When I was growing up in rural Appalachia during the late 1950's and 60's there was one job in the Summer for anyone wanting to work. Later, progress came to Appalachia and the job was taken over by machines. The job I am speaking of was pickin' beans in Fentress County Tennessee.
A few farmers owned thousands of acres of good bottom land and planted nothing but fields and fields of green beans. They would hire anyone able to pick beans fast. I remember there being children nine or ten years old, including myself, and men and women of all ages. One special lady, Miss Wright, was the fastest bean picker in all the fields. She was known as a second mother and loved by all the children growing up in the West Robbins community where I lived.
Bean pickin' would only last for a few weeks in mid Summer. Men which did not have regular jobs would be hired. Women and children who could be spared from home would also work. The wages were not very good but poorer families welcomed the extra income.
Many people from neighboring counties were also hired by the big farms in Fentress County. I lived in the South part of Scott County which borders Fentress County. Hundreds of people from my area would migrate each morning to the bean fields in Fentress. I plan to take you down memory lane with me and describe to you the first day of what we would call going bean pickin'.
My mother would wake me up around 3 o'clock in the morning. I would dip water from the water bucket into the wash pan and wash my face and hands. Mom would always have me a bowl of steaming oatmeal and some of her famous hot biscuits waiting for me at the table. Adding honey and homemade blackberry jam, mom's breakfast was fit for a king! She would also make sure I had my empty, Country Gentlemen's Tobacco sack fasten inside my shirt with a safety pin. Many bean pickers would use this to keep their money in they made during the day.
Mr. Garrett in his old bean truck would pull up in front of my home and blow his horn. The bean truck was an old logging truck with wooden benches built around the truck bed. It would also have two boards placed from side to side where more people could sit. A top was made for the truck bed with a tarp thrown over some poles and tied down on the sides. Mr. Garrett would make many stops to pick up sleepy-eyed but eager bean pickers in our community. The charge was twenty-five cents a head for the round trip to the bean fields and back home. The trip one way would take an hour and half. Arriving at the bean fields just as the sun was making its appearance above the Cumberland Mountains we eagerly jumped out of the bean truck. It was a normal thing to say, "We were packed in there like sardines in a can!"
Each farm would hire a man to be the field boss. It was his job to make sure everyone was picking the beans at the rate of speed the farms expected. Bean pickers that were too slow were told by him at the end of the day not to return. He hated to do this but it was part of his job. The farmer which owned the field was always there. For some reason he was referred to as the Bean Boss! The field boss always knew he could be fired and replaced in an instance.
We were issued a couple of grass-sacks and one bushel basket. The pickers knew to dress in layers. A long sleeve shirt being the outer layer. Most everyone wore a hat, bonnet or a bandana. Standing up and bending over we would all start picking at the same time. Season pickers knew to pace themselves for we picked beans right up until the sun was getting ready to go behind the mountains. The bean vines were wet with the morning dew and you always kept a watchful eye out for the dreaded copperhead snake. The field boss would walk across the field using a long stick shaking the vines to see if he could find any snakes. Each Summer there were always a few people bitten by copperheads.
To be a good bean picker you would pick a handful of beans with one hand and while throwing them into the basket you would be grabbing another handful with your other hand. You kept this rotating motion going all day. The minute your basket was full you emptied it into the grass-sack. You always kept your sack about thirty feet in front of you and by the time you reached it your basket was full again. We did not stop picking until the sun was directly above us and the field boss would loudly yell dinner time.
By this time we had taken our shirts off and tied them around our waist. You would use the shirt now to wipe the sweat from your eyes. The good pickers would already have filled two grass sacks. The pickers were responsible for carrying or dragging the sacks to the edge of the field. The field boss was good about helping the older women. The Bean Boss had his scales set up by the lunch wagon. We had to have our sacks weighed before we could eat. A good picker like Miss Wright would get as much as $2.50 to $3.00 a sack. A completely filled, tamped down sack could easily weigh a 100 to a 135 lbs.
Most bean pickers brought their own food. The Bean Boss would supply barrels of water with a dipper for the workers to drink. There would always be a lunch wagon which some of us would refer to it as the bologna truck parked next to the bean field. A woman would be in the back of the truck making bologna and cheese sandwiches. You could also buy a semi cold R.C. cola and a huge moon pie. If a bean picker decided to eat from the lunch wagon, a big part of his day's earnings would be spent. It would take an hour to weigh the sacks, eat your dinner and then it was time to hit the bean fields again.
It was a long day of hard work for the young and the old. It would be way after dark by the time we reached home. The old timers would tell us younger ones how sore we would be in the morning and the second day was for working the soreness out. The third day of bean pickin' the soreness would be gone.
My parents would allow me to use my bean pickin' money to help buy my school clothes for the next year. I felt very proud!