undoubtedly wafted into the forest which surrounded us.
The afternoon crew petered out and we let the fire burn down. We all figured we would rest until the second crew came in the evening. I went into my little hut and got on the bottom bunk. The cats were napping on the Dutch door. Gary was sleeping on the ground next to the smoldering fire waiting for the evening crew to trickle in.
I was well asleep when I heard Gary call out in terror, “Sandy, a bear. There’s a bear!! Ahhhh!! A bear!”
I rolled over and said, “Yeah right Gary. A bear.”
The cats jumped off of the door as Gary howled, ”Ahhhhh. A Bear!”
The cats scurried as I shot off of the bed and ran to the door to see Gary on all fours scrambling away from a black bear clutching the turkey in his mouth. When Gary got far enough away to stand up to his 6’4” height the bear took one look and dropped the turkey. But when the bear saw Gary turn and run to the door of the camp, the bear went back to the turkey.
Gary began throwing gravel at the bear which didn’t mean too much to the bear. It grabbed the turkey again. I started yelling. Gary started yelling and lunging at the beast. It was kind of a Mexican stand-off but, Gary won. The bear had had enough hollering from them humans. It decided to leave off with the free meal and lumbered off back into the dark forest. When the night time partygoers arrived, we had a great North country story to tell.
None of the guys ever came on to me or were particularly disrespectful but there was one Friday night when a bunch of us all went bar hopping. Yes, construction workers can drink. I was getting lit up like everybody else and having a great time. I happened to take a ride from the job boss in his big pickup truck to the next watering hole. Now that I think about it he invited me to ride with him.
At some point he pulled over and began grabbing on me, trying to kiss me, pawing all over me. It was clear I would be raped by this guy if I didn’t do something. But what? He was bigger and stronger than me. I couldn’t really fight him off in that truck. If I could get his hands off of me I could jump out of the truck and run but to where? If I screamed and said get off of me, who would hear? And in the case of any of the above would I have a job come Monday?
It was terrifying and disgusting and made me want to vomit. So, I did. As it turns out vomit is a real turn off. I puked all over his truck and he left me alone. He ended up driving me back to my shed in the woods. I’ve often wondered how he explained that to his wife and kids…
Working on a road crew you get to know the regulars. The folks who are the year-round or even seasonal residents. The ones who are around all season, not the vacationers you see for a few days or weeks then are gone.
There was this one pretty blonde woman who would go by and wave who was a regular. She drove an old pickup truck and she would disappear down Big Moose Road just past the job pit in Eagle Bay. She would pull up every now and then when she was in the line of traffic and chat.
Turned out her name was Anne LaBastille and I knew her as a newly divorced woman, a writer, and a photographer. She became known as The Woodswoman and wrote a very popular book by the same name. ( It was Anne who took the photos of me in this story. The photos were slides for years until I recently had them transferred to disk.)
Anne rode around with a big beautiful German Shepherd Dog named Pietzy. She invited me to her cabin for an afternoon, she was kind of fascinated with me being Black and female working on the road crew. She wanted to interview me to pitch to a new magazine called Essence.
Her cabin on Big Moose was only accessible by boat. She drove me across the lake with Pietzy at the helm. The cabin was sturdy and darling. She said she had designed and built it with some help but had done most of it herself. I was impressed with this middle-aged former New Yorker who divorced her husband and moved deep into the Adirondacks.
I especially liked the ingenuity of the cabin. The sleeping space was up a ladder to a loft area. Beneath the loft area was a horizontal pipe from the wood stove that would heat the space even in the dead of winter. The woodstove, like that in my little hut, was the only source of heat but, Anne Labastille was there year-round.
She never printed the article. She sent me a draft and I sounded so crazy I asked her not to do submit it. For instance, when she asked what I wanted to be I said either a construction worker or a ballerina, which was actually true but didn’t make sense. How was I going to know that the next year I would be offered and accept a scholarship the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater?
We had a blast that afternoon though. I was swimming in the lake and Pietzy joined me. She told me to swim out and turn around. When I did so did the dog. She told me to grab his tail and he would pull me in. Pietzy must have weighed a good 90lbs. His powerful legs and streamlined body cut through the water like a knife and pulled me right back to the dock with ease. Good dog, Pietzy.
Anne LaBastille mentioned me in her book, Woodswoman in the chapter on Human Visitors. She referred to me as Marcia. When I read it I had no idea that she had taken so much heat for having a Black person to her cabin. She was threatened with the traditional outback punishment of burning down her cabin. Thankfully that didn’t happen.
I saw Anne one time after that before she passed away in 2011. It was probably in 1990 or late ’80s. I saw her at a book signing at Barnes and Noble. I stood in line with my then little boy. She recognized me right away. I bought her new book Mama Poc and introduced her to my son Gabe. It was very nice to see her again and doing so well.
