We just wanted a fair wage for our blueberry picking.
Little did we know how our struggles would fit in to the grand global struggle between labor and management, the haves and the have-nots, and supply and demand.
Some of what follows is true.
You’ll have to decide which parts.
Mount Vernon, Maine in the late 1950s was a slow, small town that ringed a small lake in the southern end of the Belgrade Lakes region.
Mount Vernon, Maine in the Twenty-first Century is a small town that rings a small lake in the southern end of the Belgrade Lakes region.
About all that’s changed in the there is a big hole on the lake front where my parents’ hotel used to be, and the big yellow farm house that used to stand across the street is now the site of a post office. The general store is still there, cluttered with everything from night crawlers to local beer, but a new diner opened by New Yorkers is doing well, bringing a new energy and great breakfasts to the old, dusty town. Oh, and the two-room school house is now the fire station.
The town had two churches. The “summer church” was built by the Baptists when there were enough of them to have their own congregation. It was up the hill from the main village and painted a bright white. The “winter church” was the old Congregational church whose bare boards had not seen paint I would guess since the day it was erected.
Religion being was it is, these two feuding groups split decades back because saving the souls of 400 Mount Vernon’s residents was God’s work, and Baptists went up the hill, an elevation of maybe a hundred feet, apparently to be nearer my God to Thee.
The sexton was a man named Grover. He lived in a shaded tiny house tucked lakeside between the backside of the Congregational church and the end of the hotel extension.
It is possible that old home was the vicar’s house. But the churches hadn’t had a vicar in so long no one was sure, especially us eight-year-olds.
We weren’t sure how much sexton-ing Grover actually did.
But Grover owned a blueberry barrens in Vienna, which being Maine is pronounced “VYE-enna,” just as Madrid is pronounced “MAD-rid.”
Vienna was a couple miles north of Mount Vernon and home to famous Flying Pond—Um, OK…The pond was so-called because according to what is probably an English version of an Indian tale, a warrior seeking food found the pond, and when he returned to his village and brought back fellow warriors the pond was not there, having apparently flown way. The pond is also home to the floating island…another day.
So, Grover hired us Mount Vernon kids to help harvest the blueberries, maybe eight or nine of us. We were part of a team that included some teens who had worked the barrens before.
Grover might have been as stoic and old Mainer as we knew, but he was no fool. Berries on the bush were not dollars in his pocket.
Blueberries grow on low, tough bushes, and at that time were extracted using a blueberry rake, a metal contraption with a row of forks and a receiving bin.
The method of harvest was to rake the bushes till the bin was filled, empty them contents into a bushel basket, and when the basket was filled take to the winnower, which with the turn of the crank, separated the berries from the leaves and small sticks.
The smaller kids worked the winnower and we older kids manned the rakes.
We worked on, raking and winnowing, making the grand sum of ten cents a bushel.
Given the economics of the time, ten cents at that time translated into two Cokes from the ice filled soda bin at the general store, or a pack of bubblegum with baseball cards.
Once we got the idea and developed a rhythm, we rakers could fill 15 bushels a day because the berries were plentiful.
Labor trouble started when we found out that contrary to our understanding, Grover was only paying us for bushels of clean berries. Out 15 bushels our labors were recorded as seven or eight bushels of clean berries.
Thus, we learned the first lesson of labor-management relations – understand the terms of employment.
We later learned the harsher lesson of macro economics versus our version of micro economics.
Toward the end of the season Grover brought in a local adult farmer and three helpers. He assigned them to the fuller bushes and reassigned us to the already-raked bushes.
And he cut our wages in half to five cents a bushel.
Now in a macro economic sense, the wholesale price of blueberries peaked during the season, since it occurred during the peak of tourist season and all those fresh berries had a ready market in restaurants, and grocery stories because what is summer in Maine without blueberry pancakes.
Toward the end of the growing season, the value of the crop rose because there were fewer berries but there were just as many tourists wanting their pancakes.
I don’t know the size of Grover’s market, but I suspect it ranged from Augusta to Farmington – maybe fifty miles – each town with sufficient restaurants and groceries.
In our micro economic sense, the pay cut enraged us, well, as enraged as a bunch of little kids can be enraged.
We engaged in a little labor-management negotiation during which Grove skipped past the academics of cost-per-unit, the relative value of less skilled workers versus the more qualified workers, blew past any cost-benefit analysis, and told us simply “take it or leave it.”
So, we left.
I’m not sure the six-year-olds understood they were pawns of big business working for insufficient wages to do a back-breaking job, but they left with us.
I think the prospect of having to walk alone the five miles back to Mount Vernon was more frightening.
But us older kids understood there was something dishonest about Grover’s stance, whether he was right or not. Don’t change the terms of an agreement in the middle of its term.
We felt ripped off and the value of our labor diminished.
Had we known any of the great labor songs, the blues of the working man, we would have raised our voices in protest and celebration.
The group of us, straggling along the Vienna road, were the great labor martyrs sacrificed to the unfeeling capitalists, ground into poverty by unequal wages, brutal working conditions, the have-nots in the endless clash with the haves.
Instead we stopped at Flying Pond and threw rocks at frogs and tried to guess which of the islands might be floating.
Our celebrity lasted maybe a day.
Some cars during our march home stopped and asked what we were doing.
Some drivers laughed and cheered us on, and others called us stupid kids.
A guy with a pick-up offered us a ride, but by then, with us almost home, even the little kids recognized the value of continuing our protest march, so we declined.
The Great Blueberry Strike ended with us sitting on the steps of the grocery drinking nickel Cokes.
But they tasted sweet, didn’t they?