Back to the Beginning: A History of Oltmans

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The early beginnings of Oltmans Construction Co. and the story of Joseph Overwin Oltmans, founder of our company and grandfather of current chairman emeritus, Joseph O. Oltmans II.

An American Dream story as told by Helen Oltmans Coffy for the Joseph O. Oltmans Stanford University, School of Engineering, Scholarship Fund.

J.O. Oltmans I while a student at Stanford

J.O. Oltmans I while a student at Stanford

Joseph Overwin Oltmans was born Tjark Overwin Oltmann in 1886 in Northwest Germany. His father died before he was born, and to give her fatherless children a better chance in life, Oltmans’ mother immigrated to America from Germany, when J.O. Oltmans was three months old, settling in Central Illinois.

In the new country, she worked as a housekeeper for several farming families, which made Oltmans’ early schooling rather spasmodic. Her marriage in 1897 allowed the family to settle down, and Oltmans attended high school in Melvin for three years.

With the encouragement of his mother and older brother, Oltmans left home for his fourth year of high school at Grand Prairie Seminary in Onarga, Illinois. There, he became Jake Oltmans instead of Tjark Oltmann, and later, at Stanford, Jake became Joseph.

Before leaving for the seminary in 1904, Oltmans spent the summer working as a waiter at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where he saw the famous Liberty Bell, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, baseball great Ty Cobb, and many other attractions.

“To me, a farm boy, the entire season was one continuous succession of thrills and wonders,” his diary recalls.

Oltmans also learned an important lesson that summer: “This summer’s trip was my first experience at shifting for myself, and the forerunner of many years of battling my way forward through many trials and tribulations,” he wrote in his diary.

“The most important single contribution to my future development was the knowledge that I had to depend on my own efforts, which, with God’s help, have accomplished whatever success has been mine.”

At the seminary, Oltmans joined the football team coached by science teacher Ray Toothacker, who encouraged him to apply to Stanford. Toothacker planned on going to Stanford for graduate work, and recommended the place highly for its wonderful climate, nominal fees, and rapid growth. Before leaving for Stanford in 1905, Oltmans spent his last summer doing farm work.

Oltmans’ total savings as he embarked for the West Coast was $195. His first investment upon arriving at Stanford was a bicycle. After passing entrance exams in Algebra, German, Latin, American History, and Blacksmithing, he was allowed to register.

Oltmans had planned to major in Electrical Engineering, but the lab fees were so high that he decided to switch to Civil Engineering.

Of his friends at Stanford, Oltmans was the only one to earn his way through. He worked at Olson’s Restaurant (later Boysen’s) for four years, eventually managing the place when the owner was absent. He was also a janitor at the Episcopal Church in Palo Alto.

Oltmans’ college summers were spent working—in 1906 repairing earthquake damage, and subsequently as a carpenter, logger, and encyclopedia salesman, at which he was very successful.

Oltmans’ diary recalls the 1906 earthquake of San Francisco: “Dr. Jordan (President of Stanford from 1891 to 1913) gave us a short talk, the gist of which emphasized the fact that buildings did not make a university, but the important ingredients of a successful school are the faculty and student body. He announced that school for this semester was ended, and grades would be made up on the basis of marks as of the present date.” Oltmans then made his way to San Francisco, first by train, then on foot from Colman, to help put out the raging fires.

Three generations of Oltmans–from left, son “Bud,” grandson “Bucky,” and J.O. Oltmans, c. 1970

After graduating from Stanford in 1910, Oltmans landed his first civil engineering job with Stone and Webster working on the White River hydroelectric project in Sumner, Washington.

In 1912 he was transferred to Big Creek, California in the High Sierras to work on hydroelectric development for the Pacific Light and Power Co. of Los Angeles. Horseback was his only means of transportation.

The following year Oltmans returned to Illinois to marry Elizabeth Hinrichs, bringing his bride back to the backwoods of Big Creek.

Mrs. Oltmans later told her daughter Helen that she was afraid to send a photo of their Big Creek shack home for fear her parents would come out and rescue her from the primitive Wild West.

Oltmans then moved to Los Angeles to work first for the Pacific Light and Power Co., then for the just-formed Flood Control Department. His first child, Helen, was born there in 1914. The following year a son, Overwin (Bud) Oltmans, was born.

In 1918, Oltmans returned to Seattle as chief engineer for the conversion of the Puget Sound Light and Power plant from an oil to a pulverized slag burning plant as part of World War I industrial improvements.

Then it was back to California in 1919 to be chief engineer for the San Joaquin Light and Power Co. on another hydroelectric development project. Oltmans worked the Upper North Fork of the Kings River on foot and horseback, sometimes with his family.

The Oltmans lived in tents, washed in the mountain streams, and developed an enduring love of the mountains.

In 1920, the family moved again, this time to Milwaukee for a position with Westinghouse. But the Oltmans missed California and returned to Los Angeles the following year. Oltmans supervised several large construction projects between 1921 and 1924 and was elected to the American Society of Civil Engineers as an associate member, becoming a life member in 1956.

In 1924, Oltmans went into business with Al Nelson as a general contractor, working on many projects in the Los Angeles area until 1930, when the partnership was dissolved.

History in the Making

In 1931, Oltmans decided to venture out for himself. He established the firm of J.O. Oltmans, General Contractor, hiring as his first employee Dennis Roy [1932], who became his right-hand man.

Oltmans survived the Depression, operating in cubby holes of other firms’ offices to keep overhead at a minimum. Work was very scarce, but Oltmans built a sterling reputation which brought him much business after the Depression.

In 1936, Oltmans brought into the business his son, “Bud”, who later became president and then chairman of the board. His daughter Helen also worked for the company as a designer.

Oltmans’ business really took off at the start of World War II.

Oltmans Construction’s first office, c. 1940

His clients included General Motors, Pacific Electric Railroad Co., Los Angeles Union Terminal Co., Southern Pacific Gas Co., and many others. In 1946, the company incorporated as Oltmans Construction Co., with O.H. (Bud) Oltmans as vice president and D.J. Roy as secretary.

Mr. Oltmans retired in 1955 but remained on the board of directors of Oltmans Construction Co.. He traveled extensively, and also enjoyed collecting reading material on Abraham Lincoln. He spent a considerable amount of time with his six grandchildren, whom he thoroughly enjoyed.

Oltmans enjoyed his Lake Arrowhead and Palm Springs homes and spent his days doing crossword puzzles, playing games, and enjoying his many friends.

J.O. Oltmans died in 1971 at the age of 84, but his work lives on. Today, according to Engineering News-Record magazine, Oltmans Construction Co. now ranks among the top firms specializing in construction of commercial and industrial buildings in Southern California, and among the top 200 nationally.

Through the years, Oltmans Construction Co. has worked on the theory that “a truly satisfied customer is our best salesman.” In fact, over 70 percent of their work comes from previous customers and referrals.