Lovell's Mexican Colony
By Augustin Redwine*
Industry came to Lovell, Wyoming, in 1916, bringing an influx of new residents including Mexican beet laborers.
The town, settled in 1900 by Mormon farmers, had been simply the center of an agricultural community until Great Western Sugar Company decided to establish a sugar factory there. Suddenly, other industries came to town. Big Horn Basin Clay Products constructed a tile factory. A local group established a cannery while big Horn Glass Company built a glass factory. Secondary businesses, as well as an oil exploration company, added to the growth.
A shortage of housing for the workers in the various enterprises became acute. The Lovell Chronicle frequently commented on the "impact" problems as a result of new industries in town.
Great Western Sugar Company officials ordered the construction of numerous houses for management personnel and dormitories for factory workers at their plant. Tents and makeshift structures sprang up but somehow did not alleviate the serious shortage of accommodations for workers in the community.
At the same time that the town was experiencing the housing shortage, the beet farmers in the area could find no available labor to work in the fields. In the fall of 1918 local businessmen worked in the beet field and the sugar factory to help bring in the harvest. A source of labor had to be found as well as housing for the incoming workers. The result was the Mexican colony at Lovell.
During the early 1900s, field workers in Utah and Idaho fields came into those states from other areas. Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Mexican workers came from California, while Germans, Germans from Russia and southern Europeans were brought from the Midwest and Great Plains areas.
In 1907, Japanese immigration to the United States had stopped completely. The First World War reduced the number of Russian-Germans available for work in the fields. Manpower was directed toward the war effort with army service stripping the labor supply.
While the labor pool decreased from 1915 to 1920, the number of acres planted in sugar beets (in the Great Western company's territory) increased from 185,584 acres to 276,550 acres. At the same time, sugar factories more than doubled from 41 plants operating in 1915 to 88 factories five years later. By 1920 Great Western alone had 49 sugar factories, including the one at Lovell.
The sugar companies found a ready supply of labor among Mexican Nationals and Mexican-Americans during this period. In Utah and Idaho fields, more than 2,000 laborers, mostly Mexican, were brought in to work in 1917 and 1918. In fact, the companies were in such great need for laborers that they received special permission from the U. S. Department of Labor to import workers from the interior of Mexico.
Conditions inside Mexico made such an exportation possible. Political discontent led to armed rebellion in 1910 and 1911. After Madero was inaugurated to succeed the deposed Diaz, he too lost the support of the masses because of land policies. Instability continued with the brief Huerta "counter-revolution" followed by the Carranza presidency. To many Mexicans, turbulent and war-torn Mexico was not the place to seek a future.
When the Lovell factory began operating, most workers in the Great Western Company's "territory" were Spanish-speaking people from Texas, New Mexico and southeastern Colorado, however. The company did not recruit within Mexico. While many of the workers were still "Mexican Nationals," they had immigrated earlier and had already received resident/worker status when the company recruited them.
The sugar companies during this period received most of their workers from labor recruiters. Some were company agents who were paid a straight salary plus expenses to recruit laborers for the company. Their duties were varied and ranged from booking advertisements in newspapers in areas where prospects were good to appointing sub-agents and registering laborers. The company recruiter often was required to explain the type of work the laborers could expect and the living conditions they might encounter. Occasionally, company recruiters had to make excuses for injustices committed by some growers, particularly involving wages, but their usual duties did not extend beyond the initial recruitment.
The Great Western company recruiting force consisted of 60 men in 1924 in various aspects of labor recruitment. Of these, 22 men were assigned to the Denver headquarters to coordinate activities of labor agents in Colorado, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming. Twenty-three "labor counters" worked in Texas and New Mexico while 15 men conducted labor shipments from southern points (El Paso, Dallas, Fort Worth) to the factory towns and farms further north like Lovell. Individual factories, 16 in Colorado and three in Wyoming, employed their own local recruiters who were also involved in the distribution of laborers to places having shortages.
Others were commission agents who were paid a fee by the sugar company for each laborer recruited. Still others were free-lance recruiters who would stop people on the street, promise to get them on beet labor trains, and collect a fee from the prospective laborer.
The duties of commission agents and free-lance recruiters were just as varied as those of company recruiters although there was less accountability. In many cases proper procedures were not followed.
