This essay is part of a continuing series. Here are links to the previous essays:
Losing One’s Job
Home Business Idea #1
Home Business idea #2
Home Business Idea #3
When I was 17 years old, I was visiting with a man who lived down the road from my house. He was a friend and in the conversation he mentioned to me that he needed to get a backhoe to come dig a ditch across the end of his driveway in order to install a culvert pipe. I looked at the pipe laying in his yard and said, “I’ll dig that ditch for you.” He said, “You don’t want to dig that ditch. The ground is hard packed gravel and dry.” I responded that I could dig that ditch for his pipe, no problem. He asked me how much money I wanted to dig the ditch. I told him a dollar an hour. He chuckled and said, “Okay, go ahead.”
I went right home, fetched a shovel and a pick, and returned on my bicycle to dig the ditch. It was maybe twenty feet long. Four hours later it was done. And I did a good job. It was a nicely-dug ditch. I didn’t do it for the money. I did it for the challenge. I was like that at 17 years old. Part of that physical inclination is still in me at fifty years old.
I’ve done a fair bit of pick & shovel work in my life. I worked five years for a contractor that did a lot of barn, house, and camp jacking and foundation repair. Some days I did more digging than I did carpentry work. Along the way, I met some older men who were far more experienced with a pick and shovel than I was.
One such man was Chester, a fellow of Polish heritage who had lost his farm years before and lived with his wife on a small country lot in a trailer home. He must have been sixty years old at the time and worked as a right-hand-man to the backhoe operator my boss usually hired. Chester was quick to show his denture-smile and wielded a shovel with the kind of confidence that comes only from a lot of experience.
It was Chester who told me to “use my legs and hips” as much as possible when digging. I watched him as he pushed the shovel ahead, into the ground, with his legs bent and his right thigh behind the handle. Then he would lever the shovel handle over his thigh to direct the scoop of soil up and away. His digging was a natural, steady, fluid motion. I imitated his style and the work became easier.
Another digger I once knew was Paul. He too had grown up in my rural community and was an experienced farm hand (but I don’t think he ever had a farm of his own). Paul was a bachelor and got by doing odd jobs. I knew him best from loading hay. He was lean and laconic with a hawk nose on a dark, weathered, creased face that bespoke years of hard living. He looked ancient to me. Paul wore long sleeve shirts with the top button holed, and rolled his own cigarettes. One of his oddest quirks was that he continually mumbled to himself and would regularly clear his throat with a loud, long, phlegmy roll, then spit and utter, “Leslie!” like an oath. I always wondered who or what Leslie was but didn’t feel it was my place to ask.
Paul was never fast but he was steady and that is exactly the way you need to do the work of haying, and ditch digging.
Paul and a couple of his brothers often worked together to do odd jobs for people who owned camps along the lake. I once observed them digging a 150-foot trench for a water line. It was deep and in stoney ground. The brothers worked quiet and steady all day long for a few days to get the job done. I was amazed that three old men were able to accomplish such a feat.
Though I never knew him, I’ve heard of another man around here who once had a reputation as a hand-digger, and he only had one hand. He had lost his arm to a corn chopper and wore a hook. But I’m told this fellow could dig like you wouldn’t believe.
Most people in our world look down on men who do hard manual labor, and look up to men who have athletic prowess. This is a perversion. I once had the unforgettable pleasure of seeing an overconfident young man with an impressive physique wilt in the hay mow next to to couple of comparatively frail-looking old farmers. They kept plodding along, getting the job done, while Mr. Atlas sat down on a bale of hay to give his puffy gym-muscles a rest. There is no sports hero alive who impresses me more than a man who can regularly do hard, physical work without complaining, stick with it to the end, and then do it again the next day.
All of which leads me to the point of this essay. I believe a man with the mind to do it, can make decent money as a self-employed ditch digger. There are plenty of places where backhoes and mechanical diggers just aren’t practical. And such machines usually make a big mess of things. A hand-digger can carefully remove sod and set it aside, then dig a trench or ditch neatly. They can lay a strip of plastic on the ground by the ditch and throw the earth on it to keep things especially tidy. Ditch digging can be a craft that you take satisfaction in doing well, and it is a true opportunity for a person with the mind and body to do it.
