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Transcript of interview with Elmer Hilsinger by Irene Rostine, October 2, 1991







When Mr. Elmer Hilsinger arrived from the Los Angeles area in 1942, to work as a Refractory Inspector in the Engineering Department at Basic Magnesium Incorporated (BMI), little did he know the town site would grow to be known as Henderson, Nevadain a few short decades. Mr. Hilsinger’s oral history provides a glimpse of the work being done by women at BMI, including women working as chemists, truck drivers, and secretaries. His words attest to the strong work ethic demonstrated by women at the plant during the “war work” period. Through Mr. Hilsinger’s story, we are also provided with an account of what daily life was like for a married couple, including Mr. Hilsinger’s life with his wife who worked as a waitress at Anderson Camp. In addition, Mr. Hilsinger’s oral history touches on the evolution of safety rules within the plant, the transition from the American Federation of Labor Union to the Congress of Industrial Organizations Union, and the role prostitution played during the tim

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Hilsinger, Elmer Interview, 1991 October 2. OH-03470. [Transcript.] Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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An Interview with Elmer Hilsinger An Oral History Conducted by Irene Rostine ______________________________________________ Las Vegas Women Oral History Project University of Nevada, Las Vegas 1991 ii ? NSHE, Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, 1991 Produced by: Las Vegas Women Oral History Project Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, UNLV Dr. Joanne L. Goodwin, Director Irene Rostine, M.A., Interviewer Tamara Marino, Transcription iii iv This interview and transcript have been made possible through the generosity of donors to the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada. The College of Liberal Arts provides a home for the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, as well as a wide variety of in-kind services. The History Department provided necessary reassignment for the director, as well as graduate assistants for the project. The department, as well as the college and university administration, enabled students and faculty to work together with community members to generate this selection of first-person narratives. The participants in this project thank the University for its support that gave an idea the chance to flourish. The text has received minimal editing. These measures include the elimination of fragments, false starts, and repetitions in order to enhance the reader’s understanding of the material. All measures have been taken to preserve the style and language of the narrator. In several cases, photographic sources (housed separately) accompany the collection as slides or black and white photographs. The following interview is part of a series of interviews conducted under the auspices of the Las Vegas Women Oral History Project. Additional transcripts may be found under that series title. Dr. Joanne Goodwin, Project Director Associate Professor, Department of History Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, Director University of Nevada Las Vegas v Preface When Mr. Elmer Hilsinger arrived from the Los Angeles area in 1942, to work as a Refractory Inspector in the Engineering Department at Basic Magnesium Incorporated (BMI), little did he know the town site would grow to be known as Henderson, Nevadain a few short decades. Mr. Hilsinger’s oral history provides a glimpse of the work being done by women at BMI, including women working as chemists, truck drivers, and secretaries. His words attest to the strong work ethic demonstrated by women at the plant during the “war work” period. Through Mr. Hilsinger’s story, we are also provided with an account of what daily life was like for a married couple, including Mr. Hilsinger’s life with his wife who worked as a waitress at Anderson Camp. In addition, Mr. Hilsinger’s oral history touches on the evolution of safety rules within the plant, the transition from the American Federation of Labor Union to the Congress of Industrial Organizations Union, and the role prostitution played during the time period, with a brief reference to Block 16, The Meadows, and Four Mile. He also discusses how people shared transportation to get to work or to run every-day errands and serves as a witness to Henderson’s first “housing boom.” Mr. Hilsinger worked at the BMI complex, which eventually became Stauffer Chemical Company, through the late 1970s. Perhaps nothing speaks more to these simpler times in southern Nevada than when he references his wife’s garden, noting “she had several vegetables that we would raise and eat. We thought that was quite an accomplishment, there in the desert.” vi An Interview with Elmer Hilsinger An Oral History Conducted by Irene Rostine vii 1 [Beginning of Track] This is an oral history interview