Wartime Migrant Workers in the Northwoods, 1944

Sep 4, 2019

Farmer examining cranberry plant near an irrigation ditch.
Credit WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY, IMAGE ID: 85183, WISCONSINHISTORY.ORG

Wartime was a difficult time for everyone, including the labor force here in the Northwoods.

For this week's Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about the workers that came to fill the void in 1944.

During the Second World War, most able-bodied young men were drafted to serve in the armed forces.  Those who were not drafted usually filled some essential civilian role in industry or had dependents for whom no other source of income was available.  That left a void in the labor force across the nation.  In many parts of the country women stepped in to fill essential factory jobs, but in agriculture there were few options.  In 1942 the federal government initiated the Bracero Program to bring guest workers from Latin America into the U.S., but most of those farm workers went to work in California’s Central Valley or in the lower Midwest.  There was still a shortage of agricultural labor in much of the nation, so in 1943 the federal government started a second guest worker program, this time importing agricultural labor from the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, the Bahamas, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Dominica, and Barbados.  This was known as the British West Indies Program.

By 1944 the labor shortage in the Northwoods had become acute enough that in August of that year Oneida County Agent Harvey Becker sent a request to the federal government for 106 Jamaican workers to assist local farmers in harvesting the potato and bean crops.  The agreement was common for a guest worker program at that time.  The Jamaican laborers earned roughly thirty dollars per week in return for six weeks of labor of which seventy-five percent of the work was guaranteed.  They had to bring their own beds, bedding, and cooking utensils.  The farm owners supplied the food but charged the Jamaican workers $1.40 per day for board, or about $9.80 per week.  Each guest worker was required to voluntarily donate one dollar per day to a savings fund that was sent back to Barbados or Jamaica, the two islands where the Northwoods guest workers originated.  This left a little less than fifteen dollars per week to spend as they wished.  A former C.C.C. Camp at the Hugo Sauer Federal Nursery on Highway 8 West was converted into temporary housing for the workers.

In late August about twenty-five Barbadians were sent to Antigo to assist in harvesting the Langlade County potato crop, and in early September about 90 guest workers from Jamaica and Barbados arrived in Oneida County.  Those in Antigo went to work on area farms with a few in the Antigo Canning Company, while those in Oneida County were sent to work on fourteen farms in Starks, Hazelhurst, Harshaw, and a few outlying farms around Rhinelander.  The men worked hard for their pay, were scrupulously honest, and gave no one any cause for alarm.  Plus, in their free time they spent much of their extra earnings in local Rhinelander businesses, which made everyone happy.  After the crops were harvested, the guest workers moved on to other areas and never returned.  The following year the potato crop was harvested by German POWs housed at Camp Rhinelander.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The above photo is used with permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.