My parents moved to St. Helens, Oregon in 1949 shortly after Father got out of the army. He served as a paratrooper in the Occupied Forces in Japan. They had met and married near Los Angeles, California. Mother was a Rosie the Riveter while she waited for my Father to return from the war. They married in June of 1945 and Father shipped out in August. The first two years of their marriage was lived via mail.
My great grandparents had moved to St. Helens the year before. My great grandfather had retired as a furniture maker and he wanted some land to have chickens and a big garden. With a new adventure ahead of them, my folks decided to try it “up north” too and see what life would bring them.
Being a native Californian, my Mother spent the first winter crying, bundled up in a Pendleton wool coat and sitting on the wood stove. She wasn’t used to the cold. But by the time their first summer rolled around they were hooked. They’ve lived there ever since.
Father got a job at the paper mill. Mother did odd jobs until 1950 when her friend, Betty, asked her if she wanted to hoe (please note the “e”) with her in the strawberry fields. Grandpa Luttrell – the patriarch of the local strawberry farming family – didn’t like Betty being the only woman in the field working with all those men. So Mother joined Betty – the only two women on the “Hoe Crew”. This started what would be a decades long adventure for my mother in the strawberry fields of Columbia County.
My brother and sister came along in the 50’s. Mother resorted to just being a “picker” on the weekends when they were little. She’d take the kids along on the weekends and Father would go too. They always wanted to earn a little extra money. Back in those days a flat of strawberries – 12 “hallecks” – which is the equivalent of one of those plastic baskets of berries you get at the grocery store- got you 25 cents. It doesn’t seem like much to us now but, by comparison, gas was 30 cents per gallon so it all made sense at the time.
As my siblings got older, and could join Mother in the fields, she went on to be a bus driver shuttling kids from town. As my brother likes to tell it, mother would often start yodeling in the fields to amuse the kids at the end of the day. Knowing her, it was probably her way to get their attention and get them back on the bus. By the time I came around in 1967 the yodeling was long gone but my Mother and Fred Luttrell (Grandpa Luttrel had since passed on) were dear, dear friends. Fred often said he couldn’t manage the kids without Mother. My grandparents watched me during the summer days as Mother worked. She’d been promoted to Row Boss.
Row Bosses were in charge of a bus full of kids. They were responsible for their safety and making sure they picked instead of “horsing around” as my Mother called it. Horsing around could include any number of offenses like berry fights, stealing berries, “packing” (putting dirt clods in the bottom of your flat and putting berries on top), tipping over outhouses, napping in the fields, canoodling in the woods surrounding the fields, yelling, listening to loud rock and roll music and smoking cigarettes or, worse, pot. Other questionable practices that she quickly “nipped in the bud” were wearing short shorts, flip-flops or tube/halter tops. Mother made it very clear that none of this was happening on her watch. She’d call kids’ Mothers to report on their behavior and wasn’t beyond making someone walk back to town if they were disruptive or, worse yet, used profanity. It usually didn’t take drastic measures to get “her kids” to tow the line. She was 6’, had a booming voice and eyes in the back of her head. Luckily she also wore a cone shaped hat (the kids called her “Conehead” thanks to the Saturday Night Live skit) so if you were vigilant, you could see her coming from a mile away.
It is ironic that I met my best friend, Suzette, in the strawberry fields – after she had stolen my berries. For 30+ years we’ve questioned the wisdom of this move on her part since, by that time, Mother had been promoted to Field Boss. She was the big cheese for all the Row Bosses, drivers and busloads of kids from our town. There were only two other Field Bosses – one from Longview (another mill town just over the Columbia River in Washington) and one from Portland about 30 miles north.
Strawberry season generally started early June – sometimes late May if the weather was right – and ended around July 4. When the season was close to starting, Mr. Luttrell would put ads in the local papers with our number. Our harvest gold phone would start ringing non-stop and we’d write down names, addresses and phone numbers on a green steno pad. “No, season hasn’t started yet. Probably next week. Yes, we’ll call you.” “You live where? OK, you’ll get bus #6 at Zatterburg’s grocery at 4:30am.”
Yes, 4:30am. It was worse for us because we had to get up at 3:30am. The sun wasn’t even up and I always had that nauseous feeling of being woken up way too soon. We’d get in the car and drive down to the Bus Barn. Mother would meet the drivers and the Row Bosses and give the days marching orders. (She and Mr. Luttrell had talked the day before so she knew which fields we were going to.) Then we’d load on one of the busses and start hitting the checkpoints and picking up sleeping teenagers in mismatched “berry clothes” (clothes that were too worn to be a hand-me-down and were probably going in the trash after the season was over.) It was always quiet on the morning bus ride – we were all sleeping.
Once we got out to the fields, the bumpy dirt roads usually woke us up. It was still pre-dawn but with enough light to see where the outhouses were and the vague outline of rows of dewy strawberries for as far as the eye could see. The Row Bosses would start assigning kids their rows, which were about 150 feet long and took most of the day to pick. It was a cardinal sin to not “clean your row” as I heard approximately five million times every season. I had to set a good example, you see.
