Re-centering the Potawatomi at Sycamore Row Part One

Photograph by Chris Light, accessed Wikipedia.

This is Part One of a two-part post. Part One examines why IHB and local partners chose to refocus the text of a new historical marker to Sycamore Row in Carroll County that replaces a damaged 1963 marker. Instead of focusing on the unverifiable legends surrounding the row of sycamores lining the Old Michigan Road, this new marker centers the persecution and removal of the Potawatomi to make way for that road and further white settlement. Part Two will look in depth at the persecution of the this indigenous group by the U.S. government as well as the resistance and continued “survivance” of the Potawatomi people.*

What’s in a Legend?

The sycamore trees lining the Old Michigan Road have long been the subject of much curiosity and folklore in Carroll County. But there is a story here of even greater historical significance – the removal and resistance of the Potawatomi. While the trees will likely continue to be the subject that brings people to this marker, IHB hopes to recenter the Potawatomi in the story. (To skip right to the story of the Potawatomi, go to Part Two of this post, available April 2021).

Folklore is a tricky area for historians. The sources for these stories are often lost, making it difficult to determine the historical accuracy of the tale. But historians shouldn’t ignore folklore either. Local stories of unknown origin can point to greater truths about a community. It becomes less important to know exactly if something really happened and more significant to know why the community remembers that it did.

Folklore is both a mirror and a tool. It can reflect the values of the community and serve to effect change. Folklore surrounding “Sycamore Row” in Carroll County does both of these things. Continuing local investment in this row of trees reflects a community that values its early history. At the same time, these trees have served as a preservation tool bringing this community together time and time again for the sake of saving a small piece of Indiana’s story.

These are the big ideas around folklore, but what about searching for the facts behind the stories? In the case of Sycamore Row, digging into the events that we can document only makes the story more interesting and inclusive. And it gives us the opportunity to reexamine the central role of the Potawatomi in this history and return it to the landscape in a small way.

Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row Historical Marker, Indiana Historical Bureau, accessed Carroll County Indiana.

In 1963, the Indiana Historical Bureau placed a marker for “Sycamore Row” on State Road 29, formerly the Old Michigan Road. The 1963 marker read:

This row of sycamores sprouted from freshly cut logs used in the 1830’s to corduroy a swampy section of the historic Michigan Road, the first state road in Indiana, running from Madison to Michigan City.

IHB historians of the 1960s presented this theory on the origin of the sycamores as fact. Today, IHB requires primary documentation for all marker statements. While there are secondary sources (sources created after the event in question), there are no reliable primary sources for this statement. In fact, we don’t know where the trees came from. Local legend purports that saplings sprang from the logs used to lay the “corduroy” base when the dirt road was planked in the 1850s. There is evidence that sycamores were used on this section of the road. During road construction in the 1930s, the Logansport Press reported that workers discovered sycamore logs under the road near the famous Fouts farm. And it is possible that some saplings could have grown on their own, though it’s unlikely they sprouted from the logs. Local historian Bonnie Maxwell asked several experts for their take. One Indiana forester wrote that it was more likely that the trees sprouted from seeds that took root in the freshly dug furrows next to the road. Others noted that even if the trees sprouted as the legend claims, they would not be the same trees we see today, as they are not large enough have sprouted in the early 19th century. Other theories have been posited as well, including one from a 1921 Logansport-Pharos article claiming that the trees were planted to protect the creek bank during road construction in the 1870s. Regardless, we know from Carroll County residents that there have been sycamores along that stretch of road for as long as anyone can remember. It matters less to know where the trees came from and more to know why they have been preserved in memory and in the landscape. [1]

Preservation and Community Building

The ongoing preservation and stewardship of Sycamore Row tells us that local residents care about the history of their community. The trees provide a tangible way of caring for that history. To that end, Carroll County residents have joined together many times over the years to protect the sycamores.

