Keep those corn rows coming

Olivia Fowler

Olivia Fowler

On The Way

By Olivia Fowler

Most of us remember the first job we ever had for which we received actual money. There weren’t many summer jobs for teens in the rural south that weren’t related to agriculture. We grew up in a region where farming was the way of life and few men weren’t farmers. Soy beans, lespedeza, cotton, tobacco and corn were all money crops. Still, getting a job off the home farm was seldom a possibility.

Imagine our excitement when Pioneer Corn Company from Indiana leased hundreds of acres for corn cultivation and began recruiting teenagers for field work.

Everybody in our high school who could find a way to get to the schoolyard to sign up for the summer was hired.

They needed a lot of labor for pollination control, and we were eager for money.

We began mid-June, when the early corn formed tassels. The day began at dawn. We’d all gather at the school and we’d be picked up and taken to the fields. There were miles and miles of corn, as far as the eye could see.

Each crew was made up of either six girls or six boys. They kept us completely separated. There would be an older man per crew to operate the equipment. He’d drive the tall narrow tractor with a platform attached behind, upon which six hands rode.

On our crew there were six girls, all from the same school. There would be three girls on each side of the high platform. Our job was to pull the corn tassels from the tops of six rows of corn. We’d turn around at the end of each row; skip one row leaving tassels on each corn stalk, then ride back down the length of the row repeating the process. In this way, one row would pollinate six, which kept corn strains from cross pollination and controlled seed purity.

We’d begin in the field at daylight and work until around 7 p.m. We had a lunch break of 30 minutes, during which we’d eat our bag lunches, brought from home. We all wore big straw hats with shorts, t-shirts and flip flops. It was hot work. Hours would pass, and the corn continued to come at us. We’d sing. Everybody on my crew was in glee club, so we all knew the same songs. Mary Wayne Watson was soprano, I was an alto and the others were equally divided. Three of us were Presbyterians and the other three were Baptists, so when we exhausted Motown and school songs we’d turn to hyms. This made the work go faster and smoothly as long we stayed in the same rhythm.

At the end of the day, we’d be loaded into trucks, a crew per truck, and be driven back to the school. There wasn’t much chatter. We were piled on top of each other in the truck seat and thankful to rest.

Once home, supper, kept warm, would be gobbled down, after which would come a hot bath and bed.

Some nights I was dead asleep by 7:45 p.m. We weren’t just tired. We were exhausted.

For this we were paid 65 cents an hour. We worked every single day, including July 4, which was great because we received holiday pay of about 87 cents.

At the end of the season, we had accumulated what was to us big money. We indulged ourselves a little with nice shoes and new school clothes. This was during the time when clothes were circulated among families and the blouse worn first by your cousin might be worn to school four years in a row by different people in the family. There was no stigma attached to this practice, as it was common among everyone we knew or were related to.

Although this is not the kind of job I’d ever want again, I enjoyed it at the time and was grateful for the chance to make my own money. And for years it appeared on my resume as work experience in pollination control until I had a few more jobs under my belt.