Blueberry season with the Hamalainen family
We just received notice via the grapevine that Pat Hamalainen passed away this week, and that revived many memories of the Hamalainen family, some of the earliest being of their blueberry acreage in West Rockport. When I was growing up in the 1930s and 40s there were few, if any, immigrant workers to harvest the blueberry crop, but those with blueberry fields would put out the word when in early August the harvest would start, and when and where they would pick up workers.
My first experience with raking blueberries was in 1943 when I was 12. Howard Hamalainen lived in the neighborhood and was a couple years younger than I. His father Martin and his Uncle David Hamalainen and perhaps others in the family owned blueberry fields in West Rockport and were looking for a crew to rake blueberries. Howard was passing the word around that some of us older kids should try raking blueberries for a little extra money.
Apparently my folks didn’t object, so I showed up down at the bridge by Bob Hopkins’ Store (now Megunticook Market) on Monday morning where a big stake-body truck would whisk us off to the Hamalainen farm in West Rockport. Nobody worried about riding in the back of trucks in those days. Those who were not working but looking to pick up a little extra spending money would be there at about 7 a.m. with their lunch. Often mothers would show up with their kids, some retired men and several teenagers.
Apparently there were no child labor laws then. Parents could bring their kids if they were well behaved. Some kids worked a while and played a while, but seldom interfered with the work. I suppose the parents supervised who got credit for their production, but the main thing was that it gave the parents a chance to earn a few dollars, and they kept their kids in line. If the kids made money too, that was a bonus. We were all a pretty “motley crew” dressed in whatever suited us for a long day of hot sun, bushes and spiders, not to mention hornets, ants, beetles, horse flies and mosquitoes.
Raking blueberries was a good way for kids to break into the workaday world. I was given a metal rake, a half-bushel basket, a little instruction about the procedure and then left alone to follow the example the older folks were setting. We were paid 50 cents for a basketful, and could usually rake two baskets in an hour if we were diligent. A dollar an hour was not bad pay for unskilled labor. I probably did not do that well at first, but was happy if I made five or six dollars per day, plus I had all the blueberries I could eat.
The owner laid out rows about five feet wide across the field with string, and each person was assigned a row to rake. Raking alongside others provided some incentive to keep up, but I don’t remember any pressure to do so. It was up to me how much money I made, and that was incentive enough.
It was the luck of the draw as to which row you got started on, and when you finished you went over to start the next vacant row. Some had more rocks and other impediments, but it was mostly the same in each row. If you got a bad row this time, you usually got a better one next time. Occasionally there would be a hornet’s nest somewhere, and we all took note to step lightly around that. There also were those big field spiders with long hairy legs and overall about two or three inches across. Every once in a while you would hear a scream and see rake and blueberries go flying as one of those spiders was raked out of a bush and would go up somebody’s arm.
When I had a basketful, I would carry it up to the winnowing machine where they dumped the berries on a conveyor belt. The machine was designed to blow away all the leaves and twigs, leaving only the blueberries. Of course this gave the machine operator a chance to see that there were no rocks or other debris in the basket, but I don’t believe that was usually a problem. We would usually get a dipper of water from the big milk can by the winnowing machine and then head back for another basketful.
We were given a ticket for each basketful brought in, which were tallied at the end of the day. I honestly don’t remember if we were paid in cash then, or by check at the end of the week. Perhaps it was different with different growers. In later years sometimes we were paid $1 per hour on fields where it would be hard to rake two baskets per hour. Usually I could do better being paid by the basket. I remember one occasion of making $15 in a day. Thirty baskets of blueberries was a big day.
Winnowed blueberries were put into half-bushel wooden boxes (flats) and taken to the cannery in West Rockport. There were other part-time workers there who picked over the berries before they went into the cooker for canning. Often we rode home on the truck that was making its last run to the cannery.
Later in the fall some of the older men and boys would work to prepare the fields for the coming year. In the fall of 1950 Jack Henderson and I worked at that on a couple of fields up near Youngtown Corner in Lincolnville. We worked over the entire field with bush scythes, cutting down all bushes and weeds that were not blueberry bushes. Then the owner dumped out bales of straw that we opened up and spread over the whole field as fodder for the burn next spring. By then the Korean War was in full swing and Jack and I joined the Navy.