Terminal nostalgia aside, life in years gone by was not easy or fun most of the time.
As much as anyone, I wish for a time when things were simpler and less complicated. But the truth is that if one looks back to the era seen above or a couple of decades before, folks worked pretty much all the time. The 40-hour work week with weekends off was a dream. The average Joe and Jane started their days before the sun came up and if they were lucky, finished some time after it went down. Leisure time was an occasional break, maybe on Sundays after church, but there were still plenty of chores to keep them busy, even then.
As an example, my great-grandfather, Christopher Cameron Walker, was born in a mining town. Eureka, Nevada on October 7, 1881. The miners who worked there at the time worked hard underground, getting the lead silver ore out of the mines. It was often hot, dirty and long hours 6 days every week. Few men got rich and those who did owned the claims the miners worked. The labors of the miners put dollars in their pockets, created by the ingots of that lead silver sent down to Selby, CA on the San Francisco Bay to be smelted down separating the lead from the silver. (The site of the smelter remains one of the most toxic places in all of California, with asphalt covering the worst area right on the bay shore.)
And Chris? At the age of 12, his father told him it was time for him to make his own way in the world. No more living at home, which by this time was in an even smaller and less profitable mining camp in northern Nevada called Safford. Chris had some schooling but not enough to have given him a trade, like his father – who successfully was apprenticed as a stone mason and a brewer before he left England for the USA.
Options were limited and Chris went to work as a vaquero on a number of different ranches up and down the nearby Pine Valley. A job he held for the next eight years. On the back of a horse, every day, wearing the same clothing. If it got cold, he might wear a second shirt. Otherwise, it was the same slouch hat, shirt, coat, jeans and boots. Working gear for the job of whatever needed doing on the ranches. Sometimes that involved rounding up the wild horses that roamed the valley. They would be gathered and driven to the rail head in Palisade to be sold for use back east. Life was pretty monotonous.
Health care? If you got sick, you either got better or you died. In many places, medicine came in the form of poured from a bottle. Badly mixed with alcohol and opiates if you were lucky. Doctors were something found elsewhere. Few and far between outside of big cities. The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 killed more people because there was little known about it and even less as to how to treat it all around the world. With soldiers coming home after the war, they brought it to populations ripe for infection. Another common fatal condition of the time? Childbirth. Took the lives of both mother and child. And even if both survived that, young children were lucky to survive life in those times. You name it, plenty of conditions carried on from the Victorian era into the modern world. And we won’t even go into violent death…
Chris gave up life on the range after a ride on the narrow gauge railroad that ran down the Pine Valley. But change from the biological horse to the iron horse was no easy time. You worked as called by the railroad. If it took 18 hours to get from one terminal to another, that is what it took and you worked that long day, for the amount the railroad paid. You just did what you had to because that is what the job you took was all about.
Today, many people may take for granted that unions fought and organized to get better conditions for workers as well as better hours and pay. On the railroads, a federal law guaranteed that no one could work more than 16 hours straight in a day. Later, the law was changed and that day reduced to 12 hours. And retirement? Railroad unions successfully organized one of the first federal government paid retirement systems, and it still is in place today, separate from Social Security.
The truth of it all is that life was harder then. Living in the old west was not as glamorous as stories, television and movies make it seem. Yes, things may have been simpler. In the days before cell phones and iPads, the lucky ones were those who worked hard to make a better life for their children. So that they would not have to go through what their parents did. Better educations, better medicine, better food… all of it.
It can be easy to forget all of this. Grumbling about spending a few extra hours working overtime. Cutting into your weekend. Instead, be glad that someone did make an effort so that you have what you have today. Don’t take it all for granted, because I can guarantee that folks back then who were not so lucky would not.
If for nothing else, we owe a word of thanks to the people who came before us and made today possible. ’nuff said.