with Elmer Hilsinger. It’s October 2nd, 1991. Elmer, what date did you begin working at BMI [Basic Magnesium Incorporated]? I began working at BMI March the 24th, 1942. Ok, and what day did you leave BMI? How long did you work? I left the BMI complex, which was Stauffer Chemical Company, in July the 1st, 1980 or 1976. So, you actually then worked at BMI for the whole time it was in operation and then just transferred to Stauffer. Well, I worked in that complex, yes. While you were employed at BMI, what was your job there, Elmer? I was hired in as a basic refractory inspector. And what was that? In the field engineering department. Did you have any women working under you, Elmer? In that capacity, no. Did you have any at a later date in any other capacity? Yes. Can you tell us about that? After the plant went into production, in late 1942 and early ’43, we had women working in the plants. In our area, which was the chlorine chemical plant, alkaloid chemical division, we had women working in the cell houses taking samples. We had women 2 chemists working [as] field chemists taking samples to the lab. We had women driving pickup trucks. We had women driving jeeps. These women that were driving the trucks and jeeps, Elmer, what were they transporting? Where were they going? Was it just in the plant? Yes. In our case, in the chlorine plant, it was removing cell tops and bottoms, and cell maintenance between the maintenance shop and back into the production department. Did they belong to any kind of a union when they were driving? Was there Teamsters, or anything like that, that they had to belong to? To my knowledge, in those days the women in the plant driving jeeps and doing various jobs were not members. We were, at that time, forming a union for... Let me correct that and say that CIA, the CIO… The CIO? [Laughing] The CIO. [Laughing] New initials, new times. [Laughing] Yes, the CIO was coming in and having a drive to get people to join their union because they were dissatisfied with the way the AF of L, which was a crafts trade union, rather ignored the operating personnel, and the laborer, and all of those. So, the CIO was trying to come in and form? They did form a union. They had the majority of the employees signed up, but they’d go up to management and they would say, “We have a contact with AF of L.” That contract was signed in Washington, D.C. it was not signed by local members in the area. One day, F of L went in to complain with the management, they would say, “But the CIO has all the membership.” So, they were playing each other against the unions against each 3 other. And that went on for, I don’t remember the length of time, it was one of those things. Finally, the AF of L or the CIO kind of phased out and we had them. I was not involved in unions, because I was a salaried employee and did not join. But as far as you know, the women didn’t take part in this union membership. They were just hired for the war time and then they would be gone? At that time, that was my impression and I wouldn’t say that that was a fact, but that was my impression. Elmer, how did these women work? Did they have problems working with the men in the plant or did they all seem to get along pretty well together? Did the men heckle them or did the women ask for special favors? From the standpoint of management or from the standpoint of their supervisor, and I have supervised women where you’ve got 90% women and 10% men and you have no trouble. When you have 10% women and 90% men, you have problems. All the men want to stop and talk to the women, but women run themselves. Like any group of working women, [you] had occasional spats, but then no, to my knowledge, they had no animosity among each other. So, the extent of the men, they weren’t harassing them or anything? They didn’t belittle them or anything? It was just they were, maybe, whistling at them? Well, no they would just stop and talk. These men were up here, 7,000 men with no women. Most of them, they couldn’t bring their wives because there was no housing. I had one man working for me who owned a house in Las Vegas, one of those old concrete block houses over on Third, or Second, or Third Street. He had a garage and in that garage he had four army cots. He slept eight men on those four army cots. You rented a 4 cot for eight hours of sleep. When you get out the next man was getting off shift. He came in and he took that cot over. That’s how short housing was. When you first came to Las Vegas, how did you find housing? Did you come with your wife or did she follow you? No. I came up with four other fellows from the Los Angeles area. The company I was working for furnished about 80 percent of the refractories that went into the deal. When I came up, as I said, if you were a refractory inspector, many of those people unloaded the brick into the sheds. We set there and made sure that, for the government, they got their proper count [and] everything that they ordered came out of that box-car and went into the shed. Then, they went into