The Sweet Sauce of Labor

By Pat Edwards (April 2010)

Greek historian, Plutarch, once said, “Rest is the sweet sauce of labor.” I agree and believe that it is only when we experience exhausting physical labor that we can appreciate the sweetness of rest.

Now that I’m nearing my 70th year, I find myself thinking back over my life. I’ve always been a hard worker – some of my work was physically hard, but much of it was (and is) of the type that exercises the brain more than the muscles. A short period of about two years in my youth, however, seemed to be my most physically challenging and one of the most rewarding periods for me.

I was born in Los Angeles and raised in various large and mid-size towns during my childhood. These included Lebanon, Eugene and Portland, Oregon; Eureka, California; and for a short time, Phoenix, Arizona. It was always my dream, however, to live on a farm where I could have a horse and experience the wide-open spaces that didn’t include paved streets and houses sitting so close to each other that you could hear the neighborhood mothers calling their kids in to dinner.

My long-held dream was answered in my sophomore year in high school. My nomadic father, who moved us every few years, decided that he, too, was ready to become a farmer. Up to that point, he had tried his hand as a training tech for Douglas Aircraft during WWII, an electrician (providing the first wiring in some of the homes in Lorane), a logger, a salesman of heavy equipment, an owner of an International Harvester dealership and a commercial fisherman. He had helped my grandparents on their farm in Lorane for several years before I was born and for a short time afterwards, so he was familiar with what it took to be a farmer.

When he and our mother announced to my sister Barbara (B.J.) and I that we were buying a bean and strawberry farm outside of Lebanon, Oregon, we were ecstatic! At the time, we lived on east 139th Street in Portland and I was attending Parkrose Junior High School. Our older brother, Jim, had already left home and had served a stint in the U.S. Marines.

Midway through my sophomore year, we moved to our new farm, located northeast of Lebanon. The Santiam River, which provided the irrigation for the crops, flowed along our western boundary. Compared to commercial farms these days, it was a small farm… probably about 60 acres. The flat bottom land allowed us to plant 15 acres in green beans each year in its fertile soil and there was a 5-acre patch of strawberries on the bottom, gentle slope of the hill below our house. We also planted about 5 acres of winter squash and had approximately 30 acres of wheat, oat and barley fields and pasture. The house and barns sat at the top of a small hill on about 5 acres of land. As soon as the purchase was finalized, my father signed a contract to sell all of the fruit and vegetable crops that we raised to Flavor-Pak, an Albany cannery. In exchange, they provided us a “rep” who made frequent visits to advise us in all things – the “how-tos” and time-lines for preparing the ground, planting, fertilizing, spraying, weeding and harvesting.

B.J. and I immediately began petitioning our parents for horses, but because money would be tight for awhile, we were told we’d have to wait. Fortune shone down upon us, however, when an ad appeared in the Capital Press seeking someone who would be willing to board two horses for their use. Soon, we moved Rocket and Topper into the pasture below the huge three-story dairy barn. Our dream had indeed come true!

Did I mention “labor” at the beginning of this story? I know that it seems I got sidetracked, but all of the preceding was meant to set the stage for what was to come next.

While B.J. and I settled into school – she, at the little “eight-grades-in-one-room” Griggs Elementary School, down the road, and I at the considerably larger Lebanon Union High School, Daddy put on his farmer hat in earnest. While the fields were too wet to plow, he tightened fences, worked on fixing the stalls for the horses, fenced areas for the geese and built a coop for the chickens. B.J. and I had our own chores – feeding the menagerie and helping Mama with the house. In those days, I was mainly the “outdoor worker” and B.J. was the “inside help”… It shows! I’ve never had a “neat-as-a-pin” house, but in those days, I loved working outside where I could be close to the animals.

When Spring arrived, Daddy and my grandfather, who with my grandmother, came to spend the summer with us in their travel trailer, spent their days on the tractors, fertilizing, spraying and tilling between the rows of strawberries and working the rest of the ground for the crops that he would later plant. When I got home from school each day, I changed clothes, grabbed a lightweight hoe, and headed for the strawberry field where I chopped down the tender beginnings of weeds that the tiller had missed before they got too much of a head start. For the ones that grew too close to the precious berry plants, I got down on hands and knees and pulled them manually.

As the fruit began to ripen and the days progressed, our work became more intense. The weeds began to grow faster and bigger and I was having a hard time keeping up with them, so the whole family spent whatever time they could to help.

For the strawberries, we depended on local people to help pick the crops. We didn’t have our own crop bus, so when the berries neared the time when they would have to be picked, we held our breaths, hoping to have enough help. On the day we began picking the first strawberries, enough local people arrived in response to the ad that we placed in the newspaper to fill our need for workers. Most were mothers and children, earning money for school and the necessities of life. Others were there to enable them to buy the horse or take the vacation they always dreamed of having..

Each day, a steady flow of the luscious red berries were brought to the check-in station that Mama ran as the carriers were filled. I worked alongside our other pickers, gently twisting the berries off their stems as the cannery required, and at the end of each day, my fingers were stained bright red and the knees and seat of my jeans were crusted with dirt and mud. It was hard, hard work, bending over, crawling and scooting along the ground to retrieve the sweet berries hiding behind the huge green leaves. B.J., who was in fifth grade, tried picking for awhile, but she ended up starting berry fights with the kid in the next row or sat eating berries instead of putting them into her carrier. She was soon “promoted” to being our house worker and was put to work helping Grandma prepare meals and keep the house clean.

