Basque Design Engineer – His First Years in America

True Stories from the 20th Century at Pacificorp

By J. Charles Cheek

© January 2005

Basque Design Engineer – His First Years in America

I met Joe Sangroniz in the early 1960s. He came to work at Pacific Power & Light Company through Idaho Power Company where he was a design draftsman. Joe had left Idaho to avoid being arrested. He was involved in a bitter divorce that involved a young daughter. His wife, whom Joe said he proposed to by saying, “The hell you are!” got custody of their daughter. Joe defied the court order and took the young girl to Spain to stay with his parents indefinitely.

Joe worked on my design team and we spent a lot of time together including an entire summer in Enterprise, Oregon. I was running the field operations of four survey crews working on the construction surveying of the 230,000-volt transmission line being built from Enterprise, Oregon to Walla Walla, Washington. Idaho Power Company was building the segment connecting the line from Enterprise to Brownlee Dam on the Snake River. Joe and I spend a lot of time together that summer and he told me a lot about his background.

He came to America from Spain shortly after WWII. He was barely 17 years old. In exchange for his passage to America he was obligated to work three years on a sheep ranch in Idaho for room, board and a small monthly salary. The ranch sent him tickets for flying from Barcelona, Spain to New York then traveling by train to Boise, Idaho. The ranch foreman met Joe at the train station and immediately started intimidating him.

“How old are you, kid?” asked the foreman in Spanish.

“Seventeen,” replied Joe.

“Damn, why did they send me a kid? You got some pull with the ranch owner?” asked the foreman.

“Nada, nada,” answered Joe as he sensed that he better not say anything about his father making arrangements for his trip to America.

“Damn good thing,” said the foreman then fell silent.

As the foreman drove the pickup truck through the desolate countryside Joe soaked in the scenery. It reminded him of the American cowboy movies he had seen back in Spain. They arrived at the desolate ranch in mid afternoon and Joe was shown to the bunkhouse. Just like in the cowboy movies it had several bunks around the walls, a rough wood table, some old chairs and a wood stove. Joe was excited to begin his western adventure. This was going to be fun – just like in the cowboy movies.

The Basque foreman was not pleased to find out that Joe didn’t speak English at all and he spoke the Basque language poorly. Joe could only converse well in Spanish. “It’s a couple of hours yet before dinner,” said the foreman in Spanish. There’s a horse tied in the barn that need’s shoeing. I was a working on ‘em before I had to go to Boise and get you. I already took off the old shoes. The new shoes are on the bench. Go on down there and put new shoes on that horse then come on up to the house and get cleaned up for dinner.”

“I don’t know how to shoe a horse,” replied Joe. The foreman had assumed that Joe came from a ranching area of Spain that used horses. He didn’t know that Joe had grown up in the city of Barcelona where his father was a businessman. Although Joe knew from the cowboy movies that horses wore metal shoes he had no clue about how they were attached.

“Toro carajo,” said the foreman, “Don’t give me that crap. Just get your ass into that barn down there and shoe that horse.”

“But, I don’t …”

The foreman interrupted, “I said get the hell down to the barn and shoe that horse. Come on up to the house when you’ve finished.”

Joe tried to ask how to shoe a horse, “Como se ….” But the foreman wasn’t going to listen.

“I said get your ass into that barn and shoe the horse. Quit giving me excuses kid,” said the foreman with finality as he stabbed his finger in the direction of the barn. “Now, get!”

In the barn alone with the horse Joe scratched his head, looked around and found the metal shoes. He scratched his head some more and wondered how to attach them to the horse’s hoofs. He tried to think back over all the cowboy movies he’d seen for a clue on how to attach the shoes. Nothing.

Two hours later the barn door was jerked open. “What the hell is taking you so long? Dinner is ready at the house.”

“Yes sir,” said Joe. “I just finished.”

The foreman looked at the horse’s feet and was struck dumb. He couldn’t speak. Then, he started to laugh. He slapped his thighs and laughed hysterically. Finally, after rubbing his eyes and blowing his nose on a big red handkerchief, he said, “You dumb ass kid. You really don’t know how to shoe a horse, do you?” Joe had wired the shoes onto the horse’s hoofs.

“I grew up in the city,” replied Joe. “I tried to tell you that.”

“Well, kid, you’ve got a lot to learn. After dinner I’ll show you how to shoe a horse then you can start shoveling the horse and cow crap out of all these stalls in the barn.”

It was summertime and the other ranch hands were out with their bands of sheep. Joe and the Basque cook were the only hands staying at the ranch house so he got assigned all the chores normally done by the cook and the ranch owner’s family members. He cleaned stalls, watered and fed the cows, chickens, pigs and horses. He hauled wood, washed dishes and other household chores. He learned how to build and repair fences and all the other maintenance activities of a large sheep ranching operation.

