Life in West Denton in the 1920s, on Choptank River, Caroline County, Maryland

Below is text from “Chapter Four – Truck Patch Experiences” of Bridges To My Maturity,  Delightful Memories of What It was Like to be a Young Lad in the 1920s Along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, by George W. Swartz.

Digitized, edited, and prepared for re-publication by CCHS volunteers Dave Ellis and Don Barker.

See all of our republished stories by George Schwartz about West Denton here.

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The Eastern Shore was then and still is [in the 1970s] to a great extent big “truck patch” country, as well as a producer of staple farm products. Truck patch growers would have acres of strawberries, asparagus, watermelons, cantaloupes, and other marketable products in season. Also there were large fields of grain, mostly wheat, other small grains, and corn to be harvested. Today soybeans have replaced many of the grains as a money crop. In addition, many farmers grew large fields of tomatoes, sugar peas, sweet corn, green beans, and even lima beans for sale to the many canneries.

Strawberries and asparagus were harvested by boys early in the morning each day during season. I would rise as soon as the sun was beginning to show and ride my bike to the strawberry patch to begin picking the berries. We carried a tray that held eight quart boxes which we would fill by picking the ripe berries. We would take these to the “boss,” usually the farmer-owner, to a spot in the patch that he had selected as a work station. He would check them over, record our picking, and put the boxes in a wooden crate that held thirty-two quarts (four rows deep with eight quarts to a row), ready for shipment to the market. We were paid two and one half cents a quart for picking them. If the berries were good and large, I could make from $1.00 to $1.25 each morning that they were in season. About 8:00 or 8:15 I would have to leave, rush home, and get ready for school. I particularly remember picking for Mr. William Samis, a Canadian, who did much truck-patching and who also sold Maytag washing machines. His farm was less than a mile from my home.

Cutting asparagus on Mr. Archie Griffin’s farm was an early morning experience also, but I do not remember on what basis or how much we were paid. Asparagus was cut to a certain length, usually about ten inches, tied in bunches weighing approximately two pounds, and sent to market in wooden crates resembling the strawberry crate. Asparagus shoots grow rapidly, and in season they must be cut every day in~ order to market a tender product. Otherwise they become woody and lose their tender texture.

The production of tomatoes for commercial canneries was a farm job requiring much labor in those days and boys could play a big role in producing this crop. Today the labor is done largely by machines. It was a common thing to have two or more fields of tomatoes ranging in size from four to ten acres each on most farms. The work that boys could perform began with the planting of the tomato plants and extended through to the harvesting.

The planting process began with plowing, discing, and harrowing the field to a smooth surface, then marking It off in both directions with a corn planter. At the place where these marks crossed, a tomato plant was set, thus enabling cultivation In both directions while the plants were young. For the process of setting the plants a man and a boy were teamed together. The man carried a heavy square-bladed spade which, with his foot, he sunk into the ground on the cross-mark and pulled it backward. This separated the dirt far enough to enable the boy to drop in a tomato plant from the bundle he was carrying. Then the man withdrew the spade with a quick jerk and pushed the dirt around the plant with his foot, thus setting the plant tightly in the ground.

These plants were developed especially for commercial growing, and the survival rate without watering them was amazing. However, about a week later the field always required a replanting of those that did not survive. Sometimes a second replanting was needed. After that the farmer cultivated and took care of his crop until harvest time when boys and girls and women were recruited to pick the tomatoes as long as the crop lasted. This was where you soon learned that not everyone in the world can be classified as a nice guy. When you were bent over picking tomatoes you could so easily get clobbered with a rotten tomato without a smidgen of evidence of who might be guilty – everybody in the field resembled an angel. Of course, I was a good guy – I never threw a single rotten tomato. Half-rotten? Well, maybe!

Tomatoes were picked and placed in tomato baskets – five eights of a bushel. We were paid from three cents to five cents per basket for picking them, depending upon the market price the farmer received from year to year. We were assigned rows so that your basket could be left in or near the end of each row until picked up and recorded. The farmer would haul them to the cannery via horse and wagon. Since nearly every farmer grew tomatoes and since the season usually lasted from six to eight weeks with a high peak of production in the middle, there was usually plenty of opportunity for work if one really wanted it.

