The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Lifestyles

March 31, 2014

Frankie Meyer: Berries were big business in Southwest Missouri history

JOPLIN, Mo. — Recently, I noticed some blooms on my strawberry plants on the patio, and I was reminded of my youth in the Ozarks when children often earned money by picking strawberries in the fields of local farmers. I, along with my sisters, brother and all the other children in the area, looked forward to the experience each summer.

Clad in jeans, long-sleeved shirts and large straw hats, we gathered in the strawberry fields each morning. As soon as the dew dried from the plants, we each picked up a tray of six-quart containers and began working our way down the rows, visiting and eating a few berries along the way.

When a tray was filled, we walked to the growerÕs shed and received a chit, which was a small piece of cardboard about the size of a theater ticket today. The chit had the name of the grower, the name of the town and the amount of berries that were brought to the shed. At the end of the day, the chits were redeemed for money. When we pickers finished in the afternoon, the grower had the berries graded and packed for shipment.

If you had ancestors who lived in the Ozarks between the 1880s and 1950s, they probably worked in the strawberry fields, too. Because of the hilly, rocky ground, the Ozarks proved to be an ideal place to grow the berries (as well as tomatoes).

The start of the industry in the 1880s coincided with the arrival of the railroads, which could ship the berries quickly to other areas. Growers joined forces to form cooperatives that shipped their berries from railroad stops in towns like Monett, Sarcoxie, Pierce City, Carthage and Anderson. Each evening, scores of wagons brought crates of berries from area farms. By midnight, several railroad cars were loaded for shipping.

At its peak, the industry was so large that many cooperatives formed arrangements with the local bank to issue strawberry tokens to the pickers. The Bank of Sarcoxie was one example. It issued aluminum tokens that came in three sizes. One was for quarts, one for trays and one for crates. The tokens were engraved with two strawberries on one side. The other side had the words "Bank of Sarcoxie" and the amount.

By using tokens, each grower did not need to keep cash on hand. The tokens could be redeemed at the bank. Local merchants also accepted the tokens in exchange for goods and services.

The practice of issuing tokens ended in the early 1900s when the Secret Service investigated. The agency informed the cooperatives that only the federal government can legally issue currency.

Suggestions or queries: Contact Frankie Meyer, 509 N. Center St., Plainfield, IN 46168. Also email frankiemeyer@yahoo.com.

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