September 11, 2009
Work never hurt these Cortland bean pickers
Annual reunion brings back many memories
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
From left, Cora Petrucco, Toni Burton, Mary Ellen Opera and Jo Biviano reminisce about their time as youths picking beans by the pound in Cortland and Homer during a reunion Thursday at the Red Dragon in Cortland.
Don Colongeli said there was no losing of the tickets — the pieces of paper which tracked how many pounds of beans a person picked — back in the 1930s when residents worked for the David Harum and Halstead Canning Companies.
“Would you work your butt off and lose your ticket to get paid — what are you crazy?” said the Cortland man. “Your mom would have killed you anyway.”
Colongeli and about 40 others gathered Thursday at the 7th Annual Bean Picker’s Reunion held at the Red Dragon on Tompkins Street. Bean pickers for the two companies shared lunch at the annual event, to gather and reminisce about the their early days.
“I think it’s great, Colongeli said of the reunion. “If they tried to hold it 20-25 years ago, they wouldn’t have admitted it,” Colongeli said of his fellow bean pickers. Grace Biviano of Cortland, who got the nickname Skinny Bones from her bean picking days, got a group of 10 girls together for the first bean picking reunion and the tradition has stuck.
“We used to have a ball picking for beans,” said Irene Perfetti of Cortland. “We packed our lunch. Whatever we picked we figured out how much we made for the day. We held on to tickets for the entire summer. At the end of the year, we turned in tickets and they paid you.”
She said bean pickers earned a half cent per pound for yellow beans and 3/4 cent a pound for green beans. Several residents said the bean pickers worked from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. When they did get paid in September, their parents would use the money to buy coal for the winter and school clothes during the Depression era.
The Halstead Canning Company had a factory on Squires Street in Cortland and existed from 1900 to sometime in the 1950s, according to the Cortland County Historical Society. Bean fields were located on a company farm in South Cortland. The David Harum Company started in 1914 and was located on Cortland Street in Homer. It had operations in Preble, Tully and East Homer, according to notes compiled by the historical society. The kids and families would get picked up by truck in the morning and were taken out to the fields. Many said they enjoyed the camaraderie among friends.
“In the morning, plants were soaking wet,” said Louis Fiorentini, who owned Fiorentini’s Jewelers in Cortland for 41 years, before his son took over the business. “We straddled the plants to pick them. It was easier that way.”
From their knees down, they were wet and at noon they would become dry.
“We learned so much from picking beans. We learned so much about earning a dollar,” said Ceil Semeraro, who grew up on Bartlett Street in Cortland with eight children in the family. She started bean picking at 12. At 16, she got a job in a clothing factory, once she could get her working papers. “We had to help with the family.”
Fiorentini worked for the David Harum Canning Company from the time he was 9 until when he was 15. In the 1930s, he went to fields in Preble and Scott to pick beans. Shacks were erected where Contento’s Junk Yard used to be located in Homer and people from out of town used to live there to pick beans in the summer. At one point, German prisoners of war picked beans, Colongeli remembers.
“We looked forward to lunch ... What happened, my mother would cook greens and fry them and she would make a sandwich out of them: dandelion greens, spinach greens, fry them in oil. Sometimes she would put a couple of slices of salami in it. We would have an orange or apple,” Fiorentini said.
“We invented the first submarine sandwich,” said Colongeli. “All the mothers made their own bread. My mother used to make a whole loaf of bread. She’d slice that bun and fill it with whatever we had to fill it with: eggs, onions, peppers, sweet and hot peppers. That was the original submarine sandwich. No we didn’t have any mayonnaise,” he exclaimed. “We lived on rocks and water. We used to catch suckers on Tioughnioga River and cook them and eat them. That was back when you could do things ... It was tough.”
“I learned the value of a dollar,” said Fiorentini. “We would look forward to seeing how much we could earn. We really didn’t know what we had until the end of the summer. At the end of the summer I made $60 ... I prided myself. I was one of the best pickers,” Fiorentini said.
Dominick Pace worked for both companies, from his 12th year to his 17th.
“I learned hard work. I was never afraid of it,” said the former owner of Dom’s Grill of Groton Avenue, which operated from 1942 to 1972.
“You come over and talk to your buddies and it takes you back in time,” Pace said of the reunion. “We’re all old today. But we remember when we were kids ... We worked hard, back breaking hard, but there was a joy too. Bean pickers have become doctors, musicians, jewelers, and restaurant owners.”
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