By Virginia R. Manuel
Well, when I was growing up Johnson County, Tennessee was proclaimed the Green Bean Capital of The World. A lot of the farmers would plant one to two acres and sometimes five to ten acres of beans. When the time came for harvesting, they would line up pickers to hand-pick the beans. I was always “fortunate” to be among those pickers. It was the way we earned our money for clothes and school supplies.
Usually there was one person in the neighborhood who had an old truck. He would drive along the back roads of the area and anyone who wanted to work that day would come out and get on his truck. Men, women, boys and girls would fill up the back of that truck. When he had picked up as many pickers as he needed, he would drive to the bean field.
Upon arrival at the bean field, we would unload and grab a hamper (a bushel basket) to put our beans in. You could either pick one row or two rows to pick. The beans were usually picked three to four times – usually about once a week. You wanted to be careful so you didn’t tromp on the vines or pick beans that were too small. The owner of the field kept an eye out for those people who mishandled the vines and wouldn’t let you pick in his field any more.
After your hamper was full, you yelled “hamper” and there were men (“carriers”) who would bring you an empty basket, give you a ticket, and carry your full hamper to the scales at the end of the field. Your hamper had to weigh 30 pounds. If it didnt weigh 30 pounds they would come and get some extra beans to make up. If your hamper was over 30 pounds they would bring the extra beans back to you.
At the scales your beans were dumped onto a sorter, and the leaves and small beans were picked out and they were sacked to take to market. Usually there would be 100 to 150 bushels, sometimes more depending how big the field was and how good the beans were.
There were fast pickers and slow pickers. You got fifty cents for each basket you picked. A fast picker would pick eight to ten bushels a day – a slow picker two or three. I came in somewhere in the middle at about six to eight. That meant I made about three or four dollars for the day.
Since we started early morning we wore a long sleeved jacket or shirt and long pants because the dew would still be on the beans and your legs would get wet. As the day wore on and it got hotter, you ended up taking off your shirt and pants for shorts and sleeveless tops. We usually started picking about 7:30 or 8 AM and would pick straight through till dinnertime or noon. At dinner we would all load up in the back of the truck and go to the nearest country store for lunch. Sometimes there would be more than one bean truck there for dinner. You could get a bottle of pop for a nickel, a piece of bologna and cracker for a dime, potato chips for a nickel and a Brown Mule (ice cream) for a nickel. So basically you spent about a quarter (or a half bushel of beans) for your dinner. Some people would bring their lunch and eat it in the bean field. After eating lunch everyone would get back in the old truck and back to the field we would go.
There was a milk can full of water and a dipper by the scales. If you got thirsty and wanted a drink you drank out of the dipper along with everyone else. We had a lot of fun in the bean field. You knew most everybody there because we were all friends and neighbors. Everyone talked and joked as they picked. In a big patch of beans there might be four or five bean trucks so there would be people that lived in a different community that came to pick. As we got to be teenagers, sometimes we would develop a crush on one of the boys and try to get him to carry out our beans for us or hang around the store at dinner time.
At the end of the day, you took your tickets (one for each bushel you picked) up to the owner and he would pay you cash for your tickets. You got back on the truck and the driver dropped you off in front of your house. It didn’t cost anything to ride the truck but the owner of the field paid the driver for each person he brought to pick. If there were beans to pick the next day the driver would let you know and off to another field you would go to repeat the experience. Some of the farmers we picked beans for were Gene Stout, Ed Lloyd, A.J. Stalcup, Ben Snyder, Ambrose Garland, and Boyd Ray.
Mechanical pickers ended the success of bean picking in Johnson County. However, they were short lived. It was found the farmers would only get one picking because the vines were destroyed, and it was hard for the pickers to travel across some of the rocky hilly ground. But it was more advantageous to use the pickers in middle Tennessee and it was also closer to the market. Thus ended the bean picking in Johnson County.