There was no work for boys related to the sugar pea crop. Peas were planted with a planter, cut when mature, raked, and loaded just like hay and brought to the cannery by the wagon load. There they were pitched into the mechanical sheller with pitchforks. By a process of vibration the peas were separated from the pods, and the peas conveyed into the cannery while the vines and pods were relegated to a huge pea vine stack. Often the farmer took back with him a load of the pea vines from this stock to spread on his field as humus.

Green beans (or “string beans” as we called them) did require picking. Again, rows were assigned and we picked into a container which we dumped when filled into a burlap fertilizer sack. When the sack had all it would hold we would take it to the station where the boss would weigh it and credit us with the number of pounds picked. We were paid about two cents per pound for picking as I recall. Some smarties (probably the same ones who threw the rotten tomatoes) would try to get by with putting a few rocks in the middle of the sack to accumulate more weight. Having had lots of lessons already in the difference between right and wrong, I don’t believe I was ever guilty of this kind of deception. Those that did use such deception usually were fired if caught and not hired again by that particular farmer.

The harvesting of sweet corn involved hiring laborers by the hour. Usually the farmer would pick the field on the day when almost every ear was ready to be pulled. By driving his wagon down the already picked row, adjacent to the row to be pulled, several men would be able to pull the ears as the wagon kept moving. Boys were often used to drive the horses and some boys were fast enough to be used as pullers. When the wagon was full It was driven to the cannery and unloaded by hand. A helper might ride the wagon to help unload or he might remain in the field pulling ears and loading a second or third wagon. The farmer never knew how much time might be consumed by a backup of wagons waiting to unload so he usually did not send many helpers if any, along with the wagon. I have seen wagons lined up for a half mile at a cannery awaiting their turn to unload. Again, the farmer sometimes took a load of corn husks back with him as feed for his livestock or as a buildup for the soil.

In late fall, the harvesting of field corn was another crop providing an older boy opportunity to earn some money. In those days and for many years afterwards until the corn picker was invented, the corn stock with the ears on it was cut off near the ground with a long-bladed knife. Several stocks would be gathered in the arm while cutting and assembled together in one place until a small bundle had accumulated. These were tied together with binder twine and carried to a central location to form a large shock. Later, during the fall and winter months, the farmer would husk the corn out of the shocks and save the fodder for feed for his cattle. When forming a shock, with or without corn in it, it was always a trick to get the first bundle to stand up long enough to go for others to set around it, eventually building it Into a large shock that would remain upright securely against storms, rain and snow so that the corn and the fodder would deteriorate as little as possible until used. I remember how the blades of the corn stock would chafe the neck, face and arms of one with a tender skin in the process of corn cutting.

Haymaking also provided work for boys who were willing to work. Hay was cut with a horse-drawn mower, raked into windrows with a buggy rake, and piled by hand with a pitchfork into reasonably large stacks. These stacks were then pitched on a wagon, usually by men, although older boys who were strong could pitch hay onto the wagon and also load the wagon properly. The hay was unloaded by hand at the barn, often pitching It from the wagon high up into the barn loft.

Work was also available at times during the season when wheat and barley were threshed. This operation required the use of a steam engine and a large threshing machine with many movable parts. This work was considered too dangerous for boys, although they were used sometimes to hold a burlap bag under the chute through which the grain passed as it left the machine as long as the boy was accompanied by a man who carried the grain to the storage bins when the bags were full.

In later years, between 1945 and 1958, my own family lived on a small 38-acre farm and our two boys grew up there. By that time most farmers had the benefit of modern machines, especially if they had very many acres. On a small 38-acre farm, however, since the expensive machines could not be justified, much of the work was done by hand and the experiences learned in my teens on the Eastern Shore proved to be quite helpful in operating this farm.

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