Hired a Little Boy to do Farm Work

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, July 8, 1913:  Pa picked up a little boy who is going to work for him. I have to room with Ruth now.

Recent picture of the barn on the Muffly farm
Recent picture of the barn on the Muffly farm

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

It sounds like Grandma’s father decided that he needed to hire someone to help with the farm work.

How old was the “little boy”? . . . 9? . . . 12? . . . 15?  Children often held jobs a hundred years ago, but the term “little boy” seems like an unusual way to describe a new farm laborer. I’d think that the individual would have had to have been fairly strong—and that he would have been a teen-ager not a boy.

Who was the boy? . . . a relative? . . . the son of a friend? . . . the child of someone who was struggling financially?

29 thoughts on “Hired a Little Boy to do Farm Work

  1. I think the word little means just that. If he was a teenager he might be referred to as a “boy,” but certainly not a “little boy.” A teenager would be rather strong and skilled enough to do most of the work a man could do. A little boy could still be very useful, especially for jobs like haying. Perhaps her parents didn’t want their daughter, with a high school diploma and of courting age, to perform rough work like that and perhaps the boy, as you speculate, may have come from an impoverished family that needed the income and/or couldn’t afford to feed him. I’m betting he was between 8 or 9 and 12. Otherwise, if he were any older, he’d be contemporaneous enough with Helena that she would perceive him as almost her equal in maturity and wouldn’t call him “little.”

    1. I also thought that that having a hired boy to have may have almost been a status symbol. It suggests the the family was not impoverished and had enough money to pay him.

  2. What would it have been like to be a “little boy” and uprooted from your family to live somewhere else to work on a farm? Since Helena herself is only a young girl, it makes me wonder that the little boy was indeed someone maybe 12 or 13…still “little” in her eyes since she is now a young woman….I remember being 18 and quite the young woman!! lol It will be interesting if she writes about him again. She really was a woman of few words wasn’t she?

    1. I agree that when you’re 18–12 or 13 could seem little. I wonder if the boy knew the Muffly’s before he started working there.

  3. my mom’s late husband was sent out to work on a farm when he was just 10 years old. He did hard farm labor. Kids then are a lot different then kids now. My sons work on our ranch. My boys could wrestle calves when they were just 7 & 8 years old and that is NOT an easy job. My 11-year-old can do quite a bit on our farm.. throwing hay, weeding, planting, and milking cows (although his older brothers has to put the cattle in a chute, as ours are not milk cows).

    1. You’re right, kids can do a lot more then we sometimes give them credit for. I also did farm chores when I was 8 or 10–and often wish that my children had had the opportunity for similar experiences. It was a lot of fun growing up on a farm.

  4. While still seeming difficult to think of a young boy perhaps being uprooted and farmed out, it was a common occurrence. My mother-in-law talks of being hired out as a young girl to help with children and housework for other people in the 30s.
    I would have loved it if Helena would have provided more details. 🙂

  5. Even now, people hire teenagers to help with the yard work. They love the extra money earned during summer vacation. Perhaps it was the same in your Grandma’s time.

  6. the little boy was eight and could milk the cows standing up and did not need a stool because he was so short. His name was Arnold. He grew up to be a great scientist and invented the automatic milkers of today. He hated milkshakes.

    1. It sounds like the perfect scenario for problems. 🙂 I can already sense Grandma’s frustration with “Rufus” over one thing or another.

  7. One’s life could change in an instant, and in some ways, it still does. My grandmother took in boarders who came looking for work.

    1. It seems like people were much more laid back about sharing their homes with boarders or employees back then than what they are now.

  8. I remember my grandma telling me that one time when they were poor, her half-sister Edna was “adopted” by a richer family in a nearby town who gave her a job and a place to live. She was a young teenager at the time — to young to live on her own, but not too young to have a job at their store. Maybe a similar situation? That would have been early 1900s.

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