George Johnson: Sisters did most of the hop picking

As you can see in this photo from a long-ago Daily Sun News project, hop vines were grown to just above the average height of human beings back in the hand-picking days. Pictured here, Erma (Prescott) Graff, George, Marie, Helen and John Graff filled the burlap bags that lined these baskets.

Credit: Daily Sun News
As you can see in this photo from a long-ago Daily Sun News project, hop vines were grown to just above the average height of human beings back in the hand-picking days. Pictured here, Erma (Prescott) Graff, George, Marie, Helen and John Graff filled the burlap bags that lined these baskets.



Sunnyside History buff George Johnson picked hops the first year he lived in Washington. He arrived from Northern Idaho with his mother and five siblings in time for the 1941 picking season.

Farmers, the Johnsons had suffered through the depression, compounded by the Dust Bowl, on the plains of South Dakota. After a move to Idaho, Johnson’s mother saw an ad in the Spokesman-Review calling for hundreds of workers to the hop harvest at the original Yakima Chief ranches.

This could be the answer the family was seeking. She loaded their Willys sedan to bursting and headed to Mabton, leaving her husband and two older boys who had farm jobs on the Couer d’ Alene Indian Reservation.

The Johnsons picked in what turned to be one of the last seasons for hand harvest. He remembers the leaves leaving light scratches. Dust from the pods was easily washed away, he said.

“We knew the machines were coming the next year because the trellises were raised to 10 feet or higher,” Johnson. “The trellises were only a little taller than people when we picked by hand.”

There was a head ditch at the hop yard in which Johnson’s family worked. He and his brothers would slip away and jump into the water as often as they could.

“Mom and the girls did most of the picking,” he said.

With a knife, the pickers cut the hop vines next to the trellis, and they fell to the ground. With hooks, they dragged the vines to a “clean” area and placed them over the mouth of a bushel basket, lined with a burlap bag.

Filled, the bag was set aside for a horse and wagon, which came by occasionally. The driver, Johnson recalled, was Gene Charvet Sr.

“You could hear him coming 300 feet away,” he said. “He liked talking to everybody and liked to laugh.”

It’s not clear if hop picking was the answer to the Johnson’s financial condition but probably not. Johnson said pickers were paid three cents per pound. He doubts a bushel weighed more than two pounds.

As the Johnson children grew, they found jobs and worked to help the family. There was a little spending money, but most of the earnings were managed by mom. Johnson worked at Triple Service Market on Edison Avenue, near the Golden Pheasant. He also worked at the Planter’s Hotel.

One year, one of the family obligations was to pay hospital bills in Spokane and Seattle that built up as Johnson’s brother Ray was treated for a parasite condition.

Johnson’s mother moved into a rental house in Mabton that first year and enrolled the children in school after the harvest of 1941 concluded.

“She wrote to dad and told him to come down here with everything we left there,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s father got a job at a cold storage in Grandview and moved the family there. The family moved again in 1943 to Cemetery Road and settled. Johnson graduated from Sunnyside High School in 1948.

The family acquired a store in Yakima, and Johnson was working with his mother there when he met Carolyn Fischer. They married in 1956, settling in the Lower Valley not long afterward. Johnson acquired a home at 820 Grandview Ave. on Harrison Hill in 1959. He and Carolyn have lived there ever since

“It was just a shed,” Johnson said. “Not everybody on Harrison Hill had money.”

The shed is still the central part of the house, but you can’t see it. It has been covered over by remodels.

Folks who know Johnson probably recognize him as a man who delivered milk door-to-door for the Carnation Milk Co. or as a Sunnyside School bus driver. Carnation left him when it shut down in 1986.

In 1989, Johnson started his bus driving career. He retired in 2013 at the age of 83.



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