In the 1920s, the Michigan Road section at Sycamore Row became State Road 29 and some of the trees were removed during paving. Starting in the 1930s, road improvements planned by the state highway department threatened the sycamores again, but this time local residents acted quickly. In November 1939, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune reported that Second District American Legion commander Louis Kern organized opposition to a state highway department plan to remove 19 sycamores in order to widen the road. Local residents joined the protest and the state highway commission agreed to spare all but five of the 127 sycamore trees during the highway expansion. [2]

By the 1940s, newspapers reported on the dangerous and narrow stretch of road between the sycamores where several accidents had occurred. By the 1960s, local school officials worried about school busses safely passing other cars and trucks on the stretch and proposed cutting down the trees to widen the road. In 1963, Governor Matthew Walsh issued an order to halt the planned removal of sixty-six of the sycamores and the state highway department planted twenty new trees. Many still called for a safer, wider road and the local controversy continued. [3]

In 1969, officials from the school board and the Carroll County Historical Society (CCHS) met to discuss options for improving driving conditions, weighing this need against the historical significance of the sycamores. Meanwhile, the state highway department continued planning to widen the road, a plan that would have required cutting down the trees. The CCHS staunchly opposed removing the sycamores and organized support for its efforts. The organization worked for over a decade to save Sycamore Row, petitioning lawmakers and gaining the support of Governor Edgar Whitcomb. Carroll County residents signed petitions and spoke out at public meetings with the state highways commission. Ultimately, in 1983, the state highway department announced its plan to reroute SR 29 around the sycamores. This grass roots effort, focused on preserving local history, had prevailed even over the needs of modernization. Construction on the new route began in 1987. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune reported that residents then began using the section of the Old Michigan Road to go down to the bank of the creek and fish. [4]

“Friends of CC Parks Plant Sycamore Trees,” Carroll County Comet, January 4, 2021, accessed Carroll County Comet.

In 2012 the Friends of Carroll County Parks took over stewardship of Sycamore Row and began planting new sycamore saplings the following year. In 2020 they planted even larger sycamores to preserve the legacy for future generations. They also took over the care of the 1963 historical marker, repainting it for the bicentennial. In late 2020, the marker was damaged beyond repair and had to be removed. This opened up an opportunity for IHB, the Friends, and the CCHS to place a new two-sided historical marker. The marker process  is driven by applicants, either individuals or community organizations, and then IHB works with those partners, providing primary research to help tell their stories. We work together, sharing authority. These Carroll County organizations still want to tell the story of the sycamores, but recognize that there is complex history beyond the legends.

Re-centering the Potawatomi

IHB and local partners are using the extra space on the double-sided marker to include the Potawatomi in the story of Sycamore Row. While there is no way we can give the history of these indigenous peoples in all its complexity in the short space provided on a marker, we can make sure it is more central. After all, the story of the genocide, removal, and resistance of the Potawatomi to settler colonialism is part of the story of Indiana.

Some people have a negative view of this kind of reevaluation of sources and apply the label “revisionist” to historians updating the interpretation of an old story. However, “historians view the constant search for new perspectives as the lifeblood of historical understanding,” according to author, historian, and Columbia professor Eric Foner. [5] As we find new sources and include more diverse views, our interpretation changes. It becomes more complex, but also more accurate. And while there is a temptation to view history as a set of facts, or just as “what happened,” it is always interpretive. For instance, the act of deciding what story does or does not make it onto a historical marker is an act of interpretation. When IHB omits the Native American perspective from a historical marker we present a version of history that begins with white settlement. It might be simpler but its not accurate. There were already people on this land, people with a deep and impactful history. When historians and communities include indigenous stories, they present a version of Indiana history that is more complex and has a darker side. This inclusion reminds us that Indiana was settled not only through the efforts and perseverance of the Black and white settlers who cleared the forests, established farms, and cut roads through the landscape. It was also settled through the removal and genocide of native peoples. Both things are true. Both are Indiana history.

With this in mind, the new two-sided marker at Sycamore Row will read:

The sycamores here line the sides of the Michigan Road, which connected the Ohio River with Lake Michigan and further opened Indiana for white settlement and trade. Under intense military and economic pressure, Potawatomi leaders ceded the land for the road in 1826. John Tipton, one of the U.S. agents who negotiated this treaty, purchased the land here in 1831. 

