FSA Migratory Labor Camp
Photographer: Arthur Rothstein
Visalia, California, March 1940
Farm Security Administration, Lot 358
Arthur Rothstein was put off by his experiences in California in early 1940. "The weather has been terrible. It has rained every day," he wrote Roy Stryker in April, quickly turning to a more troublesome issue. "I like it the least of the western states. My impression is that everything is commercialized, the police & city officials are corrupt grafters, there is little of that gracious western hospitality & most of the people are of that reactionary, super-patriotic, fascist-minded type. Practically every newspaper features a daily red-baiting article with 2 inch headlines that condemn [Democratic] Gov. [Culbert L.] Olson, the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], or Pres. Roosevelt."1
Stryker did not need to be told about California's politics. In fact, right-wing complaints about the migratory labor camps operated by the Farm Security Administration led him to send Rothstein to the state in the first place. California growers led the opposition, and their criticism was given voice in Washington by their lobbyists and congressional supporters. To counter the criticism, the agency needed to cast the camps in a good light. "I still want you to get to California and to get us a series of detailed pictures on the camps," Stryker had written early in March, "so we will quit being harrassed so much by people around Washington for this particular type of photo." 2
A program to construct camps for the Okies and Arkies who streamed into California was begun and abandoned by the state government in 1935, and quickly taken over by the Resettlement Administration.3 In 1937, the program was passed on to the Farm Security Administration. By the end of the decade, the agency operated a dozen camps in California and several more in other parts of the West.4 The Farm Security Administration continued the program during the war, when the problem was one of "mobilizing" sufficient farm labor. In 1942, the Farm Security Administration operated ninety-five camps with housing for seventy-five thousand people and also oversaw the importation of Mexican workers.5
Camps like Visalia were intended to be complete communities, not merely sites with temporary housing and sanitary facilities. This reflected the relatively permanent status of the migrants, the nearly year-round character of California's agriculture, and the sponsor's attitudes. The designations for the camps imply both their permanence and the Farm Security Administration's perception of their role. In 1940, according to the camp's newspaper, this facility was called the Visalia Migratory Labor Camp, but by 1942 the name had changed to the Tulare Farm Workers Community.6 In the 1942 "Victory Edition" of the community newspaper, camp manager Marshall E. Huffaker said the community was part of a program "to conserve our national resources by preventing human erosion caused by poverty, sickness, insecurity and the loss of real home life and community responsibility."7
Huffaker went on to describe the administration of the camp, writing, "From the very beginning, our Farm Workers' Communities have been organized and governed in the true American way--through self government." The camp featured an elected council to enact legislation, an elected community court to adjudicate violations of community laws, and a number of committees to oversee other activities. But the camp was still a government operation, and the community manager "vetoes any Council legislation which violates laws of Federal, State and County, or regulations of the Farm Security Administration."8
California's growers and a significant portion of the state's business establishment viewed with suspicion any activity on behalf of migrant workers, including the creation of migrant camps. The growers would benefit from an oversupply of homeless, dependent workers. There had been strikes in California since the start of the Depression, and the growers feared unionization and continued labor unrest. They were accused of rigging pay scales and of inhibiting efforts to aid the migrants. During March 1940, the same month Rothstein visited Visalia, the New York Times carried a story about California's Associated Farmers organization.9 The article quotes the organization's leaders as expressing pride in being "red baiters" and working against "subversive organizations." In John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, the migrant Joad family had found succor--and had their political consciousness raised--in a government farm labor camp.10 Within a few months of the novel's publication, Steinbeck's life was threatened.11
The camps were unpopular for other reasons, too. Businessmen in the Imperial Valley complained about unfair competition from a cooperative store.12 Charles Todd, a staff member at the Visalia camp, reported citizen unhappiness over the cost to local government for providing schools, health care, and the like to migrant families.13 But above all, Todd said, the chorus of complaints held that a paternalistic government was sponsoring communism.
Stryker wanted photographs that showed polite, nonthreatening behavior, instructing Rothstein to "remember your emphasis here is to see how people conduct themselves in and around the camp." Passing along advice from the Farm Security Administration's regional director, Stryker wrote, "With the fight as bitter as it is in California, Fred [Soule] feels that we now need to emphasize the positive side, and that mothers and children are our best bet. Get nurses treating children, mothers coming in for post-natal instruction--anything that will demonstrate child welfare work."14
Rothstein's methodical coverage of the Visalia camp added nearly two hundred images to the file, offering enough affirming photographs of the camp's facilities to gladden the heart of any publicist. He photographed the individual dwellings and gardens, the communal laundry and ironing room, and a wide range of organized recreational activities. The most striking pictorial aspect is the assemblage of close-up portraits, a device Rothstein also used in other series in the FSA-OWI Collection, which include his portraits of a Wisconsin farm family and the members of the Merchant Seamen's union at a New York hiring hall.15
After complimenting the Visalia camp as "the best managed of all I have visited," Rothstein reported that he had captured the photographs Stryker had requested.16 "I received the flashbulbs just in time," he wrote on 1 April 1940. "I have been shooting so many pictures of babies & children in nurseries that the supply ran low sooner than I expected." But neither Rothstein's photographs of mothers and children nor the other elements of the agency's publicity effort succeeded in quieting congressional dissatisfaction with the entire farm labor program. The controversy reached its climax in 1943, when the program was wrested from the Farm Security Administration and transferred to the newly created War Food Administration.
1 Rothstein to Stryker, 1 April 1940, Roy E. Stryker Papers, University of Louisville.
2 Stryker to Rothstein, 2 March 1940, Stryker Papers.
3 Wayne D. Rasmussen, A History of the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program 1943-47, Agriculture Monograph no. 13 (Washington: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, 1951), 10-11.
4 Charles L. Todd, "The 'Okies' Search for a Lost Frontier," New York Times Magazine, 27 August 1939, 10.
5 Sidney Baldwin, Poverty and Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 222.
6 The Hub, vol. 1, no. 35 (26 July 1940), and vol. 3, no. 20 (14 June 1942).
7 The Hub, vol. 3, no. 20 (14 June 1942), 2.
9 New York Times, 9 March 1940, from a scrapbook in the Charles L. Todd/Migratory Labor Collection in the Archive of Folk Culture, Library of Congress.
10 John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking Press, 1939), 389-393.
11 Los Angeles Times, 9 July 1939, from a scrapbook in the Charles L. Todd/Migratory Labor Collection.
12 Todd scrapbook, unidentified clipping, Charles L. Todd/Migratory Labor Collection.
13 Charles L. Todd, "Trampling Out the Vintage," Common Cause, vol. 8, no. 7 (July 1939), 7-8, 30.
14 Stryker to Rothstein, 5 March and 19 March 1940, Stryker Papers.
15 See Lots 254 and 133, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
16 Rothstein to Stryker, 1 April 1940, Stryker Papers.