Chapter 18

Working the Farm

My brother told me about a job on a farm which was available. I imagine he was pleased at the prospect of getting rid of me for a while, but I was glad to get any job. A relative of my brother­in-law, Jerry Kelso, gave me a ride out to a farm in Depeyster owned by Lou Merrill. This farm was originally owned by the Curtis family, and General Curtis, whose statue stands in back of the Post Office (It was relocated to Library Park), was born on this farm. This was my first encounter with a Bible-spouting fundamentalist, and was the cause of my distrust of them ever since.

Lou Merrill at that time was in his nineties. He was a small man and hunchbacked, probably from a lifetime of hard work. He had a hired man in his sixties. He was about to harvest his first crop of hay, and I was there to provide the muscle, where necessary.

While I was in the barn grinding various farm tools, Lou would mow a certain amount of hay, rake it into windrows, then drive the wagon while the hired man and I would pitch the hay onto the wagon. At the barn he would unhitch the horses and hook them to a hay fork. This was a sort of grapple which would pick up a load of hay off the wagon, up to the end of the barn to the hay mow door, and then run it the length of the barn. This fork had a trip on it so that it could be dumped at any spot under the track. Then we would have to climb up into the mow and fork the hay so as to make an even layer throughout the mow.

 Wrestling with Clydesdales

Another duty I had was cleaning the gutters behind the stanchions and wheeling it outside to a manure pile. Although the task was unpleasant, a much more unpleasant task was to clean out the horse stalls. Lou had an enormous team of horses. From what I recall of them, I believe they were Clydesdales.  I had to clean the stall while the horses were in it, and nudge the horses aside while I raked under them. The stalls were not much wider than the horses, and it occurred to me constantly that if one of these horses should lean a little while I was alongside them, I would have been crushed like a bug. Also, while working behind their enormous butts, I feared that even a good-natured kick from one of their mighty limbs would have sent me into orbit long before the space program began. They were very gentle beasts, however, and it was their sheer size alone that caused my trepidation. With these large horses, it is difficult to imagine the overpowering smell of ammonia in their urine which makes it difficult to breathe.

I had a small room at the head of the stairs, and slept in a bed with a very large feather tick, or mattress. There is nothing today which even remotely approaches the comfort of a feather tick. You crawled into the bed and sank down into it. It embraced you not only from the bottom, but from the sides also. You could really sleep on one of these. But the hard part came when you tried to get out of bed in the morning. Clawing at the tick got you nowhere. If you can imagine trying to get out of a bed composed of extremely soft ball bearings, or trying to climb on your hands and knees up a very dry sandhill, you can imagine the problems involved. If you grabbed the tick for traction, it simply rolled under you. The only way to get out was to reach over your head and get a firm grip on the headboard, then roll your body by force to the edge of the bed until you could drop off the edge. 

I would hitchhike home every Saturday night in order to see my family and Betty, then start at five o'clock the following morning to hitchhike back to Depeyster. Naturally I would not get back to the farm until sometimes nearly seven, at which point his wife would make some sarcastic remark that this was not a boarding house. Lou's wife was almost as old as he was. She was a small, wrinkled woman, whose cooking was as wrinkled and unpalatable as she was. They said grace at every meal, of course, and it struck me at the time that it was certainly an insult to their God to insinuate that he was in any way responsible for the mess this woman put on the table.

 The 'Christian' Way

I was supposed to get a salary of four dollars a week, with no days off, for a day lasting about 12 or 14 hours. I had worked there for a couple of weeks when I asked Lou for all or part of my pay. He kept putting me off with the excuse that he had no money on the place and would have to take a trip to town, which was Heuvelton, to get some from the bank. Lou would read several pages from the Bible each night, and I tried to convince myself that anyone this religious could not possibly be crooked, in spite of his apparent reluctance to give me any of my pay. Perhaps he was motivated by the Biblical lesson about money, or the love of it, being the root of all evil. And he was merely trying to protect me from it, especially since the money would have to come out of his own pocket.

I had worked there for a full month when he finally handed me four dollars. When I asked him about the rest of it, he mumbled something about me being late a couple of times. I did not give him a hassle about it. I felt I had learned a valuable lesson concerning fundamentalist people. They spout a scripture to you to distract you from finding out that their hands are in your pocket. I took the four dollars and never went back. I figured that if I worked for this man another month, I might wind up owing him four dollars.

 The National Youth Administration

As it happened, I was not out of work too long. Another of the New Deal programs was about to be put into practice, notably the N.Y.A. or National Youth Administration. The former No. 8 school on Pine Street which was no longer used was converted into a wood- working shop. Two groups of young people were set to work there. One group worked the first three days of the week, the second worked the following three days. The county administrator was Edward P. Benton, who was about six feet, seven inches tall, and his brother. Most of the work we did there was repairing items like rickety chairs and tables from the orphanage, hospitals and clubs around the area and building beach houses for public beaches. In short, we did any work that could be found to keep our crew busy. The crews consisted of both boys and girls.

The shop foreman was Eli Brabant.  Eli was expert in many fields. He was a first class machinist, millwright, and cabinetmaker. He wad worked at the silk mill on lower Ford Street for many years, and had kept the looms there in repair. He made an excellent teacher as well as foreman. I did not care for Benton very much, but I liked Eli. He later became a great friend as well as my mentor. As was typical of most New Deal programs, most of the group was only interested in putting in their time and did no more than they were ordered to do. ElI soon lost interest in this type, and they did very little.  But perhaps a half dozen of us, out of a group of about thirty, did all the machine work. The rest were not allowed to run machines because of their lack of interest and the danger to themselves.

I had a great love of and interest in machine work, and this soon came to Eli's notice. He spent as much time as he could showing me the tricks of the trade. One item ElI had designed and built himself was a baby incubator. This was a small, airtight crib with a heating element and thermostat and a bulb on top to indicate when it was on. I helped ElI make parts for this and as I learned, I soon took over the entire operation. I had learned to be a stickler of precision from ElI and so, although I built these incubators for a great many months, I built the entire unit myself, allowing no one to help me. ElI showed me a thank you letter from Iceland, of all places, for one of the incubators I had built.

 A Promotion

At this time the city beach was at the lower end of the city, called Sandy Beach then. The city had asked the NYA to construct a beach building for them. A plan had to be drawn up and submitted to National Headquarters and approval for this job fell to Eli. As foreman, he had little time for this work, so he asked me if I was any good at mechanical drawing and print making. I told him that I would give it a try.  He gave me the dimensions, and from these I made a blueprint and a three dimensional sketch of what the building would look like. ElI was so pleased with the results that he used his influence to make me an assistant foreman. I did not know this position existed. I had worked hard, not because I wished advancement, but because I really loved the work.

I can recall few of the names of the young people who worked at the NYA while I was there. One was a girl named Evelyn LaFlair who was a good worker as well as a fair guitar player. There was Bill White, Ed Dubrule and Bunny Lesperance whom I also knew in the CCCs. Dorothy Wert, who was also a member of the Congress Street gang, worked there. I recall Basil O'Shea, whose brother Donald had been torn apart on a conveyer at the Hall Company.