Digging by hand is, of course, not something you’ll want to do into your retirement, and it certainly isn’t suited to people who are out of shape or have health problems, and it is seasonal (you can’t dig very well in frozen ground). But the job can be started with reasonably little investment, and I believe a man could make a decent bit of money digging. If you’re a young fellow looking to make some money, this is an idea for YOU. It beats making hamburgers all day at McDonald's or stocking the shelves at WalMart. At least, I think it does!
Launching your own business as a ditch digger would be surprisingly easy. Start by getting yourself some business cards. Put on the cards that you hand-dig trenches, ditches, post holes, graves, and whatever else. Then go see every backhoe operator in the neighborhood. Tell them what you’re doing and give them a handful of your cards. Those guys don’t want to dig by hand. They’ll respect you for what you’re doing and refer you to people who call them with small or difficult little jobs. Go see local plumbers and contractors and give them your cards too. They’ll probably call you to do subcontracting work for them, and they’ll spread the word. Then put your card on every bulletin board in town. A small, inexpensive ad in a weekly “Pennysaver” newspaper would be good too. The calls will come in. I guarantee it.
And when the calls come in, you need to be ready to give a price for your service. How much? Well, you certainly aren’t going to work for minimum wage. You will charge a premium and you will deserve a premium for what you can do for your customers. I suggest you always price by the job, not the hour. Don’t sell yourself short. It’s better to price your services a tad high and not get the job than too low and end up making less that you deserve. So charge a premium and do a premium job and you can’t go wrong.
I don’t know what people are charging for services these days. To start, I’d probably look the job over, calculate in my mind how many hours it will take, and figure $50 an hour. With experience you’ll get better at “guess-timating.”
For tools, you’ll need a good shovel. Buy a more-expensive contractor-grade shovel. Get a coarse metal file to keep the blade sharp (this is no small matter). You’ll need a pickax and a post hole digger and a digging bar. If you have the money to invest, I recommend a heavy-duty electric demolition hammer with a variety of ends (including a spade end) and some heavy-duty extension cords. A demolition hammer can easily loosen up hard-packed earth and stone and will pay for itself in no time.
Other “tools” you’ll need are hard-sole work boots, gloves, and a water jug (keep well hydrated). Digging in hot summer sun is tough. When the days are brutally hot, you can dig in the morning, take a siesta through the hottest part of the day, and dig again in the afternoon. You can do things like that a whole lot easier when you are your own boss. You could even dig at night with a halogen light. Then there is always the possibility of “portable shade.” One of those pop-up craft fair tents would be ideal to work under as you dig.
If you approach this as a serious business, price accordingly, and do your work in a diligent, professional manner, you’ll soon have more work than you can handle. Each job will be a physical and mental challenge. Each job will have a beginning, and an end goal to work towards. And every job will have a payoff, part of which will be some real satisfaction. You’ll sleep well at night too.
Some people will question whether the human body can stand up to a daily dose of hard labor. Of course it can. In time, calluses form, sore muscles firm up, and the body acclimates to the routine. Hand-digging may be hard, but it isn’t unhealthy. I would argue that a regular measure of manual labor is good for a body. But not one in a thousand healthy young men looking for a job would even consider this idea. To those who do, I salute you and wish you well!
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about ditch digging. Here’s the link to a previous essay: Benny’s Grandfather Was a Ditch Digger
One more thing... There is a small ad in my local “Pennysaver” newspaper every week for a company called ’LIL DIGG’R. It says: “We dig post holes & ditches. We deliver small quantities of dirt, sand, gravel & mulch. We dig perc holes. We dig pet graves. We dig your little jobs.” ’LIL DIGG’R CAN DO!
I don’t know if the person who runs this business actually hand digs. Maybe he has a mini backhoe. In any event, the ad has been in the paper a long time and that’s an indication that the business is making money. It doesn't surprise me.
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