Although most recruiters were themselves Mexican or very fluent Spanish speakers, occasionally confusion would result from the stories they told the prospective laborers. The experience of Secundino Rodriguez is typical. He was recruited by a company recruiter who had spoken with Secundino and his wife several times about work in the fields. The recruiter told them they would get paid about $25 per acre per year and told them the land they would work would be divided into small plots like the Mexican "ejido." "Ejido" is a Mexican "community land" system based on Indian practices dating to before the Spanish conquest. Under the system, land given to villages was divided into small family plots. The land on which Rodriguez was to work was much larger than an ejido, however.
The Rodriguez family gathered their possessions and boarded the train in El Paso on May 2, 1924. Three full cars of people from all parts of Texas and Mexico made the train trip to Lovell with only one stopover on the way. At the stop in Denver, they received further instructions about where they were going. Accommodations were cramped and they were never allowed to leave the train. Bologna sandwiches, sardines and coffee were provided for meals.
When Secundino and his family arrived in Lovell, a farmer was waiting to take them to his farm and the one-room house he had for them. They also saw the acreage they were to work for the first time. It was not a small plot like the recruiter told them. Their main duties included not only working the beets but feeding the cattle as well.
Rodriguez's nephew Eusebio was recruited by a free-lance recruiter who took his money then told him his destination was Oregon. Instead, he was sent to Boise, Idaho. He came to Lovell in 1924.
All three types of recruiters faced stiff competition with sheepmen, lumber mill operators, highway construction companies and railroads for the available labor supply. Besides Great Western, three other sugar companies were involved in beet worker recruitment. Supplying the seasonal labor to the beet farmers was a costly task for all four companies.
Laborers were not recruited for plowing, planting, cultivating, lifting and hauling because such operations required skill and experience due to the machinery involved. Those types of chores were done by the farmer or his year-round hired help. The migrant labor families were needed for the operations requiring hand labor. It was dirty and disagreeable work. In the spring and early summer, the workers had to block, thin and hoe the beets. Blocking the beets meant cutting out undesired beet plants in order to properly space the remaining plants. Thinning involved the removal of all except one beet plant from the cluster left by the blocking and it required the worker to crawl on all fours along the beet furrows.
There was cultural variation in the performance of these operations. The Russian-German father blocked beets with a long-handled hoe while the rest of the family usually thinned the beets on their hands and knees. The Mexican laborer blocked with one hand and thinned with the other.
In the fall after the plants had grown and weeds had been kept out all summer by hoeing, the farmers would loosen the ground with a machine lifter and the laborers would pull the beets by hand. After they were pulled, the tops of the beets would be cut off by hand with a knife.
A major disadvantage of stoop labor was its seasonal nature. Each growing season the migrants would have to return to the beet farm areas for work. Sugar companies tried to find ways to avoid the labor supply snarls.
As early as 1920 Great Western management recognized the need to keep the laborers on the farm, not only to maintain a steady labor supply but to avoid the tremendous costs involved in transporting labor each season. During 1924, for example, the company spent $200,000 for transportation and food for 8,152 beet laborers brought to the farms. The workers were imported into the Wyoming and Colorado fields from as far east as Omaha and as far south as El Paso.
The company management also feared immigration restrictions proposed by the Mexican government, believing that such legislation would cut off the best supply of labor. The proposed law stipulated that all laborers wishing to work in the United States and their families, including children, would have to pay a $10 fee. In addition, an "adult tax" of $8 was to be levied on all Mexican Nationals holding worker visas. The $8 charge would be refundable if the worker returned to Mexico within six months, however.
Such proposals made it even more difficult and expensive for companies to recruit workers. Nevertheless, by 1926 Great Western had paid for 10,800 full fares and 3,700 half fares for individuals brought by train or motor vehicle to the fields. Despite the cost and difficulties encountered, it was double the number brought north a couple of years earlier.
Seasonal labor also encouraged desertion. Of all workers brought to the fields in 1924, it was estimated that about seven percent deserted.
In short, permanent resident labor had none of the disadvantages of importation. Company officials, in fact, believed crop yields suffered unless resident laborers were used. Colonization appeared to be the only answer.
Great Western established their first "colony" for Mexican workers in Fort Morgan, Colorado, in 1922. In the previous year, only 400 families stayed throughout the year in the GW area. By 1924 there were 15 other colonies in the Great Western system and 2,000 families were making their homes all year in the country.
