Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Great Potato Harvest

Little kids, at least in the nineteen fifties, weren't often given the opportunity to earn money. A few might have gotten an allowance, but there were many strings attached, and the chance to earn some extra cash was rare.

While living in Idaho, it won't shock anyone to know that the local farmers regularly hired women and children during harvest season to pick potatoes. The big combine would go through the field and the potatoes would be left more or less on top of the dirt. Then the women and children would be given empty burlap bags and they'd head down the rows. You had to bend at the waist and reach into the dirt, pick up those big Idaho russets and shove them into the sack. Then you had to drag that sack on down the row until it was full. At that point you had to heft the sack up and drag it back to the collection point. There it would be weighed and tallied up by your name. The picker would be given a new sack, and back into the field you would go. As the day progressed, those burlap bags got increasingly heavier. I remember it too well.

We probably got five cents a bag. The sun was hot. You don't think about having a sore back or being exhausted when you're a little kid, until it happens. It was the summer between third and fourth grade for me. My brother Kenny was a year behind that, Ellen two years ahead of me, and Pat old enough to work on the combine. At one point during the day, Kenny let Mom know how the three of us kids she had taken to the field all felt, and it was no longer gratitude for the chance to earn some money.

Dragging a new empty burlap bag behind him up the potato row, he trudged up to our mother.

"Mama, can little kids have heart attacks?"

"No, honey, they can't."

As he returned to his spot in line, we all clearly heard his response. "Where there's a will, there's a way."


sherrie said...

How odd that we have this in common, sort of. You're not much older than I am, but things were really different when I worked "Spud Harvest" (as we called it in "The SPUD CAPITAL of the World"). We just rode along standing on the combine as the spuds came up on the conveyor belt. We tossed off the rotten, cut, or otherwise defective spuds and the rest continued along the conveyor belt until they dropped into the truck that drove alongside the combine. I also got to drive that spud truck, all 24 gears of it. All in all, the 16 hour days for two weeks paid pretty well, but I only did it once -- it wasn't worth repeating.


Judy said...

Kenny's comment reminds me of something my own son would have said when he was young. I don't know about potatoes but I do know about tobacco being from Kentucky and it was a hard crop also. I worked in the tobacco fields when I was young. Have a nice 4th of July.