Sunday, January 29, 2017

When 300 Mexicans Came to Grinnell...

All the present-day conversation about restricting immigration, about Mexican "rapists and criminals," and the building of walls has reminded me of a time when Mexicans came en masse to Grinnell. At a time when the total population of Grinnell barely exceeded 5,000, the local newspaper headline screamed that "300 Mexicans Are Coming," all young men recruited to help with detasseling when war-time labor was short. Almost simultaneously, a much smaller contingent of native Americans also reached Grinnell to detassel the smaller fields of Claude Ahrens's seed corn business. All these different-seeming young men descending upon small-town Grinnell must have provoked wonder.  But then, as now, large agricultural enterprises deemed immigrant workers crucial to their business success, which may explain why it is difficult to find much evidence of resentment against the newly-arrived Mexicans and native Americans, even though their numbers must have made the newcomers very visible in town. How did this all go down? And can we today learn anything from the experience?
Grinnell Herald-Register, July 10, 1944
The 1940 US Census had counted 5219 persons in Grinnell, but as World War II wore on, more and more Grinnell men put on their country's uniform and served in the Armed Forces, and these military demands put pressure on the local labor supply. In a community dominated by agriculture, this pressure was felt most acutely in businesses directly connected to farming, and therefore followed the seasonal flow of agriculture. The seed corn industry, only then beginning the exploitation of hybrid seeds, felt this pressure most in mid-summer when de-tasseling crews were needed to pass through the fields quickly and efficiently. How could the expanding needs of this young business adjust to the diminished labor market?
Women De-Tasselers near Grinnell (1944)
DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association
At first local seed corn companies tried to make do, using women and anyone who volunteered. Although I found no specific mention in the records of Grinnell women doing de-tasseling, a photograph from the DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association website clearly shows a group of women standing in front of a Grinnell field recently de-tasseled. Some extant reports do talk of downtown businessmen who rolled up their sleeves and gave their time to help de-tassel, presumably because the seed corn business was crucial to the town's economy.

As the war dragged on, however, the demand for farm labor—not only here in Grinnell, but across the country—accelerated, and overwhelmed earlier efforts to scrape by. The result was an August, 1942 intergovernmental agreement that was officially called "The Mexican Farm Labor Program," but was unofficially known as the Bracero Program. Thanks to this agreement, between 1942 and 1964 several million Mexican immigrants entered the United States to take low-paying, hard-labor jobs on American farms. Typically, large groups of braceros moved from one crop to another, in the process moving from one state to another.
DeKalb Seed Corn Building, 733 Main Street, Grinnell (ca. 1940) (former Grinnell Washing Machine Factory)
DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association
In the universe of 1940s American agriculture, Grinnell occupied a very small planet. Nevertheless, in 1944 operators of the local DeKalb seed corn plant arranged for some 300 Mexicans to come to Grinnell to help with de-tasseling. The first detachments arrived in mid-July. A "special car" attached to a train out of Minneapolis-St. Paul brought 62 Mexicans to town Saturday, July 15; a "large truckload of Mexicans" arrived the next day from Freemont, Nebraska (where they had been working in the sugar beet industry) along with a school bus of workers from New Ulm, Minnesota. A much larger group of Mexicans (238) reached Grinnell by train on Saturday, July 22. According to news reports, DeKalb arranged "sleeping quarters and shower baths" for the Mexicans at the DeKalb site on south Main Street, and contracted with a Chicago commissary company to prepare meals for them there.
Some of the Mexican temporary workers detraining in Grinnell, Greeted by Stanley Jorgenson of DeKalb Seed Co.
Grinnell Herald-Register, July 27, 1944