The company bought large tracts of land in some cases and subdivided it for worker houses. Usually, the company supplied the materials if the worker would build the house. The company would then lease the lot and home back to the worker until it was paid for, usually four or five years later. In Lovell, colony residents were not given the option of purchasing their homes because unlike the Greeley colony and others, the Lovell structures had been built on factory grounds. No rent was charged to the workers in Lovell, however. Despite that, many residents never felt comfortable there because the homes belonged to the company.
Generally, the colony houses were constructed of adobe bricks measuring 4x12x18 inches. Pure adobe was not used because it disintegrated under the extreme weather conditions, but a mixture of sandy loam soil and straw proved very durable. The houses had adobe floors, one or two rooms, and, at least in the case of the Fort Morgan colony, occupied lots averaging about 50x200 feet. The cost of the house and lot together was $100 ($25 for the lot, $75 for the materials used in the construction of the house).
The company decided who would live in the house. The overriding standard was that the residents be "experienced, high quality workers" so that even better and more timely work could be expected and obtained form them. Great Western's colonies housed fieldmen as well as sugar factory managers.
With the colonies the company reasoned that everyone would benefit: the company would save thousands of dollars in recruiting and transportation costs; the laborers would have a permanent home and thereby avoid paying high prices for rent and food during the "unemployment season" in the winter; and the farmers would receive higher quality and more loyal help.
There are conflicting opinions as to the date the Lovell colony was established. One long-time Lovell resident said there were some houses in the greasewood area later known as the colony before 1923. The Great Western company's magazine, Through the Leaves, printed two photographs of the colony houses in 1924, indicating that the colony had only been established that year. Kamiel Wembke, a Belgian who came to Lovell in 1923, remembered seven or eight houses in the colony when he first arrived. Whether it was 1924 or earlier, the colony housed other company employees who were not Mexican laborers. Wembke lived there for a number of years when he was employed by Great Western in the factory.
While accounts vary as to the number of houses built there, no more than 20 were in existence at any one time. They lined a single unpaved road at the end of which stood a building, about twice the size of the residences, that served as a meeting house. The colony was a noisy place, Wembke recalls. It was only a few yards from the railroad tracks, next to a cattle yard, and the Mexicans seemed to have "many kids and dogs."
According to resident Secundino Rodriguez, the houses were adobe, had cement or dirt floors (depending on the year they were built) and had wood-burning stoves for cooking and heating. Most were one-room structures although he remembers that some had two rooms. None had running water although faucets located at each end of the road and in the middle of the colony supplied domestic needs.
Gas heating replaced the wood stoves in 1927 although residents had the option of connecting to the line. Eusebio Rodriguez never hooked up to the gas as he preferred the wood-burning stove. Electricity was not available until years later and then only if residents installed it themselves. Eusebio did not add electricity to his house. Instead, he kept using kerosene lamps.
The only costs associated with living in the colony were the utilities which ran about $4 per month by one estimate. Some of the colony residents lived on the farms during the beet season and moved back to the colony during the winter while others lived there year-round causing some variation in this estimate.
Houses provided by farmers were usually of questionable quality throughout the Great Western company area. Great Western tried to improve the housing on the farms by providing farmers with material and Mexican labor to build adequate labor houses. The company knew the quality of the labor house was the key to their plan to keep the beet labor on the farms during the winter. Sometimes the plan was successfully implemented and, consequently, only a few laborers of the hundreds in the area ever lived in colonies.
When the Mexican laborer first arrived in Lovell, usually he was penniless. Great Western customarily gave small advances until the laborer received his first paycheck, but the advances were in the form of groceries to be ordered from a local merchant--not cash. Occasionally, a merchant would allow credit to a laborer if the grower or the company agreed to make payment should the laborer leave town before paying. The growers themselves sometimes would make advances, deducting the amount given from their first paycheck..
General farm laborers usually received from $15 to $80 per month. The Mexican Nationals were paid the same wages as other workers.
