My first fulltime job was working as an orderly at the Vigo County Home. The Home was the successor to the Poor Farm. Most counties had a poor farm where the indigent, aged without family who wished to care for them, and, sometimes, the lunatic or disabled were “taken care of” out of sight of the community. I remember two patients (inmates?) in particular. One was Jake Umble. Jake was a tiny man in his 60s or 70s when I met him. His head was permanently bent downward hiding his opaque eyes and he invariably carried a mouth harp on which he would continually twang. He had spent most of his life at the Home. Ever since his demon obsessed mother had thrown acid into his eyes when he was four.
The other was Ike Smith. There was nothing straight about Ike. From his birth all about him was crooked. His arms, his legs, his body were all were twisted. His face was reminiscent of Edgar Bergen’s Mortimer Snerd. He had just enough dexterity is his right arm to feed himself. He had a raucous laugh that would echo through the halls and common room. I spent many days lifting his bent body in and out of bed. He was the sort that census takers marked as “imbecile” when toting up the population every ten years.
I had been on the job several months before I found that Ike and I had encountered each other before. He was from a family of ragpickers.
Ragpickers were a common sight in many towns up to the 1960s. They were the bedraggled lot who roamed streets and alleys picking up whatever they could find that might be sold to junk dealers. The proceeds went to feed themselves and their families, or booze to balm some pain. They would roam through the streets shouting a singsong “Any bones today, any rags, and bottles?” They would haunt the alleys behind stores and businesses snatching up anything that might sell, living off the flotsam of others.
In the West Terre Haute and Terre Haute area most of the ragpickers came from Taylorville. Taylorville was viewed by most as a neighborhood made up of human flotsam. Hard on the west bank of the Wabash between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute it was a narrow strip of the poorest. They lived in houseboats or hovels built from wood and tin salvaged from the river. It was once cited as the most unhealthy and degraded place in Indiana. It was clannish, closed in, incestuous. In my youth (and still today, I think) you were warned not to set a trembling foot into Taylorville. It was well known that even the police were reluctant to enter that enclave of the damned without backup.
According to a 1910 Terre Haute Tribune article there was a distinct hierarchy among this salvaging subset. At the top were the ragpickers who plied their trade in a horse and wagon. They were the elite who could range the farthest into the better neighborhoods and carry the most goods back to the junk dealers strung along the western edge of Terre Haute. Next came the cartmen who pushed their rickety wooden carts. It was hard work. At least two of the cartmen harnessed their “old woman” to pull their wagons, turning their wives into beasts of burden. On the lower rungs of this human ladder were the bagmen who shoved their acquired treasures into bags slung over their faltering shoulders.
Paper, pasteboard and rags usually brought a fair price as they could be pulped to make paper (not unlike modern recycling). As today, metals like brass or zinc were valued. Old clothes could be sold to second hand shops. But the best apparel was reserved to clothe the ragpicker and his family. Scraps of food sometimes became their meal.
The ragpickers were of a varied sort. There was the “hot tamale man,” whose raucous, bawdy banter would have gotten him arrested in gentler society had he been heard above the din of other pickers. One spoke in a Falstaffian voice. One was a ragpicker-preacher who picked during the day and preached the gospel evenings and weekends. There were the scoundrels who stole as well as picked. Pickers who picked just long enough to allow themselves enough money to buy booze and then slunk back to the alleys they slept, only to rise again to traverse the same alley in search of more discarded wealth. These were often the same men that the junk dealers kept a weather eye upon because after they sold a load they might try to snatch goods from the dealer’s pile and re-sell to him.
So, Ike was from a ragpicker family. They may have lived in both Taylorville and west Terre Haute. When I mentioned Jake to my grandmother she knew immediately who I was talking about. She remembered him riding on his dad’s mule-drawn wagon, his voice bawling out, his laughter echoing. Her family usually had something to give them. My very vague memory of Ike is seeing him and his father drive up the Riggy Avenue hill behind my grandparent’s house sometime in the early 60s. Though then they were riding in a jangling flatbed truck that likely was from the 1930s, the sort of truck the Joads loaded their belongings onto to carry them out of the dust bowl. Grandma had set something oot along the road for them to pick.
We have, sadly, always had those who lived their lives on the discards of others. Somehow they found their way. Equally sadly, we have them today. The Third World is full with pickers, emaciated adults and children picking at piles. Their lives are not much different than Ike’s.
In the past pickers were looked down upon. Now, picking is essentially recycling to many. Or viewed as a fun occupation. After all, how do you think American Pickers got its name?
When I asked Ike about ragpicking once, he gave me a huge laugh and happiness washed across his face. Memories. Happy ones for Ike. Good for him.