The state began work on the road in the 1830s. While there are several theories on how the trees came to be here, their origin is uncertain. By the 1930s, road improvements threatened the trees, but residents organized to preserve them over the following decades. In 1983, the Carroll County Historical Society petitioned to reroute the highway and saved Sycamore Row. 

Of course, this does little more than hint at the complex history of the Potawatomi. Markers can only serve as the starting point for any story, and so, IHB uses our website, blog, and podcast to explore further. In Part Two of this post, we will take an in-depth look at the persecution of the Potawatomi to make way for the Michigan Road, their resistance to unjust treaty-making, their removal and genocide as perpetuated by the U.S. government, and the continued “survivance” of the Potawatomi people today in the face of all of this injustice.

*”Survivance” is a term coined by White Earth Ojibwe scholar Gerald Vizenor to explain that indigenous people survived and resisted white colonization and genocide and continue as a people to this day. Theirs is not a history of decline. Their work preserving and forwarding their culture, traditions, language, religions, and struggle for rights and land continues.

Notes

Special thanks to Bonnie Maxwell of the Friends of Carroll County Parks for sharing her newspaper research. Newspaper articles cited here are courtesy of Maxwell unless otherwise noted. Copies are available in the IHB marker file.

[1] “Trees Half Century Old Still Stand,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, May 14, 1921.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.; “Deer Creek Road Corduroy Found at Taylor Fouts Place,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, September 1, 1939.; Correspondence between Bonnie Maxwell, Joe O’Donnell, Tim Eizinger, and Lenny Farlee, submitted to IHB December 28, 2020, copy in IHB file.

[2] “Second State Road to Come in for Paving,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, November 13, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.

[3] “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared by State,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 16, 1939.; “Halt Cutting of Sycamores Along Route 29,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 18, 1963.; “Governor Save 66 Sycamores,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 19, 1963.; “Sycamores to Get Historical Marker,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, April 4, 1963.; “Plant More Sycamores on Road 29,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, April 4, 1963.

[4] “Historical Society Hears Research Report,” Hoosier Democrat, December 3, 1970.; Letter to the Editor, Hoosier Democrat, November 25, 1971.; Carroll County Comet, November 7, 1979.; Dennis McCouch, “Save the Sycamores” Carroll County Comet, November 7, 1979.; “Sycamore Row Petitions,” Carroll County Comet, January 16, 1980.; Von Roebuck, “Carroll County Landmarks to Remain Intact,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 1, 1983.; “Bridge Work to Cause Deer Creek Detour,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, June 7, 1987.

[5] Eric Foner, Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), xvi.

Braceros in the Corn Belt Part One: Secretary Wickard & the Myth of the Agricultural Labor Shortage in WWII

In 1942, headlines in Indiana newspapers warned:

“Acute Labor Shortage Perils Midwest Farms”
(Valparaiso) Vidette-Messenger of Porter County

but also

“No Labor Shortage”
– Indianapolis Recorder

So which was it? An acute labor shortage endangering the farms of the corn-belt, and in turn, the country’s war production? Or no labor shortage at all? The answer is surprising and continues to impact policy today.

John Vachon, “Wheat,” photograph, 1941, Farm Security Administration Photographs, IUPUI University Library, http://ulib.iupuidigital.org/cdm/ref/collection/IFSAP/id/562

The Agricultural Front

Just before U. S. entry into the Second World War, large farming and agricultural processing companies—which had become dependent on the cheap labor that was abundant during the Great Depression—warned of an impending labor shortage. They claimed that there was not a sufficient number of workers available to fill the positions left behind by the men enlisting in the armed forces, or by the men and women who left the farm for war-related industrial work.

