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The Bear Minimum

A Nostalgic Look at Some Bear Truths of Adirondack Economics

As I sit here penning this story to page, the minimum wage here in New York State is $15.00 an hour. $15.00 an hour! To an old bear like me, that seems a king’s ransom. But there it is. Cold hard fact. I just looked it up.

Life’s economics were far simpler for bear cubs growing up in Saranac Lake in the mid-1970’s. Standard equipment consisted of fishing poles and baseball mitts. Cell phones did not exist. Our primary means of transportation was a good old fashioned self-pedaled bicycle.

A young cub’s primary currency consisted of baseball cards and comic books. In 1974, baseball cards cost fifteen cents a pack. Most comic books were a quarter. We bought them at Hoffman’s Pharmacy, collected them, traded them, and used them routinely for barter.

Though I was only 11 years old at the time and far from aspiring to earning an hourly wage even remotely approaching that much, the NYS minimum wage in 1974 was $2.00 an hour.

My earliest cash money paydays were generated by newspaper routes, wild blueberries and yardwork.

I was Mom’s best blueberry picker, and Man! come July and August, every road, rail and trailside field was loaded! On a good day, I could pick at least ten quarts. Once I’d filled my mom’s order, I’d sell wild blueberries to all of her friends for fifty cents a quart.

Before I was old enough for Dad to entrust me with his lawnmower, one way I augmented my blueberry picking income was with yardwork. There was an older gentleman who lived up on Trudeau Road, down by the AMA complex, near the end of my paper route. I recall working long hot days raking leaves and mowing for that man for twenty-five cents an hour plus lunch, which each and every day consisted of Starkist tuna straight from the can, a stack of Saltine crackers, and a bowl of Campbell’s creamy chicken soup.

I worked for that old man for the better part of two summers. When I held out for a raise to fifty cents an hour, he fired me.

I had a paper route too, delivering Adirondack Daily Enterprises.

Seventy-two newspapers in a canvas bag carried over my shoulder, out along the Old Lake Colby Road and down Trudeau Road past Pisgah. As I recall, newspaper customers initially paid fifty cents a week for a subscription. Paper boys collected weekly, receiving a small stipend per customer once we settled our account at the Enterprise office with the distribution manager, Mr. Bishop.

That stipend was peanuts though compared to a newspaper boy’s primary income mode: tips. Most folks simply gave us a dollar a week, which, with seventy-two customers, sure added up fast, especially around Christmas!

I remember not long after I took over my route, the Enterprise raised its weekly subscription price to seventy-five cents, and not very long thereafter, raised it again to a dollar. As a result, delivering newspapers became a far less lucrative affair, because all the Enterprise in essence did was confiscate the bulk of my tips.

After that I held a variety of jobs. All through high school I mowed grass for the Village Improvement Society, did janitorial work and shoveled sidewalks for The Saranac Lake Free Library, all while learning the fine art of slinging pizza’s and building submarine sandwiches at Dagwood’s.

In 1979 the NYS minimum wage was $2.90 an hour. It took me 15 minutes on my way to school to shovel the library’s front sidewalk. So, in 1979 I earned a gross wage, before taxes, of seventy-five cents each time I shoveled that sidewalk.

In 1980 the minimum wage rose to $3.10 an hour, and by 1981 it had risen again, to $3.35 an hour.

(Yes! As my wife will attest, I save EVERYTHING!)

I worked at Dagwood’s off and on all the way through college. Over nearly an eight-year span, the owners never once even remotely considered giving me a raise above minimum wage. They claimed I ate way too much to merit a raise. I never did the actual math, but I’m pretty sure their claim was most likely true.

After high school, I got a summer job working for the DEC as a laborer. Minimum wage in 1981 was $3.35 an hour.

(I got all of my minimum wage figures via Google. So, if by chance any of them are incorrect, my apologies.)

I spent most of my first two summers working at Meadowbrook campsite, before graduating full time in 1983 to the NYSDEC trail crew.

In 1983 a seasoned NYSDEC trail crew member was paid $5.21 an hour, which was a very respectable wage for an aspiring young bear back then. It was more than enough to fund both my adventuresome summer break thirsts and my college expenses.

Although I must admit that younger bear version of me never encountered the sticker shock economics of rowing in from camp only to discover he needed an emergency stop at TF Finnegan’s for a resupply of belt, socks, and shoes in order to be at least moderately stink free and presentable for his high school class reunion.

My $300.00 class reunion shoes. (That’s a WHOLE ‘nother story).

So, while I was more than a bit taken aback to learn of New York State’s minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour, I realize that my economic frame of reference may be somewhat dated.

Though I will note that most of the old bears I know still to this day without second thought gladly put in a good honest day’s work for a nice big piece of one of Mom’s yummy pies.

Some bear minimum wage rates are eternal.


Until Our Trails Cross Again:


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