Grinnell Police Chief Glenn Bell Greets Newly-Arrived Mexicans
Grinnell Herald-Register, July 27, 1944
In anticipation of the cultural collision, DeKalb arranged to have Professor Harold Clapp (1909-1961) of Grinnell College's Foreign Language Department serve as "interpreter and a sort of public relations counselor." Clapp seems to have flung himself into the job, writing the Mexican consulate in Chicago to promise to look out for the city's guests. Perhaps in an effort to introduce the Mexicans to Grinnell in as positive a light as possible, Clapp helped arrange for some of the newly-arrived Mexicans to present a program of songs one night in Central Park, following immediately the weekly city band concert. According to the newspaper, "vocal numbers with guitar and mandolin and banjo accompaniment" included "La feria de las flores," "Viva Mexico!"  "Jalisco," and "Que lejos estoy." From the very first, therefore, ordinary wartime-Grinnell made at least a superficial acquaintance with the Mexican visitors and their culture. Announcing these plans, Clapp told the newspaper that the detasselers, for their part, were "much pleased, so far, with their treatment in Grinnell," although in so short a time the Mexicans could hardly have seen much of Grinnell. Nevertheless, relations seemed to get off to a good start.
1957 Cyclone
Given their work schedule and the fact that the visitors slept and ate at the DeKalb site, the Mexicans might have lived a fairly insular life, separated from the ordinary rhythms of 1940s Grinnell. Apparently, however, when not at work in the fields or bedding down at the DeKalb's site, the Mexicans were often in Central Park. At least that's what Josephine Hartzell (1902-2004) recalled when she was interviewed in 1992 by Betty Moffett. Hartzell remembered that "on Wednesday night[s] there was a concert in the park and those [Mexican] boys would finish work and run home and clean up and have a nice clean face and be all dressed nice, you know, with ordinary clothes on. And half the people in the park were Mexican boys. They come up to listen to the concert." Asked if there was any conflict between Mexicans and Grinnell townsfolk, Hartzell thought not: "Well, the Grinnell people didn't seem to pay much attention to the Mexican boys. They were nice and polite, as nice as they could be. But that's the only ones I was in contact with, the ones in the park."

Virgil Jones (1912-1995), interviewed by Valerie Vetter in 1992, had a different recollection. He thought that the Mexicans had arrived in the 1930s (rather than the 1940s) and had worked on the railroad (rather than in the corn fields). In so saying, he may have confused the World War II Mexican workers with an earlier (and smaller) group of Mexicans who came to Grinnell in the 1920s.  All the same, Jones was sure that the Mexicans he remembered were a quarrelsome lot. "Every morning they'd go down," he told Vetter, "and I'm not spoofing you, pretty near every morning they'd go down and they'd get into fights...They'd get in a fight, and they'd find one dead quite often. And they didn't know their name...[or] where they came from. They didn't know whether there was a brother or a dad or what. They took them out in a box and buried  them in Potter's Field. How many, I don't know."

Jones, who served in the US Navy during World War II and therefore was probably not in Grinnell when the Mexicans detasseled corn in 1944, and must have missed the DeKalb workers entirely. But he was right to say that some of the World War II-era Mexicans who worked in Grinnell died here, and were buried without markers in Hazelwood's potter's field (although knife fights played no part in their deaths).
Arbor Lake, Grinnell (ca. 1950?)
Digital Grinnell
In fact, the first Mexican death occurred almost immediately after the first arrivals reached town. On a hot Thursday evening, July 20, 1944, Manuel Rodriquez Ramos and three fellow-Mexicans had come to Arbor lake to cool off and have some fun. Although originally designed as a water supply for Grinnell factories, by the 1940s Arbor Lake had become Grinnell's main site of summer recreation with facilities for both swimming and boating. So it was perfectly understandable why Ramos and friends had made their way to Arbor Lake.

While his friends relaxed on the "dock-runway" that extended into the lake from shore, Ramos himself went swimming. What diverted the friends' attention we do not know, but at some point they realized that Ramos was not visible in the water, and they sounded the alarm. A lifeguard appeared, and after three unsuccessful tries finally located and retrieved Ramos's body from water that was less than six feet deep. Despite concerted efforts to revive him, Ramos was declared dead on the scene, a victim of accidental drowning. The newspaper reported that Ramos had come from Mexico City "where his widowed mother is still said to reside," the newspaper uncertainly offered. What attempts were made to contact the man's mother the paper did not say, but did report that funeral services were held Saturday morning at St. Mary's, and that Ramos was buried immediately thereafter in Hazelwood's potter's field—on the same day that the trainload of 200 more Mexicans reached town.

