Prairie Tayles: Old Ideas Have Merit

Sep 1, 2017

Even though I clerked, waitressed, mowed, and lifeguarded to earn my way through college, I had only one career-- an English teacher. My husband’s path was similar. He worked first as a fish culturist for Wildlife and Parks, but when a game warden position opened, he applied and served in that field until he retired. Imagine learning during the last few years I taught that students currently graduating can expect to have 25 different occupations throughout their professional lives. How do you prepare youngsters for that?

My colleagues and I offered students a foundation in basics along with practicing the ability to adapt. A task that seemed daunting until I discovered something important during genealogical research. Heavens, most of our ancestors’ jobs haven’t existed for generations or aren’t in demand today. Those dead relatives often recalibrated in mid-life when lost markets or industrial revolutions collapsed livelihoods.

Through family stories, I knew my ancestors worked as teachers, preachers, and storekeepers. Their other occupations surprised me. One fellow was a wool comber. I had to think about this until I realized he lived in rural England before factories existed, during a time when wool or flax provided raw materials for clothing. Apparently, his task involved combing freshly sheared and washed sheep hair so that spinners could perform their magic. A weaver friend works with this fiber from the time it’s harvested until it’s turned into yarn and understands what this job entails. However, it’s her hobby, not her livelihood.

Another relative listed his occupation as tanner. This made sense since I know a professional who prepares elk and deer hides for those who make either furnishings or rendezvous apparel from scratch. However, he’s the only one I know specializing in this lost art on a grand scale. Besides, it’s a sideline to his western décor business.

A distant great-grandpa designated cooper as his profession. I looked that one up because I wasn’t sure what it involved. Before cellophane, plastic, and paper packaging were common, coopers either constructed or repaired barrels that families used for storage and shipping. While modern ones are molded from plastic of some kind, wood deteriorates. Finding functional containers at antique sales isn’t at all common while locating a cooper to repair one is nearly impossible.

One relative was a glover during Massachusetts’ early years. I wondered how he earned enough to support his large family before realizing colonial Americans wore gloves far more often than present day residents do. He’d have maintained a supply of sturdy hand gear sewn from hide as well as finer dress wear created from supple nubuck or suede. In addition, women bought cotton and wool gloves for fashion and warmth. Since he paid taxes and left a will, he must’ve had ample business.

A common factor in my predecessors’ jobs was that few required college degrees and most demanded specific skills a person could apprentice to learn. According to Mike Rowe’s Foundation at, many youngsters sitting in desks today could fill thousands of available jobs if they trained for a semester or two at a vocational school rather than spending four years in college. Seems like old ideas still have merit.