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December 31, 2002

That was quite an impressive and prestigious award presented to Ed Malzahn the other night by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). It's called an "Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark" and of course it is a tribute to Ed's invention, the Ditch Witch trencher, which is now officially recognized as the machine that launched an entire industry. The ASME chooses one individual for this award each year and this is the first one awarded to an Oklahoman. Everyone in this state can take pride in this recognition, and that is especially true for those of us who live in Perry. Congratulations to Ed Malzahn and his unique company, the Charles Machine Works, Inc.

The Ditch Witch story is pretty well known to most Perryans. The machine was the product of Ed's fertile brain after he watched two sweaty laborers digging a small service line for utility services to a Perry home. They used a pick and shovel in Oklahoma's sweltering summer heat, creating a lateral line from a larger trench dug in the alley by a conventional, large wheel trencher. The big machine was not made for digging service lines, so the thought naturally occurred to Ed: "There must be a better way." That same idea has no doubt provided the motivation for numerous labor-saving devices.

Ed gives some credit to the late Bud Marshall, a local plumber, for suggesting how wide and how deep the small trencher should dig. Bud test-drove the little trencher on several jobs. He estimated it would take two to three days for hand laborers to dig a residential service line, but with the Ditch Witch trencher the same job could be completed in a matter of hours. That would reduce the cost of the job by a considerable amount.

There are many side stories about the Malzahn family and the invention of the Ditch Witch machine. In the mid-1940s, Ed's dad, the late Charlie Malzahn, had a machine shop that had done some defense contract work for the military during World War II. Charlie told Ed to think of something for the employees to do between major jobs. He wanted something the shop hands could make when not engaged in seasonal work. Ed came up with the idea for a small trencher and with his dad's assistance made the first one, using a soapstone and cutting torch as the process moved along. That is a far cry from the high-tech operation now going on out there at the Ditch Witch factory on West Fir Avenue.

My personal favorite story has to do with my time as managing editor of this newspaper back when some of the first Ditch Witch trenchers were being produced by the Malzahns. At that time The Journal was printed on an ancient Goss flatbed press. The machine was so old that we expected something to break during each day's press run. We were seldom disappointed. The breakdowns occurred regularly. When that happened, we would just call Charlie's Machine Shop and they responded promptly each time. Usually that meant that Ed Malzahn, in work khakis and a narrow-brimmed khaki hat, would come to our office with a portable welder and fix the old press. About that same time I began hearing that the Malzahns were building some kind of machines and selling them as far away as Australia. I dispatched a reporter to check out the story and he soon came back with a look of obvious wonderment. He described the Ditch Witch trencher as best he could, adding that the Malzahns were indeed selling quite a few of those newfangled things. My first thought was that this was good because it was like adding a new small industry to the local scene, and then it struck me. If Ed and his shop got too busy with those new gadgets, who would weld our press back together when the inevitable breakdowns occurred? The tired old press hung together until a new offset press was purchased a few years later. In the interim, a final irony: I wound up working for Ed Malzahn for 20 years in graphic communications and public relations at the Ditch Witch factory until retiring in 1989. They are still making and selling a lot of Ditch Witch trenchers out there on West Fir and The Journal is still getting out a paper on time each day.