Celebrating the universal work ethic

Old Order Mennonite farms dot the landscape in western Rockingham Co., Virginia.

Americans will enjoy yet another three-day weekend in the U.S. with Labor Day picnics and outdoor events of all kinds. However, this year’s activities likely will best be tempered with proper physical distancing and perhaps a dab of humility, given all the national chaos.

Labor Day became a national holiday when President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law in 1894. It designated the first Monday of September as a day to honor all those who work. Several states had done so previously after labor strikes and deadly battles between workers and authorities. The ugly details, unfortunately, compare equally to today’s ongoing strife in the U.S.

Growing up in a blue-collar town in northeast Ohio, Labor Day served two purposes for the young. It was yet another three-day holiday weekend, and it marked the end of summer. A half-century or more ago, summer vacation from school ran Memorial Day to Labor Day.

As a youngster, I don’t recall being curious about why there was a Labor Day. As an adult, I now know that it was a hard-fought effort on the part of laborers for fair pay, decent work hours, and safe conditions.

Amish children routinely help adults with chores, especially on farms.

Even in a pandemic, we can easily forget or ignore the efforts of others to make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable. In that regard, Labor Day might be the most under-appreciated U.S. holiday.

During the Industrial Revolution, machines created jobs, and people willingly and unwillingly filled them. Men, and too often children as young as six-years-old, worked long, grueling hours, sometimes half a day with no overtime pay.

The children, of course, were paid far less than the adults for the same amount of work time. Such treatment helped bring about our current child labor laws.

It only seems logical to have a holiday that celebrates work. A strong work ethic is valued in cultures worldwide. Too often, however, folks don’t see it that way. They imagine that they somehow have a grip on the virtue of work, while at the same time chastising others as lazy or preferring government handouts.

Harvesting coffee beans in Honduras is a family affair.
Multiple trips to Honduras helped me see through that divisive thinking. Hispanics like to work as well and as hard as any other culture. They also did so earning less than a dollar an hour for a day’s work in maquilas, or sweatshops, making brand name clothing for citizens of the western world to wear.

We are fortunate in this country to have had workers who banded together in the 19th and early 20th centuries to demand fair pay and safe working conditions. Today, however, say the word “union,” and it might be the end of a budding conversation.

The truth of the matter is that were it not for unions and strikers, we might not be enjoying an extra day off of work this weekend. Given our fast-paced, 24/7 online universe, many workers might rightly wonder, “what day off of work?”

Our grandson mowing our lawn.
I much appreciate the influence of my parents, grandparents, and their peers in modeling the importance of having a strong work ethic. It helped my siblings and me in gaining an education, training, and extended careers.

Energetic peers surrounded my wife and me for all of our adult lives in Ohio’s Amish country, where work ethic continues to be revered. It’s equally so in the Appalachian and Old Order Mennonite cultures in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where we now live.

This Labor Day, like every Labor Day, we will smile upon the generations of bold laborers who made it possible for us to work and play along life’s way.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

A strong work ethic is a universal trait

Amish produce stand
Produce stand.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’ve been working since I was eight years old. To earn a little spending money of my own, my first job I went door-to-door selling seed packets. I’ve been working ever since, and that’s a very good thing.

There is great satisfaction in earning money through hard work. That was especially true as a youngster who grew up in a family that had pittance left over for life’s extravagances. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich by earthly standards either.

Rather, our wealth came in the joy of working together as a family and learning to enjoy work’s energy and accomplishments, whether we earned money or not. If it benefited others, payment was received in ways that far exceeded any monetary gain.

If my siblings and I earned money helping others at businesses or homes, you could be sure we used the profits for wise choices. The candy store was just five minutes away. Of course, our folks taught us the advantages of saving and giving, too.

I have my parents and grandparents, and likely generations before them, to thank for instilling work as a personal core value. Dad worked 43 years for the same company as a tool engineer. Mom was a household engineer before the profession was so christened.

Living in Holmes County, Ohio, all of my adult life, I have come to appreciate the community’s emphasis on exercising a robust work ethic. I marvel at seeing it played out every day.

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I only have to observe my neighbor’s family gathering crops. Three generations are often literally bringing in the sheaves.

That should be no surprise. Having a strong work ethic is common and a highly valued principle here. It’s one of the reasons our region consistently has one of the lowest monthly unemployment rates in Ohio.

County residents pride themselves on enthusiastically employing their work ethic. That’s ironic for a society that holds humility in equally high esteem. Folks manage to balance that apparent contradiction for self and others successfully.

