When I was a boy, and overalls were 39 cents

Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a Bill Shepard column published four years ago.

By Bill Shepard

Come reminisce with me! It is August! Dog Days, mosquitoes, gnats, sore eyes, and hot and humid days and nights lay ahead!
School would have already been out two whole months and there is still all of August and a part of September left for vacation. June and July were behind; they had been field with a lot of fishing and swimming in Swift Creek, also working in the farmer’s tobacco fields. It had been a busy two months and there was more to come.
The tobacco warehouses would be opening soon and money from the sale of the Golden Leaf would be changing hands. Merchants on the town square in Darlington would be hiring extra helpers to assist in the sale of their merchandise. The little town would awaken to all that was happening and be glad.
Wagon loads (not many trucks in those early times) of tobacco from various sections of the county would be seen headed in the direction of the warehouses on South Main and Broad Streets. The chatter of the auctioneer’s voice would soon be heard as they moved through the warehouses, auctioning the tobacco to the highest bidder. Much hard work had gone on in anticipation of this time, and now it was payday! It happened only once a year and now was the time!
It was August! Cotton fields were turning white. Any day now and word would arrive on the village that nearby farmers were hiring cotton pickers. The farmers were glad to have the village children help in the gathering of their precious crop and the children were glad for the opportunity to earn some spending money! This writer remembers well.
Unlike today, cotton was picked by manual labor. There were no harvesting machines like those that are seen in use today. In those long ago times, it was not uncommon to see entire families at work in the cotton fields.
I have memories of seeing little children, too young to work in the fields, asleep under the shade of a tree, while their parents were at work picking cotton. The harvesting period would begin in early August and continue on into late September and October. Fields would need to be picked over as many as three or four times. What a difference than now!
Wages paid by farmers in those days ranged from 20 cents to 50 cents per 100 pounds. A family of workers could earn as much as $2 for a day’s work in the field. During those early years there were no charities, food banks, food stamps, not even a Social Security check, from which one could get help. To have food on the table and clothing to wear, one had to work! Long hours and hard work for little pay, but it meant survival!
It is amazing how far we have progressed since the times of which I write. The last pair of overalls this writer purchased was priced at $50! My first pair, purchased at B. C. Moore on the square in Darlington, cost 39 cents! What a contrast!
As the summer wore on and August faded into September, work on the farms began to fade also. There were yet fields of corn that needed gathering. The dried corn leaves would be stripped from the stalks and tied into bundles. We called the process “pulling fodder.”
The fodder would be carried to the barns and stored for use as food for the animals during the winter months! Pulling fodder was the hardest work I did on the farms. I could earn as much as 35 cents a day for the work.
As a boy, still in my school years, I earned enough money during my vacation from school to purchase my wardrobe for the school year ahead, plus the used books I would need for the new school year that was ahead. Nothing was free in those days. Little went a long ways, and beautiful and lasting memories were made.
Ah, if I could be a boy again and experience the hot and muggy days of August! Days filled with gnats, sore eyes, flies, and to know the wonderful feeling when they were gone.
If I could be a boy again and know August with cotton fields of white and goldenrods blooming along the roadsides! Reminders that summer was ending and a new school year was about to begin! If I could be a boy again!
Bill Shepard’s fourth book and his first children’s book has been published. Shepard and his family worked with an illustrator from Charleston to turn his mostly true story that he wrote nearly 50 years ago into a chapter book for kids. The book, “Fugi’s Great Adventure,” is $14.99 and is available from Amazon. You can order autographed copies from Shepard for $14.99 postpaid. Send orders to Bill Shepard, 324 Sunny Lane, Piedmont, SC 29673.

Author: Rachel Howell

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