The Village of Montgomery was once surrounded by truck farms of all sizes.
Mike Edwards had a big farm in the south end of Aurora. Along Baseline Road, the Phillips family had big asparagus fields, and on the east side the Albrecht family had a big truck garden.
The Mall family owned the property where the Nicholson school playground and the Lyon Metal parking lot are now, and they raised a truck garden there. Jake Mall told of fording the river in 1913, when the bridge was being rebuilt to work these west side fields. The family farmhouse was across the river on South Broadway, facing west toward the river. The fording place was at the foot of Jefferson Street, and he was fascinated watching the traffic going down to Riverview Park.
One thing these families had in common was an abundance of hard working sons, but as they grew up and left home, local schoolboys filled the jobs.
Even girls were able to earn some spending money doing certain jobs. My first job was at Joe Hartway's farm on Sherman Avenue, where a group of about 10 of us were paid five cents a bushel to snip the tops off the onions that were headed for the restaurants in downtown Aurora.
We would sit in the backyard under a shade tree and wait for the tractor to pull up with a hayrack piled high with onions. Our job was to remove the tops and fill the baskets. I was probably around 11 years old, and remember the fun and horseplay, and the laughter involved. I would be surprised if we made a dollar a day. But we learned teamwork, and had a great day in the sunshine and fresh air with friends.
Later my sisters and I would work ‘detasseling’ corn. There was a height requirement, and it was a big deal when you finally met it. You had to be tall enough to reach up and pull the tassels out so the seed corn could be sold as hybrid.
A big lumbering farm truck would roll into town at the crack of dawn and make stops on the designated street corners. The kids would all pile into the back of the truck and hang over the sides as the truck made its way through town, picking up new kids and heading out to the fields. Pretty soon, the singing would start.
There was a “playlist” of songs passed on from one generation to the next. Looking back, they were pretty risqué songs for the times, but of course they were tame by today’s standards.
The return trip was less boisterous as the sunburned, exhausted crew climbed back on the truck and headed back home. There were always a few rounds of “My girls a corker, she’s a New Yorker…” before even the diehards gave it up.
It was hard to wait until the end of the season to be paid, but a nice fat paycheck would arrive in the mail just in time to pay for new school clothes.
Les Palmer had a big asparagus bed where the trucking company on Pearl Street is today. He also grew celery in a nearby field, and his cider mill was down the alley from the Methodist Church. The farmers would bring their apples to the cider mill and the kids in town would drink the fresh made cider that came out of the faucet on the outside of the building.
The asparagus growers along Baseline Road would hire Mexicans to work during the cutting season. Bill Schade remembered the young men who would come into town to watch the locals play softball. After the game, they would all sit around and listen to the young men play their guitars and sing. The town council ordered them to stay out of town because they were a bad influence. Bill wrote: “If the truth were known, we were the bad influence.”
During the peak cutting season, the local schoolboys were recruited to work an early morning shift in the asparagus fields. The teachers gave permission for the boys to come to school late on cutting days. They were the envy of their classmates. They wore their muddy high top shoes as a badge of honor. It was very ‘cool’ to be a ‘cutter.’
The seven Phillips brothers owned a thrashing machine, and in the fall they would go from farm to farm on Baseline Road, doing the summer crops to be stored for the winter. Several farmers would help each other, and the farmers’ wives would put on a big meal at noon, each one trying to make hers the best. It was a fierce competition.
Celery was another popular crop for the truck farms. The plants were grown from seeds in indoor flats. When they were the right size to plant outdoors, one person would go along with a “dibble” and make holes at set intervals. Another person would follow behind and drop a seedling near each hole. A third person would come along and put the seedlings into the hole, and pat down the soil.
After the celery was harvested, it was banked with earth for bleaching. This was done in a celery house—a long, low shed. When it was ready, women were hired to trim and bunch it for market. This was a smaller, more delicate and tender celery than we buy today.
The arrival of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad opened up the markets for local farm produce. These special crops were shipped to the fine restaurants in the city, via the CB&Q rail lines. Water from the Magnesia Sprint Water Company was used in all of the dining cars, as well as the bright red carnations grown in the fields behind the Tschannen farm on Aucutt Road. This was the beginning of major changes for the little village.