The method to instilling the work ethic to the next generation is simple. Folks here both model and include younger generations in work. In other words, the adults give the youngsters responsibilities that result in projects completed.

Children on farms help with chores. Feeding the livestock, gathering eggs, walking the dog all count as productivity. Drive around and you’ll likely see children including work in their play.

I always get a chuckle when I see Amish children playing horse and buggy. A couple of toddlers sit in a wagon while an older sibling plays the horse. A short piece of rope serves as the reins.

Amish children playing
At play.
From time to time as a principal, I would get a note from home asking that Johnny be permitted to visit the local store to buy some grocery items needed for that evening’s supper. I usually approved the request by driving to the store and letting the sixth grader do his deed.

At the produce stand we frequent, the entire family chips in to make the business go. From time to time, a request is made for an item not available on the shelf. Junior will gladly fetch the requested item from the field to accommodate the customer.

It’s all in a day’s work. Of course, the work ethic extends far beyond our insulated world. Working and earning are universally esteemed characteristics.

I’m glad we have Labor Day to remind us of that fact.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

It’s beginning to look a lot like fall already

Oats shocks by Bruce Stambaugh
A field full of oats shocks before being gathered for the thrasher near Berlin, Ohio.

By Bruce Stambaugh

With Labor Day upon us, autumn will be right around the corner. In fact, if you look closely, signs of fall are already evident.

Some of the indicators are obvious, others more subtle. Some are predictable with still others seemingly a bit premature.

The days, often the nicest of the summer, have a sly, natural flaw. Day by day, minutes of daylight are silently subtracted from the previous day’s total. By month’s end, daily darkness will outnumber daylight once again.

The sun itself is moving more towards the center of the horizons at sunrise and sunset. Those driving true east and west running roads have already begun to frequently use their sun visors. The fall fogs, too, have clouded crisp mornings, the consequence of cool nights following warm days.

In the fields, the harvesting has begun. My Amish neighbors have long since gathered up the standing army of oats shocks and wheeled them off wagon load after wagon load to the thrasher.

Now it’s the corn’s turn. The field corn seems to have taken on drought status, drying up almost overnight. Brown has overtaken green as the predominant color in the standing sea. Smart farmers have already begun to cut their supply of silage to replenish the silos.

Fall webworms by Bruce Stambaugh
The homes of fall webworms shine in the sun.

In the woods and along highways, once glossy, emerald leaves have dulled and drooped. Some have already begun to drop without even changing color. Now and again a black walnut can be found standing stark naked, save for the cache of fall webworm nests it has involuntarily collected.

In the gardens, the picking of produce is a daily chore. Cucumbers, onions and tomatoes have hit their peek. Kitchens are cluttered with utensils for canning and freezing. The ripened fruits and vegetables that aren’t consumed at the dinner table find their way into jars and containers.

Even the sounds of the season have changed. Only a few American Robins continue to sing, and most likely they are sophomores practicing for next year’s prom. Instead of gathering nesting materials and snagging worms and insects, parent birds lead their fledglings to watering holes for liquid refreshment and necessary bathing.

Well-worn butterfly by Bruce Stambaugh
A well-worn tiger swallowtail butterfly took advantage of some wildflowers.

The volume and frequency of the cicada and katydid songs have lessoned considerably. Even the crickets have quieted down.

Butterfly on phlox by Bruce Stambaugh
A butterfly enjoys late blooming phlox.

Butterflies of all sizes and colors squeeze whatever nutrients they can out of the fading cornflowers and black-eyed susans. The humming birds, too, seem to sense an urgency to store up extra energy for their upcoming southern vacation travel.

Squirrels are in their glory, cutting as many beechnuts, hickory nuts and walnuts as they can. Thrifty creatures that they are, they also bury future meals for harder times ahead. Only they can’t always remember where they put their stash.

Next spring, when the saplings begin to appear, we will learn just how forgetful the squirrels were. But between now and then, many pleasant days lay ahead, and probably some less than desirable ones, too.

There is yet one more indicator that fall is knocking on our door. Campaign signs have already begun to litter urban, suburban and rural roadsides. They are as prolific and unsightly as the ugly webbed homes of the worms.

The obnoxious yet gaudy campaign posters are a human-induced reminder of what nature is about to bring. Autumn will be here before we know it, and there is little we can do about it except to enjoy the ever-changing colorful show.

Cows grazed at sunset by Bruce Stambaugh
Cows grazed on a hillside at sunset.