At the same time, with the introduction of President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program (which lent food and supplies to Great Britain and its allies), the U.S. needed to produce more agricultural products than ever before. The battle on the agricultural front would need a larger number of agrarian soldiers. Indiana newspapers worried over how Hoosier farmers would meet production goals as their sons left for the “army camps” and “defense industrial plants.” The Muncie Post Democrat continued:

Now that the sons are gone, the farm operators find it impossible to compete with industrial labor wages for help. This may result in many acres uncultivated this season . . . This condition rates as serious when food production is important in the defense program.

In spring 1942, Purdue University reported that “anticipated shortages of farm labor, resulting from enlistments in the armed forces and attractive industrial wages, have not developed.” However, as the year went on, Indiana newspapers became more frantic in tone. They reported that farmers were selling acreage and animals because they could not find farm hands to help with the work. The weekly industry newspaper, the Prairie Farmer, surveyed eighty-one midwestern counties and reported that  three-fourths of them “were found to be suffering from a shortage of farm hands.”

“Farmers on the Carlin Farm, Monroe Township, Kosciusko County, Ind.,” 1949, Collection of Elaine (Carlin) Brown, Pierceton and Washington Township Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Indiana Canneries and the “Labor Shortage”

By the fall of 1942, large Indiana agricultural businesses joined the national cry of “labor shortage.” Indiana newspapers gave extensive coverage to the professed concerns of the tomato canning industry.  The Muncie Evening Press ran the headline: “Labor Shortage Hits Tomatoes: Cannery Shutdowns and Crop Losses Threaten.”

The article reported that the “acute war-born labor shortage” would close a dozen canneries and that “picked tomatoes awaiting processing [were] lying idle and periled by rotting.” State government officials and the Indiana Farm Bureau spoke on behalf of the canneries and appealed to local men and women to go to work at the plants. Hasil E. Schenck, president of the Indiana Farm Bureau, stated:

Reduced farm production will be no reflection on the patriotism of farmers, for without manpower they can not produce food and fiber any better than industry can produce ships, tanks and guns without steel.

Indiana Governor Henry Schricker issued “an appeal to housewives and all others available to apply for work at the nearest cannery.” The Evening Press reported that the canneries were already employing WPA workers and were calling for women “peelers” and for school children “packers” to volunteer their services.

“Can label for IT brand Indiana tomatoes packed by R. W. Jones Canning Corporation,” n.d., Trade Catalogs for Indiana Businesses, Digital Images Elkhart Public Library, Auburn Indiana, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p16066coll3-21.

Yes, volunteer. These industry giants, many of whom had profitable government contracts, were asking for women and children to freely donate their labor. A few days after the call for volunteers went out, the Elwood Call-Leader praised the response of school staff and students in the Madison County area while rebuking the “apathetic and uncooperative” attitudes of local women—women who likely had increased workloads at home because of the war effort. According to the article, employment service and local government officials complained that “despite all appeals that have been made throughout the past week, many . . . women still do not realize the seriousness of the situation and are not willing to work, even [though] they are needed only to get through the brief critical period the industry is now facing.”

The Call-Leader added that army officials were “alarmed at the situation” and were “making a check to see whether the army will be able to get the tomatoes it has ordered.” The canneries’ message was clear. Without cheap or free labor, American boys on the front would go without food. Like corporations across the country, Indiana businesses began to demand that the government supply them with an inexpensive source of labor.

African American Newspapers and the “Labor Shortage”

And yet, African American newspapers saw “no labor shortage.” The Indianapolis Recorder reported that the companies need only to “hire negroes.” The Recorder, continued:

Nobody has yet proved there is a labor shortage in this country. . .  There is no need to work a few workers to death while others walk the streets hungry, seeking work. There are still enough qualified workers in this country to allow employers to continue their discrimination against workers because of the race, religion, and nationality of such workers.

Indiana’s African American newspapers reported that thousands of African Americans were looking for work and were willing to travel great distances to take jobs, but employers didn’t want them. For example, in November 1942, the Indianapolis Recorder and the Evansville Argus reprinted a report from Graphic Magazine that 3,000 African American men left “the Deep South” at the request of California farmers for help saving the harvest. When they arrived “there were no jobs for them!”

