Kentucky: Farm Work

Child Labor in the American South:  Kentucky:  Farm Work

John Guzinski

     Edgar Kitchen was thirteen and worked for the Bingham Bros. Dairy Company in Bowling Green, KY.  He worked as a dairy wagon driver from 7:00am until noon and then he milks cows and worked on other farm tasks until 5:00pm.  Edgar worked seven days a week but only worked a half a day on Saturday.  Edgar planned on working all throughout the summer and he didn't plan on attending school.  Edgar had to milk the cows, carry the milk containers to and from the wagon, and transport them to local citizens.  He received $7.25 a week for his work.  Edgar's job was extremely important because south central Kentucky is one of the major providers of dairy goods such as milk.  He was also probably involved in the production of other dairy products such as cheese and butter.  The sale of dairy goods generated an enormous boost to Kentucky's state economy (Goebel, 1).  Edgar's job was vital to maintaining the state's economy because the more he worked, the more business revenue increased.  It would not have been in the state's short term best interest to send Edgar to school and had him reduce or eliminate his work hours.  The notion that he needed to be performing his duty was relevant, but he was skillful in handling the cows and transporting these gallons of milk.  School didn't factor into his state contribution. 


     Edgar had to carry gallons upon gallons of milk which was strenuous and harmful to his back and shoulders.  A photographer named Lewis Hine occasionally visited the farm to check on Edgar as well as other children.  Hine went undercover and posed as an inspector.  Hine clearly documented the bulkiness and enormous weight associated with carrying hundreds of gallons of milk.  Other tasks such as cheese and butter production required different skill levels (Nation, 5).  Butter and cheese production required the use of processing machines.  These machines of course are dangerous if not operated properly.  Edgar probably knew how to operate these machines, but accidents do happen.  Edgar faced a risk every time he operated the machines.


      Homer Hunt was an eleven year old boy whose job was to pick wild blackberries on a farm in Rockcastle, KY.  Homer has not been in school due to his tasks at picking berries on the farm.  He receives 10 cents per every gallon of berries he produces.  Homer must carry the heavy bucket of berries around on his shoulder and endure being pricked by the thorns on the berry bushes.  The hot weather during the summer only made his job more difficult.  He was vulnerable to heat stroke and over exhaustion due to the constant 80 and 90 degree days while working on the fields.  Homer wore overalls and long sleeve shirts to protect him from the sharp bushes.  Homer was most likely being exposed to harmful pesticides that are used on the berry bushes.  Due to the long dreaded work hours, Homer probably became hungry and he probably wanted to eat those berries that were drenched in pesticides.  Homer also used sharp knives to cut dead parts of the berry bush.  The chance of being cut was a constant risk that he was exposed to.  Hopefully he tried not to cut himself; I hope none of those pesticides made their way into his bloodstream.


    Homer was always at risk of developing dermatitis and a urinary tract infection due to his low priority of washing his hands (Davis, 2).  There was no time for hand washing when work had to be done. Homer's boss probably felt that Homer needed to be picking berries and not worrying about his health and well being.  How did Homer reach them high berries at the top of the bushes?  Why, he had to climb onto a ladder and pick them (Davis, 1).  He probably fell down a few times and had injured himself.  Homer obviously wouldn't have been able to pick berries with a concussion.

     Everett Adams was fifteen and he chopped corn in the field in Rockcastle County, KY.  Helping him was his nine year old brother, Cra Adams.  They both attended Hickory Grove School in Rockcastle, but they haven't been attending regularly.  They have been out of school for six weeks due to their obligation to working on the corn field.  Those boys used metal rakes to clear out corn stalks.  They better had kept an eye on were they were swinging those rakes.  Hopefully the rakes didn't end up piercing their chest or end up poking an eye out.  Head lacerations wouldn't have been good to work with either.  Their arms must have been tired, as they kept on swinging those rakes, their shoulders and backs must have hurt, causing them to be careless with those sharp tools.  It must have been about 95 degrees outside.  Those boys were covered in overalls and were wearing long sleeve shirts.  They were vulnerable to heat stroke and to dehydration.  Those boys probably didn't receive as much water as they needed to.  If they worked slowly and didn't display a steady work pace, they were probably punished by receiving little or no water at all.  Those wooden handles on their rakes probably gave those boys numerous splinters.  Hine documented that those boys were absent from school due to both working and sickness.  The intense heat and exhaustion most likely had caused the illness that those boys had acquired. 


