A Bounty of Starling Feet

Starlings have long been bird pests, causing damage and spreading disease.

That was a good thing the summer of 1938 for Dale Wilson, who was just about to start his senior year at Dexter High School.

Money was hard to come by during the Depression. Because of that, Dale’s two older brothers had joined the Navy out of high school. Donald had stayed in, but Delbert thought he could earn enough in California to send money home. But things were tough there too, so he’d ended up hitchhiking back to Iowa.

On June 3, Dale tied feet from 36 starlings to a wire bicycled to Adel, seventeen miles away. He brought home $3.60. He’d need to pay for his senior pictures, a class ring, and have extra expenses that school year.

His older sister Doris had dropped out of A.I.B., a business school in Des Moines where she’d played basketball for tuition and worked at Bishop’s Cafeteria for meals. But she could no longer pay for her room, so was living in Guthrie Center and waitressing for relatives at Cronk’s Cafe.

Four days later, Dale headed for Adel with feet dangling from 48 starlings and 3 crows. His mother Leora was so relieved when he returned home, this time with $5.10.

So only four Wilson kids were still at home, which then was the two-story house across from where the Dexter park is now.

They were living there free.

Goffs, Leora’s parents, had been buying the house. After Mr. Goff died in 1930, two brothers lived there with their mother. They had bought trucks to earn money doing hauling, but jobs dried up. They couldn’t make truck payments plus the mortgage.

The house was in foreclosure.

Another of Leora’s brothers had a furnace business in Omaha, so Goffs moved to Omaha to live with and work for him.

Halfway through June, feet from another 55 starlings netted $5.50. The Wilson boys had pooled their money to buy the bike from Freestones for $10.

Clabe Wilson, their dad, worked on part time WPA jobs–keeping the town pump oiled, sometimes doing roadwork, even remodeling the Dexter library.

Wilsons had a huge garden and canned everything they could. Neighbor O.S. Neal would hire Danny or Junior to help him deliver milk. Mr. Neal would pay his helper a little cash, plus milk to take home.

Three days later Dale brought home $4.70 cash.

Dale’s twin Darlene had taken care of a neighbors’ kids for several years, so was also earning money for things she’d need their senior year.

Even though the Wilson boys had seen a flock of 2000 starlings while out hunting, the bounty money was canceled July 1. Dale made one more trek to Adel for $6.50 more.

Even Junior, age 12, earned money that summer, at 50 cents a day, helping tear down the old Dexter hotel. The other workers called him “Swee’Pea,” from Popeye cartoons, because he’d wear one of his brothers’ sailor hats to work.

$25.40 in all, for feet from 254 bird pests. And all that bicycle riding got Dale in shape for sports.

“Mom, what size shoes do you wear?” Dale had the big Sears, Roebuck Catalogue out on the kitchen table, to make out an order.

“Now Dale, you’re not going to spend your hard earned money on shoes for me.”

“Yes, I am.”

Leora nearly cried. Dale told his mother to pick out a pair from the catalog. He’d noticed that the soles in her shoes had holes, and she’d cut cardboard to fit in them.

Sturdy women’s shoes cost about $3.00, or thirty starlings. And there was still money enough for the senior expenses of a determined seventeen-year-old.

1938

A rare picture of all five Wilson brothers, July 1938: Dale, Donald, Junior , Delbert, Danny.

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