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The Hired Men

Posted by Larry Aasen 8/28/2018

The men jumped off freight trains at Taft, four miles north of Hillsboro. They had been riding in train box cars and looked like it. They wore dirty, ragged overalls. Riding in a railroad box car for many miles did not help their appearance. A few of the men were lucky and came in beat, old cars.

They were not bums. Most of them had left farms in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and other neighboring states. Some had owned farms that failed. Others could not find jobs anyplace because of the severe depression in the 1930s and 40s. We kids would wave at the men riding the trains and they would wave back. We thought we were cheering them up!

They walked about a half-mile to the Alfred Brenden farm where I lived with my mother, grandmother and two brothers. We were under 10 years of age, curious and a little afraid of these men coming to our farm. My mother and grandmother were not surprised by the visit. It happened a lot during the depression.

The ladies went to work at once and handed out as much food as they could find in the house. I can’t remember what they got for food, but I am sure it was not very fancy. I do remember the ever present red or green Jell-O. We three kids just starred at the men. They didn’t even see us because they were busy gulping their food. We had never seen so many uninvited men on our farm. The men were quiet, polite and not laughing or making jokes. They had been beat up by the depression and it showed. They were not used to begging for food.

After eating, they talked to Alfred Brenden, my uncle who farmed the land. Alfred, a tall, gruff, thin bachelor who rolled his own cigarettes, worked hard six days a week all of his life. He farmed with eight horses as well as with tractors. For some reason, he never owned a rain coat. Like all farmers, I think he was just so happy when it rained that he didn’t mind getting wet.

Alfred was the boss and you didn’t forget it. Yet, he was fair, honest and respected by other farmers. My dad was killed in a car accident when I was five years old, and Alfred was my surrogate father and he was an excellent surrogate.

The men would tell Alfred they were looking for a job, any kind of work. Before hiring anybody, Alfred would   always look at the palms of their hands to see if they showed signs of hard work. He didn’t need resumes.        

The men who were not hired walked slowly back to Taft to catch the next train, if it stopped.

Today, the “back breaking” work they did would be called “intensive.” They picked up bundles of grain and made small stacks with about eight bundles. A wagon pulled by two horses would take the grain bundles to the threshing machine. The men would toss the grain bundles into the threshing machine. Grain would go into a waiting truck and straw would blow out a big pipe at the end of the machine.

The grain would be put in trucks and taken to Taft to sell – an anxious moment because the grain might be less than top quality.

Long days were spent working in the hot sun, fighting flies and mosquitos and, sometimes, a dust storm.

The men got a dollar a day. The men who had special jobs got $1.25. Alfred set the hourly wage. There were few labor unions at that time.

The men slept on hay in the barn. When they left the barn at the end of the harvest season, we kids would dig through the hay to look for anything we could fine. We would uncover lurid sex and crime magazines, cigarettes, dirty socks, underwear and other very personal items we had never seen before. One time, when I was moving the hay with a pitch fork, I accidently ran it through a gallon tin can containing alcohol. I was told one man got tears in his eyes as the alcohol dribbled to the floor. The men ignored me and Alfred never let us go into the hay loft again. The drink of the day was hot water with sugar and alcohol. Alfred never drank because he wanted to be in charge at all times. For many years, we always thought he would marry our hired girl, but he never did.

To feed some 15 men at a long table, two tables were pushed together. My mother said that nearly all the men had two helpings and some three.

As there were no showers on the farm, we suspected some men took baths in the big, round water tanks for the cattle and horses. On Sunday, all the men would go to a gravel pit near Cummings to swim (and take a bath). Some of the men even had swimming suits.                              

The Hillsboro Banner never reported any news stories about these men breaking any laws. For many years, we had about 15 hired men and they became our friends. Some came back again and again. 

Only Alfred knew the last names of the men because he wrote the checks. They had nick-names like Swede, Red or Ole. One was called “Skinny Bone Tight” and we never knew why.

Sometimes at night one of the men would play his guitar and some would sing. For us kids, this was the high point of the day!

When the harvest was over, the men would go back to Taft and catch a train. They didn’t know where they would end up, but it did not make much difference.


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