She's Got Grit

Photo by Max Catalano

Photo by Max Catalano

Eleanor Bishop

It is an unforgiving summer day in Glouster, Ohio, 1945. Margaret “Rootie” Covelle, age 14, digs into the earth. She is surrounded by men twice her age.

Covelle has never been one to shy away from a little dirt. Or anything, really.

“When I was little, I used to go outside and play all the time,” she says. “I’d come in with dirt on my nose, and [my mother would] say, ‘You been out there rootin’ in the ground… she called me Rootin’ to start with, and then it got to be Rootie.”

The name stuck. But on this particular day, Covelle isn’t playing. She’s digging a water line that will bring potable water to her home, located in an area of Glouster known as Little Italy for its high concentration of Italian immigrants, Covelle and her family among them. The job was meant for her father, who fell ill one day into the three-day project. Covelle, one of six children, took matters into her own hands.

“I asked the boss if I could take his place for the other two days,” she says. “And he said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t see why not if you can do the job.’ … I finished up my two days and we got our three-day pay.”

That was Covelle’s first water line, but it wouldn’t be her last.

Covelle didn’t plan on being the first female operating engineer in Ohio. In fact, she didn’t plan on being an operating engineer at all; she just owned a backhoe.

It was the 1960s. After about 10 years of working for National Electric Oil in Columbus, Ohio, 29-year-old Covelle moved back home. She had grown tired of city life and the monotony of factory work.

“I kept getting better jobs in the factory all the time and I kept thinking, I don’t like this job, I don’t care,” she says. “I wanna do something I want to do.”

In 1967, Covelle’s neighbor approached her with an idea to make a little extra money. Gene Fitch Construction was installing a water system in the area, and he proposed that the two of them buy a backhoe and dig service lines to people’s houses. Covelle agreed to try it out.

When her neighbor was unexpectedly called back to his job in the mines, Covelle was stuck with a piece of
equipment she had never operated before.

“In my backyard I started working with it,” she says. “[I] got to digging holes and covering ’em up and digging holes and covering ’em up ’till I got to learn how to run it.”
When a man from Gene Fitch Construction came looking for an operator, he spotted the backhoe sitting in her yard. Fifty-one years after the fact, Covelle recalls the conversation that followed:

“Who owns that backhoe?” he asked.

“I do– me and my neighbor do,” she replied.

“Do you want a job?”

“Doing what?”

“Running a backhoe, putting a water line down here.”

“I don’t know, I’m not that good.”

“Well, let me be the judge.”

“Well, if you promise to tell me the truth, don’t just fire me, just tell me that I’m not good enough.”

“I’ll tell you.”

She started work the next week and stayed on as an operator with Gene Fitch for three more years. In 1970, she received her union card, officially making her the first woman in Ohio to join the operating engineers. She then decided to branch off as an independent subcontractor.

“I got to thinking, well you know I could probably run a business for myself,” she says.

Covelle followed contractors across the hills of southern Ohio. The contractors would install water systems in rural towns and she would dig the service lines.

Covelle says her independent spirit came from her mother, Lena Covelle, who immigrated to America from Santa Sofia, Italy, at the age of 19. Covelle’s father was supposed to marry Lena’s sister, who fell ill before the journey. Lena was sent in her sister’s place, betrothed to a man she had never met.

“My mom was like a mail order bride,” Covelle says.

When Covelle’s father died at the age of 50, Lena raised six children on her husband’s meager miner’s pension.

“She was so smart,” Covelle says. “If she could have had some schooling, she could’ve been anything she wanted to be.”

Media at the time viewed Covelle as something of a fascinating novelty. The headline of a 1967 story from a local newspaper reads: “Look Who’s Up Front On A Backhoe!” A 1970 edition of Ohio Contractor named her one of “Ohio’s Liberated Women.”

Despite the good press, being the only woman in her field was not without its challenges.

“I was pretty backward at the time,” Covelle says. “But I felt like I had to really prove myself or I wouldn’t be accepted.”

Covelle is adamant, however, that she never felt opposition from her coworkers or the community over her choice of employment.

“I got along good with all the workers, I never had any problems,” she says. “They treated me good and I tried
to treat them good, you know?”

As a Glouster native, Covelle champions for the towns of southeastern Ohio. She is invested in using the government to help the area, which she believes Athens County often ignores.

“[The people of Glouster] come together,” she says. “If you need something, they’re there. I don’t care who you are, what color you are … they help, no matter what.”

In 1981, she was elected township trustee of Trimble Township, which encompasses Murray City, Glouster and Jacksonville. She beat out a man who had been trustee for 28 years.
“He wasn’t happy, but I beat ’im,” she says with a laugh.

She stayed in the role for two four-year terms and is currently a central committeeman for the Democratic party, a position she has held for about 20 years. Although she retired in 1992, Covelle hasn’t stopped standing up for Glouster. She has been a member of the Glouster Community Development Corporation, or GCDC, for about 30 years, serving as the both the president and vice president several times.

The GCDC seeks to facilitate economic growth in Glouster, inspired by the bustling small town Covelle remembers from years past, when coal mines provided people with a stable industry and the community had over 50 businesses.

“To have a business in this town [today], a thriving business, is hard to come by,” she says.

At 87, Covelle hasn’t slowed down much. She golfs three times a week (weather permitting) and enjoys playing poker. She lives in a suburb of Glouster with her partner of nearly 40 years, Columbus native Eva Poling. The two met in 1980 when Covelle was hired to install a water line on a property Poling owned.

‘We’re kinda used to each other now, you know?” Poling says with a laugh. “We’ve done a lot together.”

Looking back on her life, Covelle says she feels fortunate to have found a job that meant more to her than a paycheck.

“It was always something different, and it was a challenge, and I liked the challenge, she says. “Just don’t go to work for the money, go to work because you like your job. To me that’s more important.”

Covelle’s legacy is ingrained in the hills of southeastern Ohio, in the water lines and foundations she dug over a long career of hard work.

Maybe even more so, it is present in the women who have come after her; the tenacious, dirt-smeared girls who grew up to make good money working with their hands, who are leaving legacies of their own in those hills, all because someone went first.
“My school teacher told me one time,” Covelle says with a laugh. “She said, ‘If you don’t start taking your work home and studying, you’re going to end up digging ditches the rest of your life.’” Covelle smiles.
“She didn’t know I was gonna use a backhoe to do it.”