grinding plants to grind them and fit them so that they would [fit] into the various shapes that they needed in the chlorinators and things. They were inspected again for any faults within the brick itself in the refractory. So, that was our function at that particular time. So you came by yourself and then your wife followed you? She got real lonesome. We had just rented a new house down in Montrose, California. She said, “I just don’t want to live here by myself.” So I said, “The only way you can come out and get any place to live is if you go to work for the Anderson Catering Company,” I don’t remember the exact name of it, because they had to furnish uniforms, transportation, and housing for the women. They housed them in Boulder City in the old apartment buildings that were leftover from building the dam. My wife would work the morning shift, which was from six o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon, and after about a week or so of that, she said that she had to get out of there because they weren’t getting a lot of sleep because these girls, that worked the afternoon shift, from 5 two in the afternoon until ten at night, they’d go out and come home and it was too much treading up and down the halls to bathroom at night. It was traffic. [Laughing] She wouldn’t get a lot of sleep. I went over one Sunday morning to pick her up and take her out to breakfast and, I will use the word madam, which is not the word, but anyway, I wandered up stairs, you know, and [the madam] says, “You can’t come up here. You don’t know what you’re going to see.” I said, “Nothing I haven’t seen before.” “Get out of here!” [Laughing] So, I had to go back down the stairs. Where did you live at that time Elmer? At that time, I was living in the dormitory. When I first moved up to Henderson, we rented a little tent behind the Victory Club, on Boulder Highway. It was big enough for us to put three sleeping bags in. I don’t recall what we paid for that space, but the tent wasn’t very big and it was extremely hot when the sun shone on it. Now, this is you and the other three men that came up from California, not you and your wife? No. Our fresh water was drawn from a tank that set on a trailer out behind the place. So, I left there. They were building dormitories for the men and, as soon as they were completed, I left the tent and got a place in the dormitory. [Laughing] I had switched then from the morning shift to the afternoon shift because my wife, in the meantime, she had left Anderson’s Camp and got a job in a restaurant in Boulder City. The reason she did that was so that we could have an apartment to ourselves, which consisted of about an eight-by-ten, screened-in porch, which had two bunk beds and a dresser in it. For that we 6 paid ten dollars a week or ten dollars a month. It must have been ten dollars a week, I guess. And you couldn’t cook there or anything, [so] you ate out? No. We ate out. Most everyone took their meals at Anderson’s Camp. As a side, they had so many people to feed that they fed in three shifts. You went in and had about thirty minutes to eat. You had your badge number. Certain badge numbers went in, then the next group, the next group, and then the next group, and that was about more than thirty minutes, I forget now, but it was over the span of breakfast [and] lunch because the girls didn’t have much more than time enough to clear up from the breakfast until it was time, almost, to start for lunch. Now when your wife worked there, at Anderson’s, she worked in the cafeteria. What did she do there, Elmer? She was a waitress. She was a waitress. What were her hours? Did she work eight hours? She worked six to ten. Six days a week, five days a week? Five days a week. I mean six days a week, pardon me. So then, after she left Anderson’s, she got a job in a restaurant so she would be allowed to live in Boulder City in your little apartment? Well, she was in having breakfast one morning in this restaurant and she asked the waitress there if there was any housing, or any rooms, or anything, you know. The lady said, “I have a room, but the only way I will rent it is if the person comes to work at the Green Shack,” where she was working. So, my wife quit Anderson’s Camp and went to 7 work there. We had lived in this apartment, or room I should say, about possibly two weeks, when we got a letter from her mother that she was on her way out to see her. [Laughing] So, I’m back at Anderson’s Camp, again. So mom and daughter can stay together. Well, that’s interesting. [Laughing] By the time her mother left and we were to go back together in the room, I had an assignment to come to Washington to learn about liquid fraction chlorine gases. So, that was the extent of our living. By the time I came back from Washington, the first of June, they had a house for me. That was in Henderson or Boulder City? Henderson. But you were still at BMI at the time? In the town site, yes. That was the original Victory Village? No, no, no, the original town site. Oh, the original town