St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Stokely's Finest String Beans

    Stringbeans spilled out from the broken 4x4x4 wood box and spread all around it on the ground.  It was my first day on the job with Stokelys field crew and I already had screwed up!  Riding around the field, standing on the back of the Chisholm-Ryder bean picker while Conrad drove it slowly down the two rows of beans, my only responsibility was to make sure the box dumped safely to the ground so Clarence could pick it up and load it on the truck with the forklift tractor. As Conrad pulled the trip lever, I hopped off the trailer as the box slid off quickly onto the ground hitting with a jolt that broke it apart and spilled the beans. 

   Clarence climbed off the backwards Ford forklift tractor, “Some of these bean boxes are rotten and should be thrown away—but Stokelys is too cheap to buy new ones.  You gotta hold it back so it comes sliding down real slow”   He helped me clip the box back together and drove away as I spent the next half hour refilling a handful at a time.    

   We worked out of the Frederic plant.  The harvest season started after the 4th of July holiday and lasted until the freeze in September or until all the fields were done and my brother Everett and I returned to River Falls College

    Each machine was a modified tractor—raised higher and underslung with double rollers on each side to pick the beans, a conveyor belt under the belly to run them back under a hydraulically run fan to suck out the leaves and then up to dump into one of two adjacent wood boxes on a short trailer behind.  They were big, clumsy, noisy machines that along with we 16 field crew, ground our way through thousands of acres of string beans spread from Hastings MN to Indian Creek WI over a three month season.   

    There were eight machines, each with a two-man crew along with a couple of fieldmen, mechanics, and the truck drivers.  At Hastings we were put up at the old Gardner Hotel on main street – no air conditioning, a bathroom per floor down the hall, and three or more per room with cots here and there.  We bought and paid for our own meals and kept the receipts for reimbursement during the two weeks we stayed at Hastings before moving the machines back to Wisconsin and again living at home.

        The work was dull; in the field from sunrise to sunset for three months; seven days a week with most weeks between 90 and 100 hours.  We drove the machines 1.25 miles per hour back and forth on fields moving from farm to farm as the beans grew ready for the factory in Frederic.  We needed to pick enough to keep it going 24 hours a day, seven days a week.   

    What kept the job entertaining were the people who worked on the crew.  There were a mixture of retired farmers, a few college students like my brother Everett and I trying to make enough money for another year of school, and some “regulars” who worked there every year starting early in the spring with bean planting and continuing into late fall with the picking and then machinery maintenance.  The regulars depended on unemployment during the winter.  Most of them were in their 50s or early 60s.  Uncle Lloyd, a regular, got us on.  We were “farm boys, used to running machinery, needing money for college.”  He personally vouched for us and we didn’t want to let him down!

    While we were at Hastings, a few of the men who were away from home and their wives, went directly to the Gardner bar when they came in at 9 pm and spent the next 4 hours drinking, a few hours in bed and then at 5:00 am getting up for breakfast at the café across the road and heading to the fields.  After a few days of this they were pretty tired and cross. 

    Coogan was probably in his 60s (or maybe in his 40s showing signs of a hard life) whose nickname meant “little barrel” in Norwegian, was named for his ability to hold beer.  After a hard night, he fell asleep on the tractor and soon the huge unit was heading cornerwise across the field aiming for the fence.  Reynold chased after him and hollered until he woke up.

    Levi was normally an easy going guy.  He doubled as a mechanic and did a good job.  However, after a few days at Hastings, away from his wife, he started to look pretty haggard; unshaven, unbathed and bleary eyed.  Clarence drove the forklift and came up behind Levi riding on the back of the picker and motioned to dump the bean box for loading on the truck.  Levi got off and jumped on the forklift and punched Clarence in the mouth.  Later when we asked why he did it, “It just seemed to me Clarence needed to be punched” was all he would say.

    Most of the time we road to and from Frederic with Emeryn in Marty, his 1949 Chevrolet four door.  The car was falling to pieces with boards covering the holes in the floor.  Every time he hit a little bump, the front wheels would start wobbling and the whole car shook until he wrenched the steering wheel hard left and back straight to calm it down.  He raised beans on his farm near Trade River.  Some years were good, many not so good.  After a very good year with his whole farm in beans we kidded another Trade River crewman, Conrad, “You must be rich now!”  “No, yust moderately well ta do,” he replied with a broad smile in his Swedish brogue.

