An interesting article in the New York Times this week (Teaching Children to Help Neighbors, With or Without Reward) approached the subject of kids shoveling snow for money or as a good deed. That got Mister Boomer thinking about his snow shoveling days of yore.
Growing up in the Midwest, you could be certain there would be ample snow from December through March. It seemed understood that since most families had two to five children, boomer boys living in the suburbs would take on the job of snow removal. Girls rarely shoveled snow or performed other outdoor ground maintenance, unless there were no boys in the family. For young males, it was part of their expected chores by the age of eight. Each season had its outdoor equivalent: spring, lawn dethatching and grass edging; summer, lawn mowing and weeding; fall, leaf raking; and winter, snow shoveling. The man of the house usually took over the tree and shrub pruning, lawn seeding and fertilizing duties, and when available, would help with the snow removal.
The boomer years between the 1950s and 60s saw the introduction of the first walk-behind home snowblower units. Drop back nearly one hundred years earlier, and there are conflicting stories as to which Canadian man, J.W. Elliot or Robert Carr Harris, received the first patent for the snowblower. Most sources, however, point to 1870 as the patent date. The first snowblowers were created and used exclusively for clearing railroad tracks. Then in 1925, Arthur Sicard, another Canadian, patented the first practical application of the design, based on a farm thresher and attached in front of a four-wheel drive truck.
By the mid-sixties there were several brands of snowblowers available for home use, but there were no such contraptions in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood until the latest part of the decade. Instead, there was kid power. Once Mister B and his brother cleared their own family’s driveway and sidewalk, their parents would tell them to go and shovel the walkways of the seniors on the block, especially when there was significant snowfall. The Boomer Brothers didn’t argue or question the reasoning, and there was no expectation of payment involved. Rather, it was taught to be the right thing to do.
In times of the heaviest snowfalls of eight or more inches, the kids on the block would get together in groups of two, four or six and head out in a quest for money-making snow removal opportunities. Looking like the “Hi-Ho” dwarves of Snow White, they would toss the family snow shovel over one shoulder and traverse the neighborhood for houses that had untouched snow. Homes known to house small children or no children were prime targets. All day the intrepid laborers went about their route, occasionally breaking a larger group in two in order to complete more houses in the same time frame.
Payment was on a pay-what-you-wish basis. The transaction usually went like this: one of the boys would knock on the door while the others remained on the sidewalk; when the occupant answered the door, the boy would ask if the homeowner wanted their snow removed. Some might say, “No thank you, I’ll be doing it myself,” but others might ask, “How much?” The standard response was, “You can pay us what you want.”
Once the job order was received, the shovelers got to work. It was usually best to start at the front porch and top of the driveway and work down to the street. Sometimes large mounds appeared in the street at the bottom of the driveway apron, pushed there by cars as they meandered through the snow. Every driver bought snow tires as a necessary part of their winter driving experience, since Mister Boomer’s city didn’t have snow plows for city streets until the late 60s. Even then, it was reserved for the heaviest of snowfalls. Whether put there by Mother Nature or a city plow, the boys would shovel part of the street to give the homeowner a fighting chance to back out of the driveway and into the snow ruts that had formed a permanent structure in the roadway for the winter months.
Job completed, the same boy who contracted the job went to the door for payment. In most instances the homeowners gave the group between fifty cents and a couple of dollars. At the end of the day, the boys were cold, achy and tired, but could claim up to three dollars each for their day’s work — that’s the purchasing power of around $40 in today’s terms. Mister Boomer recalls this as a tiring, yet fun way to make some extra cash. He had a strict policy of banking half of any earned money, keeping the other half for toy and candy purchases without the need for parental involvement. Unfortunately, Mister B didn’t continue the plan of banking half his earnings past his teenage years.
How about your snow-shoveling memories, boomers? Did you shovel the walks of senior citizens and the infirm for free? How about shoveling for cash? Were you a boomer girl who regularly shoveled snow?