Tricounty News

Rotting pea vines along the road



By Elizabeth Cooper Mike

From the pen of the late Elizabeth Cooper Mike, Kimball Historical Society member, in her book "The Girl From Stickney Hill, Kimball Prairie, Minnesota" (Reprinted with permission of the author.)

I wanted that job badly the summer I was 18. Just out of high school and naïve as the back forty, I look back now and wonder how I had the nerve to be so persistent.

But jobs were few and far between during the Great Depression. I was going to the University in the fall and needed every penny I could scrape together and this job paid $15 a week. Besides my good friend Helen had worked her charms and gotten taken on the very first day the plant opened. Her brother was my boyfriend and he could see me lots more if I got a job and stayed with her at her sister's. What a set up, I thought!

Every day I hung around the plant, making myself visible, arriving early in the morning, and staying until the whistle blew at quitting time. Every day I'd ask, "Any openings today?" Every day, the superintendent would shake his head no. But he knew I was around. I saw him watching me when I sat on the bench outside basking in the summer sunshine, eating lunch with Helen at noon, or coming inside for a drink of water. Finally, he gave in and with a big smile said, "Come to work tomorrow."

The plant was a pea canning factory. Every farmer for 20 miles around grew acres and acres of peas that summer and at harvest time, the vines were cut with a riding mower, pitched onto hayracks and hauled to various pea-shelling stations located within horse-hauling distances of the farmers' farms. The peas were then taken to the central pea canning factory in St. Cloud.

When we heard they were hiring at this new pea canning factory, Helen and I headed for her sister's house in St. Cloud for a try at those jobs. We made her brother take us.

As we rode along that first day on our way to get jobs, Glenn driving his open air car, me in the middle and Helen on the outside, I could smell the rotting pea vines as we pass the shelling locations from time to time along the road. The odor was so rotten and suffocating that we either held our breath or our noses as we passed.

Helen got a job the first day, and I got on a few days later. We bought matching light blue coveralls and with a white blouse, wore them to work every day. I can still see Helen and me at the end of the day, our bodies casting long shadows on the ground ahead of us as we walked to her sister's house, our arms around each other. She'd say, "See how small my waist is, just 24 inches." I'd never say anything but I knew my waist was smaller, just 22 inches. I wondered why she couldn't see my waist was smaller than hers by our shadows on the ground.

So I stayed with Helen's sister and every day Helen and I went to work, carrying a sack lunch and collecting our $15-cash pay at the end of the week. Every few days Glenn would drive the 20 miles to see me. It was a lovely summer!

Our job in the factory was sitting along a slanting conveyor belt, picking out any debris found in the peas rolling along, being continually washed with fresh running water. From there, the peas were packed in cans and placed in big shining stainless steel vats to undergo high heat to complete the canning process.

Dozens of girls sat at their jobs along the conveyor belt. The bosses were all men walking around supervising everything, a cigarette dangling from one hand or a fat black cigar stuck in their mouths, smoke curling up around their heads.

The debris we picked out and put in bags at the side of the conveyor belt could be anything. A twig, a leaf, a bug, a piece of a bug, a small stone, a hard little pellet of dirt.

One day, a larger brown clump came flowing with the peas, down the conveyor belt in front of me, its little sharp nose pointed downhill, its tail in a straight line behind it."A mouse," I shouted and jumped from my seat.

Boss Jack reached out and picked up the mouse by its tail. "It's dead," he said, laughing and he threw it in the discard bucket. Of course, I knew it was dead. Being a farm girl, I wasn't afraid. It just startled me.

After that, I noticed Boss Jack watching me. When I sat along the conveyor belt, when I went for a drink, when I went to the rest room, his brown eyes followed me. Sometimes he'd come over and made a remark about the weather or how easily the peas were rolling down the belt, keeping their fresh round shape, "green as spring," he said. Every time I looked up, his eyes seemed to be on me.

And I began to watch him and ask questions around about him. He was tall and dark-haired with hairy arms and shiny white teeth and a smile to die for. And I liked the way he walked and I loved those soft romantic brown eyes. I learned he was a teacher from northern Minnesota, down to work for the summer.

When the pea factory closed and we all went home, he asked where he could reach me in the fall, and I gave him my grandmother's telephone number in St. Paul, where I would be staying while I went to school in Minneapolis, where the University of Minnesota was located.

So he called the number about a month after I started school. My grandmother turned from the phone and said, "It's a man's voice. He says, 'Is Miss Cooper available?'" I felt really grown up as I answered the telephone.

We went out all fall whenever he was in town and I wrote Glenn out of the picture. Jack was now my new love!

And then quite by accident, I discovered he was married.

But that's another story.

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By the time you read this, you were either there or you missed the "Focus on Family History" great event Sept. 22, an evening with certified genealogist Stephen Barthel. And you're invited again Oct. 27, featuring the Armistice Day blizzard event of snowbanks 10-feet high and more. Watch this column for more details and make plans now to attend.

Thank you for your generous support to help us preserve the past for the enrichment of future generations. Come discover the "new" preserved look at Kimball City Hall. Soon more of the finishing touches will be in progress as another grant is awarded that pays half of the cost. Our vision is simple ... "A Great History is Cricital to our Preservation Mission." Your participation anytime is a well-spent investment.

Your membership is essential ... with our membership year from January to January, we look forward to entering our society's 10th year with everyone's dues paid. If you're already paid ahead, disregard this reminder. Call if you have questions.

For more information on researching your family history, stories and photos for this column and/or the permanent collection, donations and pledges to the City Hall Project, memberships new or renewed, or general information about us, please contact the Kimball Area Historical Society, Box 100, Kimball MN 55353, phone (320) 398-5250, 398-5743, or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Hope to hear from you.

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Thanks for joining us for this week's "History Matters"