   One summer was particularly dry and dusty.  By the time we came in to punch out on the Stokelys factory time clock in the late evening, we were really dirty.  There were always some other people from the plant waiting in the timeclock line to punch in and out.  “Must be pretty dry out there someone would usually comment,” looking at us.  “Yup,” replied Lloyd one night, “it’s so dusty it gets in your lungs real bad,” and then raised his closed hand to his mouth with a loud long cough sprayed the room with dust to the shocked then laughing people.  He had brought a handful all the way back from the field and with his cough blew it all over for a joke!

    One day, Emeryn finished a field last and headed out fast to catch up with the others already leaving for the next field.  He took a shortcut through the ditch and in the tall grass dropped the front wheel into a cement culvert and folded it right back under, bending the whole mechanism of bean picker #1.  He was kidded mercilessly thereafter and at any new field it was “better let Emeryn go first and find the culverts.”  Old #1 was never the same after that.

   I got old #2 in its fourth year when the engine was pretty worn.  It used a quart of oil and had lost some of its power and road speed.  Ray, the mechanic, said it was due for an engine overhaul that winter.    

    Whenever we finished one farmer’s field, the fieldman, Martin or Ernie told one of the crew where the next field was.  Often it was a few miles and a complicated set of directions.  As we finished, we emptyed our loads and in sort of a strung out parade headed to the next field following the leader.  Sometimes we were too far behind and got lost.  Number 2 and I straggled farther and father behind the parade as the season progressed.   

   I mentioned this to Uncle Lloyd, who said with a hint of a smile “a person could adjust the throttle rod to get more rpms, but the mechanics would not approve.”    Parking away from the others, one night after work, Everett and I got our wrenches out and adjusted it a lot.  After that, even with a weak engine, I could now keep up, and actually pull away from the others if I had wanted to.  Over the winter, #2 was overhauled and next season, Clarence (who had seniority) took it.  He seemed to be the one that always struck out first for the next field, and driving wide open with a fresh engine and the speeded up throttle, left us in the dust.   After a few weeks of this, Everett and I stayed late one night and undid our previous adjustment and added a few extra turns for good measure. 

   “I don’t know what is wrong with #2, but it just don’t seem to have any git anymore,” Clarence complained a few days later while we were greasing up.  Uncle Lloyd looked over at Everett and me and with a mostly suppressed grin replied, “You know Clarence, maybe you damaged it driving it so hard when you were breaking in the new rings.” 

    With little to keep from getting bored, people did odd things.  One week, Willie chose to pull up tightly behind Everett with his front wheel almost touching the big back trailer wheel ahead.  When Everett speeded up, so did Willie.  Getting very annoyed, Everett watched until Willie was daydreaming and then suddenly stepped on his clutch coming to a stop while pretending to have trouble with the blower.  Willie drove right into the back wheel ahead of him, snapping the bolt on his own front wheel requiring a long explanation to the mechanic how he drove into a machine in front of him.  Everett never looked back.
    The first years we all rode to the field in a beat up old Carryall passenger van.  It was in pretty 
rough shape, but the motor had been overhauled.  Stokelys was notoriously cheap and although we complained, never got around to fixing many problems it had.    One day when I was driving the crew through Osceola coming home from the fields, a cop pulled us over and said “Your brake light is burned out.  I’m giving you a fix-it ticket.”  “This vehicle belongs to Stokelys not me,” I replied.  “Well, I’ll give you a fix-it ticket to give to Stokelys.”   “You know,” I said, “the turning signal doesn’t work either.” “OK, I will add that to the ticket,” said the Cop.    Then Everett said, “The emergency brake won’t work either.” “The dash lights are out too” added Willie.  “You know, the front end shakes and it steers bad to the left,“ added Lloyd and Conrad said “you should look at the front tires—they are almost down to the threads,” as the cop wrote it all down grinning hugely.    I turned the ticket in that night to the boss, “We got a real hard nosed cop.” Two days later the Carryall was back, all fixed!

    I didn’t tell you about our wildcat strike; trucks rearing up on the St. Croix hill; agate and Indian artifact finds and lots more.  Everett said “The main reason I went back to college each fall was so I wouldn’t have to work 100 hours a week at Stokelys anymore!”