Graphics Magazine, reprinted as “Editors Expose Abuse of Negro Labor,” in Evansville Argus, October 31, 1942, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles and Indianapolis Recorder, November 14, 1942, 9, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Labor Shortage Myth

The observations of the African American newspapers were correct. There was no labor shortage that the federal government could not meet with domestic workers. However, the myth of the labor shortage had its own power.

Over the previous decade, the Great Depression created a large surplus of workers seeking employment. In 1941, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor reported that farmers had “come to consider this over supply as the normal supply, and to consider any reduction in the surplus supply as a shortage.” These departments concluded, however, that all of the shortages, perceived or real, could be met by moving surplus domestic workers into the areas of need. The catch, however, was that the balanced supply of available workers and demand for their labor required employers to pay a fair wage for agricultural labor.

Spencer Douglass Crockwell, “Work On A Farm This Summer,” poster, 1943, United States Office of War Information, Print Department Collection, Boston Public Library, accessed Digital Public Library of America

A remarkably organized effort of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the U. S. Employment Service (USES) was prepared to deal with any real “pockets of labor scarcity.” They expanded the New Deal migratory camp program, setting up permanent and mobile camps around the country to bring American workers across the country for harvests. However, because employers had to pay more reasonable wages, they still complained of shortage. In fact, they cited higher wages as evidence of a shortage.

Statistics from the Indiana division of the U.S. Employment Service show that Indiana’s available labor pool reflected the national situation. J. Bradley Haight, the Director of the U.S. Employment Service (USES) in Indiana estimated in 1942 that there were “100,000 individuals in the state seeking employment. He stated, “The job insurance division issued checks to 40,000 persons. This represents a reservoir of labor which is to be tapped.” However, the large growers, dependent on cheap labor, continued to cry shortage even as they were provided with workers by the FSA and USES—workers that they didn’t want to employ because of racial prejudice or unwillingness to pay a fair wage.

So these wealthy, powerful, and organized growers and processors of agricultural commodities demanded that the federal government respond to their manufactured labor shortage by importing foreign workers. The government quickly gave in to their demands. History professor Cindy Hahamovitch, writing for the Center for Immigration Studies, summarized the government’s response to the labor myth:

The officials who created the guestworker program never believed there was a national labor shortage in agriculture. . . They created the importation program, not because it was necessary, but because it was politically expedient to do so, because the nation’s most powerful growers were demanding the preservation of the cheap, plentiful, and complacent labor force to which they had become accustomed over the previous 20 years of agricultural depression.

The federal government complied because the myth was persuasive. A false labor shortage would have the same effect on agricultural production as a real one. No amount of statistics or economic reports could allay the fears of farmers worrying if sufficient help would be available at harvest time. Therefore, farmers anticipating a lack of aid and picturing their produce rotting in the fields, would plant less, and the country wouldn’t meet its production goals—just as if there was a real labor shortage.

Despite their best efforts to meet the real pocket labor shortages with domestic workers and their distribution of reports on the available domestic labor pool, the federal government needed to allay the small farmer’s growing fear of a massive shortage. By 1942, the Roosevelt administration was cornered into responding to the shortage myth by importing foreign workers. As Congress tore apart the Farm Security Administration and its program of migrating workers to areas of need, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture, Claude R. Wickard, left for Mexico to negotiate a deal that would affect agricultural and immigration policy for decades.

Hoosier Dirt Farmer as U. S. Secretary of Agriculture

Claude R. Wickard was a Hoosier dirt farmer through and through. He was born in 1893 and raised in Carroll County on his family’s farm. His father, a staunch democrat named for Andrew Jackson, was a strict disciplinarian who raised his son with every expectation that the farm was his present, future, and legacy. The younger Wickard, however, grew ambitious. He saw that the farm could be more productive and efficient with the application of modern methods. Against his father’s wishes, he enrolled in classes at Purdue, where he learned about scientific farming and got hands-on experience with sanitary hog care and breeding. He soon vastly improved the farm and received recognition from farming organizations as a leader in modern farming methods. His influence in local Farm Bureau organizations grew in the 1920s and he advanced to several leadership positions where he took on the challenges of his fellow farmers.

