As one drives the roads of central Iowa, it’s hard not to notice the dying corn and weeds in amongst the green soybean fields. That sends my thoughts racing back to a time when there were kids walking the fields, pulling those pesky invading plants.
That was during a time when kids actually earned spending money. A time when summer work meant getting out in the elements without the aid of air conditioning and portable toilets.
There weren’t many jobs for kids in town back then. No lifeguard jobs because there weren’t any swimming pools in the smaller communities. What there was were plenty of corn and soybean fields that needed attention. Detasseling corn and weeding beans were part of most kids’ summer vacation. It was hot, hard work, but there were plenty of jobs to be had.
There were two ways to get a job. Either a farmer would let out the word that he was looking for help, or the farmer would contract someone to get the job done and that person would handle the hiring.
Once you got on the list of a contractor, you pretty much had a job every summer. That is, unless you didn’t fulfill your part of the agreement.
The contractor I worked for each summer was a skinny little guy who always wore bib overalls and was an expert in the art of cussing. Simply known as Peddler, he seemed ancient to his workers. Looking back, I imagine he was in his 60s.
Each July, Peddler would let out the word that he had fields lined up to work. His regulars would usually last until they turned 16 and then find jobs that were less seasonal. That meant Peddler had to do a certain amount of recruitment — his main requirement being that the applicant had to be at least 12 years of age.
As I recall, the going wage at that time was around 50 cents an hour. That may not sound like much by today’s standards, but back then, it was a lot of money for a kid.
The lucky ones hired were told to report to King’s Station at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. Peddler would meet us there, pile us into the back of his well-used pickup and we’d depart for the field.
The work crew consisted mostly of boys, but occasionally some girls would join in. Peddler didn’t like to hire girls, as he thought they were too much of a distraction.
Each year, it would take a couple of hours to realize just how hard and hot the job was. About that time, someone would let a dirt clod fly. Within seconds, the air would be filled with flying missiles.
Sooner or later a clod would hit Peddler. That’s when things would get really hot. He’d let loose of a few choice words that would make a sailor blush, then realize that there were some girls and mumble some more expletives under his breath.
This would usually put a damper on the dirt-throwers, but by then the sun was high enough that it felt like it was beating us into the ground. The rows seemed to double in length and the only thing keeping us going was the thought of a drink of water at the end. Trouble was, Peddler would get there first and yell something like “Get back to work, you babies. It’s not even hot yet.”
So off you’d go — hoping for all you were worth that Peddler would finally tire so you could go home and lay in a cold bath for the rest of the day.
Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times.