A few years ago it used to be big business for folks to go out and pick up cans alongside the highways and sell them. But that seems to have fallen along the wayside, whether due to loss of interest or the price they were getting paid.
In the Old West lots of people turned to the bone business to survive. Men loaded up their wives and children in their wagons and set out across the Plains, picking up animal bones, especially those of dead buffalo. Those people who made a living doing that were called “bone pickers.”
From 1870 to roughly 1883, herd upon herd of buffalo were decimated by buffalo hunters. They’d shoot the animals and leave them to rot in the sun. Then along came the bone pickers to pick up the bones and haul them to the nearest rail head for shipment back East. Firms that specialized in the making of fertilizer and bone china paid dearly for the gruesome shipments.
Bone Pickers earned around eight dollars a ton for the bones, which was pretty good money for that time. It kept a lot of people from starving I imagine.
And they sometimes they formed a caravan with as many as 100 bone wagons traveling together. All those bone wagons must’ve been quite a sight. Here in Texas, San Antonio shipped 3,333 tons back East between July 1877 and November 1878. It was big business.
Hundreds of bone roads crisscrossed Texas. Wichita Falls, the place where I used to live until 2009, sat on a major one. Strange isn’t it that you never know all about a place and find out new things only after you move away?
To avoid “bone wars,” the pickers lived by an unwritten code. The first one upon an area had the right to those bones and no one else could come in take over. That way, the bone picker didn’t have to guard his territory day and night or rush to get through.
Bone piles stacked alongside railroad tracks sometimes reached ten feet high, twenty feet wide, and a quarter of a mile long. That’s a whole lot of bones.
Once the buffalo bones were gone, bone pickers turned to collecting cattle bones here in Texas. Ranchers would pay to have pastures kept clean of bones. This practice continued well into the twentieth century.
So, are there any bone pickers out there? What is most desperate thing you’ve ever done to make ends meet? Would you have resorted to collecting bones?