It's hard work, picking beans, but many Polish immigrants felt that they didn't have a choice during the Depression years. Money was tight, jobs were scarce, families were large and discrimination was rampant. So come summertime, mothers would head out from Baltimore to farmland in Pennsylvania and Maryland with their children in tow.
Some of the women skinned tomatoes or husked corn, but mostly, families with children as young as 5 worked side by side picking beans. They would work six days a week, heading out when the sky was dark and the fields wet with dew. If they were lucky, they made 2 cents a pound (some remember a half penny or 1 penny a pound) and when the season turned, they would return home with enough money to make it through the year.
The pickers have aged, many of the old farms have disappeared and Fells Point is no longer the center of the Polish community. But once a year, those who remember - or who grew up hearing about summers in Chestertown, Hickory, New Windsor or High Rock, Pa. - gather on South Broadway for a bean pickers dance.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Monday about a dance at the Polish Home Club incorrectly referred to Anita Borzymowski as a widow. Joseph Borzymowski, her husband and the former president of the club, lives in a nursing home in Baltimore.
The Sun regrets the errors.
At yesterday's celebration at the Polish Home Club, revelers ate string bean soup made with pork-neck broth and dill pickle juice. Some wore overalls or straw hats or necklaces with string beans dangling from them. They danced the polka and rang bells and mused about days when life was harder - but simpler, too.
"I was 5 years old. My father died and left my mother with eight children. The only way we survived was picking beans," said Ed Majgraf, 76, of Dundalk. "We didn't realize we were poor. We thought everyone lived this way."
During the summer, they lived in shacks and slept on beds of straw, Majgraf said. At 4:30 a.m., they would ride down to the fields in trucks. He picked for eight years, until he was 13.
He hated it, he said, then paused and added, "In retrospect, it was probably the best years of my life."
John Moreno of Essex remembers stooping all day in the hot sun and the morning dew that would soak the children from their hips to their toes.
"By today's standards, you would say, `Hell, I'm not going to do this,'" said Moreno, 77, who started picking when he was 6. "But they always told us kids, `If you don't work, you don't eat.'"
Virginia Bielecki met her husband picking beans - he was 14, she was 12, and they married seven years later.
"Oh, I loved it," said Bielecki, 78, of Dundalk. The children would find swimming holes, hang tire swings and bathe in crystal-clear stream water.
"It taught us a lot," she said. "About hard work, family unity. ... It was like living in a lost age."
Such sentiments led Joseph Borzymowski, the former president of the Polish Home Club, to found the bean pickers dance about 25 years ago.
Borzymowski's widow, Anita, recounted how they used to bring live chickens into the dance hall, raffle off string bean plants and set up a mock outhouse.
Since then, the ranks of actual bean pickers have thinned, but they haven't been forgotten.
Nearly 300 people attended yesterday's party. Volunteers made creamy, sour string bean soup and, later, onion-and-baloney sandwiches on rye bread. Men smoked cigars, old friends hugged and polka music filled the dark, cool hall. There was white hair aplenty, but the men and women danced as if they were teenagers and the beans in the fields were fat and ready to be plucked.
At the front of the room, a life-size farmer doll with a straw hat and suspenders sat on the stage above signs with the names of towns where young workers used to spend their summers. The music picked up and a crowd of revelers rushed to the front of the room with bells. The jingling rang out through the hall.
Majgraf raised his voice to be heard over the music and tried to explain why he attended the dance each year.
"It's like remembering your roots," he said. "Remembering where you came from."