“Secretary of Agriculture Wickard Tours the Family Farm…” in Dean Albertson, Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 82. [Claude Wickard on left]
Beginning at Purdue and continuing throughout his career, Wickard remained focused on rural social justice and “the farm problem.” To Wickard, social justice for rural folks meant that farmers should have equal buying power as urban workers. The inextricably related farm problem was what economists called a parity problem, that is, the prices farmers received for their products was not in balance with their expenses. Wickard, like many leaders of the New Deal, spent his early career trying to figure out how the state and federal government could achieve parity for farmers by solving the problem of overproduction.

By 1930, several factors made Wickard a prime political candidate. First and foremost, while most Indiana farmers were Republicans, Wickard was born into a staunchly Democratic family and remained loyal to the party despite the fact that the national party had not prioritized rural concerns through the 1920s. Thus, Wickard was one of the few farmers with influence in the Farm Bureau and other organizations who was also a Democrat. Second, Wickard’s embrace of scientific farming ideas made him open to production control as a method to achieving parity for farmers. Most farmers, who were already barely making ends meet while operating their farms at full production could not imagine cutting down on output. Wickard, however, could see that farmers needed help from the federal government to make the drastic, nationwide economic shift required to give them the same standard of living as the urban people they fed. This way of thinking aligned with the ideas of the men who would soon take over leadership of the nation. Wickard was poised to join them.

His political career began modestly. A group of county organizers convinced him to run for a state senate seat and he reluctantly agreed. Wickard stated in an interview:

I didn’t like politics . . . [but] like all other things, sometimes you’ve got to make your contributions to your community and to the Democratic Party . . . I had a feeling of responsibility toward my fellow citizen.

Wickard was elected state senator November 8, 1932 as Democrats swept elections across the country and Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the U. S. presidency.

In May 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act took effect and farmers saw that the new administration recognized their plight. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA or Triple-A), a division of the Department of Agriculture, was tasked with creating parity through taxing companies that used agricultural produce and decreasing production. Wickard was quickly elected chairman of the Corn-Hog Section of the Indiana Triple-A. He soon became the Assistant to the Chief of the National Corn-Hog Division, and in July 1933 Wickard went to Washington.

When he arrived in Washington as second in command of the Corn-Hog Section of the AAA, he was overwhelmed by the job. In his own words, Wickard was “just a farmer” and had to work to understand the complex economic issues the administration faced. And he got frustrated with the pace of bureaucracy. However, he was likeable, earnest, easy to work with, and his ideas about parity aligned with those of Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture. Most important to Wickard’s rise, however, was that he was known as a loyal Democrat and commanded the respect of midwestern farmers.

When the Department of Agriculture reorganized by region, as opposed to commodity in 1936, Wickard became Assistant Director of the North Central Division. By this point, Wickard was on Wallace’s radar and the secretary saw potential in the Hoosier dirt farmer. Wallace later noted that Wickard was rare in a department of apolitical technocrats and subject experts in that he was actually a Democrat. Wallace stated: “He was about the only one of the whole crowd in agriculture that had any claim to being a democratic politico.” In the fall of 1936, Wallace brought Wickard with him as he stumped for FDR throughout the Midwest. When FDR won reelection, Wickard continued to make himself useful to Wallace at the USDA and was quite successful and well-liked in  his division.

“A Speech to the Nation,”  in Dean Albertson, Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 340.

In January 1940, Wallace recommended Wickard to FDR for the position of Undersecretaty of Agriculture. After making sure he was not aligned with Roosevelt’s Hoosier adversary Paul McNutt, the president agreed. Wickard was sworn in February 29, 1940. He served less than six months before Wallace resigned as Secretary of Agriculture to run as FDR’s vice president. Wallace recommended Wickard to succeed him and Wickard was sworn in as the U. S. Secretary of Agriculture September 1940.

