Stories of Earl Brinkman: Growing Up Poor

Hiking to the Blueberry Ledges

As one of fourteen kids Dad and his siblings were always put to work in one way or another. Grandma Brinkman was a great cook and had many skills that helped keep the family fed. She would send the boys off to the blueberry ledges with homemade back packs made from old packing crates and strapping. It was an overnight trip because the ledges were several hours hike away. They would arrive, pick, make a camp fire and some shelter then hike back the next morning. Grandma would make preserves that would last through the winter. Yum!

Raising money through ingenuity. The old plant in Milwaukee.

The boys were always looking for ways to make money. After the family moved to Milwaukee from the U.P. there were many opportunities, some quite ingenious. There was an old factory not far from home that had been torn down, possibly a car plant. The boys in the neighborhood used to play ball on the empty lot, almost two square blocks. Two of the brothers discovered that every twenty feet there was a footer for the support columns. This footer had a big piece of plate steel on top.

But it was heavy! The problem was how to get the steel to the junk dealer, having no car or truck they could use. Well, the junk man had a push cart which was usual way back then. He left it every night, outside the gate to the yard, chained to the fence. The boys figured they could “borrow” it which is what they did after cutting one of the links. Every night they would go to the old plant site and collect as much steel as they could manage in the cart. Every morning, stacked up neatly at the gate was a pile of steel plate. This went on for several weeks until they had all the steel they could find out of the lot. They took their girlfriends out for dinner with the money. The Junk man was never the wiser.

Ball Bearings and Slingshots

While growing up in the upper peninsula there never was very much money, but there was plenty of game. The partridge would sit on the back fence behind the house. A shotgun shell was a nickel which was a lot of money back then. So the boys took apart old ball bearings and used the balls for ammunition in homemade slingshots. From what Dad said they got pretty good at putting a grouse dinner together. Also rabbits, squirrels and whatever else Grandma could cook up. When hunting season came around, (and sometimes when it didn’t come around), the rifles would come out and there was venison to smoke, salt down or make jerky out of. More hunting later.

Grandpa Brinkman and the Bread Crumbs

With so many mouths to feed Grandma Brinkman would bake bread almost every day. This was the crusty home baked kind that made a lot of crumbs when you ate it. Well, the family ate at a long wooden table in the kitchen. After dinner Grandpa Brinkman would very carefully brush all the bread crumbs together into a neat pile. He would then brush them, again very carefully, into the palm of his hand. Then without even batting an eye he would turn and brush the crumbs from his hands onto the floor.

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