Born a rigger
Dingman: Growing up in the booming Alberta oil industry
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 02:18 pm
“I had many other jobs, but I always wanted to get back to the rigs,” said 84-year-old Frank Redford from his home in Black Diamond.
Born in Okotoks in 1930 during Alberta’s oil boom, his family moved to Turner Valley in the ‘30s where his father worked for Valley Pipeline division of Royalite Oil Company.
Like most children in the oil towns around southern Alberta, Redford worked during the summers. When he was 11 he got a job in Mercury at the Purity 99 gas plant. His boss was 15 and the other riggers called the group of children “the diaper gang.” Redford said their job was to polish pipelines and pick weeds off of the dikes that were there incase of a leak.
“Our job was to keep them lookin’ black,” he said. “But we were getting paid lots of money.”
Room and board was only $1 per day, meaning that Redford was pocketing a pretty penny from his daily wage of $3.51, especially for an 11-year-old.
“We made a lot of money as a kid,” Redford said with a grin. “I’d heard that expression ‘bringing home the bacon,” so I went down to the butcher shop and bought a pound of bacon for my mom. She thought that was the greatest thing.”
Redford said there was always a “movement of people” who would pick up and move between the various towns. As for Turner Valley, Redford says not much has changed.
“As a matter of fact it looked a hell of a lot like it does day,” he said.
The Royal Café was the centre of attraction in town, mainly because it was the only place that would stay open.
“The single men had to have places to eat, as the rigs ran shift work,” Redford said. “They always made sure those guys had food.”
Although his family lived in and around Turner Valley, Redford never worked at prestigious plant, even after dropping out of school at the age of 14.
“Only the bosses kids worked at the Turner Valley plant in the summer,” he said.
Youths like Bob Hinman, whose management family lived on “Snob Hill” as it was called by the workers who lived below. Hinman resides in Turner Valley today with his wife Joy, but originally moved to the town from Ontario when his dad, who built and ran Royalite machine shops, was recruited in the 1940s to work there.
Joy said the first time she came to meet Bob’s family in Turner Valley she felt sorry for the women in the oil town.
“Bob’s poor mother, she was trying to still have a nice lifestyle,” Joy said. “She would polish the silver and the silver teapot and it would be black by the next day because there was so much sulfur in the air.”
Redford said the oil lifestyle was difficult for many rigger’s wives.
“It wasn’t an easy life for women,” Redford said. “Men were working so it didn’t make much difference to us where we were.”
He married his childhood sweetheart, Marilyn, at the age of 18. She moved around with him as he worked in the oil industry, going from town to town while trying to raise their three kids and keep the home together.
But they never stayed put for long. As a child, Frank moved from Turner Valley to Naphtha and Hartell. The houses provided by the oil companies, often referred to as “skid shacks” because of the skids they sat on, would be lifted onto a flatbed truck or train once oil had run dry in an area. The whole town would literally pick up and move, leaving very few remnants behind. Some towns, such as the bustling Little Chicago, died completely.
Redford’s family continued to travel as he worked as a salesman for the Roller Bit Company selling drills bits.
“We went through three cars every two years travelling to other rigs, travelling 150,000 km every year,” Redford said.
He lived in Pincher Creek, and then navigated away from Alberta to Saskatchewan to work in the Cabree oilfields. But Redford’s work in the oilfield took him much further than Saskatchewan.
In 1960, he was hired to work on the oil wells in Nigeria, living there without his family for a year before they joined him. In 1967 oil took him to the North Sea, off of Norway and Finland, where he led the construction of offshore drilling sites for 26 years.
But Alberta was always home for Redford. After flying back and forth overseas for decades, he returned to Turner Valley and operated a car wash for 13 years.
Today, Redford resides in Black Diamond at the home he built in 1984, surrounded by bronze figures of his prized offshore rigs. Redford has fond memories from his decades in the oil industry.
In June Redford will be the parade marshal of the Diamond Valley Parade.
“For a kid who didn’t go to school, I did not too bad,” he said.