Articles & Stories

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 points.
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 readers.

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