Until I went through my mother’s keepsakes after she passed away in April of 2013, I had not realized she kept the first silver dollars I earned when I was seven years old. She told my brother and me that she would put the money in a bank account for us, but she put the value of the earnings in the account and kept the actual silver dollars as mementoes for us. How do I know? When I brought the first dollar home, she examined the heavy coin and remarked that the dollar was minted in 1924, the year before she was born…and the next one I gave her, also dated 1924, elicited an explanation that all silver dollars were not made in 1924. For comparison, she used one of my brother’s minted in 1878. Those coins nestled in an old leather coin purse were among her treasured possessions.
The ranch foreman, Vick Blackstone, told my brother and me that he would pay us a silver dollar a day to walk along beside a flatbed truck and toss saw palmetto roots and trunk pieces up on to the truck bed. Vick’s enticement, shiny new silver dollars, produced a visible bulge in his Levi’s right front pocket. He pulled out a few to enhance his sales pitch.
“You can earn a handful of these by the end of the week,” he chuckled as he winked at us.
My brother and I were sold. Of course, we did not have anything on which to spend the money, nor any place to go anywhere near the ranch, but our parents had already taught us the value of saving money. We just were not sure of the reason behind saving “for a rainy day.”
Natalie observed two grubby but smiling boys trudging up the road from the barn when she pulled into her yard one mid-June evening after work. Although she had seen them come home from ranch chores dirty before, the current level of grime, evident from sixty feet away, exceeded any they had previously worn.
“What have you two been doing to get that dirty?” she asked with a resigned but bemused tone.
In response, Smokey and Mike held up shiny silver dollars.
“We got paid for throwing palmetto roots on to the back of the big truck,” Smokey shouted. “We get to work every day until the field is cleared, and we can earn a silver dollar every day.”
Natalie, smiling at the boys’ obvious delight with their earnings, replied, “Go use the hose and rinse off as much of that dirt as you can. Then, go get in the shower and make sure you wash your hair well. You have rings around your eyes that make you look like raccoons. Even your noses are crusted with dust.”
The exhausted boys went to bed shortly after supper, and Bill explained that paying the kids to work had been Vick’s idea.
“We are clearing land that has been largely covered by saw palmettos. First, the acreage was put through a controlled burn. Then, a bulldozer was used to scrape and cut away all the largest clumps, which were then pushed into piles and burned. Once all the biggest trunks of those palmettos were removed, a tractor with harrow discs cut the smaller pieces into sizes that can be removed by hand. That’s hard dirty work that can put some muscle on the boys,” he added with a laugh.
“Aren’t they a little young to be doing that kind of work?” Natalie questioned with a frown.
“Vick’s being careful with them and making sure they drink plenty of water. He’s not going to work them too hard. He takes plenty of breaks. As soon as he sees them getting worn out, he will stop for the day.”
Ten days later, Natalie poked her head into the boys’ bedroom, attracted by the clinks silver dollars made as Smokey and Mike stacked their coins in different shapes.
“Mike got run over by the truck today,” Smokey declared with a big grin.
“What?” Natalie exclaimed, looking at her youngest son, who shrugged his shoulders. “Are you all right?”
Not satisfied with Mike’s nod, she demanded, “Tell me what happened.”
“He tripped when he tried to throw a palmetto root that was too big for him. The truck was moving real slow, and a rear tire went over his left lower leg, but the ground was so plowed up and soft that his leg was just pushed down. Vick was really scared that Mike was hurt and gave us the rest of the day off and still paid us our dollars,” Smokey explained. “He wasn’t even hurt.”
Natalie’s head shake belied her concern, and she addressed the issue with Bill after the boys were in bed for the night.