Friday, September 19, 2014

First Money I Ever Earned

     In 1938, at the height of the Depression –  for our family the depths -- we were, as my mother used to say dramatically “two weeks away from [applying for] Relief”.  And then my father finally got a job again ! !  as superintendent of a clothing factory that was the largest employer in a little Upstate New York village.
     Daddy had seen the world – orphaned at 10, he bummed around the Northeast from one older sister’s home to another, in cities like Montreal, Boston, Buffalo, New York, Portland.  But the rest of us had always remained in a tight-knit city circle of relatives.  I had 21 first cousins in the Boston area.
     So that summer we were suddenly cast out into the wilderness.  We rented the back half of a Victorian mansion next to the Catholic church.  And the landlord’s son greeted me with “Want to go picking?”   Rready for anything, I said “Sure.”
     Early next morning, a big farm truck pulled up in the driveway.  My new friend (could his name have been Wilbur?) helped me climb in back and hang on to the wooden slats that formed the side walls, as the truck racketed around the village picking up kids.
     Half an hour later we pulled into the lane at the Fullager farm and jumped down.  I was equipped with a wooden quart basket that tied around my waist and another empty basket that fit into it.  Then, as the sun beat down, we were turned loose in the raspberry patch.  Homer’s son patrolled the rows, collecting full baskets and punching holes in the cardboard tags we wore on strings around our necks.      More than three-quarters of a century later, I still have my tag.  On the back is Mrs. Fullager's reckoning at the end of the day?  end of the week?  end of the harvest?  I think it was 53 quarts at 3 cents each, and 8 quarts at 4 cents.  Black raspberries paid more, because they scratched your hands. At any rate, it came to $1.91.  First money I ever earned.  It looked like a lot to me -- and it was.  Buying equivalent today (I just looked it up) $32.22.  Not bad for a 12-year-old's first job. 

     When the raspberry harvest was in, before the truck took us home one last time, Mrs. Fullager invited all of us into her big sunny kitchen, and treated us to – well, I remember two kinds of cake, and there must have been lemonade.  Years later, in more than one British movie, I saw rousing scenes of the traditional Harvest Home Celebration a Landlord would host for his workers.  I’ll bet her hospitality was a direct echo of that. 


  1. Totally fascinating story, the picking one. Equally noteworthy, the handwriting of a 12 year girl in 1938. Where were you? Which little upstate New York village? Do you suppose that farm is still there?

  2. I can testify from personal raspberry-picking experience that this was hard-earned money for a 12-year-old. Our next-door neighbor and I are letting our back 40s go over to wild black raspberries because it's the easiest way of growing our own fruit, and also helps deter trespassers (both two- and four-legged)--but still, suiting up in the protective clothing required by thorns and deer ticks and then picking those berries in steamy July heat isn't high on my fun meter.

    And cheers for Mrs. Fullager for the "harvest home" cakes. Nice touch. Was this in Penn Yan?