site, ok. See, certain people holding certain jobs were given houses. They were giving houses and the first thousand, of course, went to I would say, I guess “higher ups” is what you would say. Like the worst manager for the entire project, he lived down at the Hualapai Lodge for a long time and then he lived in Boulder City, but the peons, they had housing built in the town site. Like the fire chief, he was able to get a house before I was. They were building houses continually. I was in the second group of housing that was released and that was early in June. When I went to Washington, my wife went back to our house in 8 Monrovia, California, and stayed there. After a couple of weeks up there, I called her up and wanted her to come on up and share my hotel room. So, she came up. And then you got your house? Yes. Elmer, back to these women that worked in the plants, you said they were pretty good workers, they were reliable? Yes, they were. How about absenteeism, were they always out or did they hold their own. Women had less absenteeism than the men did, [at least] the ones that I had. How about safety in the plant, as far as women, did they have any accidents or were they fairly cautious workers? Women all wore their safety equipment. They had gas masks that they had to carry on themselves. They had rubber gloves. They had goggles that were gas-proof goggles that they wore around the neck. They didn’t wear them all the time, but they had other goggles they put on. These gas masks they wore, Elmer, why did they need to have the gas masks? They worked in the chlorine cell house where they make it. There was always a little gas in there and there was always a chance for… We had power interruptions. We started up the cell house; I believe it was the 8th day of August, 1942. Our transformer set on a truck outside of the yard out there and, every now and then, we had a little lighting storm or something like that and the power would go off. When that happened, your chlorine compressors all stopped. So, the gas that you were generating over there in the cell house, it’s not being drawn off. So, it escapes in to the building. 9 So, that was the point the girls would put the masks on? Well, every person wore a mask. By that, I mean you had them strapped around your waist. You didn’t wear it on your face. No, we had, I had no trouble anyway, with women wearing their safety equipment. The most trouble would come from people coming through. We had our own cell maintenance crew. We had our own maintenance organization in this area and we had, I guess what you would call construction maintenance, because the plant was still being built. Although we were operating down in our end of it, the production started from the grind area and progressed down into the formation. We would have people wander in there without any safety equipment on. This was not only a pipefitter, it might be the manager from some other department, or a vice president coming into visit, or something like that, you know. You would have to run them out or explain, diplomatically to them, that they should have a gas mask on. I might point out that we had very, as the Bible says, “in the beginning,” we had very inadequate safety equipment. You learned as you went along what was needed or it just wasn’t supplied? This is not for publication, [edited per narrator’s request]. [Laughing] It was pretty rough and the problem was supply because, you know. So, it was the supply. They couldn’t get them to you, not that they didn’t want to. They just couldn’t get them to you? Whether it was logistics or not, I don’t know. Anyway, they said, “We’re trying as best we can,” and I think that was true. It did improve some. 10 These women that worked for you, were they mostly single or were they married? Do you have any statistics on what they were mostly? Some were married and their husbands were in the service. We had four single girls. One of those was a lab chemist. Those girls worked around the clock, shift work. Some maintenance girls worked days only. Two of those, I know, where married with husbands in the service. Two, I know, had been married, but what their status was I didn’t know and didn’t inquire. There were women there working, not particularly for me that I knew of, that were here to get divorces because you could get divorced in those days in Nevada. So, that would be part of your supply of labor, then. These women who came to Nevada to get a divorce and had to stay six weeks and then they would go to work there. We, incidentally, had to have three shifts working at the plant - one hiring, one working, and one quitting. [Laughing] I have a couple more things I would like to talk to you about. These women that worked in the plant, do you know if they had young children? Did they have babysitter problems? Did they have husbands that worked there and they staggered [their shifts] so the husbands could take care of the children while they worked? Do you have any information on that? The women that I knew, the only one that I knew