Working in the Fruit
1935 — 1940s
Wally Lee Parker
(Reprint from the Enkey-Parker Family History Newsletter.)
(all rights reserved)
(Reprint from the Enkey-Parker Family History Newsletter.)
(all rights reserved)
Transcribed from tape recorded interviews, these stories, told by my mother, Lillie Ada Enkey-Parker, and uncle, James (Jim) Grady Parker, recall the migrations of the Parker clan as they followed California’s seasonal agricultural work. The time period involved begins in the latter part of 1935 and continuing into the war years. Other family members mentioned include my dad, Owen Lee Parker, grandfather, Alfred Wallace Parker, uncles Ethmer and Sam Parker, and Wanda and Faril — two of my three sisters,
Our best guess for the first set of stories is about 1935 or ‘36.
Jim: “I can’t remember but this one time that Owen and Lillie was with us when we picked apricots. We had been picking cherries at Beaumont, that’s on the road between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. When the Cherries was done we drove south a few miles, over some mountains, to the town of Hemet.
“The women was working in the sheds. So I guess me, Owen, Ethmer, and Dad was the only pickers they had in the orchard. We could keep enough apricots picked to keep the sheds going anyway.
“They had a bunch in the sheds. Women and kids — kids who was big enough to work. They was cutting apricots in two, taking out the seeds, and laying the halves out on drying trays.”
Lillie: “The men would pack the lugs of apricots into the sheds and set them down close by. We’d take our knife and cut down to the apricot pit, then spin the apricot into halves. You’d use two fingers to pull the pit out and throw it. Then arrange the apricot halves on this wire screen stretched ‘cross a wooden frame. When you got the frame covered with apricots, the men would pick it up and carry it to the drying shed.
“Quick as your box got empty, the boys would bring another lug.”
Jim: “They had drying sheds for the apricots. Air dry — sun dry. We’d take those trays, some four foot by eight foot, some two foot by eight foot, and stack ‘em, row after row. They’d end up with maybe a couple of acres of them trays stacked. Then they’d fumigate them. Seems like they used sulfur of some sort — burnt the stuff — to fumigate the apricots and keep the bugs off.”
Lillie: “I’d take Wanda into the shed with me. The people put up one of them jumper swings right next to where I stood. In that swing Wanda could hit her feet on the floor and swing, and I could keep her pacified while I worked.
“I don’t remember how they paid us in the shed — it might have been piece work — keeping count of the trays we covered.”
Jim: “Out in the orchard one day, we heard Dad (Alfred Wallace Parker) holler. ‘You boys get over here!’ So we started walking toward his voice. In a minute he hollered again — this time mad. ‘Quit piddling along!’ We couldn’t see him, but he could see us. So we took to running.
“He was hanging in one of them little apricot trees, his arms and legs wrapped around a limb. Hanging up there just like a possum, with his ladder lying on the ground under. ‘You boys get me down!’ We didn’t laugh loud ‘nough he could hear us. But that was the funniest thing.”
Lillie: “When it come to cherries, we used what was called cherry buckets. You snapped the bucket on, then when you come out of the tree you could unsnap the bucket to pour your cherries into the box.
“When I worked in the packing sheds we had a special way of boxing cherries. The first layer at the bottom of the box you laid in real careful — a nice flat layer with all the stems turned one way. Same with the second layer. After that you just piled the cherries in. Then they boxed up the cherries — put the lids on the boxes. But the lids they nailed on were really the bottoms of the boxes, so when whoever bought the box opened the top, there lay all them cherries in pretty rows.
“We worked in the prunes too. I could do good in prunes. You just spread a couple of big tarps under the tree. Using long poles with hooks on the end, we’d hook a limb and shake. The prunes would fall on the tarps. We’d just pick them up and lug ‘em. It was messy work when the prunes was ripe.
“We’d take bottles, diapers, whatever, out into the orchards with us. We’d take an apple box to set Wanda in. After Faril came along we did the same with her.”
Jim: “I’m thinking it must have been about 1937 — the year Faril was born. We was picking Apricots at Hollister — about twenty or thirty miles inland from Monterey Bay. We was working for this contractor. He was paying a nickel a bucket.
“This old boy use to be a boxer — a sparring partner for one of the heavyweights. He showed it too. His nose was pushed flat across his face. And his hands — one hand was ‘bout as wide as both of mine.
“When picking, you’d fill a couple of buckets, then take them to the contractor. Each worker had a punch card, and the contractor would punch it for each bucket you brought in. That’s how you got paid at the end of the day.
“So Sam (Vernon “Sam” Del Parker) comes down with a couple of buckets. The guy looks at them and says, ‘Sam, I told you and told you not to pick them green apricots. You’re getting them too green. And you go right out there and do it again. So I ain’t gonna pay you for these.’
“Sam says, ‘Yes you are!’
Sam was a hot headed little devil anyway.
“No Sam, I ain’t gonna do it.’
“Yes you are!’
“No I’m not.’
“Sam just stared for a minute, then he upended both them buckets out on the ground. And he jumped right in the middle of ‘em. Up and down.
“The old boy just stood there and watched. Directly he said, ‘You know Sam, I was just kidding ya about not punching your ticket. I was just kidding right up ‘til you done that. So now get back out there and get to work!’
