I was born in Fosston, Minnesota, and lived in the small Northwoods town of Trail for the first few years of my life. We moved to Luverne, another small town in the southwest corner of the state, when I was five years old. My dad was the pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church and many of his parishioners were farmers. We lived at 735 N. Freeman Avenue in a parsonage provided to our family by the congregation. Our phone number was 3-4590. Clearly, we were more advanced than the characters on the Andy Griffith show who just picked up the receiver and asked Sarah to connect them to so-and-so, but our phone numbers back then consisted of five numbers with no area code. Such were the simpler times of the mid-60s.
When I was eight years old, I got my first job. I’m not sure why my parents thought I should be doing farm work at that age, but I learned some valuable lessons about labor and capital. One of the farmers in the church hired kids every summer to ‘walk beans.’ For those of you unfamiliar with that heinous job, walking beans was a thankless task reserved for those of us who didn’t know better and were happy to be paid 90¢ an hour. The farmer gave each of his conscripts a pair of cotton work gloves and we set to work. Our labor consisted of walking up and down endless rows of soybean plants and pulling up the dastardly velvet weeds that grew amongst them. If not removed, those weeds would grow so fast and so big they could damage machinery when the beans were harvested. We walked and pulled, walked and pulled, walked and pulled. If a weed was too big and stubborn, I’d call my older sister to come help me, and with four hands we would uproot the interloper.
The highlight of our bean walking days was not the pittance we were being paid. It was the lunches prepared for us each day by the farmer’s wife. We would start our day at 9:00 a.m. and break for lunch at noon. We would wash our dirty hands and faces using the pump in the farmer’s back yard. The fresh well water was cold and delicious. The farmer’s wife would set up a table on the lawn and fill it with the most delicious foods I had ever tasted. She would make roast beef sandwiches and potato salad and Jell-O with marshmallows and fresh rolls with butter and homemade strawberry jam. There were potato chips and fresh dill pickles. For dessert she would make homemade blueberry pie or rhubarb crisp. After gorging ourselves, we would sit under the shade of the elm trees and wait for the farmer to beckon us back to the fields for the afternoon shift. That was my first experience on a farm. The second was a bit different and provides the setting for Burgerhead and Mean Jerry Visit the Farm, the next book in my new children’s series.
One of my friends from Sunday school was named Bryce. One day after church, he asked if I could come out to his farm and play. I didn’t realize that for most farmers the word ‘play’ was a euphemism for ‘work.’ My mom said that would be great, so after lunch, my dad drove me out to the Oldre farm and dropped me off. “Be good,” he said, “and don’t forget, there’s a reason God gave you two ears and only one mouth.” I paused briefly to digest that scrap of advice and ran off to play with my friend.
We fed the pigs with corn from the corn crib and then Bryce’s dad gave each of us a basket and told us our next job was to fetch the eggs from the chicken coop. I had no idea what he was talking about, so Bryce explained everything as we walked toward the enclosure that held a couple hundred chickens.
We picked all the eggs from inside the coop and found many more lying in the grass outside. I learned the hard way that you have to move slowly around chickens. They were very nervous and didn’t like to be bothered. We must have collected 150 eggs in our baskets before leaving the coop. On our way out, I made the mistake of not closing and latching the gate to the enclosure. While we were cleaning and sorting the eggs on the back porch, we heard Bryce’s dad yelling, “The chickens are out! Somebody left the gate open!” My heart sank as I realized I was the last one to leave the enclosure.
His dad gave us a tongue lashing before handing each of us a strange implement that had a handle connected to a long metal rod with a curved hook at the end. “These are fowl catchers,” he said. “You’re going to have to round up all the chickens and put them back in their coop.”
We headed out the back door and saw chickens running everywhere! It took a while for me to learn how to slowly and quietly sneak up on a chicken, reach down with the fowl catcher and snag the chicken by its leg before picking it up and returning it to its home inside the chicken coop. We spent the rest of the afternoon wrangling chickens.
Finally, we caught the last one, returned it to its home and then closed and locked the gate.
My dad was waiting in the driveway to pick me up just as we finished. Covered with dust and glory – and a few chicken feathers – I hopped in and told him about my exciting afternoon. Now you can read about it in my latest book featuring Burgerhead and Mean Jerry!
Walking beans and wrangling chickens – two childhood experiences I’ve never forgotten!