Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Minimum wage laws during the 1940s and 1950s didn’t cover nearly as many workers as they do today. Nevertheless, the minimum wage served as a standard and as a barometer. News spread fast when certain businesses and industries paid wages that were considerably higher than the minimum wage.

This was the case with the Morrell Meat Packing Plant in Ottumwa. In September 1948 they were paying $1.11 per hour for starting labor, and paid time and one-half after eight hours work. The minimum wage was much less and few companies paid wages of this caliber.

On January 25, 1950 the national minimum wage was raised to 75 cents/hour. It reached $1/hour on March 1, 1956 and $1.15/hour on September 3, 1961. It continued moving upward rapidly during the 1960s: $1.25 on September 3, 1963; $1.40 on Feb. 1, 1967; and $1.60 on Feb. 1, 1968. By May 1, 1974 the minimum had reached $2.00 per hour!

Meanwhile, Morrell continued to increase their wages far faster than the national standard. According to advertising for jobs in local newspapers, Morrell started out at $1.15/hour in November 1948 and had reached a starting salary of $1.35/hour in August 1951.

It wasn’t that lucrative in Van Buren County, however. In 1959 Bert Leck paid me the minimum wage of $1/hour to work at the Van Buren County Register Office. The only objection I had was that I didn’t get a forty-hour week at the newspaper office. I usually only worked 30 or 32 hours. I learned that I could make more money at Barker’s.

Barker Equipment Company in Keosauqua paid more than minimum wage, and I was assured at least a 40-hour week. In September I started out at $1.025 (a dollar two and one-half cents) per hour. For a forty-hour week, I brought home about $39.62 after taxes were taken out. Since we usually worked five to eight hours overtime each week I often brought home over $50.

Work was exhausting because of the heat in the building from the spot welding equipment and the galvanizing plant. I would often fall asleep at the supper table at 4 pm! Even so, I worked hard and enjoyed the benefits. Barker was on the “profit-sharing plan,” and so employees received a bonus every three months, which was about the equivalent of one week’s wages. Our work was reviewed and we usually got small 2 1/2 cent/hour wage increases at that time. After 17 months I was making $1.275 (one dollar twenty-seven and one-half cents) per hour.

Like Morrell’s John Deere in Ottumwa paid extremely well for the times and industries in Fairfield and Mt. Pleasant paid well. Even though Barker didn’t pay nearly as much as factories outside the county, it was close to home and I enjoyed working with neighbors and friends.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick