Work is important. Without it, we’d all be brain-numbed sloths, moping about and harvesting berries. Work gives us a direction and purpose that allows us to achieve status roughly equivalent to our own ambitions and talents.
Therefore, on this Labor Day, I salute the working men and women in my family tree, those who came before me and helped set the stage for my own vocational aspirations.
For the past few hundred years, my ancestors have practiced myriad trades – as farmers, blacksmiths, wagon train escorts, shopkeepers and druggists, to name a few. They’ve been union members, fiercely supportive of their fellow workers, and they’ve been on the other side, as managers.
So, I offer today capsule work histories of six ancestors of my family tree that I remember, solid and positive role models all:
Walter B. Lehmer (1920-): My Dad was a railroad man practically his entire working life, as were many members of my family. After a series of odd jobs after high school, Dad began his career at Union Pacific before serving the U.S. Navy in World War II. After his discharge, Dad was offered a job in the oilfields in Southern California near his final duty station, but returned to his native Council Bluffs, Iowa, to rejoin the railroad. He started as a car man, was set up as a foreman and closed out his U.P. career in 1981 as General Car Foreman in Council Bluffs. For a time, Dad served on the U.P. Staff and one of my favorite stories from that time is about the time he escorted the reclusive Howard Hughes to the West Coast not long before Hughes’ death.
Elsie M. Lehmer (1922-2008): Mom had her hands full raising three rambunctious sons, but before that she worked as a “Jill of all trades” at a neighborhood grocery store and at a Kresge’s store where she rose from decorating chocolate Easter eggs to managing the inventory of the notions department during the war years, a thankless task when you have to ration bobby pins.
Jens C. Andersen (1898-1982): My maternal grandfather emigrated from his native Denmark in 1920, where he had served his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. Despite not knowing English on his arrival, he worked as a carpenter by day and built furniture and Grandfather clocks for his family at night, mostly from walnut he reclaimed from crumbling barns and fences in Southwest Iowa.
Ellen H. Andersen (1898-1995): My grandmother never worked outside the home after her marriage in 1920 but she worked as a Danish “in girl” in Copenhagen for a well-to-do family in the years leading up to her wedding. Grandma said she was “scared to death” after one of the children in her care died, fearing she would be accused in the matter. Despite that trauma, she raised five great kids of her own in America.
Harry A. Lehmer (1898-1959): The newspaper item announcing my paternal grandfather’s birth in North Bend, Neb., identified him as a female. His father was the town blacksmith before packing up and heading to Council Bluffs to work at Griffin Wheel Co. Grandpa came, too, finding work as a boilermaker’s helper at Union Pacific, a job he held until his death. Conditions in his workplace were dirty, dangerous and probably toxic by today’s standards. He once suffered a serious eye injury from a flying steel splinter and frequently had black and blue toes from dropping heavy items on them.
Jessie M. Lehmer (1902-1982): Grandma Lehmer grew up in Missouri where her mother raised three young girls while working as a housekeeper after Grandma’s father was institutionalized following a sun stroke. For many years after raising her own five children, Grandma worked at Kilpatrick’s Department Store in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. While she preferred working behind the scenes in the marking rooms, she was sometimes pressed into selling.
Writing prompt for the day: What do you know about the workers in your family tree?
Photo: From monument to labor, Lewis & Clark Landing, Omaha, Nebraska. ( lwlehmer collection)