They usually hang from a hook in my garage, but as I write this, they are stretched across my lap. Faded to a soft blue, the denim worn and tattered in places and one of the hooks sewed to the fabric where a button is missing, my grandfather’s Old Kentucky overalls are a tangible testament to a working man’s life and I treasure them. Although he died in 1973 and this garment has been washed many times, in my olfactory memory bank, I can still smell a trace of Pa Joe. A hint of stale tobacco, sweetened a bit by peppermint he sneaked from the candy dish when my grandmother’s back was turned and that singular Lava soap smell. My grandfather was a contractor who built fine homes and denim overalls served him well when he was on the job and I find, in my role as an organic farmer, they are the perfect apparel.
In my former career as a public high school media coordinator, aka, librarian, I was required to wear “professional” dress, even though my duties often included handling filthy equipment, dusting shelving where black widow spiders lurked and even cleaning a faculty restroom. Although, depending upon the principal in charge, there was usually not a formally adopted dress code for staff, casual attire was not encouraged. A colleague once told me her former principal forbade female teachers to wear socks, but when my office temperatures dipped into the sixties during winter months when the ancient heater refused to work, I was grateful for thick socks. For a few years, my coworkers and I donated money to the student benevolence fund in exchange for the privilege to wear blue jeans on Fridays. When I retired, after thirty years of employment, I found it liberating to wear jeans every day, if I chose to do so.
At the farm, I work for long periods of time and it is convenient to carry my cell phone, a pocketknife, small tools and other items in my pockets. With several cultivated acres, it is difficult to remember to take everything I need from one field to another and I often run back to my vehicle to retrieve something I forgot to take with me. I quickly discovered jeans pockets could not hold everything I needed to carry along. And then, there was that darned cell phone. Stored in a pocket, as I bent to pull weeds or stretched to harvest tall crops, my phone would make calls or send texts. Most of the time, the number belonged to someone I knew, but sometimes, strangers received calls from me. Even after I added the security of a locked code, I would still have occasional problems. Finally, I discovered the freedom of wearing overalls.
Not only are the pockets deep enough to carry (almost) everything I need, the fabric is soft and breathes with my body, making it a good choice for hot summer days and for most farm tasks, the long pants protect my legs from cuts and scratches. After wearing overalls, I understand why Pa Joe believed they were the perfect work uniform.
When I was a child, it was not uncommon for men, especially farmers, to wear overalls, but they were almost exclusively a work garment. On Sundays and workday evenings, these same overall-wearing men would don slacks, dress shirts, polished shoes and perhaps a hat. In addition to Pa Joe’s overalls, I also have one of his hats. It is made of soft gray felt, adorned with a black grosgrain ribbon and a tiny metal airplane. A gold stamp inside the brim reveals it was purchased from “Lee & Robbins, Men’s Fashion Shop, Lenoir, North Carolina.” Although Lee & Robbins is no longer in business, I remember that store, its rich smells of leather and shoe polish and helpful salesmen with tape measures at the ready.
At some point, I suppose overalls fell out of favor, probably replaced by blue jeans. When I was a young child, I recall shopping for Pa Joe’s work apparel with my grandmother. We walked down the wide staircase to the basement department of our local Belk store, where there were stacks of dark blue denim overalls for sale. These days, I purchase them from online stores.
Although I enjoy wearing utilitarian overalls, they are certainly not trendy and I doubt they will appear on any fashion show runways in the near future. Once, after working much longer than I planned, I realized I did not pack enough water for my trip to the farm and I was very thirsty. I drove to a nearby convenience store and picked up a bottle of cold water. As I walked to the cash register, a man, dressed in a nice suit, with a necktie, walked in the front door, directly in the path I walked. I smiled at him and he looked at my feet, clad in boots, and I saw his eyes widen when he slowly looked up, noted my overalls’ dirty knees, and then, in almost horror, he turned and ran the other way. I suppose he was not used to seeing female farmers, dressed in professional work attire.
I have learned many lessons while working at Heart & Sole Gardens. Growing my grandmothers’ heirloom seeds, saved by my family for generations, connects me to my ancestors in ways that sometimes surprise me. The physical work strengthens my aging body and the fresh air blows cobwebs of stress from my mind. If you haven’t tried your hand at growing your own food, I highly recommend the job. The dress code is an added bonus.