the best, her husband was oversees. She had small children. In those days, we had no organized social service. My wife and I had no children, so I am not as familiar with that as I might have been had we had 11 children. But, the men that I knew, the men that came from where I came from and there were probably about eight at one time, none of their wives worked. Elmer, could you tell me something about the recreation that you took part in [with] the men and the women. Were there company functions or what did they have that, after they put in all these hard hours of work, they could relax at out here? You mean besides the bars down the Strip? Yes, besides the bars down the Strip. [Laughing] There were some organized things. Being not newly married, my wife and I did not, as a couple, take part together. She was active in some of the women’s things that went on in the community, but from the time I got finished with a shift, I was ready just to sit down, have a beer, and relax. Sometimes in those days, people would not show up, even. I am speaking now of production. All of my experience was after the plant started up. That was what I went in to, was [the] production end of it [and] the maintenance of the unit. Sometimes people did not show and you would work double shifts. I have worked as long as three shifts, three eight-hour shifts, in a row. Sometimes at my own will because, sometimes, in the preparation plant they had machinery which I was familiar with that other people were not. They would call upon me to fill in a shift in that area, which I did, and then [I would] go back to my own plant and fill in a shift. So we, in those early days, would put in a lot of long, hard hours. I had very little time for socializing. We did not go out and make the rounds of all the bars every night as a number of people did. We enjoyed our home. My wife planted a little garden in our little area behind our unit. She had some very nice strawberries. I don’t remember now what other vegetables she had, 12 but she had several vegetables that we would raise and eat. We thought that was quite an accomplishment, there in the desert, having not lived in the desert before. Is that what they called “victory gardens” in those days? [Laughing] It was a victory for us to grow them, certainly! [Laughing] What about transportation, Elmer? Were there any problems that you had? How did everybody get to work, especially these women? Did some live in Boulder City that had to come to the plant? The women that worked in the cafeterias were, by contract, they were furnished transportation, furnished uniforms, and furnished housing. They had a station wagon that picked the girls up at Boulder City and dropped them down to the plant and took them back at the end of their shift. I might digress and say that there were no women in construction as there is today. They may have had a young woman drive maybe a pickup truck and run something from here to there, but that would have been a very rare case. As the plant began to get into production, they did have girls that ran what we called taxis. They were company sedans that they would run from one part of the plant to the other. It was about a mile and a half form one end of the plant to other. What was your question again? About transportation, how you got back and forth to work and how the women got around? I might just mention that, when my wife first started work she came out and I met her bus. She came up on the Greyhound bus from Los Angeles and I met that in Las Vegas. I took her out to the BMI plant. We interviewed the manager of Anderson’s Camp. He told us that she would have to belong to the union in order to go to work. He certainly 13 needed waitresses. There was a bad need for those, but she’d have to join the union. So, we hopped in the car and went back into Las Vegas. Unfortunately, it was the time that the shift was changing. The day shift was coming on shift. I mean, the afternoon shift was coming on shift, and we were trying to get back into Las Vegas. It was a two lane highway. People in those days used both lanes to come one direction. So, we drove in the ditch and, occasionally, we would [get up around cars coming] when we got a break in the traffic. So, it took us a considerable amount of time to get back into town. We stonewalled our way through the union to get the job. Transportation was all by local, individual automobiles at that time. If you didn’t have a car, you hitchhiked. It was nothing to see three or four women hitchhiking from Anderson’s into Las Vegas in those days. They didn’t consider it to be dangerous or anything like that? No. I know of no incidences. The only thing is, and I don’t know if you want this on your tape or not, when we first came up to Las Vegas, they still had the house of prostitution out. As these mothers in the East and in the Midwest began to hear about their poor sons being introduced to this horrible crime, they closed them down. After that, it was not unusual, in fact it was more common than not, for a single