After the berry season ended, Mama spent her days with the normal chores of cooking and cleaning, but in addition, she was in charge of cleaning and preparing our migrant cabins for what we hoped would be families arriving to help with the bean harvest. In those days, the local farmers depended on the seasonal workers who moved from one crop to another throughout the spring and summer. Most began picking early crops in California and then gradually worked their way to Oregon for the beans. When those were harvested, they moved on to Washington for the apples. Most had a regular pattern they followed and returned to the same farms each year. In those days, they were mainly poor white families who made their livings from picking the crops. In the late 1950s, before children were no longer allowed to work in the fields, whole families would labor to bring in as much as they could. Fathers, mothers and the older children worked full days; the younger ones worked for shorter periods, but when they tired, they were allowed to play quietly at the ends of the rows. Mothers took breaks occasionally to breast feed their babies under the shade of the trees that usually lined the fields on at least one side and the whole family joined her there for a lunch break where they ate the food that she packed that morning.

We had three connected cabins on our farm. They were single-room bunkhouses and each had unadorned plank floors and walls, a hot plate, a sink with running water, a 100-watt light bulb in the ceiling for light and several bunk beds. There was a shower room at the end of the row of cabins for all to use. The “bathroom” was a two-holer set away from the cabins that Daddy had to move every week or so to a new site.

While I worked in other areas of the farm, Mama, B.J. and Grandma cleaned and scrubbed and tried to make the cabins as livable and comfortable as possible. The migrants brought their own sleeping bags, so sheets and bedding were provided only as a backup, if needed. The families were responsible for their own “housekeeping,” but Mama always wanted to have them start with a clean environment.

Our first cabin was prepared earlier than usual, however. As soon as school was out, a mother and her teenaged son arrived to work during the strawberry season. Unlike the other families we were expecting for bean harvest, however, the woman, Mrs. Boyles, was a high school teacher in Coos Bay and she had contacted us a couple of weeks earlier about coming to spend the summer on our farm so that her son, Bobbie, could learn how to work.

After strawberry season ended and while we were waiting for the beans to ripen, there was still much work to do. My summer days that first year were filled with helping to hand-string the beans, moving irrigation pipe and doing lots and lots of hoeing on the 15-acre bean field. Despite the fact that we were allowed to spray herbicides in those days, we still had a lot of pigweed and morning glory to contend with. I became browned with the best farmer’s tan anyone could want and my remaining baby fat melted away. I was never happier or healthier in my life than I was on that farm!

It was not all work, though. There were times when B.J. and I took time off to literally jump onto the backs of Rocket and Topper. We didn’t have saddles, so we always rode bareback on the well-worn trails along the river bank and around the fields. We sometimes rode the horses a mile or so down Brewster Road to visit my best friend or to venture down other roads in the area to see where they led. To us, those rides were our well-deserved rest from the work we did on the farm.

A few days before bean harvest was scheduled to begin, our first family of migrants arrived – a mother, a father and two teenaged sons. Then, another family with younger children moved into the last cabin. Both families had worked for the previous owners and had returned to help with our harvest. Though obviously poor, the families were close and loving. The children were polite and respectful of their parents and they had a certain discipline that you don’t see much in today’s youth.

Mama in beanfield

My mother, Ruth Evelyn Smith, weighing beans

Daddy in beanfield

My father, James Sterling Smith, in the bean field

When picking began in the bean fields, the experienced hands of the migrant workers showed the rest of us what work really was. I thought I was able to fill my bean bucket pretty fast, but no matter how fast I picked, all but the youngest kids had their buckets full before I did.

In those days, the beans were pole beans, which climbed five foot high wire and string. The bottom beans ripened first, so much of the earlier picking was done close to the ground and progressed higher with the second and third pickings. We each had a metal five-gallon bucket and a large cloth sack. When we filled the bucket, we poured the beans into the sack until it was full. Then, we drug the sack up to the front of the rows where Mama was running the check-out station. She weighed the sack of beans from a portable hanging scale, record it on the person’s bean card which she kept to tally the day’s weight and then dumped the beans into a large wooden box that, when full, would be loaded by tractor onto the back of the farm truck for transport to the cannery.

There was a lot of camaraderie in the fields. A lot of local adults and children came to work for us – even some of my high school friends. We talked, joked, and sang songs across the rows of beans. Occasionally, a bean fight would break out, but for the most part, we worked.

Frequently, our reward for our hard day’s labor was going back to the house, showering, eating a hearty dinner – usually prepared by Grandma – and then wandering out to the picker’s cabins where a fire was usually burning in the firepit. We joined the migrant families and Bobby and Mrs. Boyles around the fire, drinking ice cold lemonade and visiting. Soon, one of the teenaged boys, Jerry Bean (yes, that was really his name!) got out his guitar and began to sing all of the popular Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley songs that I loved. He was good! and I soon developed a huge crush on him. I know that my response to him worried my parents, but our friendship remained just that… a friendship. To me, though, it was so cool to have someone serenade me and tattoo my first name onto his arm with a sterilized sewing needle and India ink!

I wonder if he still carries that faint memory of me?

Rest. It means different things to different people, but for me, it means the special rewards we allow ourselves at the end of a hard day’s work… horseback rides, friends, singing around a campfire, ice cold lemonade. It doesn’t always have to mean idleness… to me, “rest” means enjoying the life that you’ve earned through your own hard work… It truly is the “sweet sauce of labor!”

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