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Tuesday, August 15, 2023

"School's Out, Job's In"


Journal Opinion

August 9, 2023


Boys At Summer Work. In the late 1940s, the most common summer jobs for boys was mowing lawns, pumping gas and restaurant work.  Girls were more likely to perform housework or child care. This seasonal employment gave young workers additional disposal income. Many use it for school clothing or to help their families. 

 “Girl, high school age, wants summer job, house, mill or office work.  Write Box 218, Bradford, Vt. “

A local girl placed this advertisement in The United Opinion in May 1933. She, like many other young people, sought summer employment.  Summer jobs is the focus of this column.

I placed notices in local community online sources and email listservs asking for personal stories. I received over 35 responses. The following draws from those responses as well as other sources and personal interviews.

Extended school summer vacation from school did not exist prior to 1900. It was previously thought that practice was driven by farm family’s needs. However, extra child labor is actually needed on farms during the spring planting and fall harvesting periods.

Both primary and secondary schools in our area had an 8-week summer term. In the 1880s, local village schools ended that term in mid-to-late July and often didn’t resume until late September, coinciding with harvesting.

At that time, city schools often followed an 11-month schedule. By 1900, the 9-month calendar became common for urban children who needed a summer break from hot classrooms. Increasingly, children from upper- and middle-class families used the break to escape from the cities. 

Other than for college students who sought seasonal employment at mountain or seaside resorts, there was almost no newspaper notices of summer employment for young people before 1920.

 By the 1940s, employment opportunities increased. The most common jobs for boys were pumping gas, mowing lawns, and restaurant work. Girls did housework and childcare. This gave young workers more disposable income.

What follows are some of the responses that I got to my inquiry about summer jobs. I have tried to deal with both the most common and those that were unusual.

Several respondents told me of youth employment that was questionable and in violation of child-labor laws, such as prohibitions on long hours at meager pay.

 In 1941, at age 10, former Fairlee resident Phyllis Graham said, she worked alongside her grandmother at a Bellows Falls chicken processing plant. Her grandmother was paid, but Phyllis was not. There were also 16-year-old employees who worked as an electrician’s assistant or in a hazmat suit removing asbestos

Beginning in the early 20th century, summer youth camps were established throughout the area. Camp counselor position and other camp jobs coincided with school and college breaks.

The camp economy also offered positions for camp office help, laundries and infirmaries as well as at the local businesses and train stations. As campers and counselors traveled outside the camps, they had an impact on local restaurants and stores. In 1910, a group of girls from a local camp descended on a Fairlee soda fountain and left the young local lad “quite beside himself.” 

 Orford’s Ruth Hook was among those who mentioned camp employment. Beginning in 1966, she worked at Camp Merriwood in East Orford. Her duties included washing dishes, preparing and serving food, mopping floors, and cleaning bathrooms. She worked six days a week, beginning at $25 per week and saved money for college.  

Tracy Paye Durkee shared her work experience at Newbury’s Camp Farwell’s laundry in the early 1980s

Local resorts and golf courses also offered employment for young workers during the summer. Ninety-three-year-old Dawn Houston of South Royalton’s first job was at a Lodge where she worked in the kitchen and as a chambermaid. “Work made me a dependable person later in life,” she wrote.

 Piermont’s Lake Tarleton Club opened its golf course in 1909 and hired caddies from Boston and local communities for the summer. As the resort expanded, there were opportunities for summer employment in the dining room, kitchen, maintenance, and caring for guests’ rooms.  

I received information from locals who worked at Fairlee’s Lake Morey Inn, Bonnie Oakes, and Rutledge Inn as well as hostels in Woodstock, Canaan, Mendon, and Hanover. Marilyn Welch-Fava of Thetford Center recalled earning an hourly wage of $1.25 plus tips as a chambermaid in the 1960s

Several responses mentioned seasonal employment at local restaurants. As early as age 14, young workers could start out as dishwashers and then graduated to food preparation or as waitstaff. 

 I worked as an assistant cook at Fairlee’s Kettledrum Restaurant in 1956. It was only open during the summer and employed college students as waitstaff and high school students as kitchen help. I was 14 and worked at least 60 hours a week for $25.

Nancy Jewel-Durkee wrote that while growing up in Bradford in the 1970s, she worked at the Chimes Restaurant on Main Street. She later worked at Lebanon’s Carter Mill. “If I wanted something, I had to work for it.”  

The first jobs held by many teens included picking strawberries and babysitting. Beginning in June, pickers worked to make money to buy school clothes or supplement the family income.

Many older residents spoke of picking strawberries as youngsters. In the 1930s and 40s, they were paid 2 or 3 cents per quart. In the 1950s, it increased to 8 or 10 cents. The field boss kept a sharp eye out for poorly selected berries or less-than-filled baskets. 

Many respondents wrote that their earliest jobs were in childcare. Bradford’s Amy Emerson said she both babysat and picked strawberries. “I spent my earnings on milkshakes and gravy french fries from Cootie’s restaurant.” 

In 1965, Bradford’s Wendy Wright placed an ad offering herself as an experienced babysitter for 30 cents per hour. Laura Allen Marsh, who grew up in Bradford, mentioned that by 2004 she might get as much as $30 for a day of childcare. At age 14 she also began working at the Grafton County Nursing Home for a minimum wage of $5.25.

In several cases, this summer position included spending time with the children at nearby pools and lakes. One spoke of spending the summer at the local pool as “a cake job.” Another wrote, “It was a way to work while still having fun as a kid.”

