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Friday, February 26, 2021

60 Years of Memories: Wages in Butler

ON THE SQUARE

60 Years of Memories of Butler

by James Ring

 

Wages In Butler

 

Butler of 60 years ago was a bustling place. As with most countyseat towns of the era, it was reasonably self-sufficient, in that you could obtain all necessities without expending a day driving into the Big City. Repairs, supplies, equipment—somebody was here to sell it to you. Entrepreneurial types could start up a business without fuss or bother, hiring willing workers for miniscule wages.

 

The standard of living was low, as was the scale of our existence. We were glad to have a job, satisfied to be able to put food on the table and gas in the car. For young men, the future was dominated by compulsory military service; you weren’t going to settle down and seek your fortune until after getting the Draft out of the way. In the interim, one would work at whatever jobs were available.

 

In my early teens, I did farm labor for 50-cents an hour, and was happy to get it. After high school, I took a salaried position on the Square for $35 a week (actually semi-monthly), for a 52-hour pay period. I actually saved money enough to buy a $550 used car in the first year, thanks to a raise or two.

 

By networking with other boys around town, extra work could be picked up from time to time. Most of us would have a couple of side gigs going, in addition to our main job. Taxes didn’t take a lot out of our pay stubs back then, and the state sales tax was only 2%. Cities and counties were satisfied to levy only property and real estate taxes.

 

Over the years, wages rose with inflation. There was a federal minimum wage, probably $1.75 an hour in the early 60s, but it only applied to businesses engaged in interstate commerce. Even in our border county, there wasn’t a lot of trade across the line. So, a buck-an-hour was common unskilled pay for those early years. When I went into the Army, my buck-private pay rate was $77 per month, paid in cash.

 

I don’t recall ever asking for a raise from an employer. I simply threatened to quit, and that did the trick. Figuring that the boss knew what I was worth to the company, and that if I wanted more I’d have to go somewhere else to work, signaling my intent to give notice somehow always made my labor more valuable. I remember thinking that if I ever brought home $1000 a month I would surely be among the upper-class. The most I recall earning from employment in Butler was $17,000 a year.

 

It was entirely possible to do better elsewhere, but at the cost of uprooting one’s life and moving to another state, or traveling after work around the country, getting home every other week perhaps. Living on the road was expensive in itself, and other states had a higher standard of living than Missouri, leaving one with not a lot more real income. 

 

Even 50 years ago, a lot of Butlerites commuted to work in Kansas City, an arduous daily trip that tacked on an extra three hours of time away from the family. The pay scale was attractive, but car-pooling or even keeping a City crash-pad cut into the take-home. Cars wore out in a couple of years of commuting, and shift-work is always hard on the body. 

 

So, working on the Square for less money allowed us to be ten minutes from work, spending lunch breaks with the family, and able to attend school and church functions. In truth, Butler eventually became only a base from which to make income from other sources, requiring occasional travel and continual telephone and mail correspondence. Today’s internet work style simply makes it faster. We worked at four jobs in our peak years, finding ways to “import” money into Butler from supplemental sources.

 

As longtime Butler resident Birdie White used to put it, “If a man can’t make it in Butler, he can’t make it anywhere.” The wage scale has always been lower than elsewhere, but the cost of living, and the ability to make a life, is better in a small town.