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

What’s retirement? I guess I’ll find out

Amish boys, harvesting corn
Working in the township that I love.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I started out the New Year the best way possible. I retired.

Now don’t get me wrong. I loved working. I love working. Given that we are moving to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley next spring, it’s time for me to shift into a lower gear.

The transition from work to non-work has been a gradual one to be sure, much like how I transitioned my way into the wonderful world of work. Altogether, I’ve been working for more than 60 years.

cooper's hawk
I’m a hawk about work.

I started out at age eight selling seed packets door-to-door. I’ve been working ever since.

I delivered newspapers for two different urban publishers. Profits from those ventures were invested at the new McDonald’s built at the end of my route. A quarter bought me a cheeseburger and a Coke.

In high school, I pumped gas at Carl’s Garage in Canton, Ohio. Gasoline was 27 cents a gallon when I started, 31 cents when I graduated.

I was a Fuller Brush salesperson. That experience convinced me to go to college.

I attended night school for my first two years at university studying to be a journalist. During the day, I worked at a huge corporation where my father and grandfather spent most of their employment years. I learned from that experience not to work at a huge corporation unless I absolutely had to do so. I’m glad I never did.

I wove being a stringer for The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, in between my high school years and my college days. A stringer is a person who writes stories freelance. Ambitious stringers like me wrote for pennies on the word.

That connection, fortunately, led to an internship at The Plain Dealer. Remember what I said about working for a large corporation? I learned the same was true for a major metropolitan newspaper.

That’s how I ended up in Holmes Co., Ohio. First, I taught for nine years at Killbuck Elementary School. That saved my life, or maybe better stated, made my life. Folks welcomed me with open arms. I felt right at home.

I married, and my wife became a teacher, too. When our children arrived, Neva put her career on hold to do her very best at being both mom and wife. She got an A+ in both categories.

Winesburg Elementary School, Holmes Co. OH
Where I served as principal for 21 years.

After earning my Master’s degree, I became an elementary principal in the East Holmes Local School District. I also coordinated the district’s substantial federal programs. I learned to multi-task or else. Those were 21 marvelous years.

At age 51, I made yet another transition. I retired as an educator and served as a marketing and public relations guru for a few local businesses. Another job tied my education and marketing careers together.

I served as a Saltcreek Twp. Trustee for nearly 20 years, and with the impending move that community responsibility, too, has come to an end.

dog, granddaughter
Chasing the grandkids and the grand dogs will become my main job.

Now my work priorities have changed. The time has come to refocus my lagging energy and flagging memory to the top priorities in my life: my family and my writing. Retirement was necessary for that to occur. This blog will continue to feature my writing and photography, but will likely change name and format.

My wife and I will settle into our new setting near our grandkids in Virginia in May. I can let grandkids completely wear me out playing baseball, listening to concerts, and however else they choose to spend their time and parents’ money. We’ll be there cheering them on.

I’m looking forward to all the unknown adventures ahead. Just don’t wake me before 8 a.m.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Young Haymakers

making hay, Ohio's Amish Country
Young haymakers.

Tradition says Memorial Day is the unofficial start to summer in U.S. culture. In Ohio’s Amish country, seasons are often determined by harvests. The year’s first cutting of hay marks the summer harvest season in rural America.

Friends, neighbors, and family members of all ages pitch in to help make the hay. These youngsters gathered hay bales and held the reins to the horses pulling the hay wagon while the adults did the milking. Giving youth such responsibility teaches work skills and reinforces the already strong work ethic of the Amish.

“Young Haymakers” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

From every angle, August is golden

Golden sunset by Bruce Stambaugh
Hazy sunsets in Amish country are the norm in August.

By Bruce Stambaugh

These are what I call August’s golden days. If I only referenced orangey sunrises and the hazy, citrus sunsets, that moniker would apply.

August is so much more than lovely solar appearances and disappearances. It is always full of golden moments that make golden memories.

I realize my reflections are provincial. In a world full of disease, disaster, dismay and hostilities, not all would share my august perspectives. However, I cannot deny what I have observed and experienced in this transitional month in Amish country.

In calling August golden, I mean to take the broadest definition possible. Everywhere you turn, deep, rich yellows and golds appear. August is golden, too, in that it is good, providing success and satisfaction as the harvesting begins.

Mowing oats by Bruce Stambaugh
Mowing and stacking the oats into shocks is the first step in the harvesting process for the Amish.

August is usually a hot month in most of the northern hemisphere. Even the poor people in Moscow, Russia, where temperatures have seemed more like Dallas, Texas, have been especially suffering.

True to form, hot and humid have been the bywords in Ohio, too. Those who have had to work out in these blazing elements would argue for sizzling and sultry as better descriptors. But no matter how we describe the daily dog days of August, the benefits surely outweigh the negatives, no matter how muggy.

Coming and going by Bruce Stamabugh
One wagon heads to the barn while the other returns to the field to be loaded again.

My Amish neighbor’s circle of friends purposefully gathers the air-dried, ripened oat shocks wagonload after wagonload. Their water thermos got a workout, too. With their cooperative efforts, the impressive stand of honey-colored sheaves had disappeared by day’s end.

I always find it a miracle that once the sea of grain is cut and shocked, a carpet of bright green immediately replaces it. The hardy clover thrives all the more once it has the ground to itself.

There are other kinds of gold in August, too. The Incredible sweet corn arrives almost simultaneously with the transparent apples. It’s husking, cutting, cooking and freezing corn one day, making tartly sweet applesauce the next.

Ripe tomatoes by Bruce Stambaugh
Heirloom tomatoes ripen on the vine.

The growth of the heirloom tomato plants my wife and son planted in late May is so
prolific, the plant runners get tied daily. Their yellow, red and green-striped fruit add to the festivities.

House wren by Bruce Stambaugh
A house wren leaves the nest after feeding her brood.

The noisy tan house wrens worked frantically to satisfy their last brood of the summer. Their hungry youngsters consumed an amazing amount of worms, caterpillars and insects.

When the little ones began to greet their parents at the entrance to their birthplace, it’s nearly time for them to fly. In our case, the babies were there before church, but not when we got home. The grandsons and I found them learning to forage and hide in the brush pile under the pines near the hammock where other golden moments were made.

Monarch and swallowtail butterflies joined the goodness of the month as they enjoyed the nectar of the milkweed and wild and domestic flowers. Both the black and yellow-billed cuckoo birds announced their arrivals as the tent caterpillars hatched.

The much publicized but often under performing Perseid meteor showers still managed to send enough bright streaks though the new moon sky to extend the month’s goldenness 24/7.

Next week the full moon will strut its stuff, casting a golden glow across landscapes, rural and urban alike. Ready or not, summer vacation has yielded to elongated yellow buses and excited, golden voices of children beginning a new school year.

All things considered, August is a positively golden time of year.

Hammock fun by Bruce Stambaugh
Playing on a hammock in the cool shade serves as a diversion from the August heat and humidity.