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Buffalo’s ‘Scoopers’ Run for Last Time

February 12, 2003

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ Buffalo’s grain ``scoopers,″ hardworking holders-on from a bygone era, went to work for a final time this week, to finish manually unloading more than 600,000 bushels of wheat from an aging cargo ship.

After 160 years, time and technology have made the men behind the shovels obsolete.

``It’s kind of good,″ joked Tom Griffin, a 32-year veteran who was one of about three dozen grain shovelers _ they call themselves scoopers _ who worked a final laborious day on the Kinsman Independent.

Like most of the scoopers, Griffin was doing the same job as his father and grandfather before him.

The men, wearing paper masks against the dust, maneuvered 4-foot-wide shovels on a pulley system across the ship’s cavernous holds, pushing the wheat toward a contraption called a marine leg. Hanging into the hold from the General Mills grain elevator on shore, the marine leg’s belt of buckets pulled the grain from ship to storage in hulking cement cylinders.

The technology was developed in Buffalo in 1842.

``It’s a lost trade. It’s like a dinosaur,″ said Jack Suto, a second-generation scooper whose father was a former president of Local 109, the scoopers union.

When the grain was too sparse for the big shovels, the scoopers picked up hand shovels and brooms, and scraped and swept until virtually all the kernels were gone.

``It is hard. It’s young man’s work. It’s dusty. It’s dirty,″ Griffin said.

At 68, Robert Matevia is the oldest scooper, and the most experienced with 48 years in the holds. Like many scoopers, Matevia also worked in construction, a job that allowed the flexibility needed for the grain shoveling that diminished into part-time work over the decades.

``This is it. This is the last,″ Matevia said, taking a coffee break in the ship’s warm galley as wind chills dipped to the teens out on deck Monday. ``It’s going to be weird after 48 years not having to come in here.″

A century ago, Buffalo boomed as ships from the Great Lakes transferred cargo to canal boats for passage through the Erie Canal. More than 1,000 shovelers were needed to keep up.

Just two crews of scoopers existed in the end, 34 men. The volume of grain arriving in Buffalo plummeted in the 1950s as the St. Lawrence Seaway system allowed ships to bypass the port. Easily unloaded railroad cars also took a toll and ships equipped with automatic unloading equipment eliminated other scooping jobs.

The Kinsman Independent, which picked up grain from the ports in Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis., and brought it back to Buffalo, was the only manually unloaded ship left. It docked a few times a month. Now, a self-unloading ship will deliver the grain.

Many of the scoopers will simply retire. Others have full-time jobs elsewhere already: in construction, or working for police and fire departments.

``The writing was on the wall years ago,″ Suto said.

``We’re surprised we lasted this long,″ added Griffin.

Lorraine Pierro, president of the city’s Industrial Heritage Commission, said her group has worked hard to document the work of the scoopers, to keep it from being forgotten.

``Not only the machinery and equipment, but also the people,″ she said.

In the early afternoon, with the ship’s holds emptied, the scoopers gathered to toast the end of an era at a tavern named Gene McCarthy’s, a bar proud of its Irish heritage. It’s a trait shared by the scoopers, who have always been almost exclusively Irish.

Fred Brill, president of the Grain Shovelers Local 109, said all the scoopers wanted to be there at the end for ``the last hurrah.″

``They didn’t do it for the economics,″ Brill said. ``They did it more for the camaraderie.″

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