October 20, 2021

For them, beans were their bag

Pickers share memories during 16th annual reunion

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

From left, Nicolina Abate, Mary Arduini, and Angie Barbato share memories of working for Halstead Canning Co. as bean pickers in their youth. The group gathered Thursday at the Red Dragon restaurant in Cortland.

Cortland resident Lorraine Fox remembers working in the bean fields of Cortland every summer as a girl, picking beans from 7 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon for maybe 2 cents a pound — money she didn’t see until the end of the season in August — then turning the money over to her mother.

Her mother needed the money badly. Raising 11 children as a widow wasn’t easy.

Life wasn’t easy for Chris Colongeli either, as her family grew up with limited means in their house on Pine Street. The four children helped provide money to buy the coal to heat their home — often by picking beans in the local fields.

Some of the remaining workers of these fields and their families met Thursday at the Red Dragon restaurant on Tompkins Street in Cortland for the 16th annual Bean Pickers reunion, sharing memories of their work for the Halstead Canning Co. on Squires Street, Cortland, and the David Harum Canning Co. on Cortland Street in Homer.

“I was a really good picker,” Colongeli said. “What made a good picker was how interested you were in picking a lot of beans.”

She’d challenge herself to keep up with a friend.

“Could I pick 100 pounds a day? And I’d try to keep up with Peter,” Colongeli remembers.

Tales circulated of singing on the way to the fields, of hard work and building a work ethic, of affairs with the “shackers” — men from Scranton, Pennsylvania who camped in Cortland to work in the fields by day and party with the Cortland women at night — and funny stories of workers not lasting even three days on the fields.

The reunion comes at a time when America’s conversation about migrant labor is embroiled in controversy. President Donald Trump’s administration is detaining families, immigrant parents and children, who are stopped along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Those who have labored in fields themselves, had nuanced perspectives on the issue.

“I don’t mind if they’re all here legally or have their green papers,” Fox said. “But my parents had to come over on a boat for two to three weeks — my mother was born on a boat.”

But legal or not, work is work, said Karen Hempson, whose parents were bean pickers in the Utica area and tales of their labor inspired her to write a book, called “Bean Pickers,” she hopes to be published in 2019. Hempson also had relatives in Cortland who were bean pickers.

As part of her research, Hempson met with the mayor of Utica, a city with a large refugee center.

“It is amazing, a city to which people are called from all over the world but the refugees are offered programs and taught the language to get jobs,” she said. “They value all their immigrants, which is so different than the climate of today of building a wall.”

Hempson tried to imagine America if it closed itself off to immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, or if it had a wall around it then.

“All the Italians, Poles, Russians that came in, who worked in factories and built bridges, nothing would get done without them,” she said.

Attendance is dwindling at the reunion — 48 came Thursday but in its peak the reunion saw nearly 70, said organizer Sandy Cardillo. The pickers are aging and their families are left to remember the tales.

It was from the early 1900s to the 1950s that hundreds of local, immigrant and migrant families counted on the jobs.

The migrant workers, the “shackers” were housed in two rows of shacks — one in a field on Tompkins Street just outside the city and the other on Homer Avenue in Homer, later the site of Contento’s junkyard.

The end of the season parties with the shackers were popular among Fox and her friends, as were the shackers themselves.

And then there were the people who tried the work, but just weren’t cut out for it. Mary Contento of Cortland was one.

She and a couple of girlfriends, all 16 at the time, thought they’d try picking beans. But just days into it, watching the foreman instructing his young workers to pick more beans, they had enough.

“He was yelling at the kids and I didn’t like that,” Contento said. “On the third day into it, we ran away from the field, straight into the Tioughnioga River and home. I probably shouldn’t even be here.”