With the daylight to dark work the summer passed quickly for Joe. Now it was Fall and he was working long days using a pitchfork to load loose hay onto a large rubber tired wagon. A team of workhorses was hitched to the wagon and the foreman would drive the full load to the barn where Joe would unload it. They had started cutting and bringing in the hay from the fields farthest from the barn. Finally after a month of back breaking labor they were finally gathering the hay from the field closest to the barn. It was cold and a heavy snow was falling.

“OK, Joe,” said the foreman, “I’m going to give you another chance at a job with more responsibility. Get up there on the wagon and drive the team to the barn with this final load of hay.”

Joe was excited. Finally, the foreman was going to trust him with more than hard labor. He climbed up, sat on the wagon seat and picked up the reins. Then a panic thought flashed into his head. He had not paid any attention to how the foreman drove the team of horses. Joe didn’t know what to do. A feeling of panic welled up inside him. He wanted to show the foreman that he could handle a higher responsibility. His mind raced. Then, he remembered the cowboy movies with all the horse drawn stagecoaches. Now, I know just how to drive a team of horses, he thought.

Just like in the cowboy movies, Joe wrapped the leather reins tightly around his hands, raised them high and snapped them down hard on the backs of the horses while yelling out, “HAAAAAAA!” It scared the hell out of the horses. They were used to a gentle tap and a low clicking sound from the driver’s mouth. The panicked horses jumped forward with the loaded wagon. The pin popped out of the single tree that connects the harnessed horses to the wagon.

In an instant, Joe was jerked off the wagon headfirst, the reins still tightly wrapped around his hands. The horses ran at a full gallop and dragged him across the snow-covered ground all the way to the barn.

“Were you hurt?” I asked.

“Only my ego,” replied, Joe.

“What happened next?” I asked.

“Back to cleaning stalls in the barn.”

“Did you ever get to herd sheep?”

“Yeah, the following Spring, and I got in more trouble there.”

After again doing all the menial labor-intensive jobs all winter including feeding hay to the sheep that had been brought in off the range for the hard winter months, Spring arrived and Joe was also taught to herd sheep on the range. The foreman spent the first week with him and taught him how to handle the sheep dogs in the field. The foreman was pleased with the way Joe had learned to handle the band of sheep so he left Joe alone with two dogs and several hundred sheep.

Joe was not yet 18 years old. He was proud to be on his own and he resolved to do a good job. He didn’t want to disappoint the foreman again. After bedding the sheep down each night and feeding the dogs Joe went into his sheep herder wagon, prepared himself a meal then spent some time listening to a radio before going to bed. A battery radio was his only contact with the outside world except when the foreman drove out each week with food, water and other supplies.

After a very hot July day in the high country Joe and his dogs were bringing the band of sheep back to his sheep herder wagon for the night. It was getting dark as he came over a ridge and looked down on his wagon about 200 yards below.

Oh my God, there is a bear in my camp down there, Joe thought to himself. The foreman had told him to be careful to secure all his food supply, as there was a possibility of bears getting the scent and coming into his camp. The foreman had cautioned him to avoid bears as they could easily tear up a man and some had been know to eat a man.

I must have left something out, thought Joe. Now, the foreman is going to be mad at me again.

His mind raced for a solution. Although it was getting dark rapidly he couldn’t see that the bear had torn up the camp yet. I better shoot him before he tears up my camp. The foreman had taught him how to shoot a 30-30 rifle, which was carried in a scabbard attached to his saddle.

He dismounted and tied his horse to one of the lone trees nearby. He removed the rifle, lay down, took careful aim and fired. The bear didn’t move. I must have missed him, thought Joe. He took careful aim and fired again. Again, the bear didn’t move. The gunshot was scaring his horse and the sheep. He would be in real big trouble if the sheep dispersed in the dark and wolves or coyotes killed some of them. He certainly wasn’t going to go down there and confront that bear in the dark. So he sat down by the tree to figure out what to do.

Finally, as it was getting very dark he came up with a plan. They would just have to spend the night on the ridge. He had the dogs herd the sheep around him and his horse. Then he stood on the saddled horse and climbed up into the tree where he stayed frightened and sleepless for the entire night.

The next morning as it got light he climbed down from the tree and looked down the hill toward his camp. The bear was gone but there was something shinning brightly in the morning sun. Mounting his horse, he hurried down to investigate.

As the summer days had got hotter and hotter Joe was running short of water to drink and cook with. He had been pleading with the foreman to bring him some additional water. Sitting near his wagon was a shinny new 50-gallon stainless steel water barrel – with two bullet holes in it just a few inches from the bottom of the barrel.

E – N – D

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