A young working life

Growing up in Grand Forks by Milton Orris; Dec. 17.

By Milton Orris

Owning a family business meant—for sure in those days—you started to work at an early time in your life.

I was in Grade 4, 10 years old, when I begin working at our family-owned weekly newspaper. My jobs included washing the ink off the press rollers and the type we had used, folding the weekly newspaper pages and inserting them, and sweeping the floors and whatever else.  My salary—$0 per week; however, the editor (my dad) would give me 25¢ a week to go to the movies!

A bigger part of my life was keeping the stove and furnace going at home. Every couple of weeks a load of three-foot-long logs, cordwood it was called, were delivered to our backyard where I had to cut them with a Swede saw into one-foot lengths, then chop them up for the kitchen stove or for kindling for the furnace.

Every morning I had to get up, get the wood and coal from the basement, and start the kitchen stove so mom could cook breakfast, as well as making sure the furnace was going as well in the winter. All hard work that resulted in good habits and strong muscles!

However, in Grand Forks my first paying job was with John Hutton, the city clerk, who lived across the street, also by the school grounds.  At the side of his house he had a very big garden area where he grew vegetables. One early fall morning he knocked on the back door and when my mom let him in, he said, “I have a job for Milton. Picking asparagus in my garden—10¢ an hour and he can bring home asparagus for your family dinner every day he comes picking.”

Great idea, my mom and dad agreed—so there I was, 11 years old with my first paying job, down on my knees with a pair of scissors every afternoon after school and Saturday mornings for two or three weeks. I learned to harvest—and hate eating—asparagus.

Next big job, other than helping with the Gazette, came picking the vegetable seeds crop out in the valley. During the end of the war when Grand Forks was one of the leading vegetable seed producers in the world, they cancelled the start of school for two weeks so we could help with the harvest.

My first job was picking onion seed, chopping off the heads of the plants into a big cotton bag that hug around our waist. I got so covered in onion juice that you could smell me coming from a long way away so my mom made me leave my clothes in the garage and run naked into the house and have as shower every day after work. Wow–25¢ an hour.

A little later came apple picking: climbing up 15-foot-high ladders, filling our waist baskets with fruit and climbing down to fill the boxes. Risky. Only 15¢ for each box but you could usually do two an hou— 30¢! If I could, I got there early and run up and down the rows picking the low hanging apples.

So back to school, and more good luck.

My good friend Glen Smith had been working at the drug store—the only one in town, owned and operated by Frank Newbauer. He quit for a better paying job, working for his dad who was the CPR station master, delivering telegrams! He recommended me to Frank and I got the job—still 25¢ an hour but with many side benefits.

For instance, I could eat candy from the big array we had at Christmas. I remember getting sick after the first day of that privilege and missed a day of work.

There was a soda fountain in the store, unused for many years apparently. I asked Mr. Newbauer if I could open it. His look was beyond skeptical; however, he eventually said OK. So I did. It took a while for the business to grow but it did. We had little round marble top tables and metal chairs and it became a favourite place for ladies to come and gossip, and for teenagers to come for sundaes etc.  There was no competition in town.

If you order a banana split or a strawberry sundae I would run across the street to the Talarico Grocery Store, buy the essential ingredients and come back and make what ever you ordered. Milkshakes and dishes of vanilla, chocolate of strawberry ice cream also sold well (the only flavours we had in those days). Still only 25¢ an hour but a lot more fun, and I loved all the ice cream I got to eat for nothing.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the work was being Mr. Newbauer’s pharmacy assistant. He was very ill, dying of cancer, so he would come in every afternoon when I got there and I would, under his direction, fill the prescriptions coming in from the doctors. I counted pills, mixed lotions and salves, and typed up labels.

He kept close tabs on me so it worked well; however, today we might both have been arrested for un-professional behaviour. As I was the only male in the store at that time, it was also my job to sell specialty items like shaving cream and condoms to our male customers.

Then the Gazette took over my life and that was it until after high school—every day after school and all day Saturday. No raise, still 25¢ an hour except I got to learn how to run the linotype, the presses, set up and print funeral notices when anyone in town died (which I then had to take around and put in every store window in town) and write the Years Ago column, and still more folding and inserting of the newspaper pages. I loved it all.

To put it into perspective, however, ice cream cones—big ones—were only 10¢ as was a big bag of popcorn at the Gem Theatre, where admission was 25¢ to the movies. A gallon of gas was 25¢ too.



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