To hear James Schwan tell it, his family’s excavation and demolition business unofficially started in 1976 with a little Ferguson skip loader and a two-and-a-half-ton International dump truck. That was 42 years ago, and if memory serves, Schwan’s first job — which he landed by running an ad in the newspaper — was to grade a parking lot on the Mesa, where McDonald’s is today. He thinks he may have removed too much dirt and left the lot about a foot deeper than necessary.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he remembered recently with a big laugh. But he knew he could figure it out. Earlier in his life, he had witnessed a flower child living in a van launch a successful tractor business, and he thought, “If that hippie can do it, so can I!”
A few years later, with younger brothers Tom and Garry in the mix, Schwan Brothers Excavating Contractors Inc. became official. When their dad retired after 30 years as a surveyor, he helped run the office. These days, James’s son, Jason, a civil engineer out of Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, drives that desk. On paper, James Schwan is the company cofounder. But in the field recently, he said his title is “Cat Skinner,” meaning the person who operates heavy machinery, in particular a Caterpillar tractor.
Over the decades, Schwan has worked on a number of projects with Giffin & Crane. “It’s just so many; I can’t remember them unless I drive by them now,” he said. While the company has worked as far out of town as Vandenberg and Santa Maria, the vast majority of its projects — from road-building and excavation to demolition and hauling — have been along Santa Barbara’s South Coast. “Montecito has kept us busy most of the time,” he said. As the economy picked up over the past few years, business got even busier.
Then came the deadly debris flow of January 9, 2018, the aftermath of which meant many months of long overtime, clearing mud-filled properties, moving boulders the size of his tractor, and tearing down red-tagged mansions filled with snapped oak trees. Like many who live or work in Montecito, Schwan was one degree of separation from somebody who died that morning — Dr. Mark Montgomery was his hand surgeon.
These days, the cleanup and demo work in Montecito is slowly giving way to the community’s rebuilding phase. Schwan’s most recent job puts him daily on top of a hill behind Summerland, where, in late December, he was running the Cat as he and his crew were cutting and filling an empty lot in preparation for a brand-new home.
Facing south from up there, an ocean view filled his entire field of vision. Schwan took a long look. “This is a good place to end the year,” he said.