The Strawberry Queen of Columbia County

The Strawberry Queen of Columbia County

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.

30 comments

  1. Wow, that brought me back to late 1950′s, early 60′s when I would go to Grandmother’s house in Salem OR, we were from No. Calif. & spent the summers with her. She would put us on the bus early AM and we would head to Strawberry, Green Beans, or what ever field needed picking. We’d give her the $ everyday & she saved for us (it was our school clothes $) and she would give us $.50 cents every Friday to spend however! What wonderful memories!

  2. Mandi:
    Hello from Wayyyy back (remember choir?)..I’ve enjoyed watching your posts on FB… But this is my favorite.
    Very well written, and it really brought me back….10 years working in those fields and the cannery. One memory you didn’t mention was that we used to love picking the field across from the Yankton store so we could go buy some treats with our crisp, new, strawberry-stained dollar bills.
    I do remember ol “conehead” very well, a taskmaster, but always fair.
    And yes I do admit giving and getting a few shampoos…great memories. I only wish my kids had the same opportunity to learn how to work in the way we did in those fields. Thanks for the great read. God Bless.

  3. This is a wonderful story of your sweet Mother. It also resonates heavily with me, as a Veteran of the Corvallis Blueberry fields. We too had Row Bosses, and were paid 11 cents a pound back in 1984. I remember people getting canned for throwing berries, picking the wrong row, not picking clean, etc.
    Nothing like Oregon berry fields. Nothing like the row boss or the row bosses’ daughter, either!

  4. Thank you so much for telling this story. Personally I think most parents should read and then read it with their children so they will know just how hard kids used to work (and some still do!) and that it was good for them to have responsibility. I plan on reading this to my 18 yr old just for the great history lesson!!

  5. A beautifully written post. I will be sharing this with my children (7 and 11) when they come home from school. During the first days of berry season in our gardens, they’re thrilled to help pick…and then the whining begins. They certainly love the benefits of strawberries–and I think they need a little reality check about their ability to help. Your article is a lovely testament to hard work–and the rewards of the work. Cheers to you–and your mom!

  6. Although I am only 37 and didn’t experience most of those years in the fields, I truly appreciate the stories and kind words of my grandpa Fred. The best part, was that I had to go out all day like others and pick berries to earn a honest dollar when I was a kid. I’m glad the Luttrell Farm experiences have left memorable moments for others as myself. How things have changed, could you imagine today kids picking strawberries with their I phones, pads, tablets, etc. Taking breaks to play angry birds, and texing more letters than berries being picked. The good old days picking all day saving up money to buy candy, a pack of baseball cards, or an Atari game. Thank you once again for the story, grandpa is still watching the sunrise.
    P.S. Nan you are dealy missed.

  7. Jason – THANK YOU for the note. I love Fred and Loretta. When I come to visit we often go to see them. They are wonderful people and I consider them family. Your comments are wonderful and you are kind, just like your grandpa.

  8. Anita Salmon(Willey)

    I too grew up in Yankton….and had such wonderful times in the berry fields….Fred Luttrell taught me about how important it was to be trusted. It was a time when for our age all was well with the world. I come to visit about every 5 years and have always talked to my own children and grandchildren about the berry fields. Dirt, hardwork, new friends, and just good wholesome fun.

  9. Hey, Fred is my Great Grandpa. I am Buddys oldest granddaughter. So fun to read about the strawberry fields and to hear about how Grandpa-Fred touched so many lives. I now live in Bend, and I have met many people who picked great grandpa. Wish I could have experienced it as many of you did.

  10. Thanks for the note! Fred is one of the best people I know. When I go home to Oregon I always try to visit him and Loretta with my mother. He is a true treasure! You have good genes… I’m sure you’re lovely, too. Thanks again!

  11. Laurie Sorlie Preston

    I grew up in Scappoose and from age 9 spent my summer’s picking strawberries at Fred’s fields. You brought back so many memories, I couldn’t stop smiling as I read your story.

  12. Julie Adams Randolph

    I remember at the very end of the seaso Mr. Luttrel would open the fields for random picking. We’d pick and pick. The riws were kind of empty but there were still berries. After, we’d wash them, eat some then mom would make the best strawberry pies! I LOVE Oregon berries! Thanks for the memories.