“I guess Sam figured it would be a good idea to do what he was told. So he went back to work.
‘And if I’m not mistaken, before the end of the day, that old fellow went ahead and punched the ticket for them buckets Sam had jumped on anyway. Quite an old boy — that contractor.”
Both Mom and Jim have some stories about cannery work. Mom recalls the whole family, even Alfred Wallace, working at this particular cannery.
Jim: “It was the ‘Libby Foods’ cannery in Sunnyvale, California — that’s on the far south of San Francisco Bay”.
Lillie: “I couldn't stand to pick peaches — couldn’t stand that fuzz off the peach on my skin. But one year, I don’t remember when — maybe before the war — I did get work in a cannery, and one of my jobs was running a peach seeding machine.
“To work the machine I had to wear long rubber gloves, a rubber apron, and, like everybody working there, a hair net. With that machine, the juice, bits of peach skin, most everything like that would splatter. But I was pretty well covered.
“The machine had a blade. You’d pick up a peach and turn it so the seam on the peach skin lined up with the blade, and push the peach on. Then you’d hit a lever and the machine would turn the peach around, halving it and throwing the seed out. That was the job — just standing there all day doing that again and again.
“I made pretty good money working that machine.
“Other times I’d have to inspect peaches — pick up each peach to see if there was any defects, bits or rot, or the like, left on it. I didn’t like doing that much.”
Jim: “I can’t remember if that was just before the war, or when. The cannery was running around the clock, but the part I was working, canning cocktail fruit, we only ran the one eight hour shift, then it shut down for the night.
“Women were putting fruit in the cans along this long belt. They was in groups of two or three. Each group had the task of packing in a little bit of one kind of fruit as the can went by. A group for the cherries. A group for the apricots. For the pineapples — peaches — whatever. My job was to replace the big pans of fruit near each woman as she used them up. Another guy was filling the pans out of these big barrels. It was just another kind of assemble line job.
“Of course there was bugs all over that cannery. And lots of gnats ended up in those cans of cocktail fruit. I seen ‘em go in. And worse was the first cans going down the line in the morning.
“At night when we quit they’d still be fruit in those pans sitting next to the women. The company didn’t want that throwed out. And they didn’t want that put back in the big barrels. So I was told to take an empty pan and set it upside down over the part used pans sitting along the belt. The seam where those two pans come together, that may seem pretty small, and it may keep bigger bugs out, but them gnats would crawl right through there.
“Next morning, just before the belt started moving, we’d pull those covering pans off and them gnats would rise off that fruit in clouds.
“In what little time was left the women were supposed to pick out all the gnats that didn’t fly. And there was lots of them. So the women picked what they could, and the rest of them gnats got canned — first thing in the morning.
“Even still to this day, fruit cocktail ain't my favorite.”
Lillie: “We worked standing along the fruit cocktail belt. Beside us were pans of different kinds of chopped fruit. As these empty cans come down the belt — and they were moving pretty fast — our job was to pick up some fruit and drop a bit of it in each can. Each of us along the belt had one kind, and sometimes more than one kind of fruit to put in. By time the can got to the end of the belt, it should be full.
“Other times I was put to working on the belt where they canned the peaches. The peaches was in halves. We’d lay ‘em flat and check them over for any bits of rot or the like. Then we’d pick ‘em up and pack them down in the cans coming by on the belt.
“Owen was working on that belt. He was down on the end at a machine that put the lids on the cans and sealed them. His job was to fill the cans with syrup, and fit the tops. All we could see of him from where we was was his hands.
“We had to wear our hair pulled up in nets. Then we had a cap to pull down over the net. None of our hair was supposed to be showing.
“There was one woman working on the line — she had long, straight black hair. I saw her reach up under her cap, pull out one of her hairs, and jerk it out. Then she picked up a peach, wound that long black hair ‘round and around it, and pulled the hair tight so it cut into the peach and disappeared. Then she dropped the peach in a can.
“I seen her do it once. No way of knowing how much she did that.
“I told her what would happen if Owen found one of them in those peaches ‘for he sealed them — seeing how me and some of the others had seen her doing that. I don’t know if it done any good. But I couldn’t eat a Libby’s peach for I don’t know how long.”
During World War II the government set up the ‘Office of Price Administration. This federal agency, in operation between 1941 and 1946, set wages and prices — war rations books were one of the devices used to do that. The O.P.A. is part of this story.
Jim: “It must of been during the war. We was camped someplace close to Modesto. The peaches would be ready in two or three days. Dad went to this one place and asked, ‘What are you gonna pay for picking?’
“Twelve cents a box.’
“Dad said, ‘Twelve cents! I understand the going price on them is fifteen.’
“Dad was told, ‘The O.P.A. is setting the price.’
“Dad looked at guy, ‘O.P.A. didn’t have a damn thing to do with setting the price! It’s you growers that’s a doing it. Be truthful about it.’
“All the old boy said was, ‘I guess you’re right.’
“You damn right I’m right,’ Pop spit back. ‘And we don’t need to pick your peaches at twelve cents a box.’
“We went to another orchard just down the road and got our fifteen cents.”