From Hunger In Kentucky,
To The Onion Fields Of Indiana
A Magoffin County Native Weeded Onions
For 10 Years
By Bill Salyer - 2011
Reading The Kentucky Explorer quickly makes
it obvious that a lot of Kentucky natives now live elsewhere.
Their letters come from almost every state. Reading those letters,
one gets the feeling a lot of them would like to be back in Kentucky.
Why aren't they? Where, when and why did they go? Why did many
of them not return? Every story will be different, but many will
have a common thread. It seems strange that we seldom see the
stories of these people after they were forced to leave home,
especially in a magazine concerned mostly with people. They usually
write only about their prior lives in Kentucky.
Hunger is a powerful thread. A lot of people born at the bottom
of the Depression understand that. Those born on a creek bank
near Salyersville in Magoffin County, as I was, understand it
all too well. The few small coal mines in the area were all closed.
There was still plenty of timber on the mountains, but no one
was buying. Finally, the choice became all too clear: find a
way to get food or starve. The many federal alphabet programs
that came later had not yet made their way to Magoffin County.
I have read that every day of January 1937 it rained somewhere
in Kentucky. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that
the whole area was thoroughly soaked. The record shows the Ohio
River crested at Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky, on January
27th, my sixth birthday. As far as I know, the water level record
still stands. We had to wait two weeks or so for the water to
recede to cross the river on our way to Northern Indiana. We
had been told by friends and relatives that anyone who wanted
work could find plenty of it in Jasper County, so we went to
Newland, to an out-of-use chicken house with a dirt floor. We
made walls from sheets and blankets. Heating was from a barrel
stove fed by corncobs, which were waste at that time. Farmers
were glad to get rid of them. A truck owner would haul a load
for a dollar.
Some things you have to see to believe. We didn't want to believe
the winters in Northern Indiana the first few years we were there.
Lake Michigan, famous for icy winds, wasn't far away. Windbreaks
were not plentiful. The land is almost tabletop flat. One could
say, "It's a fur piece from what we were used to in the
Kentucky hills." Of course, we didn't have the latest in
winter clothes. We were lucky to have any clothes at all. Shoes,
worn only in winter, usually had cardboard to cover the holes
in the bottom. That worked, after a fashion, until they got wet.
Gloves were unheard of. The only substitute available to us was
socks with holes in the toes. I'm sure that's why, ever since
I could afford them, I've had more gloves than one can shake
a stick at.
Newland was aptly named. It was almost literally new land. Much
of Jasper County had been swamp covered by cottonwoods and rattlesnakes.
The trees were cleared, the swamps were drained, and most of
the rattlesnakes left the area, but not all. The only good thing
I can say about rattlesnakes is that, unlike copperheads, they
give a warning before they bite. Newland had about a dozen houses,
a general store, and a pickle factory. The factory was a long,
weathered building, similar to an oversized tobacco barn. The
floor was five or six feet off the ground to make room for the
pickle sorting machinery. Pickles were hauled in each day at
one end, poured onto a sorting screen, and distributed according
to size into bags or crates. These were later hauled to Chicago.
Down each side of the building were big wooden tanks for dills.
The tanks, about ten of them, were about eight feet deep and
fifteen or so wide. All during the harvest they were fed pickles,
salt, and dill which were kept covered with water. At season's
end they were hauled to Chicago. That left all the boys in the
area an ideal playground the rest of the year. The building was
our city park.
Many people who left Kentucky went to Northwest Indiana to work
in the steel mills. Some went to Ohio, Michigan, or other states
to work at whatever was available. Most of the big families,
that we knew, went to Jasper County, because people of almost
any age could weed onions. If there were child labor laws, we
knew nothing about them. We simply knew "no workee no eatee."
There was no such thing as Roundup, and weeds grow faster than
onions, so many hands were required. For weeding onions, little
hands are often better than big ones. Onions are strange. They're
tough but also delicate. While they seldom die, they can't grow
in weeds, because they can't compete for sunlight. They are usually
hidden by weeds so separating the two is more feel than see.
Roots are so poorly anchored in fluffy soil that it's much easier
to pull onion than weed. That's why little fingers work better.
There was nothing fair about the pay scale. A six-year-old was
paid six cents an hour. At age 16 one received sixteen cents.
Adults got about a quarter. The best paying job in the fields
went to the men who pushed the wheel hoes. They got a half-dollar.