Wickard, The Labor Issue, and The Bracero Program

With much of Europe dependent on U.S. agricultural production, the Secretary of Agriculture’s job was even more important than in peace time. Meeting war production goals was paramount. Wickard faced many challenges, among them, the increasing claims of a labor shortage.  In December 1941, Wickard testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee:

The farm labor shortage is not as serious as generally believed. Farm production has suffered, of course, from the loss of farm hands who have been drafted or got higher pay in defense plants. But the situation is not alarming.

While he downplayed the labor shortage claims, he did make it clear that farmers would “have to pay more for their help” than they had before the war stimulated the economy and reduced the labor surplus. As the earlier examination of newspaper articles has shown, this was not an option many corporations were willing to consider.

Less than a year later, Wickard had changed his approach to the issue. The (Richmond) Palladium-Item reported :

Secretary of Agriculture Wickard warned that the United States would face a food shortage unless it quickly solves the problem of manning the farms. He estimated the armed forces and factories may drain off approximately 2,000,000 farm workers by the end of 1942 in addition to those who have already gone.

By this point, it seemed like Wickard was treating the labor shortage claims as a legitimate threat to production goals. However, this same Palladium article still noted that “the most mentioned causes” of the shortage “were high wages.” Even at the peak of industry claims of a labor shortage, the crux of the issue was still that companies would “have to pay more for their help,” as Wickard told the House in 1941.

“Photograph [of Wickard] used for a newspaper owned by the Oklahoma Publishing Company,” 1946, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society, accessed Gateway to Oklahoma History.
While Wickard described his understanding of complex economic issues as limited and his progress in grasping what his statistician colleagues reported as slow and labored, he deeply understood and cared about agricultural issues and maintained a strong moral decision-making process throughout his career. Like most government officials with access to labor statistics, Wickard would have known that, while there was no labor shortage, a fictional labor shortage was just as dangerous to the war effort. It is, however, possible that his tenuous grasp of complex economic issues meant that he thought the shortage was real. (His biographer Dean Albertson implies the second). Wickard’s career record shows that he would not have acted to address the labor shortage had he not believed it was the best thing for the American people. There are many instances during his career when a different vote or decision would have furthered his political career, but he did what he believed to be the right thing for American farmers.*

Dorthea Lange, “Braceros,” ca. 1942, photograph, Oakland Museum of California, accessed Online Archive of California.

Tasked with addressing the issue, Wickard left for the Second Inter-American Conference on Agriculture in Mexico City early in July 1942, to make a deal that would import Mexican workers and ensure the United States met its production goals. Several agencies were involved in creating a plan to import Mexican agricultural workers, but it was Wickard who was responsible for negotiating an agreement between the interests of the Mexican government, the United States government, American farmers, labor organizations, and large farming and processing conglomerates.

Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Evequiel Padilla Peñaloza was reluctant to agree because of U.S. exploitation of and discrimination against Mexican workers in the past. Padilla insisted that any agreement include a number of guarantees for the rights of braceros. Padilla demanded Mexican workers receive the same guarantees of wages and working and living conditions as American workers. Wickard agreed to a minimum wage and work and living standard. However, there were no such guarantees for American workers. Thus, as labor organizations were quick to point out, these workers were guaranteed, at least in theory, more protection by the U. S. government than domestic farm laborers. After ten days of negotiations Wickard formalized the agreement August 4, 1942. In less than a year’s time, Indiana farms were benefiting from foreign labor. Hoosier response to these guest workers was mixed.

In Part Two of this post we will look at the stories of these farmers and foreign workers as told through Indiana newspapers:

Further Reading:

Albertson, Dean. Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Bracero History Archive. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas El Paso, http://braceroarchive.org/

Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Claude R. Wickard. State Historical Marker. Indiana Historical Bureau, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4420.htm

Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Hahamovitch, Cindy .”The Politics of Labor Scarcity: Expediency and the Birth of the Agricultural ‘Guestworkers’ Program,” Report for the Center for Immigration Studies, December 1, 1999, accessed https//cis.org/Report/Politics-Labor-Scarcity.

Hurt, Douglas R. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994.