The Nichols family has survived these past thirty seven years by being willing to do just about any job that came along; including picking up walnuts for cash our first year. Many of the local folk, who are well established and accustomed to life here in the hills, don’t waste their time on such endeavors. They frequently have numerous walnut trees and will allow them to be harvested on shares or just because. Until you’ve spent a month or two bent over scooping these rock-hard nuts into bucks and then heaving them into your pickup or trailer—you simply haven’t lived. The tannic acid in their hulls will stain your hands indelibly black—the only way to get it off is to wear it off. $6.00 a hundred weight was the going rate back in 1982 (I believe it was $15.00 this past year). For rookies a mounded pickup load looked like real money. But you have to drive into to a huller where you scoop them into a machine that strips off the outer shell, leaving just the nuts. Your great looking pickup load is suddenly reduced to a few large mesh bags worth of nuts. If memory serves me we only got around $40.00 per pickup load of back breaking work. But we were darn glad to get it and made several hundred dollars that year. Course it was a bumper year which may only occur once in every three or four—Mother Nature is a fickle lady.
When Barb finally moved onto the homestead, with our daughter and me, she immediately started looking for work. A local bank turned her down because she was used to making big city money (with AT&T) and wouldn’t be satisfied—or so she was told. She finally landed a gig waitressing for a couple bucks an hour and tips. From there she entered a certified nurse’s aid class at a local vo-tech school and ended up working at a care facility for the profoundly disabled. She spent a couple of years working as a legal assistant to a local prosecutor and five years or so at a local company that made floral arrangements for a national market. As our daughter grew older Barb eventually made the decision to start commuting into Springfield with me, where she worked in a chiropractor’s office, a hospital finance dept. and an orthopedic clinic.
Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash
During that first summer I put in for a job in the maintenance dept. of a small local college but never heard anything. I was turned down for a job doing maintenance for a restaurant chain in Springfield because I was a blood thirsty Viet Nam veteran—or so I was told. With no job on the horizon I agreed to build a pole roof over a trailer house at one of the retirement areas on a near by lake. I no sooner took the job when the college called and asked if I was still interested. You bet I was. An interview was arranged. The Superintendent of the maintenance dept. and I hit it right off. There was one problem—I had given my word to build the pole structure and intended to honor it, even if it meant losing the job I very much wanted. Fortunately the boss understood and told me that I could start just as soon as I fulfilled my prior commitment. Starting pay was $4.00 per hour and I was ecstatic to get it. Seven years would pass and the college became a university before our house was nearing completion and I decided it was time to go onto something new.
I tried my hand at running my own HVAC/Electrical service business for a couple of years and discovered that it just wasn’t my cup of tea. In 1990 I was accepted into the maintenance dept. of then Southwest Missouri State University. After nearly fifteen years of long commutes I retired in 2006 to pursue a new career co-managing a ninety-year-old private Ozark resort community. My co-manager Barb and I worked side by side there for over ten years before once again retiring in 2016.
Working away from the homestead, all of these years, has been what it’s taken to succeed at building our own home and cementing a lifestyle that we love.
Many of our jobs were low wage dead ends or places that we couldn’t abide but we always stuck it out until something better was available.
Moral—if you’re coming to the country either be prepared to do whatever you have to, to make it work, or bring plenty of money. And even that won’t guarantee success.
In Chapter Six we’ll look at ways other folks in these parts make a living.