In 1976, then-CEO Chuck Durham asked an HDR employee named Peggy Caudle to write a book for the company’s 60th anniversary. After more than a year of interviews and research, Peggy drafted the book, but it was never published. This story is a slightly edited version of a chapter from her book that includes information from interviews with Chuck Durham, Willard Richardson and many others who worked for the firm in its early days.
With the crash of the stock market in 1929, the country was thrown into the Great Depression, and funds for development of new public works projects were simply not available. Consulting firms that relied heavily on public projects as did Henningson Engineering Company were failing at a rapid rate. Fortunately, Henningson was also involved in a number of jobs for private utilities at this time. Not only did he design the distribution systems, but in many cases he also constructed the projects and had both the manpower and equipment to serve as contractor. By the end of the Depression, Henningson Engineering Company was the only consulting firm in the state of Nebraska in existence prior to the Crash of 1929 to have survived.
During the Depression, H.H. borrowed funds to keep business going and was forced to trim his staff to bare minimum and reduce work hours to a part-time schedule. He did continue to pay these employees, although often at great sacrifice to himself. He allowed out-of-work engineers to use his office to make phone calls, write letters and fill out job applications. They would also use Henningson’s secretarial staff, and H.H. would give them personal recommendations for jobs. Many of these men became lifelong friends due to the assistance given to them by H.H. in finding jobs with the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The PWA was established in 1933 as one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. In its six years of existence, it provided about four million man hours of work in the construction of schools, dams, bridges, post offices, courthouses and other public works projects. The design of the system of canals and a dam on the Loup River to irrigate part of central Nebraska was a PWA project and one of the biggest engineering projects of its time in the Midwest. The Middle Loup portion of the project was commissioned to Henningson Engineering Company. H.H. spent a great deal of time and money promoting the project, which in 1933 dollars was valued at $2 million. At that time, it was the largest project ever awarded to the firm, and it enabled Henningson Engineering to turn the corner on the debts that had accumulated during the earlier days of the Depression.
In 1936, disaster struck this project and again forced Henningson Engineering Company into a precarious financial situation. A fire broke out in the engineering shack at the Arcadia site, and burned it to the ground. All the little brown survey books were burned in the fire, as well as almost all other records on the job, some transits, a pick-up truck and other equipment. There was little or no insurance to cover the loss, and Henningson had to replace a good deal of the equipment out of his own funds. Fortunately, he was able to talk the client into taking over the project and completing the engineering itself which saved the firm from folding.
HENNINGSON ELECTRIFIES NEBRASKA
Another significant event kept Henningson Engineering Company afloat: the passage of the Rural Electrification Act in 1936. The REA encouraged farmers without electric power to form cooperatives and apply for low-interest loans to acquire electric generating and distribution facilities. Nebraska was a pioneer state in the REA program, and Henningson Engineering Company – and H.H. in particular – played a major role in organizing the REA districts across the state.
Henningson would ride into the rural areas and talk directly with the farmers to find out if they would buy electricity if it were made available. He assisted county extension agents or the directors of the cooperatives in submitting the necessary documentation for REA loan applications, and then offered design services once the loan was approved. In the end, Henningson was responsible for organizing almost every REA district in the state of Nebraska and designed a majority of the projects. Below: an early circular explains the benefits of electricity.
Although designated as Nebraska 7 (the seventh district to be granted an REA loan), the REA project in Beatrice in 1935 was actually the first to be constructed in the state. The Gage County Electric Company had reorganized into the Southeast Nebraska Public Power District in order to be eligible for the federal funding. Henningson’s role was to assist in the bidding process and supervise the construction.
It was in Beatrice that H.H. first met a young electrical engineer by the name of Willard A. Richardson. At that time, Richardson was employed at what he playfully referred to as his “second profession” during Depression days: digging ditches. Actually, he was in the employ of the Gage County Electric Company, working in the field where he was in charge of staking and locating the cornerstones, and soliciting easements for the rights-of-way. Mr. Henningson was at the site to supervise construction and when introduced to “Rich” suggested that he look him up if he ever needed work. Several months later, when the Beatrice project was completed, Rich contacted both Henningson and a competitor, Midwestern Engineering Company, and applied for a job at both. Midwestern offered him a salary of $150 per month, $25 more than Mr. Henningson’s offer, but told him it would be a month or two before the job would be available. When the job never materialized, Rich reapplied to Henningson but was told the position had been filled. Three or four months later, H.H. called Rich on a Friday afternoon and offered him a job, starting the following Monday morning. The offer was the same: $125 per month, and working hours were 8 to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Concurrent with the construction of the Beatrice project, Henningson Engineering Company was also awarded design contracts for three projects in Western Nebraska, designated as Nebraska 1, Nebraska 2 and Nebraska 3. B.V. Sears, an electrical engineer who joined Henningson in 1937, served as resident engineer on these projects, which served the communities of Scottsbluff, Gering, and Mitchell. Henningson was also awarded design of Nebraska 4 in Stromsburg, one of the early projects on which he was involved in the design. Henningson would promote the work with the REA district and then, when the contract was awarded, Rich would put the job together, assemble the staking crews and supervise the field work. Mr. Henningson personally supervised each stage of the project and signed off on all drawings and correspondence.
When REA work first began in 1935, there were approximately 10 to 12 employees in the office. By the late 1930s the firm had expanded to about 50 employees and business was picking up considerably. The REA work enabled the firm to start showing a profit and provided the financial security for a 1937 move into new office space in the Service Life Building.
Pictured left to right: Willard Richardson, Orville Hathaway, Chas Buss, Mary Kahey, Dick Olson, H.H. Henningson, Carl Riggs, Jessie Charnquist, Carl Anderson, Herb Fischel.