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Family photo sparks memories of picking spuds by hand

Submitted photo.

A collage of photos in a simple black frame holds memories of happy times for Verle Ralston. Neighbors, friends and family celebrate occasions, serve food and stand side by side with beloved toys and souvenirs — happy memories for Ralston, curated by a family member — all in black and white.

Formerly of East Grand Forks, Ralston recently sat in his Valley 4000 apartment in Grand Forks reminiscing as he reviewed the compilation of photos. He came across a photo of five men — one of them he fondly remembers as “Eddie” — in front of a potato-hauling truck, which conjured memories of being in the fields with his mother in the 1940s.

“My mother, Manda Ralston, and her friend, Ethel Partlow, would go out to the fields and pick potatoes by hand,” Ralston says. “My mom would come home at night and her face was often covered in dirt.”

The fields Ralston and Partlow harvested belonged to Albert Boushey, who joined forces with his brother Lawrence to establish A & L Potato in East Grand Forks.

At the time of Ralston’s visits with his mother to the fields, there was a shortage of men in the area because so many were pulled to fight in WWII. So, women took on a bulk of the work in supporting their families.

Ralston’s dad, however, worked at a local taproom. “He didn’t like mother going out,” Ralston says. “There was a pride thing for men, you know. He didn’t want his wife working.”

But Ralston’s mom was diligent and was one of about 15 men and women who returned to the fields day after day, through the end of the campaign, earning 2 to 4 cents per basket of the crop.

“Turnover was high at that time,” Ralston recalls. “There were 25 pickers, but 15 returned the next day. Who wanted to work for $5 a day?”

Group effort

Though crops were not as large as they are now, because of the invention of equipment to harvest more acreage, the process to pick by hand was tedious and time consuming.

As workers pulled potatoes from the fields, filling their burlap sacks tied to their waists with rope, a truck driver and at least two other men would hoist the 50-pound sacks over their heads and onto the bed of the trucks.

“Sometimes the guys would get so mad because they would really pile in the potatoes,” Ralston says. “So instead of 50 pounds per sack, it was 100 pounds, so they’d have more to throw up over the edge.”

When Ralston accompanied his mother and Partlow to the fields, he would help by preparing the bags and rope so they could quickly move on after filling each bag.

“I would go ahead about 30 yards and I would have two of my own ropes,” he says. “I would lay them down and put the bags down on top of them, so that when they go to that point of picking, they would pick the bag up and tie it around their waist.”

The process continued for about six weeks during harvest each year. Ralston enjoyed it because he could visit with his mom, help out and get teased by Eddie, who would return each year to lift the heavy bags onto the truck.

When the day was done, Ralston says he would ride on the sacks of potatoes, holding tightly, before dropping them off at the processing location, and then return home with his mother.

Though he didn’t pursue a career in agriculture, Ralston did continue to take the hard work ethic with him as he taught music for 15 years, was a nursing home administrator for 17 years, and after enlisting into the Army.

Ralston can’t recall any other children following their family, friends and neighbors out to the fields as he did, but he remembers the time he was able to spend working alongside his mother fondly and is thankful for the experience.

“I’ve been so fortunate,” he says.