Follow the Digger
“What do you mean, you’re quitting?” Dad asked.
“You heard us right. We’re quitting. We’re going to Texas in the morning,” Mr. Ramirez said. His face grew darker and his pencil moustache began to quiver.
Dad’s reply was “Well, lots of luck. I’ll send you my regards, but you won’t get any money until all the potatoes are out of the ground.”
This created a buzz among the crew who had been taking in all that was being said. Mr. Ramirez and his crew retreated to talk over these developments. The arrogance was somewhat shaken from Mr. Ramirez’s voice when he came back. “We will finish picking if you won’t deduct anything from what we have already done,” he said.
“I only pay a man for what he earns,” Dad said. “If you do the work, I will pay you. If you don’t I won’t.”
“We’ll get the Sheriff. He’ll make you pay.”
“You get the Sheriff. That sounds like a really good idea. Then I won’t have to.”
Apparently this remark was too much for Mr. Hernandez. He walked off and his crew followed him.
We were in trouble now. Practically every crew had left the Bighorn Basin for Texas or was finishing their last job before leaving. We discovered the Ramirez’s crew had stolen two of our picking belts. John, Tom, Dad and I finished hauling in the rest of the potatoes that had been picked. Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez and their son continued to pick what they could for the rest of the day. We left some unpicked potatoes to freeze that night.
That evening Dad called all of the neighbors to see if their crews would consider finishing picking our crop. They wouldn’t. They all wanted to go to Texas while there were still choice cotton fields to be picked.
Then as a possible solution Dad called a longtime friend in Powell. Rosie Bustos and her husband Sam were one-time migratory workers who had settled in Powell. Sam worked as a carpenter. Rosie had no steady job, but would do seasonal labor in the area. She and some of her friends cut our seed potatoes nearly every spring. She would always help us find crews for weeding potatoes or thinning lettuce in the summer. She also acted as interpreter when we needed one.
When she answered the phone they chatted for a little while before Dad told her of his plight. She offered to get her friends who, along with the Hernandez family, would pick the remaining potatoes. But we didn’t have any buckers.
The next morning Dad and I went out and dug as usual. Rosie’s crew arrived at 7 a.m. and began picking, along with the Hernandez family. Most of the women had worked for us before and we knew they were good workers. We quit digging before noon so that we could start loading and hauling the picked sacks to the cellar. It was a short day for the pickers. There were just the four of us to do the hauling. With the early snows coming soon, it was going to be close.
That evening we had visitors. Two of the Brothers from our church came to visit. They were speaking with Dad about the new organ they wanted to buy for the church and how they were looking for ways to raise funds to pay for it. Dad, in turn, told them of his trials of the last week. Dad said “If only I could hire some help. I’ve got good pickers, but there just aren’t any men around to help with the hauling. My boys are too young and just aren’t strong enough to do it day after day.”
“Say,” said Brother Sorensen “is there anything we could do to help? I mean, we could come out here after work every night if that would help.”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Dad said. “I would be glad to pay you, but you have your jobs. It just wouldn’t be fair.”
“That’s how the pioneers did things, by working together. You may be able to help us someday. I’ll bet I could get a lot of members from the church to come out and help.”
“Well,” Dad said, “I’ll pay you people wages, just like I would anyone else.”
“We don’t want wages, Dave, but you could donate our wages to a fund – the organ fund,” said Brother Sorensen.
The thought of the new organ and help on the way quieted more than one restless soul that night. The next day men began showing up all morning long to help. Brother Sorensen had organized the work crew pretty well. There were men to help during the day and into the evening, some coming out before they went to their regular job and some after they had worked a full day.
The next morning also saw the arrival of Mr. Ramirez with the Sheriff in tow. Mr. Ramirez seemed taken aback when he saw a full crew working in the fields. The Sheriff and Mr. Ramirez came over to talk with Dad “Dave,” the Sheriff said, “This man claims you owe him some money. What’s your side of the story?”
“That’s right,” interjected Mr. Ramirez. “The dirty crook tried to cheat us out of our just wages.”
“You be quiet,” the Sheriff admonished him. “I want to hear Dave’s side of the story.”
“According to the contract I have with this man, I don’t have to pay a cent to him until every potato is out of the ground. I can produce the written agreement in court if I have to,” Dad said.
When Mr. Ramirez grudgingly admitted that this was the agreement the Sheriff told him, “Well, it looks to me that you are not entitled to anything until all those potatoes are out of the ground. As far as I can see you aren’t going to get any money until Dave feels good and ready to pay you, and that might be a long time.”
“One more thing, Sheriff, before you go - if Ramirez doesn’t return those two picking belts to me, I want him arrested for stealing them.” The belts were returned that afternoon.
The days became cooler and the work went smoother. Parts for the de-viner arrived. We were able to de-vine potatoes again. Church members turned out in droves. People I had never seen at church were among the most avid helpers.
And it wasn’t just church people. The message went out to the town folks and the high school, and they came and helped. I remember U.S. Senator Alan Simpson, a high school senior at the time, writing to us when Dad passed away all those years later: “The word came out that Dave needed help picking potatoes, and by gad that’s just what we did. We went out there and picked potatoes for him!” Glen Neilson, Chairman of Husky Oil, drove out in his Cadillac and told Dad that he was letting anyone working at the refinery off early if they wanted to help. We worked late into the evening some nights, loading the potatoes by the harvest moon.
Finally the potatoes were all in and the cellar bins were full. Dad sent Mr. Ramirez a check for the work he and his crew had done. We went back to school, trying to catch up with the other children. Rosie and her friends received their checks with a nice bonus, which they reluctantly accepted. Mr. Hernandez joined his family in Wisconsin but promised to be back next year. The church was well on its way to buying a new organ. The west winds came over the Rockies and drove winter weather into the Big Horn Basin from the Absaroka Range and the Beartooths to the north, giving Heart Mountain a blanket of snow. Thanksgiving was not far away.