Alfred Grammer has found his share of buried treasure during the last 47 years, but it's hard to be delicate when digging with a 10-ton shovel.
Grammer, a heavy-equipment operator for Dunbar Trucking & Excavating Inc. since 1978, first got behind the wheel -- or levers, to be exact -- of a track loader in 1952. In the meantime, he's dug hundreds of basements, graded scores of yards, helped Lawrence dig out from the 1951 flood and cleared paths through the aftermath of deadly tornados.
He keeps several souvenirs of his years in service; something strange is bound to turn up while spending about 2,000 hours every year scraping away layers of earth in preparation for new houses, apartment buildings or businesses.
On top of the Grammer's refrigerator in his northwest Lawrence home, a green-tinted champagne glass serves as a reminder of how delicate items sometimes withstand the brute force he commands while on the job. He found the glass while plowing dirt and silt washed into North Lawrence during the big flood in 1951.
"This just rolled out of a dirt pile. We couldn't believe it. It was all full of sand," he said. "That's probably what saved it."
Another artifact found under four feet of dirt near Fifth and Florida puzzles Grammer, 66. The iron bayonet, about 2 feet long, isn't like anything he's seen in museums.
"All of the ones I've seen are flat, but this has four cutting edges on it," he said of the X-shaped bayonet. "I was kind of hoping for the rifle also, but I didn't find it."
Life and death
Other finds have been strange, including the unearthing of a cast iron casket containing a baby's remains from the Trinity Episcopal Church lot, 1011 Vt., in the mid-1950s and a body of a blanket-wrapped dog surrounding by Michelob beer bottles south of Lawrence.
A search of church and death records was fruitless in finding the identity of the baby, which was reburied at Pioneer Cemetery south of the Lied Center on Kansas University's West Campus. The mystery of the dog was solved by chance, when a company working on the house hired a carpenter who once owned the dog and buried it with its beloved beer.
"He said (the dog) drank Michelob beer, that was the only kind he drank," Grammer said.
With years of experience in the cabs of front-end loaders, track loaders, backhoes and other heavy equipment, Grammer has participated in the life and death of Lawrence buildings. The numerous jobs he worked on include Alvamar Country Club, The Malls shopping center, Penn House, the Lawrence Riverfront Plaza Factory Outlets mall and the former Maupintour corporate headquarters at 1515 St. Andrews.
But before new buildings can go up, many times something must come down, such as four houses in the 600 block of Kentucky, across from Buford M. Watson Jr. Park. The houses were demolished in July 1984 for a parking lot and a turning lane.
In the same neighborhood four years later, the razing of eight homes in Old West Lawrence to make way for the Douglas County Bank was perhaps the most politically charged job Grammer worked on, pitting developers against preservationists.
Man about town
Throughout it all, Grammer hasn't let emotions change the fact he has a job to do, whether its knocking a building down or preparing a site for a new building.
"He learned his profession and does it as well as anybody in the world could do it," said local contractor Gene Fritzel, who worked with Grammer before Fritzel had finished high school in Lawrence.
Fritzel's first professional job was in 1954, and Grammer was there.
"He's done all my digging for me since. He's a great guy," Fritzel said. "He has a good sense of humor and I don't know of anybody who's operated any machine that's taught more people how to do it."
Grammer doesn't plan to retire anytime soon, and enjoys spending time with his brother, Darrell, who has worked for Dunbar Trucking and Excavating for 15 years. Every day he's reminded of all the houses he worked on, and he doesn't have to look far.
"I can walk out the door," he said. "I worked on some of these houses right here in the neighborhood."
-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.