When Summer Jobs Were Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Many things about the approach of summer on the farm have stayed the same during the past five decades–brilliant sunsets cut through the hovering dust clouds farmers raise in the fields; lilac bushes send out short-lived, intoxicating scents; and varmints dig, crawl, and climb into newly planted gardens. But many aspects of rural life have changed, and one of the most obvious is teenage summer employment. Youngsters today have ways of staying busy, but their work routines are vastly different from the ones we had 50 years ago.

During the 60s, even Top 40 radio stations were pointing us toward the treadmill. From the Silhouette’s oldie hit “Get a Job” to Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” we farm kids knew we’d either be puttin’ in the hours on our home place or working for neighbors. The latter was a better option, because we might earn a whopping $1.50 an hour–and that kept our cars running when gas was 35 cents a gallon and our social lives buzzing when a drive-in movie ticket cost under two dollars.

Gainful employment might also mean we could work with friends and maybe even meet some interesting characters. Whenever we’d weed fields or bale hay for old Clare down in Illinois Grove, we could count on stories about bootleg liquor and rum runners in Prohibition Days, or how he’d trap muskrats on a lake as a kid–skinning one he’d just caught while skating to the next trap site.

An old farmer we called “Dutch” lived several miles east of us, and for lunch on a 90-degree day, he’d bring out lukewarm lemonade and sandwiches that had so much mayonnaise on them, I couldn’t tell if they contained thin, juicy meat slices or beets and cucumbers. But he had stories too, and we knew that by the end of the day, we’d be swimming with friends at the Hubbard pool or jumping off the rope swing at the St. Anthony Gravel Pit.

If you hired on to shell corn, some of the old boys might clue you in on their days of hopping freight trains or tippin’ outhouses, but most of the time, we were either with friends or working solo. One of the easiest tasks was driving a tractor, usually to cultivate weeds out of corn and soybean fields. No luxury cabs back then, and certain hassles did arise–you’d need to unplug the weeds tangled in the cultivator shields, red-winged blackbirds might dive bomb your head if you came near their nests on the end rows, and if you drove along in a “Daydream Believer” trance as you thought about the upcoming school dance, you might look back to see that 30 feet of innocent, young corn stalks had been ripped up. That led to a mad scramble to replant them before the farmer drove out with some iced tea and cookies.

Most of the jobs we did have faded away as technology and precision farming take hold. Driverless tractors and drones are starting to invade the fields, and most of our old weed work is now done with chemicals. Roundup and other herbicides replaced soybean walkers, but for a few of our rebels-without-a-cause years, we had gangs that fought with cockleburs, buttonweeds, and bull thistles. Armed with gloves–and occasionally machetes–we trudged up and down the rows, pulling and cutting, sweating and swearing–but by the end of the day, we had a few bucks and a good tan.

Hay baling was a bit classier than weed work, especially if you hired on with the custom balers. This was back when hay bales were rectangular–not like the massive round bales that angular machines now belch out. If you were strong enough to stack bales on the field rack, you might land a gig with Clarence. The Wisconsin engine on his machine could bale through swamp grass, and when he shifted into cruisin’ speed, we lads on the rack saw little but the back of his safari hat bouncing on his head as the baler sent a stream of 70-pound, wire-bound bales back at us. We were paid a penny a bale, so as far as we were concerned, keep ’em comin’.

I have nothing against livestock farmers, but jobs that involved animals often left a mark–a kick from a cranky milk cow, scratches from hooves as you held baby pigs to be vaccinated, or a hair ball lodged in your sinus cavity from the smell and dust you breathed in while cleaning the chicken coop. Seems to me we’d still be coughing out a feather or two the next day.

Some farm kids today still get stuck into “gritty jobs,” but during this digital age, most would not relish performing the “dirty deeds done dirt cheap” that we did. But many of us look fondly back on an era when we were out in the elements, and none of our jobs involved a keyboard or monitor–and we never had to learn how to say, “You want fries with that?”  

by dan gogerty (top pic from paul-julia.com, middle pic from shutterstock.com, and bottom pic from livinthecountrylife.com)

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