     Pesticides were probably another cause for illness among those two boys as well as most other young farm workers.  Chemicals such as Diazinon, Lindane, Permethrin, and Tefluthrin are used today to treat corn and most likely, the same or just as harmful pesticides were used on corn in 1916 (Crop, 2).  According to the crop profile for Kentucky, today, "activities that bring workers in direct contact with corn during the growing season are rare" (Crop, 1).  That probably was not the case on 1916 because the Hine photo of the Adams brothers clearly shows them handling corn that is still cropping.  If they ate the corn or put their hands in their mouths without washing them, the pesticides would have entered their bodies causing them to become sick.  The work that the Adams boys had to endure was at heavy pace especially during the summer months when corn growth responded to the hot and rainy weather.  Kentucky produced an average of 62 bushels of corn per acre because it was the most popular crop in the U.S. during 1916 (Nation, 2).  In addition to the hot weather, the rain probably made it difficult to crop corn in the fields.  The dirt turned to mud and probably created slippery conditions for the Adams brothers.  They probably slipped much of the time; they also could have fallen on their sharp metal rakes.  That risk was always a reality when working with dangerous tools.

     Demetra Jones was an eleven year old girl who helped out in the farm in Sonora, KY.  Demetra's father needed her on the farm because she was his only assistance.  She also preformed household chores such as washing clothes, which posed a drowning hazard for her.  She probably had to cook as well, which carried a potential for accidental burning or exposure to unsanitary food.  Also, the soap that was used in 1916 contained lime which was quite acidic and often would burn hands.  Demetra was also probably exposed to unsanitary conditions while washing these clothes.  Malaria and tuberculosis were a common threat when dealing with dirty garments or food during the 1900s.  According to Hine's caption, Demetra is attending school but her attendance at school is probably suspect due to her household obligations.  She was also doing the daily farm work as well, which exposes her to the same potential hazards that the Adams brothers faced.  Although Demetra was exposed to these conditions, her father owns and maintains the farm which leads one to believe that she was given proper treatment unlike other child laborers.


     In 1916 the United States congress passed the Keating-Owen Act.  This law placed tight restrictions on the number of hours a child can work (Solomon-McCarthy, 4).  President Woodrow Wilson signed this bill into law, hoping that more lives would be saved and that children were safe and healthy when working.  The Keating-Owen Act stated that any medical or state inspector could periodically inspect farm fields, coal mines, and textile mills to check for adequate working conditions, and that if anyone caused these conditions to fail, they could be prosecuted (U.S. Congress, 2).  Supervisors also could not deny these inspectors from entering their factories or farms and if they did, they would be fined (U.S. Congress, 2).  This anticipated bill was declared unconstitutional by the United States supreme court in 1918 (Solomon-McCarthy, 4).  It was argued that this law overstepped the government's role in the regulation of interstate commerce (Keating-Owen, 1).  Another child labor bill was passed in 1918 and this too was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court (Keating-Owen, 1).  Finally in 1938, congress had passed the Fair Labor Standards Act which was also examined by the Supreme Court (Keating-Owen, 1).  This law was accepted however due to the careful crafting of the bill in regards to interstate commerce.

     Homer, Demetra, the Adams brothers, and Edgar weren't protected under child labor laws.  Their dangers took a front seat to the lack of care and supervision that they were forced to work under.  The regard for human life and well being didn't matter to the management that was concerned with making money and maintaining their farms.