A Horace Mann Student Looks Back at Life on a Farm
It was the first summer of WWII in 1942 when all eligible 18-34 year olds had been called into military service. There was a shortage of farmhands to work on the farms. I and a group of New York City high school boys volunteered with a high school teacher to live on a farm in Mad River Valley, Vermont and work on surrounding farms to replace the young farmers in service.
Each morning local farmers would contact our teacher asking for workers. The farmers were poor so our teacher set the minimum wage at 50 cents a day. Although a daily wage of 50 cents seems paltry today, at the time we could buy a one-gallon can of maple syrup from the general store for one dollar. Transportation to work assignments was via a Model A Ford driven daily by the teacher. He packed 17 people into the car—4 in the front seat, 9 in the back (3 on 3 on 3), and 4 on the running boards (2 standing on each side). If a farm was up a steep hill, the boy assigned to work there had to hike up to his job because the overloaded car could not make it up the hill.
Most of our work involved haying, which was different from today. Now, hay is cut by tractors, rolled into huge bundles and covered with plastic wrap. Then, the farmer cut the hay in the field with a horse-drawn cutter bar, let the hay dry, and raked it into windrows (long rows). We would then tumble the hay into manageable rolls, lift the bundled hay with a pitchfork, and heave it onto the hay wagon. In the barn a large fork in the ceiling was lowered to clamp onto a section of hay in the wagon. A horse would pull the clamped hay up by means of a rope and pulley. The fork would reach the ceiling, slide along a track over the haymow, or loft, and drop its load. The dirtiest job was standing in the hot, dusty haymow and spreading the hay evenly across the entire hayloft. This procedure was repeated until the hay wagon was empty and was sent back to the field.
The summer of ’43 I was fortunate to be employed at a farm that paid $1.50 per day. The farm was run by a spry 84 year old (who would sometimes run into town to see his 18 year-old girl friend), and his family. The farm was typical of the time with an outhouse and electricity but no telephone. The chores were the usual, including hoeing, shoveling out the cow stalls, pitching hay, and mowing away (spreading out) the hay in the barn. I worked for this family again in the summer of ’44, when my pay was raised to $1.75 per day. About twenty years later I visited the farm—only the farmer’s son and wife were still there. They proudly pointed out their indoor bathroom and phone. They told me that most of the young people had moved away as they lost interest in farming. Today the ski industry and second homes have replaced the farms bringing some measure of prosperity to the region. Fortunately, the state of Vermont has seen fit to protect the environment and preserve its natural beauty. When I return to the area, I can still see the fields where I labored and remember fondly some of the farmers for whom I worked.#