Minnesota Memories, Part 10: Working on George’s Truck FarmIn 1949 when I was 12, my dad and I moved to a small house on 15 acres of land. It was north of Duluth, just off the Miller Trunk Highway on Decker Road. The property was full of white pine and blue spruce with a trout stream about 500 yards from the road.
By: Paul Slayback, for the News Tribune
In 1949 when I was 12, my dad and I moved to a small house on 15 acres of land. It was north of Duluth, just off the Miller Trunk Highway on Decker Road. The property was full of white pine and blue spruce with a trout stream about 500 yards from the road.
A half-mile up the road was a family of eight named Holte. Mel Holte, a big Norwegian with enormous hands and a pretty, cheerful Swedish wife named Ester, had six children. I became good friends with their two older boys, Bobby and Danny.
Danny, also 12, and I worked with several other boys at George’s Truck Farm near Anderson Road. George, a local farmer, raised and sold fruits and vegetables to stores in the area.
I can still smell the rich soil and those long-stem green onions and radishes we picked, bunched and placed in stacks earning about 2 cents a bunch. I think I made about $2 that first six-hour day. Man, we were rolling in dough.
On sunny days, we worked on our hands and knees, planting, weeding and harvesting onions, radishes, carrots, celery, corn, squash, tomatoes, strawberries and watermelon.
I especially liked rainy days when we worked indoors among the strong smell of onions and radishes. On those days, we played poker, told stories and talked about girls. “Slayback — what kind of name is that?” asked Alvin Towell, a slightly rotund boy who wore small, wire-rimmed glasses and a perpetual smile.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “My dad never talks about that.”
“What’s your mother say?” inquired Alvin.
“She died a long time ago,” I replied.
“Maybe we’ll call you kill-back,” said Lyle, a large, handsome lad with a wild crop of blondish-brown hair.
“No, I don’t think I’d like that,” I replied and nothing more was said. Though that was the only time my last name came up, kids often talked about their mothers. I always felt jealous and left out. I didn’t like to explain what happened to my mother.
Out of these conversations and the hard work at the farm, we boys became a tight group with a common purpose. It was here I first developed a sense of pride in work, earned some money and absorbed unwritten rules of behavior I never forgot.
I noticed the older boys often joked and made fun of the new boys but never let anyone else take advantage of them.
All of us boys, ages 12 to 16, were from poor to lower-middle-class families. We weren’t afraid of getting dirty and putting in a hard day’s work.
There were no inside bathrooms on Decker Road, just a small wooden shed, two cut-out seats over a deep hole for bathroom requirements. For entertainment, we read Sears and Roebuck catalogues as we answered the call of nature. Air-
conditioned and breezy, it gave off a unique smell and was quite cool in the winter. But it was effective; we got used to it.
For water, we had an inside pump that had to be primed to start the water flowing. It was sweet spring water, chilled by melting snow. I’ve never tasted better.
We had an icebox for keeping things cold in the summer. For refrigeration, we depended on the Ice Man, that big, strong guy with the rubber-backed shirt, who delivered a large block of ice for our icebox every two weeks — the average time for the previous block to melt.
I learned how to can fruits and vegetables from watching Danny’s mother, Esther, as she cleaned, cooked and placed produce in Mason jars, sealing the tops with hot wax and lids, then boiled them in large steel pots. Esther also taught me how to bake bread, pies and cookies.
I gave my dad a shopping list from Esther’s recipes, and he gave me money to buy the ingredients. I think my dad was proud of me for all I learned. He never said that in so many words. He smiled as I baked, cooked and canned things.
One day a wild bull escaped from his pen in the Heights.
The bull gored a horse and injured a farmer. Two local sheriff’s deputies were called in to kill him. Spotting the bull far out in an open field, both deputies opened fire with their rifles, pouring several rounds of ammunition at the bull. Nothing happened. The bull remained standing. One of the farmer onlookers suggested they contact Mel Holte, Danny’s father. Besides being a local butcher, he was known as a crack shot.
One of the deputies called Mel at his work. Mel soon arrived, slowly got out of his old Dodge, stretched, talked briefly with the deputies and then returned to the trunk of his Dodge and retrieved his 44-40 Winchester rifle.
The bull had now moved about 100 yards farther away to the northeast of the field, a distance of about 250 yards, and one of the deputies said, “It looks like he’s now out of distance; maybe we can move over to the right so we can get a better shot at him.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Mel, pushing his ball cap higher on his head with his left hand and looking in the direction of the bull. Slowly, like he was sharpening a pencil, Mel placed a cartridge in his rifle, casually leaned his rifle across the wooden fence, paused a moment to gauge the wind and distance ... took careful aim and slowly pulled the trigger.
Following the crack of the rifle and the puff of smoke, things seemed to move in slow motion. At first, everyone watching thought he had missed. Then, looking out over the open field, we saw the outline of the massive beast shudder, topple to the ground and roll over on its back with its sharp heels kicking the air. Eventually, the kicking slowed and he became motionless.
A number of the onlookers and deputies gave out a cheer. Mel remained silent, not smiling, a serious, thoughtful expression on his face. He walked back to his car and put away his rifle. One of the deputies appeared puzzled when Mel gave no response to his extended hand to thank him for his assistance.
Getting in his car, Mel gave a small wave of his hand to the gathering and drove away, saying nothing.
Farewell to Minnesota
I attended eighth grade in California, living with my sister Myrtle and her husband in Long Beach while my father spent the winter in Florida. I returned for the summer and worked for a second year at Seymour Rood’s farm in Duluth.
That September, my father enrolled me at Lincoln Junior High School in Duluth, and I quickly became reacquainted with many of the boys I knew from George’s Truck Farm. About three weeks later, my father told me that in two days, I’d be going to Michigan to spend the rest of the school year with my sister Lorna and her family.
Some may think my dad was a little cold-hearted — distant — that he just wanted to get rid of me and concentrate on his own well-being. Even if that were true, I knew my dad loved me and, being 65 years old, didn’t life owe him a little more than being saddled with a 14-year-old?
From this sink-or-swim dilemma, I developed an array of skills that have served me well. I became more alert of my surrounding — formed an ability to quickly size up and analyze unfamiliar situations — developed high confidence in my abilities to do things, solve problems; not become discouraged when things didn’t go my way; to remain calm and think before I acted; to size up people as friend or foe; avoid complainers and mingle with people who had a friendly, outgoing personality. And when trouble brewed — when the chips were down and gloom, despair and uncertainly was in the air — I could, without a doubt — depend upon someone: me.