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Midwest Opinion: Child labor history in rural America

You don't have to be the descendant of a Pullman striker or a "breaker boy" — a child who worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines — to appreciate the power of Labor Day. The Upper Midwest had its own share of workplace horrors that labor laws helped put right.

Here's one example. Think about it (this week), as you survey from your backyard the magnificent farm fields that are the glory of the (Upper Midwest).

Reflect for a moment on our landscape's history, as told by Mary Lyons-Barrett in her 2005 article in Great Plains Quarterly, "Child labor in the early sugar beet industry in the Great Plains":

"As early as the 1870s, the Census Bureau tabulated a separate category of gainfully employed children," Lyons-Barrett writes.

"In 1870, one out of every eight children was employed. By 1900, the ratio had jumped to one out of six children, with over 60 percent of these engaged in agricultural work of some kind. ...

"The most publicly visible case of child labor in commercialized agriculture in the Great Plains — and thus the major target of reformers for many years — was in raising and harvesting sugar beets. ...

"When people did pause to think of child labor in rural America, they visualized bonny rosy-cheeked children helping their parents on family farms, not the overworked migrant children with their dirt-streaked faces, living in shacks and empty chicken coops assigned to their parents. ...

"German-Russian wives used lye to clean the chicken coops, but other than stripping the paint, the lye did little to remove the bad odor that often lingered for months. ...

"From the accounts of reformers, we know that tending beets was exhausting work. Small children as young as five years old crawled for hours on their hands and knees to block and thin the beet seedlings.

"Both adults and children engaged in the backbreaking work of using short-handle hoes to weed around young plants. Older children had to pull up the beets at harvest and shake the dirt off them. Sugar beets weigh as much as 10 pounds with the dirt still on them.

"The older children, 10 to 14 years of age, were the ones who undertook topping the beets. Topping is done by holding the beet against one's leg and then taking a long knife with a hook on the end of it and chopping the leaves from the top of the beet. Other children helped pile up the beets once they were pulled.

"In the 1920s, reformers took a more scientific approach to documenting the dangers of constant heavy lifting for young children. Using doctors' physicals in Colorado, they found that nearly two-thirds of the children who worked in sugar beets suffered an orthopedic defect known as winged scapula, which causes discomfort in the back and shoulders."

There's more, but this description will do for now. Suffice it to say once you remember where we've been as a society and how far we've come, you'll never take Labor Day for granted again.

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