Then we’d start picking and waking up fully because it was always cold and the berry plants were wet with dew or rain. Once we filled a flat we’d go see the “checker” who inspected our berries and handed out the money. By the time I was picking, a flat was $1.25 or $1.50. The “stacker” put them in 20 high stacks on a pallet. When the pallets were full of eight stacks of 20, a big truck would come by with a forklift and move them out of the field.
It was always a big bummer to trip and fall when carrying your flat, or multiple flats, to the checker. If someone fell and their berries went everywhere, other kids would come to help pick them up and, if they were really dirty or smashed, contribute from their own “picking cans” – usually an old coffee can or small bucket with a handle.
Toward the end of my strawberry career, I was following in mother’s footsteps, and was promoted to checker. I liked the big bricks of $1 bills that were handed out each morning. Nan Mallory, the “lead” checker taught me how to “break” the new bills and massage them so they wouldn’t stick together. At the end of the day the amount of money in our pouches had to match up with the number of flats taken out of the field so I was always very diligent about handing out the cash.
The fields had interesting names like “Asbury Hill” or “Bachelor Flat”. And the berries had interesting names too like “Hood” or “Totem” or “Puget Beauty”. Each separate field grew a different kind and everyone had their favorite. Mother liked Hoods and would ask me to pick a “nice flat or two” with the stems on so she could make jam or strawberry shortcake at home. Normally the berries in the flat had to be “hulled” (stems removed) for the cannery. Picking them with the stems on took extra time but I didn’t mind – I always find the best berries because Father really liked Mother’s strawberry shortcake.
Mother always paid Mr. Luttrell for her berries – or tried. Sometimes she’d just sidle up to him and put $3 in his overall pockets when he wasn’t looking. Mr. Luttrell was renown for his generosity to his workers and the kids. On extra hot days, we’d stop at the local convenience store near Yankton School and all the kids would get an ice cream. One year, “hippies” were camping on Mr. Luttrell’s property when their tent caught fire. They lost everything in the blaze – he gave them money to buy a new tent and other equipment. That’s just the kind of man he was.
Most kids didn’t know about Mr. Luttrell’s kindness – except when it was ice cream time. Our teenage brains were too concerned about looking good in our berry clothes (good luck) and complaining about our strawberry stained fingers that lasted long past the end of the season and well into August. Our hair was a constant concern since there were no mirrors which brings me to one final form of horsing around – “the Shampoo”. Offences of this magnitude were usually saved for the last day of the season.
The last day of the season was a tightly guarded secret. I could sometimes tell when it was coming because Mr. Luttrell would come to the fields and talk with Mother in a hushed voice and point toward an empty field. I always kept the secret – like having a clean row, I had to set a good example.
Last day, we’d be taken to a field where Mr. Luttrell had set up an ice cream party for all the kids. In the “old days” they used to bring burgers in from Portland but in our day it was ice cream. Imagine 500-600 hot, strawberry stained kids eating ice cream and rejoicing that the season was over (the rock and roll music usually got really loud). That’s when “the Shampoo” usually happened. Like my Mother, I always wore a hat in the field (I’d given up on my hair looking good early on). Someone would rip it off and smash berries all over my head and face. It was gross but, well, that’s the price for being the Field Boss’s daughter. By that point the threat of Conehead had lost some sting. Season was over – we were all going on to other summer pursuits like Bible camp, County Fair or the Port-o-Fun where we’d spend our strawberry stained dollars on rides and elephant ears.
After I graduated in the mid-80’s, Mother “retired” from the fields. Shortly after that, Mr. Luttrell couldn’t afford the taxes on his large farm anymore when the price for berries changed radically. Piece-by-piece, he sold off Asbury Hill and Bachelor Flat. Industrialized farming was ending a way of life that was central to our small town for almost a century.
When I think of those times, I have a powerful memory of Mother stomping through the fields with her stick and her cone shaped hat. She’d march through the rows inspecting bushes with her stick “Susie! Get back here and clean this row! You know better!” “Eric, turn down that music!” “You two – yes, I see you and I can smell what your smoking – do you want to walk back to town?” This was the sound of summer season after season for me and generations of other kids.
I went home recently for a reunion. The first thing someone asked me was “How’s Conehead? She scared me in those fields!” That’s the consensus if you ask “the kids” – you didn’t mess with Mother.
When I got home I told her what my friend had said. She’s almost 85 now and was sitting in her recliner. She’s not as mobile as she once was (nor is Mr. Luttrell but they’re still friends.) She didn’t say anything for a bit then she got a big smile on her face and said, more to herself than me, “Yep, I was real hard on those kids. Real hard.”
On a final note, in my work putting in community gardens and teaching people to grow their own food there are a lot of volunteer events as the gardens are installed and I wrangle the troops. This past April we had a particularly large turnout for a garden build and everyone was waiting to be told what to do. I was marching around “You – with the gloves – grab a trash bag and go weed!” “You two with the power tools – over by the lumber!” “You – fill that wheelbarrow full of soil and bring it here.” At one both painful and exquisite moment I stopped speechless as it dawned on me… those years watching my Mother do her thing in the berry fields had subtly equipped me to be a leader as we’re starting a new, collective urban agricultural future…
Mirror, mirror on the wall. I am my Mother after all.