If you are one of the people who participated in this project, this will seem like old news. Or if you’re married to one of these people, hearing this story again might make you roll your eyes. But if you were unaware of a bunch of E&H students working for Green Giant in the summers of the late 1960s and early 1970s, you may find this interesting.
Jim Watkins (’74) becomes animated when telling the story. He says he was approached by Tom Rector (’73) and Lee Arnold (’72) who had been going to Delaware to work for Green Giant in the summertime. “We had to be in Harrington, Delaware, by May 25th to start work. We met up with students from Washington state, and also migrant workers from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Native Americans from Texas.” Jim says they did a variety of work, including working on the huge tractors that pulled two-ton buckets filled with green beans. “When the buckets were full, we dumped the contents into large flatbed trailer beds with sideboards. Each truck would carry approximately 40,000 pounds at a time to the green bean processing plant.” He says they also harvested early peas with a different set of equipment working in shifts around the clock.
Of course, being good liberal arts students, the guys made the best use of their time. Jim says, “After we drove our tractors out of sight of our supervisors, we took off our safety equipment in lieu of cut off blue jeans…which made for a great tan!”
He goes on to say that the work was seven days a week for 3-4 months so they didn’t have time to spend the good money they were making. Instead they sent it all home, making it a particularly lucrative summer job.
They managed to squeeze in a little recreation time, however, by playing pool and drinking Knickerbocker beer – for 33 cents a quart! Jim adds, “That’ll hit you pretty hard after driving tractors in 95 degree heat for 10 hours!”
David St. Clair (’73) was also part of the hard-working vegetable crew. In fact he missed his brother Bob’s E&H graduation because he had to report for duty by the week after Memorial Day or forfeit the job. Unfortunately, they didn’t put the guys straight to work, and there was a lot of sitting and waiting. “We were agitating for work while we were waiting around and they let us go out in a field and pick weeds. We did that for about 3 hours and decided that work and a pay check weren't that important! I read Catch-22 that week. It was the summer of Carol King's "Tapestry" album and the song So Far Away could really get to you.”
He remembers living in the barracks of a Fair Grounds between horse stables. “There were about three showers in the whole facility so only the first crew back got hot showers -- the rest of us took cold showers, which may not have been such a bad thing under the circumstances!” David says dining options in town were limited to a hot dog establishment, and he mentions that they met the “Poultry Queen of Southern Delaware” -- but this sounded like a separate story.
David left early from that because he says by the end of June he had made more money than he had ever before made during a summer job. And because he was “tired of hearing mice and rats running along the electrical conduits of our room when the lights went out.” He hitchhiked from Delaware to Blacksburg and caught a bus for the rest of the trip home (oddly enough, one of the cars to stop and pick him up was driven by the aunt and uncle of fellow E&H student, Linda Blank Berry).
David says the experience was filled with fun and funny memories, but that it also had a pretty profound impact on him and some the others he worked with like Mark Varnell.
“I remember that when the Green Giant folks found out that Mark could understand and speak Spanish they moved him off our crew to work with the migrants and their families. He came back telling us about how they lived in buses and more of the information about what their lives were like. We also found out that we were making more an hour than they were, which made us feel pretty badly.”
Apparently Jim and David were just two of the many E&H alums who picked and pulled pounds of potatoes and such for Green Giant, so you might ask around to see who else took on this giant jolly summer challenge. You might start with your friends who look suspect at peas.