Ramos was evidently the only fatality among the 1944 Mexican visitors, but the following year, when Mexicans returned to help with detasseling, another death was registered. Melchior Hernandez, who was said to have been under a doctor's care before he ever reached Grinnell, fell ill in August, 1945 and was admitted to the hospital on August 11th. Newspaper accounts did not identify what the trouble was, but evidently the illness was serious: by Wednesday morning, August 15th, Hernandez was dead. As with Ramos, the newspaper seemed unsure about the man's identity, reporting only that he came "from the state of Jalisco," but that, "so far as can be determined, his only relation is a sister." Again St. Mary's provided services, and Hernandez, too, was buried in Hazelwood's potter's field, his grave unmarked.
Claude W. Ahrens (1940)
Judith W. Hunter, Grinnell's Entrepreneurial and Philanthropic Pioneer: A Biography of Claude W. Ahrens (Grinnell: Claude W. and Dolly Ahrens Foundation, 2009), p. 58
While DeKalb employed Mexicans to accomplish de-tasseling, the smaller seed corn operation of Claude Ahrens (1912-2000) turned to a different group of temporary laborers. Already in 1943, as the shortage of farm help began to manifest itself in war-time Grinnell, Ahrens had hit upon the idea of recruiting workers from the Menominee tribe of northeastern Wisconsin. How Ahrens came up with this idea, and how he identified the Menominee, who live some 400 miles from Grinnell, are not known. But, having somehow found them, Ahrens made a pilgrimage to the tribe's reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin, and there made "personal calls upon the mothers of the young people before they would consent to their children coming to Iowa to work." How many Menominee tribesmen Ahrens hired that first year the records do not say. But apparently they fulfilled their duties in Grinnell without any complications. And the next year Menominee veterans of Ahrens's 1943 detasseling crew told their friends and neighbors of "the largest field of corn they had ever seen" and how hospitably they'd been received in Grinnell, which made the 1944 recruitment "a simple matter."

Menominee "Indians" Brought to Grinnell to Detassel Greeted by Laird Wray, Ahrens Hybrid Seed Company
Grinnell Herald-Register, July 27, 1944
Consequently, just as the first small groups of Mexicans reached Grinnell, some forty workers arrived from the Menominee reservation in Keshena to help detassel the 1400 acres from which Ahrens intended to collect seed. Like DeKalb, Ahrens provided the transportation—by truck—and housing (in this case, tents on the premises of Ahrens's plant on US 6, east of town). According to the newspaper, the young men finished their work within three weeks, so they did not have long to rub shoulders with the rest of Grinnell's population. And perhaps for that reason the Menominee visitors left little trace of their sojourn here: no newspaper articles reported any special performances; there was no news of accidents or deaths; and their departure home went without notice. None of the reminiscences recorded decades later from Grinnell's farmers or other long-timers make any mention of the brief visit of the Menominee to walk the corn rows around Grinnell.

Ahrens Hybrid Seed Corn Company, Highway 6 East
Hunter, Grinnell's Entrepreneurial Pioneer, p. 65
What can we make of this tale of outsiders briefly penetrating a quiet, conservative Iowa town in wartime? For one thing, we should emphasize the fact that all these Mexicans and Native Americans were here, and that they worked hard, contributing to the prosperity of the town and to Grinnell's part in the war. So far as I can ascertain, all these men—and apparently they were all men—left Grinnell when the work was done. In other words, they came here to work, and work they did. They left their homes and families, they slept in makeshift accommodations, and they ate from large-scale commissaries that were unlikely to match the cooking to which they were accustomed. And in an era before detasseling employed any machinery, they worked hard, the hot sun enveloping them in sweat that was then liberally sprinkled with the itchy tassels they worked on. Moreover, so far as the evidence can report, there were no rapists or criminals among them, a fact that may need special emphasis in the present political environment.

Another point that deserves to be made is that the Mexicans did work that, without them, could not have been done. The fact that Claude Ahrens was so desperate for labor that he had to find help in a reservation 400 miles from Grinnell demonstrates how dire the situation was. Then, as now, I suspect, Mexicans came to the United States not to steal jobs from American citizens, but to do work that American citizens could not or would not do.

Finally, it bears emphasizing that the sojourn of Mexicans and Menominee tribesmen in Grinnell passed peaceably. Of course, the visit of outsiders was not long, and had it been longer, things might have gotten tenser. But the fact that men and women of different languages, cultures, and religions got along, even in the country's conservative mid-section, is a lesson we need to be reminded of as we contemplate our own world today.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Dan. This is an especially important story in light of the xenophobic policies being executed now that only seem to view migrants in a fearful and suspicious light.