Great Western management recognized that many of their employees could not budget properly. The company deducted a small sum from each worker's check to be repaid to them if they stayed on through the winter. Secundino Rodriguez had $5 deducted for every acre he worked during the season. Unfortunately, if the laborer failed to stay during the winter, the company kept the money they had deducted from the wages. The effect was a "credit trap" in which the laborers needed money in order to leave but could not receive any unless they stayed. Another laborer, Jose Cobos, said he disliked the winter and the rural setting the first year he arrived but he stayed simply because of his lack of funds.
Russian-German workers had the reputation of quickly accumulating savings from their work and investing it into their own farms. In Lovell, this was true of many of the Mexicans as well. Some laborers were able to lease or buy land within ten years of their arrival. Cobos bought his farm in 1940--just seven years after coming to the country. The Belgian-born Wembke believed, however, that Mexicans did not try to better themselves. He particularly could not understand why the Mexicans did not keep their children in school.
Like other Americans, the Mexicans experienced hard times during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Mexicans worked in exchange for flour, beans and other staples in those years when their employers were unable to pay wages. Families in need were always helped by others in the colony, even during the early years before the onset of the depression.
The relationships between native and non-native Spanish-speaking people were generally good. They celebrated holidays together, although the native Mexicans were not required to work on Mexico's national holidays. In the Lovell community, there were several marriages between members of each group. For example, Secundino Rodriguez's daughter married a native of New Mexico.
Mrs. Rose Cordova of Cheyenne came to Wyoming as a beet laborer in the 1930s. Although she did not live in Lovell, her comments about the rivalry between the two groups are typical. She remembers that her father disliked the native Mexicans and did not allow his family to work near them or mingle socially with them. There was rivalry between the Mexican Nationals (known as suromates) and the American-born Spanish-speaking people (known as "chewies.") The Mexican Nationals found it strange that their American-born counterparts chewed tobacco, hence the nickname.
Mexican Nationals called themselves "Mexicanos Limpios" or pure Mexicans. They used the term "vendidos" for the American born. "Vendidos" has two definitions. Secundino Rodriguez explained it as referring to the historical fact that the Texas, New Mexico and Colorado areas and their inhabitants were "sold" to the United States by the notorious General Santa Ana. The more commonly used definition is that vendido refers to someone who is suspected of "selling out" his home culture by accepting the trappings of another culture.
In 1927, early in the colony's history, residents formed an organization, the Comision Honorifica (Honorary Commission) for both social and political reasons. At one point there were 30 members, according to Eusebio Rodriguez. The Comision controlled the community meeting house, known as "El Salon," where social functions were held as frequently as once a week. In El Salon the area's laborers celebrated Mexican national holidays which occurred nearly every month.
At first, Mexican-Americans from Texas, New Mexico and Colorado were allowed to participate in the festivities but they could not become Comision members. Membership was restricted to citizens of Mexico. Although he was not a colony resident, Jose Cobos became president of the Comision in 1934. He caused a rescission of the rule excluding Mexican-Americans from membership. Whenever the Comision met, however, framed photographs of Benito Juarez, Father Hidalgo and the current president of Mexico were hung on the walls. The Comision had committees like the Comite Patriotico (Patriotic Committee) whose chief function was to plan Mexican holiday parties.
Cobos served as president of the Comision until 1942. Born in San Luis Potasi, Mexico, in 1904, he had first come to the United States in 1921 after he had won a contest in Mexico offering a trip to Dallas as first prize. When he finished high school, he returned to Dallas and worked for the railroad for 12 years. In 1933 he heard about "big money" that could be made in Wyoming working in sugar beet fields. He and his family packed their belongings into a 1926 Model T and drove to Lovell in one week. The next year he was elected president of the Comision, although he never lived at the colony or particularly liked it. He believed the residents there were "too rowdy."
The organizers of the Comision, Nicolas and Manuel Almazan, formed it to fight discrimination and to seek help from the Mexican consul in Denver if residents needed assistance from the outside. The social function came later although Cobos said when he became president, no festivities were ever again held in El Salon. The political function had become too important. While American-born laborers could go to the police and other authorities if they had difficulties, the Mexican citizen believed his only hope lay with the Mexican consul. The Comision was the link to the consul.
Complaints of discrimination in bars, the local pool hall and restaurants were frequently made. Even in the local Catholic Church, seating for the Mexicans was divided from that for "whites." At one point, Mexicans and African-Americans were refused admittance to bars altogether. The policy was amended to allow them to purchase beer or liquor in the bar although they were still prohibited from consuming their purchases on the premises. The sugar company remained silent about the discrimination so a complaint process had to be developed to allow the Mexican consul to intercede in such cases.
