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Ditch-Digging Still a Noble Calling

Kenneth is a rural citizen of Hamilton, Ala., and has begun to observe life and certain things and people helping him to write about them.

Ditch-Digging, The Old-Fashioned Way


The Ditch Witch began in the year 1902, Carl Frederick Malzahn, a German immigrant seeking to escape the harsh winters of Minnesota, moved his family to Perry, Oklahoma, and opened the Malzahn Blacksmith Shop with his sons, Charlie and Gus. The sons took over the business in 1913 and renamed it Malzahn Brothers' General Blacksmithing. And with these talented, unrelenting brothers, success was only a few days away before their genius was born in the form of the Ditch Witch, a little-but-durable machine that could dig ditches for commercial or residential customers and dig the ditch in record time and effort.

Naturally, and this idea of throwing a lot of able-bodied men out of work did cross the minds of the Malzahn brothers, and maybe to some guys with high intellect and lofty ideas that would have been the end of their dreams, but not in the case with the brainstorm of the Malzahn’s who’s Ditch Witch idea was more like a lightning bolt from heaven hitting them when it looked as if their blacksmithing business was having to tread water. The Ditch Witch was more than a smart, efficient, time-saving machine. This idea put the Malzahn brothers on everyone’s lips and it was not long until their machine was on the market and their sales began to happen making the brothers as happy as any set of brothers could be.

Charlie and Ed Malzahn

The naturally-shrewd Malzaha’s did not wait around when one of their novel ideas was put into the hands of people who wanted to use the Ditch Witch. No. It was not too long before the Ditch Witch Trencher was born and now the brothers had a set of twins, the Ditch Witch go accompany the Trencher that bore the same name as that of the Ditch Witch. Things could not be any better for the brothers, but these two hard-working guys were not content to say idle with their meteoric-rise of their Ditch Witch machines. No. The two men who loved to work, was always at their drawing boards designing more machines or more attachments to make the Ditch Witch name more flexible and not affect the cost of their machines that much. The Malzahn brothers took everything idea that the two had and would talk it over until every pro an con could be discovered before the machining and market phase began. They learned early on that discussing first, rather than rushing into their factories made more sense that to put their ideas on wheels than to apologize for it failing. And the Malzahn’s were not about failure.

But as we all have come to realize that one photo is worth several thousand words, so if you will, take a look at the pencil drawing by one of the early masters of paint, Vincent van Gogh’s unfinished drawing in pencil of a man’s clothing who worked outside doing hard, manual work. If you empty everything from your mind and just focus on (this) drawing, and let the hot, broiling sun begin to bear down on the man’s bare back and the fountains of sweat start to gush down his forehead and face, no. There was NOTHING easy, glamorous, or cool about ditch diggers. If you pined-away to have a ditch-digging job, then you do not know what physical and mental anguish the job that it involved.

Ed Malzahn Aboard First Ditch Witch

In essence, hard, manual work. Dreaded-work that most men (in those days) would run like a wild buck in order to avoid such a mental and physical challenge. But a few hearty men did go with the job of digging a ditch and some performed the job quite well. But there was that “beast,” whose head kept popping-up no matter where the ditch was being dug. Racial Tension, a mild way of calling “Racism,” the “beast” that is was, was the truth. Not many men who learned to dig ditches followed-through and became expert ditch-diggers. Not hardly. The diggers’ supervisors, all white men, made sure that there would be no promotions—especially the black ditch-diggers who were employed by these narrow-minded ditch-digging men. Don’t you just feel hatred and hot anger in my description? Didn’t I tell you that ditch-diggers had probably THE roughest job ever? And their daunting task came from daylight until dark, six days a week because (at that time) the white supervisors did have a dab of respect for the Sunday Day of Worship for the black men and their families, but most black and a few, a very few, white ditch-diggers took (the) day for resting rather than worshiping the awesome God.

It was not tough to know what a man did for a living. All that the man had to do was open his hands to see the layers of calluses that hard, manual, dreaded labor had appeared on the man’s hands. But to most, calluses were not a sign of stupidity. The sores stood for bravery, hard, manual work and a prideful heart that caused the nameless ditch-diggers to see themselves as “special” guys. And they were. Very special. Like I said, not everyone could make it as a ditch-digger. The ones who crashed and burned, with no place to do, became hobo’s to gain a daily living. You mgiht ask which occupation was the toughest to do? I suppose that your answer lay in if YOU were to do a day’s work in a ditch digging like crazed beavers or doing some slick pan-handling to have food for the day. This is the only litmus test of knowing the truth between the toughest job.

Now I do not want to rant on and on about ditch-diggers being a gang of nameless men (possibly women) who made (or still making) a living by digging a ditch, because that would prove that “I” am selfish, egocentric, and full of “self” pride. Believe me. I am NOT. I wish that I had a few lists of ditch-diggers who have names such as: “John Henry Hale,” “Dewey Dale Dickery” maybe “Oak DuPont,” because these are strong names. Names that stupid people who run their mouths should never mess with—unless they (the stupid people who run their mouths) want to head home carrying their butts that have been beaten like a bass drum. And for this lack of ditch-digger names, I apologize

And what about those patient, suffering ditch-diggers who work 20 (or more) years doing great work and then face retirement? Does a ditch-digger have a pension? What about a gold shovel? That was sorry. I would hope that the ditch-digging companies and supervisors would think more of their ditch-digging staff wouldn’t you? Before I close, I do have to wonder ONE thing: do today’s women ever do work as a ditch-digger? I hate to fall into editorializing, but women can (and do) such work because in 2020, ditch-digging is performed now with a trencher, a machine with tracks that work just like a military tank, but the operator sits in the open manning the controls while the machine digs a ditch of proper length and depth. But no pick and shovel.


I have to stop right now and salute all picks and shovels, the tools of all ditch-diggers: the men and women who not only helped form our country, but “dug it.”

February 7, 2020___________________________________________________

Drawing of Ditch-Digger by Vincent van Gogh


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