Fairlee’s Isaiah Washburn said that he first official summer job was as a gatekeeper for Thetford’s Treasure Island.  Like several others, he spent part of his time mowing neighbor’s lawns. His pay that summer of 2007 was deposited into his savings account or used to purchase new fishing lures.  

Children who grew up on local farms had chores from an early age. In the 1930s, Vida Perry Munson of Bradford grew her family’s farm in Corinth. Summer meant haying, and she was able to do all the related tasks, except mowing. “Girls didn’t do mowing,” She said.

“When you had a chance for a job, you grabbed it.” That’s how Fairlee’s Larry Martin spoke of working on a neighbor’s farm in the early 1960s. He began at age ten and worked about 50 hours a week for $10. He did barn chores and ran the tractor and bailer for three summers. “It was fun,” he recalled. He used his money for school clothes and a new bicycle. 

Another boy who grew up on an Upper Valley farm spoke positively of the experience. “Where else could a 14-year-old drive tractors, trucks, and bulldozers?” Still another said he got room and board and a 10-cent a week allowance for doing chores on his family’ farm.

Rev Jane Wilson of Wells River said that her first job was also in agriculture, but of a different sort. She worked in the tobacco fields near her home in Granby, CT. Shirley Beresford of Bradford has mentioned a similar job experience.

Local governments and retail stores offered seasonal and full-time positions for young workers. Vicki-Bacon Thomas, who grew up in Lyme in the 1970s, worked for the Town of Hanover and as a cashier at a P&C grocery store.

 At age 14, Alicia Plante of East Corinth stocked shelves at Huggetts’s store during the summer of 2003.To help her family, she also babysat, worked on neighboring farms, and mowed lawns. 

There were a few factory jobs open to older teens. Nancy Jones of Bradford recalls the hot and sticky job she had in the summers of 1962-63 at the Maple Grove Factory in St. Johnsbury. “It was a job,” she said. She used her minimum wage pay to purchase school clothes.

Bradford’s Dr. Robert Munson remembered working in the Bradford Vaneer and Panel Company during the summer of 1966. At $1.25 per hour, he saved $3,600 to purchase his first car. The next several summers, he served as a lifeguard at Lake Morey Inn and as a carpenter.

Several spoke of working with a family business. John Adams grew up in Lebanon. In 1961, at age ten, he began to work as a laborer’s helper with family members who were brick masons. In the following summers, he progressed in skills and duties. He also earned money selling night crawlers for a penny each and working at Lander’s Restaurant. 

Sometimes, summer jobs required workers to arrive earlier than teens might want. West Topsham’s Westy Copeland recalled working in a Vermont bakery “at some ungodly hour like 5 in the morning.” Jay Dunlap of Thetford said that his job on a tent crew in 1970 required getting up at 3 a.m. or before. “It was years before I could hear the sound of an alarm clock without a panic attack.”

The Pew Research Center reports that teen summer employment “follows a fairly regular pattern.” Jobs are more plentiful during good economic times, falling during and after recessions. In 2008, during the Great Recession, summer employment for 16 to 19-year-old Americans fell to under 30%. Now, as the nation recovers from COVID, youth employment has increased to 36.6%.

These employment figures paled when compared to earlier economic recoveries. In 1948, 56.6% of youth were employed in summer jobs., In 1956, “the Vermont seasonal summer jobs were at close to record levels.”  In the late 1960s, the Federal Summer Youth Program found jobs for high school students.     

The July 2022 figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics report that 55.3% of young people age 16-24 were employed. This is slightly less than pre-pandemic levels. It also includes those who have received permanent employment.    

The decline in low-skill entry-level jobs, shorter summer vacations, unpaid internships, and the lure of unpaid community service jobs to enhance college applications have impacted seasonal employment for high school students. Some positions that might be otherwise open to youth job seekers are being held by seniors who need the work to supplement their sixed retirement incomes.       

 There were other responses to the value of these summer jobs.  One said the job provided “life learning that was actually an adventure.” One woman who grew up in Wells River and worked at the local information booth, got her to meet “all types of personalities,” giving her a better understanding of people.  

Alexis Romano wrote of working at the Ice Cream Fore-U in Lebanon beginning in the summer of 2008. She loved the job and was promoted to shift supervisor. That gave her a “first taste of responsibility.”  She spoke highly of her employers, Jennifer and Meredith Johnson. “My work ethic and professional foundations were molded by both of them which has helped me became a successful leader in my career.  

Jay Dunlap said the summer of erecting tents “was a bad summer, but it was an education into how tough many lives are and continue to be.” Westy Copeland commented that she “learned how to work hard. Nothing comes easily.”

Isaiah Washburn mentioned that he learned valuable skills involving interactions with people and handling money. Others spoke of the value of manual labor and “a job well done.”

 While for most, the jobs they held during those summers of their youth were dead end, they believed that the positive work ethic learned served them well in later employment.  

Other jobs mentioned to me included hospital patient-sitter, drive-in car hop, library aide, concrete worker, bank teller, greens keeper, paperboy, and working in a family steam laundry.

 Summer jobs for local young workers offered a variety of skills. Some jobs were easy, whereas other were hard. Many gave young people an introduction to the world of adult work. Paychecks were spent on both fun and essentials.

 Looking back, they gave us a variety of memories that still linger as we consider those summer days of our youth.