Where do cowboys come from? In my family’s case, they came from a farm in Ohio. My cousins Del and Dana were raised on that farm but had an itch to go to rodeo school out in Texas. And in due time they became cowboys, the real kind, cowpokes who fix fences, brand cattle, and sleep soundly in a bunk house after a 14-hour work day. When you’re young, you can do that kind of thing.
Time and necessity shape your work career. Del went from cowboy to making leather belts and fancy belt buckles while Dana taught school in Pecos, Texas, and later specialized in repairing tractors.
My grandfather, Charles W. Burns, had three sisters and no brother and was expected to take over our other family farm in Ohio. But he had an itch to teach school and went to the Ohio Normal School for four years and then taught all 12 grades in a one-room schoolhouse. But when a third child arrived, he had to find a better-paying job to support his family of five. He became a mailman.
Getting up early — say, 3 a.m. — must have appealed to another branch of my family. Uncle Dick went into the fruit-and-vegetable business and had to meet the early train at Union Terminal in Cincinnati to unload farm-fresh tomatoes for the grocery stores. Another cousin became a baker, necessitating that 3 a.m. wake-up call to fill his ovens with rolls and bread for the early shoppers.
We had enough teachers — including my mother, sister, wife, and myself — to shake a stick (or ruler) at. Yes, poor grammar but none of us were English teachers.
I plead guilty to having such a poor aptitude for things mechanical that I couldn’t follow my father and brother into the motor repair business. In fact, whereas my father-in-law was known as “Father Fix-it,” most everything I touched either broke or stopped working. I had the Reverse Midas Touch.
But note that none of us were bank robbers, blackmailers, or bar bouncers, though the latter is an honorable profession that employed the current Pope in his secular youth. That thought of being good at what-we’re-not was contained in my cousin Percy Hosbrook’s letter to his father back in 1865.
“Respected Father, I believe there is not a drunkard or a vagabond or a beggar in the list of your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, And I now pledge myself that none of my children ever shall be.” Percy had strict standards — he was the county surveyor for Indianapolis, and it was said that he “let people know how far they could go” — literally.
Two other cousins were successful jacks-of-all-trades. Hervey Bates ran a store, managed a post office, and started a carding mill in Indiana. Those were early steps on a career that saw Hervey become a builder, banker and co-founder of Indianapolis. In an era where honesty and respect were paramount, when a man’s handshake was his word, Hervey’s “rugged honesty made his name a synonym for integrity.”
Cousin Burt Perrine, a man of small stature, ventured out west, to the Snake River valley of southern Idaho. Burt started with a herd of milk cows but ended by building a dam and hydro-electric plant that transformed sagebrush desert into fertile farmland. His statue now stands near the Perrine Memorial Bridge over the Snake River. Burt’s tenacity and never-quit attitude prevailed over engineering challenges and powerful political opposition.
The disruption caused by our pandemic lockdown has reconfigured if not transformed what work is and both how and where it’s done. The world of telemedicine, tele-anything, and computers over commuters is painting a new picture of what a family’s work history may look like. But I believe that Burt Perrine, Hervey Bates, and my cowboy cousins Del and Dana would still survive and thrive in this new world of work.
James Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.