November 28, 2021

It’s time for the bean picker reunion

Cortland Standard file photo

Nicolina Abate, left, Mary Arduini, and Angie Barbato share memories last year of working for Halstead Canning Co. as bean pickers in their youth. Abate immigrated to Cortland at age 19 to find work as a bean picker. Below, Cortland area bean pickers, probably from the 1940s.

When Josephine Mironti was a kid in the summer time, she wasn’t lolling around the streets, playing jump rope or dolls.

The Cortland girl, from age 7 until the year she graduated from high school, was in the bean fields by 7:30 a.m., picking vegetables to help support her family.

“The bean plants were full of dew. Our pants and shirts were wet. By 11 a.m., the sun dried the plants and our clothes. At noon, the lunch whistle blew,” she said. After a break, it was back to the bean fields.

“When I went to school at the end of the season, my friends who didn’t go to the bean fields got together,” Mironti said. Their conversation was about hiking, summer camp, going to the lake, the Adirondacks, s’mores at night.

“I went to camp: bean picking camp. We got exercise — picking beans. We had friends — from Syracuse and Pennsylvania. And we got sun burned, even through our shirts.”

Similar memories will be rehashed at the 17th annual Bean Pickers Reunion starting at noon Sept. 5 at the Red Dragon on Tompkins Street. Plan to arrive 30 minutes early.

Anyone who worked in the fields or canning factories in Cortland and Homer or any descendants are welcome. Call 607-756-4792 for details.

In the 1930s and 1940s, The Halstead Canning Co. on Squires Street in Cortland and the David Harum Canning Co. on Cortland Street in Homer packed and shipped 3 million cans of beans a year. Before automated harvesting, the companies would hire almost 1,000 people to work the fields and harvest the beans. Harry Bellardini of Homer was one of them, picking beans as an 11-year-old in 1941.

“There were two groups of bean pickers. One group that worked for Halstead Canning Co. on Squires Street. Most of those people were from Port Watson Street, Bartlett and Comando avenues, Hyatt, Pine and Scammell streets.

“Then there was the David Harum Canning Co.,” he said. That factory drew from a pool of people living in shacks off Route 11 just south of Homer, for the summer.

Shacks were also located on Tompkins Street. People there worked for Halstead, coming from Wilkes Barre and Scranton, Pa.

Mironti lived in Cortland for 75 years, moving to DeWitt recently to be closer to family. She will be at the bean picking reunion.

She said Italian immigrants came to the United States in the 1900s. They were uneducated because they didn’t have the money or resources for school. The U.S. was the land of opportunity.

“The bean field was a good place to start earning money for their families. Anybody could go pick beans. There were no child labor laws. My mom, Angelina, and brother Peter emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. Dad was already here, working on the railroad. I and my brother were born in Italy. He made enough money to get us over here. My sister Connie was born over here.”

She remembers a Polish family from Pennsylvania, but said the fields were mostly picked by Italians.

In other towns, like Utica, bean pickers were German, Polish and Irish, too.

Bellardini picked beans because all his friends did. His parents did not pick beans. His aunt, a bean picker, took care of him.

“It was fun being out there with your buddies,” he said. “These people were serious. The mothers were out there. Most of the people were first-generation Americans. Fathers were working on the railroad and moms picked beans.”

Bellardini remembers three or four bosses out in the fields, carrying a cane.

“They assigned you to a eld. When you got done with a row, they came over and checked. If you didn’t get all the beans, they had you go back and pick more.”

Beans were weighed and the pickers were given a ticket with how much was picked. Green beans got around 1.5 cent a pound. Yellow beans got 2 cents a pound. Bellardini’s money went to school clothes.

“When I was younger, we always worked. We picked beans. We shoveled snow. … I had a paper route. I worked on construction,” Bellardini said. “We never had cell phones, games. We worked or were outside, always doing something. Life was fun.”

These days: “I can’t get anybody to help me, to help wash windows or water plants,” Bellardini said.

He’s had a productive life, as a track and football coach, teaching at SUNY Cortland for 18 years, working in sales, working for a congressman, acting as a regional adviser for the Small Business Administration.

“I am 89 years old. I still fool around with political committees,” he said. “I did have a job until five years ago, with OTB. It all started with picking beans.”

Mironti said the bean fields were peaceful.

“Nobody was arguing. Everyone was polite and kind, respectful. There were no rude names. Only ‘bean hog.’ As in: ‘How many pounds did you pick, bean hog?’” Mironti said. “There was no jealousy, envy.”