Arundel exhibit harvests relics of a rural past

Tokens: A display of pickers' checks, the metal discs used to keep track of what farm workers were owed, illuminates a chapter of the county's history.

May 26, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

More than a hundred years ago, Anne Arundel County truck farmers would hand over quarter-size bronze tokens to their workers as pay for picking produce.

Not the cardboard chips typically used farther north, these were called pickers' checks, and their shapes were specific to different types of produce -- round with scalloped edges for strawberries, round for peas and octagonal for beans.

Workers exchanged the tokens for money from the farmers, usually at the end of the season, for a previously negotiated price. Workers also used the pickers' checks to pay for items at local stores, and storekeepers later contacted farmers to redeem the tokens.

"The pickers loved it," said Will Mumford, past president of the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society. "The little pickers' checks felt like real money. [Workers] felt that they were being compensated with real money. Of course, they were later on, when [the checks] were redeemed."

The chips now are sought by the historical society as a way to help record the area's farmland history, and to document the number of tokens in the county -- whether in private or other public collections -- which Mumford claims has the largest collection in the nation. The society will present its Pickers' Check Fair today, and people are invited to bring tokens to donate to the society or to be photographed for its archives.

Used from the 1870s through the 1950s by truck farmers -- those who hired chiefly immigrant labor to harvest the produce they trucked to cities -- pickers' checks were made at hardware stores in Baltimore, where they were engraved with farmers' initials and a number, designating the amount of produce picked, Mumford said.

For example, a picker who gathered five baskets of strawberries received a scallop-edged round token engraved with the number 5. Eventually, the practice of distributing different shapes for different types of produce was abandoned, and the tokens were used interchangeably, he said.

The historical society has recorded about 1,500 different pickers' checks in the county. The 700 or so of those in the society's possession will be displayed at the fair, to be held at the Benson-Hammond House in Linthicum from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Mumford said it's unclear why county farmers used pickers' checks instead of the simpler cardboard tokens used in Virginia, New Jersey and New York. Farmers in Baltimore County and probably Howard and Harford counties also used pickers' checks, but less so than farmers in Anne Arundel County, he said.

The tokens were popular with workers, who sometimes sought out farmers who used pickers' checks and even accepted lower wages to get the tokens, he said.

"They just had more credibility with the pickers," Mumford said.

The county's documented pickers' checks are inventoried in Mumford's book, published in 2000, "Strawberries, Peas & Beans: Truck Farming in Anne Arundel County," which details the area's history of truck farming. More than 400 farmers in the area are known to have used the tokens. Some were kept by families and collectors, while others were lost throughout the years, Mumford said.

"I have documented several cases where farmers would take their pickers' checks when they were through with them and sell them for scrap metal," he said.

The pickers' checks reflect a chapter in the area's rich farming history. Truck farming dominated the area -- Anne Arundel County was considered to be one of the largest and most reputable truck farming areas in the nation during its time, Mumford said. The county is thought to have grown the nation's first strawberries for a commercial market, and to have been the top Maryland county for strawberry production in the early 1900s, he said.

"It's a significant part of our heritage that has never been documented and hasn't been in the history books, and not a lot of people know about it," Mumford said.

Emma Schramm has been colleting pickers' checks for 25 years, starting with her grandfather's collection, and acquiring others through word of mouth. At her Pasadena family farm's produce stand on Mountain Road, Schramm has displayed some of her tokens, and some people have offered to give her some of their pickers' checks.

Schramm, a member of the historical society, said she will display photographs of her tokens at the fair and hopes to add to her collection.

Bill Mueller of Crownsville started collecting pickers' checks after his brother-in-law, who collected them, died 10 years ago. Mueller, who grew up on his family's farm near Annapolis, wanted to continue the collection, and now has accumulated a few hundred different pickers' checks.

"It's a part of our agricultural history that has come and gone within a lifetime," said Mueller, also a member of the historical society.

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