In the winter of 1917, Helen Stevens was a college girl living in New York City. She’d never held a hoe or milked a cow. And she’d certainly never worn men’s overalls. But times were changing. There was a war on, and everyone needed to do their bit to help the cause.
Some girls rolled bandages and knitted socks for soldiers overseas. Others volunteered to be nurses or to work telegraph machines. But Helen saw a sign that took root in her heart. She knew farmland in Europe had been destroyed by fighting, and people there were starving. America’s farms were more important than ever. Problem was, there weren’t enough men to work them.
Some people thought that healthy young women could be trained to work the farms. Many folks laughed at that idea, but not Helen. That spring, she traveled north to a training farm in Bedford, New York. She joined other women– college students like herself, dressmakers, teachers, factory workers, and secretaries. Some of them had husbands and children at home. They didn’t know much about farming, but there were people there to teach them. The women were eager to learn.
And learn they did. They learned how to plow and hoe and pitch hay. Helen learned that potatoes don’t grow on trees, and her friend Alice learned the difference between a bean plant and bindweed.
They milked cows, drove tractors, mended fences, and whitewashed the hen house. On rainy days, they learned how to can vegetables and swept out the root cellar.
Just about the only thing Helen couldn’t learn was how to make peace with snakes.
On Sundays, they’d relax. They had an rickety Ford automobile that they named Henry, which they’d ride into town to take in a picture show.
When the training was over, Helen’s muscles were stronger. Blisters had turned into calluses. Shovels and pitchforks felt like parts of her body. Helen and the girls called themselves “Farmerettes,” and they were ready to load up Henry with tools and lunch buckets and drive to neighboring farms. They wanted to work those fields, to do their bit.
But the farmers wouldn’t hire them.
“I got enough to do without minding of bunch of girls,” one said.
“They’ll be more trouble than they’re worth,” said another.
Helen knew the Farmerettes just needed one farmer to hire them. Once that farmer could see what they could do, he’d tell another farmer, who’d tell another. Word would spread like bindweed.
Would anyone give them a chance?
Helen and the girls waited. And waited. Days turned into weeks. They puttered around, tending camp and sharpening tools. But Helen wasn’t trained to putter. She wanted to work.
One day, Helen drove Henry to the Davies’s farm, a few miles away. She looked around at fields that needed plowing and planting and seeding and weeding, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door.
Helen was a sight for the farmer’s wife. But Mrs. Davies motioned to where her husband was out thinning the spring turnips.
“Mr. Davies,” Helen said. “I’ve got twenty-four girls at Bedford, trained and itching to work. Let us come tomorrow to show what we can do. If you don’t find us helpful, we’ll not bother you again.”
Farmer Davies stood up and stretched his back. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“I heard you girls expect men’s wages,” he said.
Helen dug her boot heels in that hard, packed earth. She wanted to work; they all did. But she knew her team deserved fair pay.
“We’ll work tomorrow for free,” she said. “But if you ask us back, we’ll take the going rate. Two dollars a day, same as the men.”
Farmer Davies looked out toward the cow pasture. I do need to mend that fence, he thought. Maybe these girls could work the turnips. He scratched the dirt with his toe and spat.
“Bring your five best girls. Be here by seven, ready to work.”
The gong sounded at 5:30 like it did every morning. Helen and her team buzzed like honey bees, racing to wash up, get dressed and eat breakfast. They loaded their tools and their lunch pails into Henry and settled in. Today was the day they’d show what they could do.
Except Henry wouldn’t start. They cranked and cranked the engine, but Henry only sputtered and hissed. No, Helen thought. Not today!
“Harriet, take the wheel,” she ordered. “Everyone else, get out and push!” Five girls pushed that Ford automobile down the hill, until the engine finally caught and they scrambled back in. Nothing would keep them from working that day!
The sun beat down and the sweat ran down, and the Farmerettes worked. Helen had never smelled anything as nasty as a turnip plant, but she didn’t let up. Not even when a black snake slithered between her boots. She was a Farmerette, and nothing would stop her from doing her bit.
At the end of the day, the girls had thinned the turnips and weeded the peas and even helped with the fencing. Farmer Davies looked around and let out a long, slow whistle. “Glory be,” he said. “What you girls can do! I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.” Mrs. Davies brought them out some pie.
Back at the camp, the girls washed up and ate supper. A few danced to tunes coming from the Victrola. Some wrote letters to family back home. Before it was fully dark, Helen flopped down on her cot and fell asleep to the sounds of cicadas whirring in the trees. She was tuckered out.
In a year’s time, she’d travel the country, telling stories about her days as a Farmerette, encouraging young women to give farm work a try.
But come morning, she’d wake to another long day, working those fields. And she’d work, yes indeed. She’d do her bit.
There was a war on, you see.
A great mix of history, humor, and some really nice writing, There Was a War On tells a terrifically appealing story.
—Rebecca Stead, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge
Printed here with permission of the author and Charlesbridge Publishing, “There Was a War On” is forthcoming as Doing Her Bit from Charlesbridge in fall 2016