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Lessons Learned From Hired Man’s Departure

Hired man’s departure marked end of an era.

| August 2014

  • When Leonard Rue’s family moved to their farm full time, they needed the entire house for themselves and could no longer hire entire families to work for them. From that time on they hired only single men.
    Photo by Leonard Lee Rue III

When we first bought our farm, the family we hired to work for us was the Nehrs: Herman and Jeannie and their daughter Betty. The next family was the Mills, husband and wife and two daughters. When we moved to the farm full time, we needed the entire house for ourselves and from that time on, we hired just single men. They had their own bedroom but ate and lived with us.

There was Lester Hoffman, a fine young man from a neighboring farm, who was killed at an early age in a car accident. Then there was Harry Read, and when possible, his father, Pappy Read. Pappy was a little gnome of a man and an excellent worker, living with his daughter and son-in-law on their farm in Bridgeville, New Jersey, most of the time. Our last hired man was Sam Van Why from either Paradise Valley or Mountainhome in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Whoever named that hardscrabble mountain country Paradise Valley and Promised Land must have been related to the Viking explorer Eric the Red, who named that huge slab of ice Greenland. They were both con men, only interested in selling land they didn’t know what to do with to someone who hadn’t yet found out that they couldn’t do anything with it, either. Good farmland it was not.

A vagabond existence

During the Great Depression, many of the hired men were in their 20s and 30s and had never married because they couldn’t afford to. Many became hobos, traveling the country looking for work or better living conditions. Most of them were victims of circumstances over which they had no control whatsoever. Single hired men were usually good workers but they were not reliable, because they were single. They had no ties, seldom had a sense of responsibility, and all they owned was a suitcase full of clothing and perhaps a car. Most were always broke, their money spent on tobacco, booze, cars and women (not necessarily in that order).

It was from our hired men that I learned colorful, descriptive language that I had not learned from my parents. Many of those words raised doubts about a person’s parental lineage and scatology, and many altered Biblical references and a word that I later found out meant “to copulate.” To this day, under trying circumstances, certain suppressed words spring to mind, words that I learned from our hired men. I used them often after being kicked by a cow, hitting my thumb with a hammer or having an axle break on a wagon loaded with manure. I offer this not as an extenuating circumstance, but that is where I learned that vocabulary and I can’t help it if I have a good memory.

Living off the land

Sam Van Why was about 6 feet tall, thin, had dark hair and was swarthy from being outdoors all the time. Although his name was “Dutch,” there was a time when Spain controlled Holland and Sam was proof the Spaniards had planted their genes there.

Sam was a good worker, and although he smoked a lot and took an occasional drink, I never saw him drunk. Sam loved to hunt deer. Coming from the area that he did, he had done a lot of deer hunting. To many people living there, venison was a dietary staple; they couldn’t afford beef, lamb, pork or even chicken. It was cheaper to buy shells for a rifle or shotgun.


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