From Horse Manure to Cash
by Betty Erickson of Woodbridge, VA
Of all things folks might do without when they’re short of cash, mushrooms might top my list. Yet Dad chose to grow mushrooms during The Great Depression. He adapted three limestone caves for mushroom farming and presided over mushrooms with the agility and savvy of a ringmaster in a three-ring circus. He cleaned and aired one cave and harvested and marketed from another while prepping the third for a new crop. Dad had enough work for five men, but could stretch dollars enough to hire Barney, a dependable fellow who felt lucky to have steady employment.
Mother was Dad’s “Girl Friday.” She tucked away her dresses and donned jeans; a practical decision that Grandmother got all worked up about. Levi Strauss & Company hadn’t designed women’s jeans yet, so she made do with small-sized men’s.
While Mother and Barney tended mushrooms, Dad cut a deal with his ancient Reo truck. He faced its pug nose, crank in hand, as if peering into its soul. Then he hollered for Barney to give the starter a touch while he cranked. Mother couldn’t look. She feared the crank would snap back and dislocate Dad’s shoulder, a definite possibility. Finally, the Reo settled into a steady cough and Dad tossed the crank into the cab, climbed in and rattled off to the racetracks for a load of horse manure. Later that day, if the Reo didn’t overheat, he’d dump the manure in front of the caves, mix it with wheat straw and gypsum and sprinkle it with water to start the composting – a process of blending and airing. Blending and airing meant moving the entire pile three times, one pitckforkful at a time.
When Dad couldn’t spare Barney to turn compost, he used hobo labor. Hoboes were a common sight in 1933 and Dad said most were good people down on their luck. They asked to work for food. I’ll never forget the first time a big hobo named Joe came by. Mother gave him a meal and I led him across the road and showed him the compost pile. I’d watched Barney fork that stuff and was sure I could show Joe how to do it. I seized the longhandled pitchfork and shoved it into the mountain of steaming manure just like I’d seen Barney do. I heaved will all my might but the pitchfork was stuck in manure as firmly as Excalibur was stuck in stone. My cheeks fired up to match my hair and my status shriveled to that of a miserable, puny, ten-yearold failure. Then, I heard Joe say, “Hey, little lady,” and hands the size of baseball gloves closed gently on the worn wood. Joe forked a gigantic mound of manure – easy as feathers. “Is that how you do it, Little Lady?” he asked politely.
After the first time, Joe came often. If Dad didn’t have composting to do, he found Joe another job. Joe was like a regular worker and Dad felt bad he couldn’t offer pay.
Once composting was finished, they pitched the stuff into baskets, hoisted the baskets onto a miniature railroad car and pushed the car along tracks that spanned the length of the cave. They filled the beds (wooden trays stacked three high and fifty feet long) with compost, then mixed mushroom spawn into the compost. When tiny white pin specks appeared, they covered them with casing, a mixture of peat moss and topsoil, and raked it smooth and level.
Dad watched over growing mushrooms like a good doctor monitored patients. When temperature threatened to rise above 78 degrees, he hosed the walls and floor to cool the cave.
Mushrooms poked through the soil two weeks after casing. Dad, Mother and Barney put on miner’s caps (caps with lamps on the front) and picked directly into one-pound baskets to avoid unnecessary handling.
I was a mushroom bruiser so I didn’t pick, but I was a first-rate crate builder. Dad made me a miter box to hold boards in place and I could pound nails into soft pine with one blow. Dad let my friends build crates too as long as they drove them in straight. Nails were costly and a pain to straighten.
Dad took crated mushrooms to the railroad station where they were shipped to Levy and Zentner’s Market in San Francisco.
After a crop was harvested, they had to remove the used compost because compost was good for only one crop of mushrooms. Dad hauled used compost (spent manure) to Salinas to sell to lettuce farmers. On his return trip, he stopped by racetracks to scoop up fresh horse manure to make new compost.
Once, and only once, I rode to Salinas to keep Dad company. We stopped for lunch at a truck stop. The exterior of the place screamed for a paint job and weeds took over the parking lot, but inside it was clean and good smells wafted through cigarette smoke. A row of men in overalls sat on spin-around stools at the counter. A skinny, balding proprietor with a blue towel around his waist, took orders, served food and cleared the counter. A woman, who looked like she wouldn’t take kindly to complaints, did the cooking. When a grizzly trucker at the far end of the counter unleashed a volley of swear words, I studied my fork, pretending not to hear. But I felt Dad bristle and I knew there’d be trouble. Dad hopped off his stool and got in the trucker’s face. “Don’t use swear words in front of my daughter!” he roared. The trucker blew his nose and carried on like Dad wasn’t there. I held my breath and spun on my stool until the seat wobbled and I nearly fell off.
“Outside!” Dad jerked his head toward the door. Dad was a fighter but that trucker looked like a killer. Nobody ate. Everybody watched.
Finally, the proprietor leaned over the counter, put his hands on Dad’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. “Get yourself killed out there, Fella, and who’s takin’ care of that girl of yours?” The proprietor’s words penetrated Dad’s anger and he backed away and sat down. I began to breathe again. A few minutes later the trucker paid up and left. After that when Dad wanted company on trips to Salinas, he took the dog.
From 1933-1936, Dad held The Great Depression at bay by turning horse manure into cash. Then a buyer came along and bought everything that went with the mushroom business except Dad’s cantankerous Reo. And Dad bought a slightly younger companion for the Reo and went into the trucking business.
But that’s another story.