Wage Earner at Last
1930 - 1932
At twelve or thirteen years of age I began to pick up odd jobs, mostly in summer working on neighboring farms, berry picking, driving horses, tractors, helping at haying and harvesting, and chasing cows. Will Simmons, my first employer, was a small scrawny man with a high-pitched voice, usually wearing an old felt hat and knee-high rubber boots. He operated a dairy and grain farm of some one hundred fifty acres at the northeast corner of the Pre-emption and Glen roads, once called Sayre's Corners. His regular working day of twelve to fifteen hours was about the norm for the area. The two regular "hired men" were usually Charley Matteson and Elmer Strahan: strong, in some way disadvantaged, willing to work for twenty dollars a month plus room, board, shoes, boots and overalls. I guess you could say Will was a forerunner of the concept of hiring the handicapped.
Will and Dolly Simmons had a son Calvin, and a daughter, Lulu, both of whom had disliked the back-breaking drudgery of farm life, and once grown, moved to the city of Rochester. Lulu returned with her husband, David Ward, after they lost their jobs to the Great Depression, as did many former rural residents who well knew the food source. Dolly, short, chunky, and work worn, secretly sold a little perfume to neighborhood women, so I learned by eavesdropping.
Will and Dolly's closest friends were Will and Dolly (trust me—its true) Florance who lived half a mile north from them. The Simmons had a 1928 Buick Sedan that Will kept up on blocks in the wagon house most of the year. Occasionally on sunny Sundays the foursome, dressed in their finest, with the men sporting felt hats and fresh cigars, would drive to Penn Yan and buy thirty five or forty cent dinners at the Keuka Inn. For the women this was an important social event; it was almost the only time they left their farms.
Will paid me ten cents an hour during the haying season when he needed someone to drive the team used to unload hay from the wagon that had been drawn up on the barn floor. The team's whiffletree was attached to a system of ropes and pulleys that would hoist a double harpoon fork loaded with hay to a tiny transfer car waiting on a track attached to the inside roof peak to carry the loaded fork to the back of the mow. Will, on the wagon, would set the fork, give me orders to start the team, and prepare to yank the fork's trip rope when it had crossed by the men waiting in the mow to level the hay. Tripping the fork's fingers would release the great bundle of hay to crash in the mow below. At the same time Will would yell a loud "whoa" to me and the team, now traveling down the slope west from the barn. Of course, all sorts of bad things could happen if the team failed to stop, but they never did while I was there.
This was the state-of-the-art, high-tech of the day, and was a great improvement over relaying the hay upward with pitchforks. But even with this, the long-stemmed timothy, then commonly grown in the area, would intertwine and tangle itself, making it back breaking to handle in the mow. I have seen men carried from the mow in hot weather, stricken with heat prostration while "mowing away" the timothy.
After the noon meal (always called dinner) the men lounged in the shade of the front yard trees for most of an hour, recovering strength for the afternoon's labor. Then, back in the field, I proudly drove the team hitched to the hay wagon down the rows of haycocks. The men pitched the hay up to Will, standing on the wagon. My driving freed Will to better attend the loading.
At about five o'clock the haying stopped for chore time. Will and his men had some twenty cows to milk by hand, feed, and clean up after, along with four or five horses to care for.
I usually stayed long enough to watch Will crank the noisy (no muffler) one-cylinder gasoline engine that powered a pump which drew water for the livestock. Both were in a little red pumphouse located in the east barnyard. The women had already taken care of the pigs and chickens and were now preparing supper. As they milked the men carried the milk to the house. Later, after supper, Dolly would sit on a little stool in the north kitchen and bottle milk for delivery the next morning.
After Will had cranked the pump engine, I started homeward, filled with a happy sense of accomplishment, dreaming with a youngster's confidence of many great things I would do. I passed the one-room, red schoolhouse on the corner, thought of my teacher, Jeanette Pryor, and the wonderful things she would teach me.
As I crossed the bridge over the little creek that flowed under the Pre-emption Road on its way to Big Stream, my pace quickened, for I had picked up the special aroma of my mother's potatoes that she was frying with onions.
© 1990, Edwin N. Harris