The Comision developed a complaint process for its members. Although the laborer could file a complaint directly with the Mexican consul if he could write it, he could initiate the process locally by simply speaking with the president of the Comision. The president would then write to the Mexican consul in Denver on the laborer's behalf. When Cobos was president, he received no salary but he was reimbursed for expenses involved in the investigation of such a complaint. The money came from membership dues of $1 per month from each member. (Eusebio Rodriguez noted that the fee was often whatever the member could afford, not just a flat $1 per month).
Even if the complaint were filed directly by the laborer, the Mexican consul would contact the Comision president to verify the nationality of the complainant and the facts stated in the complaint. He could intercede only if the complainant was a Mexican citizen. The consul would contact local authorities in order to try to remedy the problems. It was believed by some Comision members that the consul contacted officials in Washington, D. C., and Mexico City, who in turn, relayed their displeasure to state and local officials in the Lovell area.
The Comision existed until 1940 when Mexican membership dropped off. The founders, the Almazan brothers, left that year and the others moved away to join the war effort, returned to Mexico or simply lost interest.
The Mexican Nationals never had been secure enough to try to better their working conditions through labor organization. In the 1930s attempts by native American laborers to organize ended in failure when a New Mexican who was in charge of the drive absconded with the money collected to form the union. When the Mexican-Americans again tried to organize, the attempt failed because of company pressure. Great Western had been conscious of labor problems because after World War I, returning veterans protested against working two 12-hour shifts and the company had to go to three 8-hour shifts in order to appease them. In the case of the Mexicans, however, the company made no attempt to bargain. Cobos recalled that when the group went to meet with management and demand better working conditions and better pay, a company man stepped toward them. "The men who aren't from Wyoming, raise your hands," he said. When several did, he told them to go back where they came from if they didn't like it in Lovell. The men dispersed.
Generally, the Mexicans never felt they had a reason or a right to complain. However, they considered themselves outsiders and were expecting to be treated as such. Consequently, they endured what they could not affect.
The Colony was demolished in 1954. At that time, there were 20 houses, and the majority of the residents were related to Secundino Rodriguez. When the colony closed, they found quarters in town or in the surrounding area.
Many of the people who had lived there fought in World War II or in Korea but discrimination still existed in the bar and hotels when they returned home. Some, like Secundino Rodriguez retired, but because no deductions for Social Security were ever made, received nothing for a pension. (Rodriguez, however, does receive a tiny pension because a farmer once deducted for the winter work Secundino performed for him over the years).
Those who had sent their children to school heard stories about the impatience and disregard the teachers had shown for their children, so most did not force them to return to the classroom. In 1953 a survey was taken of the Spanish-surnamed schoolchildren in Lovell and all denied being Mexican. None had any knowledge of the customs of Mexico. Few of them spoke Spanish even though many of their parents or grandparents never learned English.
Although discrimination still existed, there were too few to fight it effectively. Individual families still celebrated the holidays but they were private celebrations and even then, one suspects that not much celebrating was done.
Where the colony once stood is a mound of adobe, grass and straw. The mound is on the same unpaved road and the same three big cottonwoods that shaded the Rodriguez family's first house still stand there. The cattle yards to the west are deserted, too. All that remains to show that a unique group of people came to Wyoming to work the fields is the Great Western Sugar factory itself with its smokestack still looming over the prosperous community of Lovell, Wyoming.
* Reprinted from Annals of Wyoming 51 (Fall 1979), pp. 26-35. The author was born in Mexico City and immigrated to the United States at the age of three. He received a B. A. from the University of Texas at El Paso, and did graduate work at the University of Texas and Arizona State University. He received a M.Ed. from the University of Wyoming.
For the purpose of this article and to convey some sense of the feelings of that time toward beet laborers, the term "Mexican" will be used when referring to the Spanish language beet laborer regardless of whether he was a native of the United States or Mexico.
Marguerite S. Condie, "Algunos Aspectos de la Vida de los Escolares de Habla Espanola en el Condado de Big Horn, Estado de Wyoming." Unpublished M. A. Thesis, Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 1953, p. 60.