When These Women Talk Nails, They Ain't Talkin' Polish

updated 10/01/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The workers who amble across the redwood-fringed construction site lugging huge 6-inch by 6-inch by 25-foot beams and hammering together the wooden frame of a restaurant don't look much like hard hats: All seven are wearing earrings, gold necklaces and a tasteful touch of eye makeup. These are the women of Tre-Lee Construction of Mariposa, Calif., a strikingly successful all-female building company owned and operated by Tre Ford, 56, and Lee Gallagher, 37.

Since 1974 Tre (short for Tresse) and Lee have erected 22 buildings in this sleepy former mining town and they are now working on their first commercial building, a 3,000-square-foot New England-style showpiece known as Tink's Little Acre. Already admiration for Tink's has garnered the women nine new construction jobs. "Everybody thinks it's the most beautiful building in town," says Ford. Equally impressive, the women have even won the heart of Fred ("the Godfather") Bardini, 76-year-old owner of Mariposa's largest shopping center. "I always had the feeling that women belonged in the kitchen," Bardini admits, "but they make a lot of the men contractors look foolish because of how precise and finished their jobs are." Their price looks nice too. While male counterparts get $30 an hour, Tre-Lee charges only $10.

"Anyone can do this," claims Ford. "Just remember you're only nailing one nail at a time." In fact, the only on-the-job hazard the crew acknowledges is weight gain. "You eat to keep up your energy," Gallagher says. Nancy Wessels, 27, maintains that "the only difference between us and men is that we use finesse rather than brute strength."

Indeed Tre-Lee is a prime example of brains triumphing over brawn. Ford (lower right in photo), who has a degree from California State University at Chico, is a member of MENSA, the organization for those with IQs in the top 2 percent. Gallagher (above Ford) is a graduate of Miss Porter's School (which polished Jackie O) and has a master's degree in history from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Wessels (top) has a masters in sports medicine, Pat Stacy (left, top of ladder), 45, is an ex-nun and Harvard alumna and Sandy Bloom (lower left), 31, is a housewife.

Ford learned her construction skills "by reading a lot of books" and working in a lumberyard. The daughter of a Tulsa painting contractor, she met Gallagher, the Menlo Park-bred daughter of a Shell Oil executive, in 1970 when both were teaching elementary school in Cupertino. After they built themselves a 2,500-square-foot weekend retreat in Mariposa, Tre-Lee "just kind of happened," Gallagher says. It became full-time and the house became year-round in 1980.

"We are a springboard for some and an ultimate career for others," Ford says of her unusual firm, to which no men have applied. "I'm not competing with any man. It's just that if a woman feels like doing something like building, she should be able to do it."

From Our Partners