Working as a Migrant in the Yelm Fields During the Depression

Introduction: Norma Zimmer was a longtime singer on the Lawrence Welk Show.  In her memoir she talks about working in the fields around Yelm.

Her Story

Dad’s third bout with pneumonia occurred the following spring. He almost died of suffocation by was saved when the doctor cut out a rib section and inserted a lung drainage tube. The doctor told him it was time he left the damp climate of Seattle and lived in drier air. “Without it,” the doctor warned, “you’re sure to have a relapse.” Mother made it her business to carry out this order. She got a map of Washington and pointed out to dad a town named Yelm, just west of the Cascades.

“But Mac is in school,” father protested.

Mother went to Max’s teacher and explained the problem. It was spring; would it be

alright if she took Max out of school for the rest of the term?  Teacher and principal both consented; Max would be promoted to fourth grade. Mother appealed to Augustus for funds and he came through without delay. It was little more than our train fare, but it got us to Yelm. The owner of our tarpaper shack assured us we could move back into it when we returned after father regained his health. Kay and I carried our dolls. It took very few bags to hold our clothes and personal items.

We had no definite destination in Yelm. For us children it was an adventure. Now when I think about my mother and father leaving the only home and security they had, and dad in poor health, I marvel at their daring to move the five of us out as they did. Dad and mother went to the town hall where the “help wanted” notices were posted. “Farmer needs family for berry picking.” Eagerly we applied for the job, but the farmer shook his head at the sight of us. “I meant a couple with bigger kids,” he said. “I need a more grown up family.” He looked down at Kay and me and asked, “What kind of work could such cute little girls do?”

Kay promptly answered, “I can pick berries!”

Not to be outdone, I echoed, “Me too!”

“O.K. We’ll give it a try,” he said, his eyes searching the area as though still hoping a

better prospect might come down the road. “Hop in my truck.”

Max and Kay and Mother and I climbed up into the truck bed. Dad rode up front with the farmer. We children squealed and laughed. Mother seemed happy. The wind blew my hair into my eyes and mouth as we bumped down the country road.

As the farmer lifted me down from the truck and set me beside Max and Kay, he said “Now, I expect you children will be my best berry pickers.” He led us to the row of cabins where the workers lived and we crowded into the small drab that was to be our home. If mother felt any disappointment, she didn’t show it. There was a kerosene lamp, a kerosene stove, a table and chairs, and a washstand with a place for a pail of water and a dipper. We would carry water from the farmer’s well. Two double-deck wooden bunks with straw mattresses were our beds.

Mother opened up a small bag and took out the carefully folded flowered curtains she had brought from the tarpaper shack. She strung them up at the two windows of our new home and immediately the room looked more cheerful. She laid red-and-white checkered oil cloth over the table and sent us girls out to pick wild flowers. As we went, we saw father take mother in his arms, and kiss her.

There were extraordinarily happy days. Dad wasn’t smoking or drinking. He worked hard helping the farmer prepare the bushes for their harvest. Mother and the farmer’s wife did farm chores. Kay and I played with their little girl and Max fished in a large irrigation ditch near by. Our work would start when the berries began to ripen. While we were working at the berry farm our grandfather, now divorced from Louise, came to visit us. He was a handsome man with a white moustache and startlingly white hair. No wonder mother worshiped him. Easygoing and gentle, he soon won our hearts completely. Finally, the farmer decided it was time to pick his crop and now life became more exciting for me. All the berry pickers hurried out to the bushes very early in the morning. We girls ate almost as many as we picked of those delicious sweet blackcap raspberries. It was a bumper crop.

We soon found out that it was hard work. My back got tired and I longed to quit. But no, we were migrant workers and we had signed with Mr. Jones as a family. When the farmer came to see how we were doing, he said, “Well, now, if you aren’t the best little workers I’ve got! Your row is one of the cleanest picked of all I’ve seen.”  We stood there smiling broadly at him, revealing purple teeth and lips.

He said, “Even though you aren’t the fastest pickers, I’m happy with you because your berries aren’t crushed.” Then he noticed our lips. He laughed and said, “You’d better not eat too many of those berries.”

Mother, alarmed that we would lose our job, turned on us and warned, “You mind Mr.

Jones, do you hear?” But Mr. Jones laughed again and said, “Better keep an eye on those kids. If they get a bellyache, they’ll need a good does of castor oil.”

“Oh?” mother questioned.

“There’s an old Indian saying about them berries, ‘Eat’m too much, and plug’m up

fast!’ It’s the seeds, ma’am.”

We did indeed all get stomach aches. Dad had to go to town and get us some castor oil.

At last the berries were all picked and it was time to be paid. It seemed there was nothing to do but return to Seattle.

The tally of our earnings, showed that we had only enough left for train fare back home after the farmer deducted what he had advanced for kerosene and groceries. Father and mother were depressed and their mood affected us children. W had all worked so hard, thinking that every berry was money in our purse.

Then there was a knock at our door and one of the workers said, “I’m driving to Lake Chelan to pick apples. If you want to help buy gas and oil for the trip, I’m sure you can find work there too.”

That ride bore much resemblance to the trip to California of Ma Joad and her family, depicted in The Grapes of Wrath. After a series of flat tires and much engine trouble, we arrived in apple country in plenty of time to find work. The man who hired us said we children should pick all the apple that were with in reach as long as we kept our feet on the ground. “I don’t want any kids climbing ladders,” he warned.  We worked hard all wee. Kay and I had found a new girl to play with and on Sunday Max went fishing wit the local Indian boys. Dad and Mother read Westerns, and we girls played house under a big apple tree.

When dad had collected the money we all earned, he said it was time to return to Seattle. “You kids should be in school,” he said. Max was ready for fourth grad and Kay was eager to start first grade. School was already in session, as it was near the end of October.

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