THE LEGACY OF WHEATLAND
By Dick Meister
It was 88 years ago. It was blistering hot. Dust rose in lazy, steady
swirls from a barren field near the Northern California town of Wheatland
where some 2,000 hop pickers had gathered tightly around a makeshift
platform to hear radical organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World
urge them to strike.
Within minutes, they and the IWW organizers -- Wobblies, they were called --
would be plunged helter-skelter into what soon became known as the Wheatland
Riot, an event long forgotten, but one of the most dramatic and significant
in California history.
The strike they were debating would be a bold, dangerous act, but it seemed
the only way to better their truly abominable conditions on the Durst Ranch,
the state's largest single employer of agricultural workers.
The workers were crowded together in a treeless, sun-baked camp a mile from
the hop fields. They slept, many without even blankets, in the open or in
ragged tents rented to them. There were only nine shallow, doorless privies.
Garbage was tossed into nearby irrigation ditches. The wells that supplied
their drinking water were contaminated.
They and their children went off at 4 a.m. to the fields where temperatures
soared to more than 100 degrees by noon and heat prostration was common.
There were no toilets there, and nothing to drink except a sour concoction
of water and acetic acid sold them for five cents a glass. Pay varied
according to how much they picked, but none ever made more than $1.90 for
the 12-hour day. And 10 cents of every $1 was held back as a "bonus," to be
paid only if the worker lasted the entire harvest season -- or was allowed
Up on the platform, Wobbly Richard (Blackie) Ford was raising the strike
call once again when the dozen members of a sheriff's posse, hastily
summoned from nearby Marysville by the ranch owner and his attorney, who
also happened to be the local district attorney, bounded from their cars.
They rushed toward the platform, intent on arresting Ford and other IWW
leaders for trespassing.
A deputy sheriff grabbed at Ford, a platform railing collapsed and the crowd
surged forward. On the edge of the crowd, a deputy fired a shotgun blast
into the air -- "to sober the mob," he later asserted. Suddenly, there were
more gunshots -- "a hideous racket," as one eyewitness described it, "that
sounded as if someone had thrown a box of cartridges into the fire."
As panic-stricken workers and deputies flayed about in confusion, a young
man dashed from a tent, clubbed several deputies, seized a gun and began
firing. Deputies returned the fire.
The shooting lasted 30 seconds, maybe a minute. When it stopped, four
people were dead -- the young worker, the district attorney, a deputy
sheriff and a boy who had been passing by the edge of the crowd, carrying a
bucket of water. Although there had been no rioting until that "sobering"
shot was fired by a deputy, authorities blamed it all on the IWW, arresting
hundreds of Wobblies throughout the West for allegedly being involved in the
riot and other "subversive" activites.
Blackie Ford was a special target. He had been unarmed during the riot and
had in fact counseled non-violence, but a coroner's jury demanded his arrest
on grounds that the district attorney's death had come from a "gunshot wound
inflicted by a gun in the hands of rioters incited to murderous anger by IWW
leaders and agitators."
Ford and another IWW leader, Herman Suhr, who hadn't even been present at
the riot, eventually were arrested. Authorities admitted that Ford and Suhr
had not taken any part in the violence, but argued they were guilty through
being members of an organization that had sent men to Wheatland to provoke
workers into dangerous and, ultimately, fatal, action. They were convicted
of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The trial was highly publicized throughout the country, as were attempts
afterward to free Ford and Suhr, who quickly became labor martyrs. But the
riot and its aftermath also drew public attention to issues far broader.
For the first time, the severe plight of farm workers was exposed to general
view, through newspaper reports and government probes that led to passage of
more than three dozen state laws to improve the conditions of working
people. They included an act creating a commission which investigated farms
statewide and, finding conditions generally not much better than those on
the Durst Ranch, began enforcing regulations that set strict standards for
sanitation and living accommodations.
It's true enough that the reforms were largely temporary, and that even
today farm workers are in need of firm legal protections and, above all,
strong unions that would enable them to improve their still generally
abysmal conditions on their own.
But anything that will be done by and for those vital workers who harvest
our food, just as anything that has been done by and for them in the past,
must draw inspiration from the foundation laid down on a hot, dusty,
terror-filled afternoon in Northern California on August 3, 1913.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer, is co-author of "A Long Time
Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers" (Macmillan).
Copyright 2001 Dick Meister.