1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #1 (From Seattle to Florida)

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There were times during my college years that I picked fruit as a way of making some money. I remember picking blueberries in Seattle and apples in Yakima. I also remember sleeping under a bridge when I picked in Yakima. I enjoyed doing the outside, physical work.

I graduated with a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) degree in June of 1970. I would not be able to take my licensing exams until September so I wanted to do something very different than nursing until I took the exams. Three friends and I decided to travel around the U.S. doing migrant farm labor. Brenda, who would also be taking the licensing exams, and I planned to also do a lot of studying during that time.

Over the next six weeks, I will be publishing posts about our experiences that summer.  The content comes from a scrapbook I wrote soon after the trip was over.

Scrapbook

June 9, 1970

Mimi, Laura, Brenda and I left Seattle planning to spend the summer doing migrant farm labor. Our first destination was West Palm Beach, Florida where my parents lived. We planned to surprise them on their 25th wedding anniversary.

The rest stop where we ate our first meal had a river and beautiful scenery in back of us but in front there was an automobile junk yard! We were very cold but having fun.

Ready to Start!

The second night out it was pouring. This was the first time all four of us slept in the Datsun.

4 in Datsun

Early the next morning, we had car trouble. The radiator hose broke, resulting in a burned out head gasket. We found ourselves stranded in Plankinton, South Dakota, 250 miles from nowhere. The population of the town was 500. [As I was typing this, I was curious and decided to check out how much Plankinton has grown since 1970. I learned that in 2013 there were 715 people living in the town!]

Main Street of Plankinton
Main Street of Plankinton

Through the help of a minister, we were able to find someone to fix our car and a place stay, the minister’s church basement. Our car was supposed to be fixed by the next day, but due to Greyhound losing three different head gaskets, we were to be in Plankinton for seven days, long past my parents’ anniversary.

The church basement was great; it had a kitchen and everything else we needed. The only problem was that the minister went on vacation without telling anyone he said we could stay there. On the second night, we received a visit from the sheriff. Luckily, once he found out why we were in the church, he was fine with us staying.

Plankinton was very boring though. The theater was available only on Saturday night, and it was filled with a million kids. The teenagers amused themselves by driving up and down main street or by watching everyone else driving up and down main street. We could swim for 50 cents per person.

We are bored!
We are bored!

There was plenty of chance for us to read and study though.

We started worrying about our mental status when, during meals, we found ourselves stripping membranes from the inside of eggs and looking at the fountains that spurted up when we squeezed lemon peels.

Our mechanic, Al, took the car apart on the day we arrived. Once the part he needed arrived, he worked from 10 am to 3 pm and the following day he worked on it from 6 am to 2pm. He only billed us $14 for his labor. Sure was great to meet friendly people.

Our Mechanic, Al
Al

Finally, we left Plankinton and headed on. We drove straight to Florida, making only one stop….to visit a friend. We arrived at my Aunt Muriel’s house early on Sunday morning.

We sure surprised mom when we showed up at church. Dad was happy to see us too. They didn’t seem to be upset when they found out our plans for the summer. I was surprised.

We soon had car problems again. This time we were broke, so we spent a week washing windows, cleaning houses and porches, and selling flowers. We earned $100!

Selling flowers

We had planned to do our migrant work across the south of the U.S., but my Uncle Ted advised us to work up the east coast instead. I thought he had a better idea of what we would be facing than anyone else, so we decided to heed his advice.

One day, mom drove us to Belle Glade. We soon discovered that we would be able to work there picking oranges. We went back to West Palm Beach to get ready for our first job. A couple of days later, we headed back to Belle Glade!

Ready to Start!

We had borrowed my parents’ old heavy canvas tent. A man in a nearby campsite gave us some extra rope and a stake. He said he thought that we were living in substandard housing and wanted to help.

Canvas tent

That first night was miserable. We were inside a canvas tent in hot weather. To make it worse we needed to sleep in hot sleeping bags in order to keep away from the mosquitoes.  The tent was useless. I finally got two hours of sleep by sleeping on the hood of the car.

The next morning, we were up at 5 a.m., in the dark. We drove to the place where we would board the bus that would take us to the fields. The bus was there when we arrived and it was already packed with pickers. We were the only white people on the bus. Everyone kept asking us, “Have you got a man yet?” We were startled by the question and didn’t know what to say. We soon discovered that everyone picked the oranges in pairs, because the ladders were 20 feet long. Each pair consisted of one woman and one man.

We arrived at the orange field at 7:30 a.m. By the time it was 4:30 pm, I was so tired; my body ached through and through. My partner Joe and I had filled seven bins. We were paid for our work at 6:00 pm and were back at our campsite in Belle Glade at 8:00 pm. On the second day, we again picked 7 bins of oranges. On the third day, Brenda picked with Joe and me. We tired much faster this day. We only filled 6 bins even though three of us were working.

The people we worked with were so nice. They knew the third day was our last, and they all wished us luck. Joe gave us a whole chest of fish to take home.   That day, two tiny birds had fallen from the tree. We put them in a hat and took them home so my brother Bill could take care of them.

We arrived at my parents’ house at 7 pm. We were so filthy that they wouldn’t let us sit on anything.

The income we each made from our three days of work varied.  The person who made the least earned $17; the one who made the most earned $31. We estimated that we had earned one cent for every 30 oranges we picked.

We were ready to leave Florida. Next stop- the Atlanta International Pop Festival!

 

(The next post in this series will be published on Friday December 4.)

 

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22 thoughts on “1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #1 (From Seattle to Florida)

  1. This is shaping up to be a fun event. I’m glad that we are getting some historical economic lessons mixed in here as well. And the population of that city growing by 200 people, that’s amazing.

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    1. I was surprised at the tiny increase too. It is amazing that there are still places in America like that.

      We were paid $3.14 a bin and either 2 or three people divided that money.

      I have enjoyed reviewing that time of my life and it is also interesting to me to read the financial portions of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. it is amazing. With all the negative stories about man’s inhumanity to man in the news, it’s so easy to forget these simple kindnesses that often go unnoticed by the world. I am glad you are publicizing your accounts. We need to read about folks being kind to remind ourselves to be kind as well. 🙂 my two cents for what it’s worth

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree with you. We had some really hard and unpleasant times that summer but even amidst those there were experiences of kindness. I hope you enjoy reading about the rest of our journey, should you choose to do that.

        Liked by 1 person

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