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Dam laborer returns on his 100th birthday


Edwin Kerns and son, Ken, visit Grand Coulee Dam on Edwin's 100th birthday May 25. The Odessa man worked on building the dam for four years starting in 1935, 81 years ago. - Roger S. Lucas photo

Where would you like to spend your 100th birthday?

Edwin Kerns, from Odessa, turned 100 last Wednesday, and he returned to Grand Coulee Dam, where he has spent his birthday for the last several years.

There's a purpose to the visit. Kerns worked on the dam, starting in 1935, and spent four years here.

Kerns is the oldest living person who worked during construction of the dam, according to CNN, Kerns stated. "They interviewed me and told me I was the oldest survivor," he said.

He plans on returning next year on May 25.

Kerns was greeted by Visitor Center personnel, and received happy birthday wishes from a variety of people who learned why he was there.

The memories poured out. While Kerns has a little trouble hearing, and arrived at the VC in a wheelchair, he shared a lot of memories with a range of people who stood by and listened to the stories. Cliff Hayden, one of the Visitor Center workers, took charge of Kerns' visit.

Kerns graduated from high school in 1935, and came to the dam site looking for work.

"They said I was too skinny and that the work was hard, and they didn't think I could do it," Kerns said.

He finally argued his way onto the payroll at 50 cents an hour. "Good wages then, right in the middle of the Depression," Kerns said.

His first job was breaking up rock with a sledge-hammer.

"They were going for bedrock, and they would blast rock loose, and we had to break it up so they could remove it," Kerns recalled.

After a few days of this, Kerns said his wrists swelled up like watermelons. "They took pity on me and gave me another job," he noted.

This time, they gave him a broom, which he pushed all day long.

"They first said, looking down at my shoes, that they wouldn't last a full day in the mud and grit," Kerns said. "I told them that was all I had."

They sent him to a shed to get boots.

"They came in two sizes - too little and too big," Kerns remembered. He chose "too little" ones and ended up with blistered feet.

The work was hard, and many of the men were hard. By then he was earning $1 an hour, very good wages for the times.

"While a lot of the men spent their money up on B Street on liquor, the girls and gambling, I had made up my mind to save half of my paycheck," Kerns said. At the time, it cost "10 cents" a dance at any one of the bars that cropped up on B Street.

Edwin lived with an older brother, Oscar, and the two shared a cabin at $6 a week.

That was until he met and married Joyce Breckenridge, a Grand Coulee girl.

The two had been married just three months shy of 70 years, Kerns explained. Then she passed away. The couple had one son, Ken, who was with his father last Wednesday.

Kerns remembered the "old Standard Station" that was located just a block from the Visitor Center, and the "Green Hut" restaurant, which was located with full view of the dam.

Kerns worked on the coffer dam, which eventually gave way, nearly killing a number of workers.

There was a lot of pride during construction.

"We knew we were doing something important," Kerns said.

He remembers getting to see his hero, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "He came to see the dam during construction. We had to keep working, but I could see him, and he was only about 150 feet away from me," Kerns said with affection.

After four years working at the dam, and some $900 in savings, Kerns decided to return to Odessa and take over the family farm, about 600 acres of what has become good farm land.

Here, FDR came to the rescue again, with the Farm Security Act.

Kerns' mother had leased the family farm out, and when he returned to take it over, his funds were somewhat limited.

That's where a loan came in and, Kerns remembers, by the second and third years back on the farm, he was making money. He has never looked back, except to recall those days as a laborer on Grand Coulee Dam.

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