Part two of a series
Making money with milkweed? Well, not all that much money, but children all over the United States, including some in southeast Minnesota, once harvested milkweed pods as either a patriotic duty or a source of badly-needed family income – or both.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s and during the citizen rationing of World War II (1941-45), economic times were tough for many Americans. After the war, partly due to deferred demand for goods, there was inflation and price increases for food, clothing and household furnishings. From the stock market crash in 1929 through two decades and into the 1950s, school-age youth on both the farm and in town often need to contribute to family income. Farm chores were well-defined, but not so much for town kids. If the family did not have a business in town, the first childhood job would be finding a job – after school, before school or in the summer. There was often an assortment of seasonal jobs for budding entrepreneurs.
During World War II, pamphlets encouraged children from rural schools to gather milkweed pods, which the federal government used to fill lifejackets and flight suits for American soldiers. Previously, they had been filled with kapok, a fine cotton-like substance from a tropical tree in southeast Asia. But when war enemy Japan took control of the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), the source of kapok was then no longer available to Allied nations, such as the United States. The solution for this emergency was milkweed floss, buoyant and water-repellant, which proved to be an excellent substitute for kapok and abundantly available in rural areas of the United States. Since many adults were already involved in the war effort, children were encouraged to do their part. Two 20-pound bags of milkweed pods could fill one life preserver to keep a sailor or downed airman afloat. “Two bags save one life” was a national slogan.
In the field, one had to break off the pods from the milkweed plants and place them in gunny sacks that were provided. In southeast Minnesota, the harvesting occurred in early autumn when the seeds were brown. Milkweed pods could bring in 15 cents a bag if freshly picked and 20 cents a bag for dried pods. Those earnings had about the same purchasing power as two or three dollars in 2021. Kids found out it took a lot of pods to fill a burlap bag, and it was a lot more work than they might have first supposed. One former pod-bagging child in Fillmore County did not stay with it. However, it has been estimated that 11 million pounds were collected nationwide by the end of the war. Hundreds, maybe thousands of lives were saved.
As in many eras, there was summer lawn mowing and winter snow shoveling. For the dependable and capable young entrepreneur, this could be a season-long or even a year-long source of income. But to shut off the gasoline engine of early lawnmowers, one had to place the ground metal against the spark plug. However, accidentally touching the spark plug with your finger was a shocking mistake that was likely made by many young mowers – but surely only once.
Muskrats on Rush Creek provided a money-making opportunity for a few junior-high-aged boys. It was a complete and possibly unpleasant process that began with setting traps. The animals had to be skinned, and the hides dried out on stretchers. The pelts then could be mailed to Sam Wiseman, a buyer in Winona. Trapping occurred mostly in the autumn.
There were jobs for students at businesses in Rushford, such as Julsrud’s Grocery and the Rushford Bakery. It could be a sluggish day at school after rising really early to work for Lyle Johnson at the bakery – sugaring and glazing doughnuts, filling bismarks and putting icing on long johns as well as delivering baked goods to the Home Café.
There might be an opportunity for a town boy to work on a farm when extra help was needed. Driving a tractor surely sounded like fun along with making 50 cents a day plus lunch. But it was best not to be allergic to the dust created from unloading hay bales.
This is the second part of a two-part series. Part one dealt with work performed by boys on bikes.