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Buffalo Bones and Hauling Bundles

© Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998 by Diane Haugen. All rights reserved

In much of the discussion of today's economy and the failure of small farms, policy makers often point to the large number of small farmers and their wives who have to hold off-farm jobs to survive. Economists offer this statistic as proof small farms can no longer be considered viable operations. Perhaps these policy makers have spent too little time investigating how these early farm families actually survived to realize that many of the early settlers on their 160 acres worked off the farm at anything they could to generate some cash.

It is clear from the records Dale left and the conversations I had with him that my uncles and his sister always worked off the farm at various jobs, including census taking, collecting information for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, driving cattle to the train station for shipment to the stockyards, and threashing for neighbors, all in addition to teaching school whenever they had a chance.

Some of these jobs were less than glamorous.

"As big as that lake was, it dried up in the `30s?"

"Well, yeah. It was clear dry."

"Were the bones just laying there or did you have to dig for them?"

"No, they was just laying there. They was buffalo bones. The wind blowed the sand off of them."

"And he'd just go pick up the bones?"

"He was working down south of here on a farm. The state had taken over a lot of farms and they was fixing `em up. He was working for that contractor. Then, after he quit work, he'd come through that lake and pick up them bones."

"Well, where'd they take `em?"

"Took them to Tuttle. Sold them."

"Who bought them?"

"Always somebody bought bones. They had some old cars, old pickup thing. They'd fill that up every night. When they got a big bunch, they took them to town."

"How much did they get for a pickup load?"

"Seemed like they'd get four or five dollars for them. If I remember right, for a pickup load. Not very much `cause them old bones wasn't very heavy. But a few dollars in them days was worth monkeying with."

"Was there a fertilizer factory of something in Tuttle?"

"No, but I suppose they shipped them, you know, bought `em and shipped them out on the railroad."

My uncles often worked on threashing crews during harvest, hauling bundles to the big steam engines that separated the grain from the straw and chaff. This is usually a hot, sticky, dirty, dusty job, requiring the use of a pitchfork to toss around 30-50 pound bundles of grain held together by a piece of twine onto a wagon.

Back at the threashing machine where the bundles had to be thrown from the wagon into the separator, the noise level of steam engines or tractors made conversation out of the question. The decibel level was, I'm sure, well above anything OSHA would have allowed. Ear protection was unknown. The monster machine coughed the straw out in a dusty, choking cloud and passed the grain itself to a waiting wagon. The threshing crew slept in the barn if they didn't go home at night, but they were well fed.

"All of the '30s was bad, but 1936 was the worst. It was so terrible hot and so terrible cold that winter."

"Was that the summer you were threashing when it was 112 degrees?"

"No, that was 1925. That fall of 1925 it got so terrible hot, but that hadn't been a bad summer, that 1925."

"You were doing this to pick up extra money?"

"Well, yes. We just went and hauled bundles. It was where you could get a job to get some money."

"How much did they pay you for that?"

"I think about 75 cents an hour that year. You went out in the field and picked up the bundles and loaded them in the racks and then hauled them to the machine and throwed them in."

"In the 112 degree weather?"

"Yes. Well, of course, there were a lot of days it wasn't 112, but that one day, I remember, it got 112."

"Then in 1936 is just got really dry?"

"Yes. Dry and hot and then it got so terribly cold that winter. It must have been February of '36 it got 52 below. My cousin and I were out hauling in hay. I remember he said "The jackrabbits are moving sort of slow today." When we got in to dinner, Mama said it was 52 below. It was on the radio."

"How did you keep from freezing to death?"

"Well, I don't know. You just didn't freeze, I guess. That's cold when it gets down to 50 below."

© Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998 by Diane Haugen. All rights reserved. No portion of this chapter may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of the author.

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