I did not like to work; but I did as much of it, while young, as grown men can be hired to do in these days, and attended school at the same time.
-- Ulysses S. Grant 

A Midwest farm family

When Ulysses was growing up, kids spent a lot less time in school. But they made up for it with work, work, work! For economic reasons, most families depended on their children for labor around the house, in the family business, and sometimes outside the home. While Ulysses's family was better off than most, his father certainly expected Ulysses to contribute.

Story: A Talk About Work

How about a sneak peek at a conversation between Ulysses and his father, Jesse...

Jesse: Ulysses, you'll have to go into the beam room and help me to-day.

Ulysses: Father, this tanning is not the kind of work I like. I'll work at it, though... if you wish me to, until I am twenty-one; but you may depend upon it, I'll never work a day longer at it after that.

Jesse: My son, I don't want you to work at it now, if you don't like it, and don't mean to stick to it. I want you to work at whatever you like and intend to follow. Now, what do you think you would like?

Ulysses: I'd like to be a farmer, or a down-the-river trader, or get an education. 

-- adapted from Hamlin Garland (1898)

Memoirs Excerpt: Grant Describes His Chores

In my early days, every one labored more or less... It was only the very poor who were exempt. While my father carried on the manufacture of leather... I was fond of agriculture, and of all employment in which horses were used.

We had, among other lands, fifty acres of forest within a mile of the village... When I was seven or eight years of age, I began hauling all the wood used in the house and shops...

When about eleven years old, I was strong enough to hold a plough. From that age until seventeen I did all the work done with horses, such as breaking up the land, furrowing, ploughing corn and potatoes, bringing in the crops when harvested, hauling all the wood, besides tending two or three horses, a cow or two, and sawing wood for stoves, etc., while still attending school. 

-- Ulysses S. Grant (1885)

Interview: Max Byrd on Working in a Tannery

The young Grant went and he told his father he would work in the tannery until he was 21 because he had to, but after that he didn't plan ever to work in the tannery again.

A tannery, as particularly a 19th century tannery, was a place of blood -- blood everywhere. Gobs of animal fat. Smells, extraordinary smells that were said to stick with the tanner. You could tell a tanner, no matter how many times he had washed and bathed because the whole business, stuck to him.

What they had to do of course was to scrape the hair off of the hides and take away the blood and the fat and cure the leather in vats. Which were made with, full of tannic acid, the tanning process. And that tannic acid came from the barks of trees. Particularly the oaks and the pines that were in the forests around. One of the many reasons the forests went down was to supply those tanners with the acid they needed. But the tanning yard itself was an extraordinarily bloody and disorderly and smelly, noisome place. And Grant -- something in Grant's soul just recoiled from that.

Next: Horsing Around

My American Experience

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