A Life of Canning and Cranes: Sharing Memories with Harriet Stagg Griffith

By Cookie Steponaitis

Seen here second from the left on her 60th birthday, Harriet thrived on mixing long work days with evenings of fun and dance. Working in outfits that matched were a trademark and to this day Harriet loves colors and fashion as much as cranes.
photo provided
Seen here second from the left on her 60th birthday, Harriet thrived on mixing long work days with evenings of fun and dance. Working in outfits that matched were a trademark and to this day Harriet loves colors and fashion as much as cranes.

    Like many of her generation, Harriet Griffith isn’t sure that she has any stories that people would want to hear. “I am not sure what you will get out of this,” Harriet remarked at the beginning of the interview. “ I simply was just living my life and if there was work to be done I did it.” Describing herself as a woman of direct honesty and integrity, Harriet quickly shared her passion for colors, fashion, dancing and her family. Recollecting sitting in the family barn in Addison and playing on the horseless carriage, Harriet would dream of the places she would go. As the time progressed stories began to come to the surface that stopped this reporter in her tracks and echoed of phrases including, “Bulldozers, and moving Christmas trees to the White House, transporting the Apollo 11 capsule, and operating a crane business until she was 71.” By this point it was clear that like many of her generation, simply living her life met defying the odds, breaking molds and pushing past barriers that simply stood in her way.

      Harriet Stagg was born in 1930 in Addison, Vermont, one of three children and lived with her parents on a farm that straddled the Addison/ Bridport line. When she was five her family moved to town at Addison Four Corners and she remembers attending first grade at the Wilmarth School in Addison and then moved to the “new school” which was the Grange Hall where she attended through grade eight. After a move to Panton during the gas rationing years, Harriet attended VUHS and there met her future husband Roger Griffith. After Roger’s time in the military was up, the pair married in 1948 and had five children Linda, Larry, Irene, Donald and Diane. Living and working around farm life most of her life, Harriet is still able to can with the best of them, milk a cow and operate any kind of required farm equipment. Calling Vergennes a great place to raise children then, she remembers her years in the Little City with fondness.

      After divorcing in 1967, Harriet’s life and avocation changed drastically. She moved to Burlington and teamed up with William Scott who would be her partner for over twenty years in operating W.H. Scott Corporation, which specialized in bulldozers, cranes and as Harriet put it succinctly, “and anything that had to be moved or moved.”  Walking into what was a man’s world Harriet quickly learned the calculations of distance, weight, length and strength requirements of the 65 ton cranes and how to operate them. She worked in the office taking calls, visiting sites, placing bids, drafting contracts and obtained the legal documentation to operate any equipment in the business line from charter buses to cranes. “The first time I got behind the wheel of the crane at the job site,” recollected Harriet, “all of the men on the job stopped and looked at Bill as if he was crazy. Bill turned toward the crew and said ‘she will be fine.’ My hands were wringing wet when I got done because I knew their lives depended on my actions, but I did it and never looked back.”

   Of all of the challenges in her new position and role in the business, Harriet loved the job sites the best. “I loved looking at the job, working with the client, pricing out the amount of time, labor, equipment and materials needed. Then I would write up the bid and supervise the job site. If need be, I got in the equipment and moved the work along. I did not tolerate idle workers and kept the site humming.” Attending national and global conferences with Bill on the newest techniques and innovations in the industry, the pair toured facilities and saw training methods in Hawaii, London, Paris, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, China, and behind the Iron Curtain. At first the companies were not sure what to do with Harriet when she refused to board the bus with the other wives to go shopping while the men toured the factories. They told her that, “being an attractive woman, they could not have her distracting the men in the plant.” Harriet not only went into the plant, but took up the challenge of operating an Italian Crane that had 96 wheels on it and could maneuver in new and exciting ways. None of the men in the group would try it so Harriet simply said, “Let me at it.” On that day she earned her place in the company events and began a relationship with engineers and corporate executives that continued until her retirement.

   “Make certain to make a point of telling the readers,” advised Harriet, “that I was not into women’s lib. In fact, I was not about female rights at all. I simply had a job to do and I did it. Sometimes I had to get firm with men that I had the legal licenses to operate the equipment and the knowledge to run any job site we had. For me, it was about the work, the challenge and the travel. I was noted in my day for three things - coming to work in designer outfits, being honest to the point of being blunt and seeing each day as a personal challenge to do my best. We were up at 4 AM every day, but still had time to see friends and go out dancing.”

   Cranes cost about $600,000 in her time and the business was well equipped with 3-5 cranes and possessed the resources to take on projects no matter how challenging or unique. “We helped move the Ticonderoga to Shelburne Museum,” shared Harriet, “and helped on many major builds for the Olympics for Lake Placid, worked on the IBM plant and delivered a Christmas tree from Vermont to President Johnson and the First Lady. We moved the Apollo 11 capsule during its 50 state tour and responded to emergencies in the community when a transformer blew in Essex Junction on July 4th and no state offices were open for crane permits. We did the work anyway because the people needed our help.”

   Watching her nine grandchildren and great grandchildren take on life, Harriet still isn’t convinced that her life is an exemplary one to follow or aspire to. “I simply did my job and lived my life,” she concluded. “I was blessed to raise five great children and to become the first card carrying woman allowed on union contracts in the region. The only thing that has slowed me now is my health and the loss of vision in one eye. But, should anyone need me, I can still show you how to run a heavy specialized hauling crane business to this day. I worked with the best engineers and crane operators in the world at Grove Crane Products in addition to railroads, electric companies, power companies and corporations large and small. Smiling, she concluded with one more memory. “Bill turned to me one day and said, ‘You must be really proud of yourself.’ ‘What do you mean I replied?’ ‘All that and whatever you do, you still wear everything that matches’.”

   The Valley Voice salutes Harriet Stagg Griffith, yet another voice of a generation who defined a country with a work ethic and a spirit that isn’t quieted or limited by time and one that made America great.

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