UP & DOWN THE RIVER: Job opportunity for a 10-year-old

Up and downBy Théa Heying

In the summer of 1953, the job market for ten-year-old girls in Newberry looked dismal. When word got out that Lone’s Gardens, a truck farm on the east side of town, was hiring kids to weed and thin their vegetable rows, I considered it a miracle. I’d pestered my parents for a horse since I was eight, and their answer had remained no. Money was tight, they’d said. Now I had a way to realize my dream.

“Mom, Dad, I want to earn money to buy a horse,” I said, like it wasn’t any big deal. “Can I get a job?”

“Sure, if you can find one,” Dad answered, absently fielding what he assumed was the usual pitch.

“Lone’s Gardens is paying kids to weed. Shirley and I are going to apply for jobs on Thursday,” I told him, and sealed the deal.

Mrs. Lone hired new workers at ten o’clock in the morning. A dozen or so big, capable-looking kids had gathered in the dirt driveway in back of her house by the time Shirley and I pulled up on our bikes. When Mrs. Lone appeared and announced the pay at, “a dollar a row,” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I figured I could earn the fifty bucks it would take to buy my horse in a few weeks, and have the rest of the summer off to ride it.

Mrs. Lone glanced at the sign-up sheet with my name on it, and then at me. “How old are you?” she asked.

“Almost 11.”

“Well, we can give it a try,” she said.

I’d helped weed my family’s garden, pick and clean vegetables, and even plant some, but I had no idea what was waiting for me in the field. Shirley’s and my rows were next to each other and our first assignment was to thin leaf lettuce, separating the plants by three inch spaces. Rich black soil called muck, stretched as far as I could see. “Where do our rows end?” I asked Shirley. She didn’t know either, but she didn’t let the question bother her. She just got to work.

I left Shirley, marched back to Mrs. Lone’s house and knocked on the door. She peeked at me through the glass and opened the door an inch. “I can’t find the end of my row,” I said. Either she didn’t understand my question, or she felt sorry for me — this kid who thought she could make an easy buck thinning vegetables. The muck steamed and clung to our shoes as the two of us slogged our way to the end of my lettuce row. Mrs. Lone pointed out a marker stuck five inches above the ground. “That’s it,” she said.

I returned to the place I’d started, knelt, straddled my row and yanked lettuce. Shirley seemed to be doing fine several yards ahead of me. The muck oozed through our jeans and socks where the cloth pressed into the soil. We crawled along, pulled up the extra lettuce and pitched it into furrows between the rows. The muck caked our hands and blackened our fingernails; it molded our knees and shinbones under our dungarees and down where socks covered the tops of our feet. It dried in chunks against our skin.

We paused at noon to eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we’d packed. We made trips to a pipe that stuck up from the ground, and gulped water straight from the tap. We crawled and tossed lettuce until two o’clock in the afternoon. “Time to quit,” we heard somebody say. I still couldn’t see the end of my row, but I didn’t want to hang around and try to find it.

My mother made me wash the muck off with a garden hose, and leave my jeans and shirt at the door, before I finished with soap and water in the bathroom. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon, but I put on my pajamas and flopped on my bed with “The Black Stallion,” by Walter Farley. My horse would be an Arabian, I decided. Black was the perfect color.

Up and Down the River is sponsored by Artworks, a project partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities through Michigan Humanities Council.  

The Artworks office is located at 106 N. Michigan Ave., in Big Rapids. President is Alice Bandstra; Jennifer Locke, executive director; Pat Heeter, gallery team leader; and Cathy Johnson, editor.

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