  13. Sherry Randolph Cupp

    This is so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing. I too rode those buses and picked those berries. Although my mom said I ate more than I picked. Everyone respected and loved Fred Luttrell and Nan Mallory. I don’t recognize your mom from the picture but it was a very long time ago for me. What was her name?

  14. Thanks so much for the trip down memory lane….I can actually smell the warm berries basking in the sun! I recently drove up Robinette and was overcome with melancholy…I miss those fields!!!

  15. Phyllis Middleton Robinson

    My sister-in – law was a niece of Fred’s I’ve heard many stories of the fields from her. I really enjoyed reading this story, am sharing so her kids and grandkids can see this. After she moved to St Helens she worked in the fields too. My mom and dad grew strawberries in Goble when we lived there, so many memories. Thanks

  16. Oh, this brought back memories. Because you and I went to school together, your mom would smile and greet me by name which always made me feel like I was an insider. You didn’t mention that “sunset” tan we all had at the top of our waistband from the gap our t-shirts would make as we bent over the berries. That tan took years to fade!

  17. Thank you for writing this piece. It brought back so many very special memories – especially how cold berries are in the early morning and how the stain on your fingers lasts for a long time! I still think one of the best flavors in the world is a dew covered, cold, just picked Oregon strawberry!

  18. Was Suzette Fred’s niece? I think the author is talking about my Aunt. Very cool story, very well written!

  19. No. She was just a kid from town…

  20. I agree! It was soooo cold in the dewy mornings!

  21. I’d forgotten the funny tan lines! Thanks for the reminder…

  22. Glad you enjoyed! I’m enjoying everyone else’s memories and responses, too. So thank you!

  23. That warm berry smell is burned into my brain, I think. Those drives by where the berry fields bring up a lot of memories, that’s for sure. I also remember the smell of the wild chamomile in the wheat fields surrounding the berry fields. Such a wonderful way to spend childhood summers.

  24. Lorraine Minikel… thanks for the nice comment.

  25. Mmmmmmm berry pie! And jam… and shortcake… there was nothing better. Thanks for the comment.

  26. Thank you! I didn’t know it would touch so many people. That makes me smile, too. :-)

  27. Thanks for the memories, I was from Rainier and we rode the bus out to Luttrells fields to earn money for our school clothes. My time frame was middle 60′s and if I remember right Mrs Budge was our row boss. I worked at McCoys also. Now living in Southern CA and the strawberries aren’t at all the same as I remember them warm and dusty in the field.

  28. For years I have used the strawberry field term “row boss” in my classroom. My young students marvel that I would have (or would have been allowed to) walk the mile from my house to the highway at 4:40 in the morning to meet the bus that took us out to the fields. We were blessed to be able to learn to work. I remember how proud I was to have a full flat. What a reward it was to see that red stained dollar peeled off the brick. Every time I would take one of those bills to Gib’s Store he would smile, draw a big sniff and declare, “Yummm…strawberry money!”

  29. I started my career with uncle fred in the early 80′s, I started picking berries until uncle Fred saw my 3 brothers and I and hw came up to all of us and simply said “oh my goodness no boys I cant have you picking when I have other jobs for you” so we’d stack full flats or run rows to collect empty flats or 2 of us would take his old blue and yellow ford pickup and check on all of the check outs and water tanks while 2 of us helped out in the canery there would even be times when all of us would plant fields ands fields of new berries. Uncle Fred was the kindest man I ever knew, I sure love him alot and always respected him, I really miss those days and being out in all that fresh air, even though I was a young teen , uncle fred would let me cultivate with them older guys and when it came to doing harder jobs it really didnt matter because the kind of person uncle Fred was with all of us made any job seem peaceful and joyable , well,,,,, except this one time when Nan mallory got her truck stuck in this huge mud puddle that covered the whole road, I was the one whom had to walk waist high in muddy water and with every step I sank probably a foot and a half in mud that didnt want to let go of me , Nan’s excuse????? She wanted to take a short cut because one of the checkers ran out of money and people were becoming inpatient with they’re full flats of berries, anyways I really miss those fields and uncle Fred a whole lot..

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