Black Fly Season
You’ll never know how bad black flies are until you experience them in the North Country. Seriously. The little buggers love cold running water, which is where they breed and on the Fulton Chain of Lakes they are incredibly well placed. They like the cold Spring air and really don’t disappear until a few hot days in a row during the summer
We flaggers would be dropped off at different locations along the job depending on what was going on that day. This particular day I was dropped off in a hollow with a body of water on one side and Fourth Lake on the other side of the woods. The bugs were fierce. Off! was the common fly dope at the time. Black flies looked at Off! Like an appetizer.
This year a new product was on the market. Cutters. It was awesome. It did keep them off of me but I was so swarmed with them from head to toe, if you snapped your fingers and disappeared me, you would have seen a perfect outline of my body left behind. The bugs were so thick and just hovered waiting for the stuff to wear off of me.
More than Flagging
Word of this Black girl flagging on a road crew began to make the news. The Observer-Dispatch did a story on me. The photographer and writer came and took a picture with me sitting on a bulldozer. It was on the front page of the Living section or something like that. There is a copy of it in the Hamilton College Permanent Collection as part of the Oneida County Back History Archive.
I did get to do a few more things than just flag. I got to blow up the side of a mountain once. Part of the work that summer was widening Route 28. There was dynamite to prep and place. Handling the stuff and adding the fuse would give you a headache. There was a lot of drilling boreholes down into the rock that we had to flag for and when all of the blasting caps and wires were set we’d hold off traffic at both ends for the blast.
I actually got to blow up the side of a mountain. You know the little box with the plunger that you see in cartoons? Well I got to do just that.
There’s a slight delay between pushing down the plunger and the actual explosion. But it is exhilarating when it goes boom and the rock and dirt fly and land is transformed in a moment.
Back in the day, you didn’t necessarily get a paycheck. That $3.27 an hour pay came in a little yellow envelope with our names and the FICA deductions written out by hand on the front.
I had a lot of fun that summer and the next. I held my own and became one of the guys and had plenty of adventure. The next summer I worked for DeLia Construction again on Route 12D in Talcottville. I got to wire rebar for the reinforcements on the Sugar River Bridge.
The summer after that and the next two summers I was a scholarship student at the Alvin Ailey Studio, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the George Faison Dance School. I ended up returning to NYC after graduation to work for the Tony Award winners Raisin, Bubbling Brown Sugar, and the Wiz.
Spartacus ‘Spot’ DeLia was recognized with some sort of award for hiring the first female construction worker.
Me, I bought a Ford Fairlane, 6 cylinder, two-door sedan for $500 and drove it back to school at the end of summer.
When I returned to the area in 1979 to marry Steve Lockwood, I found that his family was very friendly with the DeLias who lived on Paris Road in New Hartford. So I got to the know the family fairly well, especially Phyllis who had a daughter the same age as my son. The Delias had three daughters who lived in fairly close proximity to the Cardamone family who had lots of daughters.
Years later I came to learn that my presence on the road crew had been the subject of many dinner time conversations. This was a big-time for the Women’s Liberation Movement which was then the topic of much news and reporting. Apparently, the girls of the Cardamone and DeLia families wanted to know, “what the girl did today?”
The DeLia’s had a boy cousin who was also in college who stayed with the family for the summer and worked on the line as well. We were the only college students on the road crew that summer. As I understand it, Cousin Billy was a regular reporter of the life and times of the Route 28 Old Forge to Eagle Bay widening who may or may not have made up certain antics.Lol!
I also had the pleasure to get to know the great man, Spartacus, Spot DeLia before his passing in 2010 at the age of 90. I was also fortunate to have shared time with him and his family at their beloved Adirondack Camp at Big Moose Lake. I also visited him when he was nearing the end of his life.
Spot could be a gruff old guy but he was a generous benefactor of For The Good. I’ll always have a sweet spot for him in my heart. In his memory I include a portion of his obituary.
Spartacus DeLia, of Freeport, Grand Bahamas Island, and formerly of New Hartford, died peacefully on April 15, 2010. He was 90 years old. The youngest child of Marietta and Elis G. DeLia, he was raised hard working in the midst of the depression. He attended M.I.T. and was a graduate of Cornell University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. Spot served on the Board of Directors for Oneida National Bank, Norstar Bank, Fleet Norstar Bank, and St. Joseph Nursing Home. He owned his own construction business, S. DeLia Construction Company. Spot was married to the late Marie DeLia; they shared 66 years of marriage and raised five children Barbara, Phyllis, Janice, Jean and Elis. Spot was an avid cook, a skilled sport fisherman, a pilot, train conductor, a host of magnificent proportions and a true devotee to his family.