restricted access Author’s Note

From: In a Pickle

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Author’s Note I managed the H. J. Heinz cucumber salting station in Wild Rose, Wisconsin, during the summers of 1952–1955. This story is fiction but is loosely based on my experiences during those years. The characters are all fictional. There was no H. H. Harlow Pickle Company, no Rose Hill School, no Church of the Holy Redeemed, and no Link Lake Gazette. In the 1950s, cucumbers were a popular cash crop on many central Wisconsin farms, including the one where I grew up. Cucumber growing especially fit farmers with several children, as they would help with the hoeing and especially with the picking, which was hard, hot, and back-breaking work. These pickle patches were tiny by today’s standards, some only a quarter acre or so in size. As the fields got larger, migrant workers, whom many called Mexicans even though almost all of them were American citizens from Texas, came to central Wisconsin in July. They worked in the cucumber fields until September, when most of them returned to Texas, so their children could go to school. One year 246 247 Author’s Note when my father grew two acres of cucumbers, a migrant family, who lived at a neighboring farm, helped us with the picking. The migrants, by and large, got along well in the community. Most could speak English. They bought their groceries at the local grocery stores. The owner of the Wild Rose Mercantile Store, Arnol Roberts, took some Spanish courses—of course, his business increased once the migrants knew he spoke some Spanish . Many migrants attended the Catholic church in Wautoma, which had a special Spanish mass. The migrants attended the free outdoor movies on Tuesday night in Wild Rose, sitting on the benches next to the locals. They bought supplies at the hardware stores and purchased clothing at the clothing stores. There were few complaints from either locals or migrants. Most of the farmers, including myself, had never seen a dark-skinned person before the migrants arrived. Nor had we heard anyone speaking Spanish. We were, of course, accustomed to hearing German, Polish, or perhaps Norwegian spoken, but Spanish sounded different. By today’s standards, the housing provided for the migrants was deplorable. They lived in former sheds and other farm outbuildings . They had electricity, but no indoor plumbing or running water. In the 1950s, the majority of the farmers in central Wisconsin had gotten electricity only recently. Many of the farmers did not yet have indoor plumbing or running water in their own farmhouses. Migrant workers had been coming to Wisconsin starting in the early 1900s, when they worked in the sugar beet fields. By the 1950s, most of them were helping harvest seasonal crops such as cherries (Door County) and cucumbers (central Wisconsin). The number of migrants working in the state peaked at about 15,000 in 1955. By the 1960s, most of the small cucumber acreages had disappeared. Cucumber processors such as H. J. Heinz; Libby, McNeil and Libby; Redgranite Pickle Company; and the Chicago Pickle Company began contracting with farmers growing larger acreages. By this time, some of the larger growers had begun installing irrigation equipment that increased the per-acre production and led to more uniform, well-developed cucumbers. Nearly all the small cucumber salting stations in Wisconsin closed. The big companies trucked fresh cucumbers directly to their large processing plants in Green Bay and out of state. Picking cucumbers is one of the few farm operations that has essentially eluded technology. No one has invented a mechanical picker that can harvest the crop without destroying the vines. For maximum production, a cucumber plant must be picked many times during the weeks it is producing—as many as fifteen or more times—and by hand. Today in central Wisconsin, migrant workers still do nearly all the cucumber handwork. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Wisconsin passed a series of laws that helped protect migrant workers from exploitation. A 1977 law began regulating migrant housing, job contracts, minimum wages, and transportation. It also created the Governor’s Migrant Labor Council, which made sure that that the provisions of the 1977 law were followed. 248 Author’s Note ...


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