Fortunately, for us little people, someone came up with the idea
of piecework. The field was staked off in numbered sections with
a price per section, and we were paid for what we did instead
of how long we did it. Until that time weeders worked in groups,
usually between one and two dozen. Each group had a straw boss,
who kept his group close together. Anyone falling behind was
helped by someone nearby. It's not easy to describe onion weeding
to those who have never seen it, but I will try, and believe
me, one doesn't want to see it first hand.
Picture a totally flat field, coal black, which may be half a
mile long. There are rows just over a foot apart which appear
to be all weeds. Hidden in those weeds are tiny onions three
or four inches tall. The job is to pull the weeds without disturbing
the onions. One has to be close to the work, so that involves
crawling on the knees, which have developed very good calluses,
because long ago the bib overalls were worn out in that area.
Of course, no shoes were needed, which most of us didn't have
anyway. This is a 10-hour day, six days a week, for a two or
three months' job. Onions like cool weather, so they're planted
very early in the Spring, so the weather is cold. You can't weed
onions wearing gloves. A month or two later one wishes he could
recover some of that cool.
If one could see this picture from above, it might look like
a monster vacuum cleaner moving slowly through a weed patch.
After it passes the weed patch has turned into several neat arrow-straight
rows that look like a porcupine with its hair combed.
Fields were laid off in grids separated by irrigation ditches.
On most of the ditch banks there was a strip of weeds 10 or 12
feet wide, and the weeds grew 10 or 12 feet tall. These served
a dual purpose of windbreak and toilet facilities. Likely that
wouldn't pass inspection today. In the biggest of the ditches,
we always found a swimming hole. It wasn't the cleanest water
in the world, but at the end of a long day it took off some of
the sweat and the dirt we had crawled in all day. This dirt was
actually decayed vegetation and was, as said before, coal black.
It was called muck, but was essentially peat and would actually
burn. Occasionally, it did burn and was almost impossible to
extinguish. The best method was to dig a trench around it down
to water and let it burn out. Water was usually fairly close
to the surface. Muck could as well have been called itch powder.
Every place clothing applied pressure to skin became a major
scratching point. Fortunately, bib overalls, the only thing we
could afford, were the best answer to this. Not many pressure
The swimming holes were a major part of our recreation. Immediately
after work we simply got there as quickly as possible and jumped
in. Bathing suits? We knew nothing of them. Our trusty overalls
served well. There was nothing in the pockets to suffer water
damage and they needed washing, too. No one had underwear. We
couldn't afford it, and it would have been more scratching points.
Girls and boys all wore the denim bibs. One could tell them apart
only because, at that time, boys usually had short hair and girls
long. After 10 hours of crawling in the muck there were no males
and females, just a bunch of tired, dirty, itchy onion weeders.
Sometimes we got a ride to the swimming hole and home afterward;
if not, we walked.
Not many people at that time had cars. I probably didn't see
a new one until after WWII. Those were the days of happy hitchhikers.
All the cars in that area were ancient, but the owner would cheerfully
let anyone in or on who could find room. Jalopies had running
boards. Each could hold three or four people, if they weren't
too big. Front fenders could handle a couple and in a pinch two
or three could ride on the back bumper. Amazingly, we managed
to survive. Gasoline cost 20 cents a gallon. No one filled the
tank. Many of us started smoking while very young. When I was
ten years old, cigarettes cost eleven cents a pack.
Most of us lived within three or four miles of the onion fields.
The farmers would send a truck around about dawn. Everyone knew
where the stops were. There were no seats. One could hold onto
the sides, other people, or take his chances. After work the
trucks would deliver workers to the same stops where they were
picked up. The truck left from the fields, not the swimming hole.
That's why we did a lot of walking.
I weeded onions for about ten years. When I was 16 years old
we had moved a bit closer to Lake Michigan, and I worked for
a farmer very close to where we lived. I no longer was weeding
onions but was doing general farm work, such as planting, cultivating
etc. At onion weeding time I took the truck around on Saturday
and passed the word it would be at certain stops Monday morning.
I took the truck around and picked up all the people at the stops.
When we got to the field, I became straw boss. At day's end,
of course, I did a reverse trip.
Many people who left Appalachia during the Depression will have
stories similar to mine. Details and jobs will differ, but it's
safe to say that most left Kentucky because they were hungry.
Most did not return because we had adapted and formed attachments
to our new locations. In my case, I eventually had a business
which could not be moved to a distant location. I sold the business
in 1996 and soon after returned to Kentucky, not to the old hometown,
but any place in the state would feel like home.
Bill Salyer, 717 Autumn Ridge Road, Falls
of Rough, KY 40119; 270/879-8227, shares this article with our
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