Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (review)
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Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West. By Mark Wyman. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Pp. 336. $28.00 cloth)

On the book-jacket cover, author Melvyn Dubofsky accurately describes this work: "Mark Wyman has written the prehistory of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath." In Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West, Wyman describes the confluence of a diverse set of conditions between the 1870s and the 1920s in the American West: the emergence of the railroad, large-scale irrigation and farming, capital investment, and a federal government ready to assist in the surfacing of this "Second Frontier" of the American West. The search for wealth moved beyond cowboys and cattle drives. "It was truly a new West, and it would soon become the nation's granary, its bountiful orchard, the Cotton West, the Garden West" (p. 4). However, who would tend the garden? This is the historiographical gap that Wyman wishes to fill: the plight of migrant workers that harvested the yields of this budding agricultural West.

A new type of agrarian labor force emerged in the West unlike in the Midwest and East where family members, neighbors, and the [End Page 426] occasional hired hand supplied the labor. In the West, the harvest labor "was eagerly recruited—warmly welcomed—then cast off, often chased away, forgotten until next year's harvest" (p. 7). Initially, the fields were filled with American whites and European immigrants, but a far-reaching and diverse labor pool eventually answered the call: "Navajos and Klickcats, African-Americans and Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Hindus, Filipinos, and Puerto Ricans, among others" (p. 6). Women, and even families, occasionally worked, but the vast majority were men. Commonly called "hoboes," others referred to them as "bindlestiffs" (a nickname garnered from their rolled-up blanket—a bundle or bindle), "fruit tramps," "harvest gypsies," "floaters," "transients," "drift-ins," "apple glommers," "almond knockers," and "sugar tramps" (p. 6). The large number of monikers signifies their importance in various regions and foreign-language identifiers such as buranketto boys in Japanese, and pizcadores (cotton pickers) and betabeleros (sugar-beet diggers) in Spanish demonstrate the international makeup of this labor force.

In various regions of the country, Wyman recounts a common story as dominant crops surfaced in different western states and territories. For example, wheat, sugar beets, and cotton dominated in the Great Plains and the Southwest; wheat, hops, apples, and fruits were cultivated in the Pacific Northwest, and hops, cotton, and varieties of fruit grew plentifully in California. While the crop may have changed, a recurring cycle emerged. Farmers cleared and tilled land, dug canals for irrigation, invested in necessary emerging insecticides and machinery, and prepared to harvest. These farmers remained dependent on a temporary workforce that was primarily composed of Native Americans, mostly women, then European immigrants and later Japanese and Chinese, until Mexicans became the norm. In his representation of the life of these itinerant workers, Wyman balances his depiction. He clearly portrays the horrific conditions, disenfranchisement, and dangerous mode of transportation, yet he also acknowledges that some of the hoboes often stole equipment and freight from trains and "occasionally robbed, beat, and sometimes killed railway employees" (p. 53). [End Page 427]

Wyman also places this group within the broader historical context. He describes labor relations, such as the Texas cotton strike in 1891 and the attempt of the Industrial Workers of the World to organize this itinerant labor pool. He includes the racist and antiimmigrant tension that typified this time period and resulted in sliding pay scales based on race. Wyman traces changes in technology—from wagons to rail, to refrigerated cars, and the emergence of the automobile which changed the mode of transportation for this migrant group. He even describes these efforts of the labor pool in fighting forest fires.

This thoroughly researched and documented book with its diverse photo collection engages the reader throughout. At times, the repeating agrarian cycle that Wyman describes becomes redundant and, like the story itself, the plight of the migrant worker gets lost in describing the impact of larger forces: the railroad, irrigation, and the role of the government. However, Dubofsky was...


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