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Book Review: 'Hoboes' by Mark Wyman

This scholarly work delves into the history of migrant labor across the American West, lending valuable context to an issue still with us today.

May 23, 2010|By Wendy Smith, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Image from the book "Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Friut Tramps and the Harvesting of the West" by Mark Wyman.
Image from the book "Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Friut Tramps and the Harvesting… (See caption, Farrar, Straus…)


Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps and the Harvesting of the West

Mark Wyman

Hill and Wang: 336 pp., $28

Given the legislation recently passed in Arizona, designed to send all those pesky undocumented workers back south of the border, it's ironic to read in Mark Wyman's valuable history of migrant labor "Hoboes" that, as early as 1912, Arizona cotton growers were actively recruiting Mexican workers. When anti-immigrant sentiment flared during the economic slump following World War I, Southwestern landowners argued that it would mean "ruin and bankruptcy" if Congress denied them the right to import foreign labor. Don't worry about them hanging around after the cotton was picked, Texas Rep. Joseph Mansfield assured a 1920 congressional hearing: "My observation is that when a Mexican gets a little money he wants to go back to Mexico to spend it."

The attitude toward Mexicans was exactly the same as it had been toward every ethnic group that joined the itinerant labor force harvesting crops across the American West after intensive agriculture requiring large numbers of seasonal workers took hold at the end of the 19th century. Whether they were white hobos shocking wheat on the Great Plains, Native Americans drying hops in the Pacific Northwest, German-Russians topping sugar beets in Nebraska, Chinese or Japanese picking fruit in California, growers wanted them to show up when they were needed, then disappear once the crops were harvested. Their long-term presence was neither needed nor desired; if they tried to buy land themselves or demand better wages and working conditions, they were no longer welcome at all.

This floating agricultural proletariat had more in common with the workforce of America's burgeoning industries than it did with the independent proprietors of small family farms. (Indeed, loggers and miners sometimes resorted to picking berries or chopping cotton during shutdowns and layoffs.) Western agriculture, Wyman reminds us, was a capital-intensive business serving a national market. When railroads with refrigerated freight cars made it possible to move fruits and grains across the continent beginning in the 1870s, vast profits beckoned Western farmers. Irrigation projects made formerly arid lands productive; now you could grow apples in Eastern Washington and citrus fruits in Southern California.

But these innovations came at a price. "Western farmers' start-up costs could be enormous," Wyman writes, forcing them "to stake everything on intensive plantings that would provide the returns they needed to survive." Individual farms and entire regions increasingly relied on large-scale cultivation of a single crop. There were not enough local hands to harvest these huge fields in the sparsely populated West, and specialization meant that the growers in a given area would all need lots of migrant workers at the same time. Since a crop left rotting in the pasture spelled financial disaster, growers unsurprisingly devoted a great deal of attention to encouraging an abundant labor supply at harvest time and very little to worrying about what to do if too many people showed up.

The book begins with such a scene: 200 men packed into the Aberdeen Commercial Club, "begging for work with no questions asked as to wages, while farmers in that area of South Dakota for miles around in all directions were supplied with all the harvest hands they could use." This was the local result of both the federal government and the region's newspapers proclaiming that some 100,000 workers were needed across the Great Plains in the summer of 1914. The new system of farming, which turned the West into the bread- and fruit-basket of the nation, had human consequences, and those are Wyman's subject. His narrative moves from the Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest, down to Kansas and Nebraska, then on to the Southwest before winding up in California, as he delves into the particulars of cultivating various crops and the ways they shaped the lives of the people who worked in them.

This is a scholarly text, and not every reader will be dying to get the step-by-step details of stoop labor in the sugar beet fields or to know that the ratio between steady annual employment and harvest-time labor in a citrus grove was 1 to 10. But Wyman, who has written several books on immigration and labor, connects his data to personal outcomes: the child screaming from back pain after working all day "in the beets"; the Minnesota farmhand who went to pick fruit and returned saying that he had "not been treated much better than a dog by his employers in California."

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