woman, or a wife even, being able to go into a bar and sit down to have a drink without being propositioned by some soldier or something, because they closed all those houses of prostitution. I think it was perfectly safe for women to hitchhike in those days. My wife never did, but then we picked up people that hitchhiked back and forth to town. In fact, there were no places to shop in Henderson for groceries. We would go in once or twice a week. We’d always take a car load of people in and bring a car load of people back and 14 all the groceries we could carry. The first vegetables came into Las Vegas on Thursday. If you didn’t establish a good rapport with the store manager or one of the key women to set aside a few vegetables for you, you hoped you got whatever carrots you could bend in the middle or [a] very poor line of fresh vegetables. But we survived and, as time went on, there was a market, called Food Land, in town that helped considerably. Then, on Twelfth and Fremont, they built the [un-auditory] Market, which expanded the shopping possibilities quite a bit. Elmer, what would you have to say about pay scale? What was your wife’s pay scale when she worked at Anderson’s Camp compared to what she might have got, say in LA or other places that weren’t engaged in the war work? I don’t remember. I know that the tips were pretty good because everybody had money in those days. Some sixteen year old boy driving a pickup truck in Las Vegas was making more money than I was making in Los Angeles before I quit, almost twice. I think the pay scale [for] the operators, when we started the plant up, was something like a dollar and twenty seven cents an hour, it seems to me. And did the women make the same pay as the men for doing the same kinds of work, like the women working in the chlorine plant? Your pay was based on the job you had, regardless of sex. So, there was no discrimination as to sex. I have one more question and you brought this to my mind when you were talking about the ladies that they closed down. Do you remember anything about Block 16 in Las Vegas? Was that here then? 15 Block 16 was now probably where the Horseshoe parking lot, parking garage is. They moved from there to a place called the Meadows and that is about at the back end of Montgomery Ward’s parking lot. That was rather a, I have been told, [Laughing] rather elaborate establishment. I mean, there were trees. There were nice, big Cottonwood trees out there. It was a nice appearing building. It had a nice lounge and bar in there. Is that what was considered Four Mile? No. Four Mile was out. The Meadows was still legal. Four Mile was after the prostitution had been declared illegal and it was out where the Kings Road RV Park is now, on Boulder Highway. It was across the highway from that. Would you consider that war work? I would answer that in this way. After the war was over... Oh, let me answer your question. Yes, I would consider it war work. I would consider it, because when you have that many men, and these are not boys, these are more than just the soldiers you think of as teenagers growing up, construction people you think of, men in their twenties, and whatnot. Let me say that I am a firm believer in legalized prostitution. I think that “yes,” it was an effort of the war work, but to relay an experience to happen to me. One of the products, after the war was over and Stauffer Chemical came in, we were making a product called hexachloroethane. We were refused service at Four Mile because the people smelled too bad. [Laughing] From the chlorine? Not from the chlorine, from the product we made. The laundry refused to do my laundry anymore. The manager came to me and he said, “Elmer, they’re making my girls sick when they put those things on the press.” [Laughing] 16 I need to ask you one more thing, Elmer. You mentioned that the girls in the chlorine plant had the gas mask and I read a little article in the Basic Bombardier that said they had a section of women that just did repairs on these gas masks. Do you know about those girls or their department? That would have fallen in the scope of the health and welfare department. For the safety department, I don’t remember the safety manager’s name now, but that would have been in his department. So, I would imagine that would have been one function that the women would have performed, yes. We had a lot of women in the laboratories and a lot of women in the, as I say, administration as secretaries, and typists, and things of that nature. We had women in production jobs that fell within their scope of their capability, but I know of no women in the construction or in the maintenance, other than maintenance, maybe, a tool-hand or something like that. Well, I think that is all my questions for you, Elmer. Can you think of anything else that you think would be pertinent to what we are doing? Nothing for publication. [Laughing] Ok, well thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us. We certainly appreciate it and have enjoyed it. [End of Track]