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When the railroad stretched its steel rails across the American West in the 1870s, it opened up a vast expanse of territory with very few people but enormous agricultural potential: a second Western frontier, the garden West. Agriculture quickly followed the railroads, making way for Kansas wheat and Colorado sugar beets and Washington apples. With this new agriculture came an unavoidable need for harvest workers--for hands to pick the apples, cotton, oranges, and hops; to pull and top the sugar beets; to fill ...
When the railroad stretched its steel rails across the American West in the 1870s, it opened up a vast expanse of territory with very few people but enormous agricultural potential: a second Western frontier, the garden West. Agriculture quickly followed the railroads, making way for Kansas wheat and Colorado sugar beets and Washington apples. With this new agriculture came an unavoidable need for harvest workers--for hands to pick the apples, cotton, oranges, and hops; to pull and top the sugar beets; to fill the trays with raisin grapes and apricots; to stack the wheat bundles in shocks to be pitched into the maw of the threshing machine. These were not the year-round hired hands but transients who would show up to harvest the crop and then leave when the work was finished.
Variously called bindlestiffs, fruit tramps, hoboes, and bums, these men--and women and children--were vital to the creation of the West and its economy. Amazingly, it is an aspect of Western history that has never been told. In Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West, the award-winning historian Mark Wyman beautifully captures the lives of these workers. Exhaustively researched and highly original, this narrative history is a detailed, deeply sympathetic portrait of the lives of these hoboes, as well as a fresh look at the settling and development of the American West.
Turn the title around for this fact-heavy historical narrative of the American West. It's less about hoboes than about the new agricultural frontier that came about with the rise of the railroad. Between the Civil War and the early automobile -- think from Mark Twain's San Francisco to The Joads' overloaded jalopy -- the West developed into America's garden. As tracks were laid across the land, irrigation projects boomed with them. The once-dry landscape began to yield its cornucopia, with different regions specializing in all sorts of crops. Kansas became the breadbasket and King Cotton moved west into Texas and Arizona. With northwestern hops, brewers no longer relied on Europe, and sugar beets from Colorado replaced foreign cane. Picked clean of most of its gold, California gave up new treasures: almonds, grapes, citrus fruit, peaches, apricots, and berries.
Trains (with eventual improvements in refrigeration) delivered produce across the country, and farms grew exponentially, way beyond the Jeffersonian ideal of land worked by family and friends. Agriculture expanded where there were no towns or people, and into this labor gap stepped the hoboes of lore, but also an array of immigrants from around the globe. Scandinavians flocked to northwestern states, Mexicans came across the border into Texas and California, and Asians worked up and down the Pacific coast.
Wyman, a historian of labor and the West, relies on a wealth of public documents, regional histories, and personal testimony to give voice to these forgotten men (women and children joined in later years). While landowners bemoaned labor shortages, they also encouraged a vast oversupply. Conditions were usually poor, and the work seasonal, with long travel between harvest areas. Hence the worker with his stick bearing his bundle ("bindlestiff") tramping across a country ever hostile to his presence. Wyman appreciates the pressures on farm owners as well, especially with shortages created by WWI. The arrival of the automobile also changed a lot about the labor supply, but it's easy to see the relevance of this fine study for today, when cheap labor continues to spill into the country, dividing American opinion. An untold chapter in American labor history: solid if unexciting.
--Thomas De Pietro
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Hey Xavier if you're out there, I want you to know that I love you with all of my heart and you will never leave that spot. Please forgive me. You're the only boy I could ever love like I do. With love,
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