Langdon Long Ago

Potato Picking

Posted 10/3/19

By Rita Maisel

With what seems like never-ending gray skies and rainy days, there were lots of suggestions about writing a column on some type of special Indian summer day from long ago. The one that kept rising to the surface actually dates back to the fall I started college in Iowa. In those days new students from schools that were not accredited had to take entrance exams to prove they were college material. Langdon’s high school was not accredited by Iowa standards so automatically I had to take the tests. Even though I had good grades at LHS, there was a hole in my English grammar background. The test required you to write out something remembered as declining, a verb giving various tenses. Apparently, I had stared at the instructions too long. The time allowed for the test expired and that section of my test was collected with that space still blank. Years later, when taking an introductory course in German, I learned what the test instructions referred to – in German, which had to be mentally translated into English.

Fortunately, I was not alone. It appears the whole football team at that college had failed portions of that same test. We were assigned to “bonehead English”, a special remedial class, which did not focus on grammar specifically but was taught by a tiny, bright-eyed, little, gray-haired lady with a remarkable sense of humor and a PhD in English. Iowa had a lot of warm sunny fall days, and on one of the first of these our lethargic class dragged into their seats. The instructor suggested we all face the south side of the room where windows opened onto the park-like open campus with leaves of many colors on the trees or piling up on the lawn. Now, pretend you are home, wherever you live, and write a story about what you would be doing if you were there. Some groaned, but I knew it was my cousin’s birthday that week, as it is this week, and if I were at home I would be out in the field picking potatoes. So, I took the teacher at her word and wrote about the potato fields of North Dakota. Thanks to that instructor, the story did lead to a job on the college newspaper, which turned out to be an unexpected college assignment.

Potatoes had always been grown in farm gardens and some in the fields, as well, but around the time of World War II raising potatoes in the fields of Cavalier County became a big business. Some of the relatives around Cavalier were already raising potatoes, and some of the relatives closer to Langdon decided to try them as well. In retrospect, it was very much a learning experience.  In good years they may even have made a profit.

The cycle began in the spring with cutting tables (home-built) set up where up to six people (three to a side) sat on stools by a wooden hopper. The foreman or a helper dumped un-cut potatoes into the hopper, and the potatoes then fell down to the table top where the six cutters (wearing gloves!) pulled them up to the knives and cut them into smaller pieces which fell into baskets between their knees. When the basket was full, the small seed pieces were dipped into a vat of treated water then drained and taken to the fields to be planted. Most of the cutters were women or girls, and since students with good grades did not have to take final exams, I had a chance to earn some spending money for summer cutting potatoes. It was hard work, and by spring the potatoes left over from last fall’s crop did have a noticeable aroma.

In midsummer the plants would be up and in blossom. If a plant was blighted, it had to be removed by hand, and I learned later I was the last girl in the family drafted for that unpaid task. Walking the fields in hot sun was never a favorite activity, and heat exhaustion became a common summer ailment. Spraying the potato bugs was not a child-healthy activity so I got to miss that.

However, potato picking time each fall became special. It was a chance to earn a new winter coat or some special treat. You sometimes got out of school, and other times worked weekends. A truck would pick up the kids, teenagers and adults willing to do this backbreaking task and take us to the fields. My brother and I were both recruited by relatives who owned or had planted the fields. Because the peck baskets we picked in were too heavy for us to lift, it took two people to a team to get the potatoes from the baskets into the sacks. We would start at the end of a long row and often my mother and an aunt (another team) would be in the row beside us. First you folded extra bags over a belt which you wore as you worked down the row. When the bag was full, it supposedly weighed 100 pounds, and the full bag needed to have the top folded over so the potatoes did not spill out. Then you took another bag off your belt and started on another bushel. Other workers kept count of how many bushels we picked in a day (we counted ourselves to be sure they would not cheat us!) and if the bags seemed light, they would dock your pay. Two full peck baskets poured into a gunny sack was counted as a bushel. While in the fields there would be breaks for a snack and at noon for lunch. When we started we got 8 cents a bushel, but pickers who were adults or teenagers usually got 10 cents. Some were paid off at the end of the day, and a few were told not to come back. Being relatives, we did not get paid until later.

Around Christmas time some of the potatoes stored in the pit (a large cement structure, mostly underground and divided into bins) would have to be graded. Entire bins would be cleaned out and sorted on the moving belt of the graders. People in coats and warm gloves stood at each side and sorted the potatoes into sizes and removed any that had spoiled since harvest a few months earlier. Smaller potatoes could be sold in bags for a different price. Some women helped with this task, but the work was heavy so mostly men did this type of work. Working on the grader was not a job I liked and tried to escape when I could. Only one of my younger cousins has ever mentioned doing duty there. By the time younger family members came along, they had potato picking machines and various labor-saving devices. One scene always in my mind was the guy at the end of the grader line with a big needle device and twine who would wrap the twine around “an ear” on the right hand side, stitch the top of the bag together, make another ear on the left side and then lift a bag weighing almost as much as he did on to a pallet with wheels which, when loaded, could be pulled away to another section of the pit or placed near an elevator that took bags up to floor level. He did all this while a second bag was filling on the other side of the grader and never seemed to miss a beat or have a pile of potatoes on the floor. In those days it seemed very modern and wonderful.

With automatic pickers, graders and probably sackers, the long ago work of picking and sorting potatoes is now behind us – possibly controlled by a precision ag device on a computer or cell phone. A lady who died last spring had not known me for a few years, but on days when she did she might not remember my name but would tell me about her days of picking potatoes (sometimes in the same fields I did) working with her cousin as a partner and could still remember some of the outfits they purchased with their ”potato money”. Those days still spell October’s elusive Indian summer days for me and possibly for other readers.

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