Scrapbooks Provide A Window into Mid-Century Sonoma County “Farm Labor Doings”

Written By: Katherine J. Rinehart
Published: May 12, 2021

Richard Conger, an antique and pinball collector and former Analy High School auto shop teacher, purchased seven scrapbooks at a garage sale in 2015 and gave them to Steve Dutton. Steve, a fifth-generation Sonoma County wine and apple grower, was president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau at the time. Steve donated the scrapbooks, which document post World War II Sonoma County farm labor, to the Farm Bureau this past March.

Charles D. Grant (1896-1971), a Farm Placement Representative for the California Department of Employment, created the scrapbooks and called them “Farm Doings.” He pasted newspaper clippings, photographs, and other items related to farm labor from 1949 through 1957 onto pages that are now part of the official Sonoma County Farm Bureau Archive.

Born in Nebraska, Charles Grant came to Ukiah as a child in 1904 with his parents, Reuben and Emily, and six siblings. As an adult, Grant moved around living in Butte and Contra Costa Counties. In 1924 he married Gladys Wann shortly after she received a degree in botany from UC Berkely. In the early 1940s, the couple settled in Sonoma County. While living in Healdsburg, Grant was hired by the UC Cooperative Extension’s Farm Labor Office in 1945. He served as the Sonoma County placement manager. He and Gladys later moved to Sebastopol, where he became a lifelong member of the Jonive Farm Center.

Between 1940 and 1943, the number of farm workers in the United States decreased as men and women left the farm to join the war effort – either as part of the armed services or in the defense industry. At the same time, farmers were asked to increase production to feed the troops and civilians struggling to survive in war-torn countries abroad. By 1943, with the successful harvest of the nation’s food supply in jeopardy, Congress approved the Supply and Distribution of Farm Labor Appropriation Act to “assist farmers in producing vital food by making labor available at the time it was most needed.” One way to achieve this goal was to establish Farm Labor Offices. In California, the UC Cooperative Extension, then known as the Extension Division of the University of California, managed these offices.

After World War II, labor shortages continued to plague the country, and the operation of the Farm Labor Offices’ shifted to the Department of Employment. In 1948 Grant was appointed Farm Placement Representative. 

The Farm Labor Office operated permanent headquarters in San Rafael, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and Ukiah and three seasonal offices at Sebastopol, Healdsburg, and Sonoma. The offices served as clearinghouses for farmers, fruit packing firms, dairy ranchers, orchardists, and others seeking help and for those desiring employment.

Grant’s “Farm Doings” scrapbooks contain several articles that document how Sonoma County’s farm labor force consisted of a combination of Mexican Nationals contracted under the Bracero Program, non-foreign transient migrants, and local high school and college students from near and far. According to one clipping dated October 14, 1951, when grape cutters were in especially high demand, labor was provided by those stationed at Santa Rosa’s Navy Base, Two Rock, Hamilton Field, and Skaggs Island. 

As one might expect, there are many items related to weather conditions and various crops’ success and failure during specific periods to be found within the scrapbooks. In addition, Grant clipped several stories describing clever inventions of the day, including Eloi Bourdens’ prune harvester. Designed primarily to pick prunes on his 10-acre West College Avenue property in Santa Rosa and a 50-acre Kenwood orchard, Mr. Bourdens’ mechanical harvester could be used to harvest walnuts as well. The design was three years in the making and made its debut in 1949. Then there was Clifford Rich, a Kenwood orchardist who came up with the idea of a mobile pruning platform that was the result of a “rainy day Job” in his workshop at 7950 Sonoma Highway. In 1951, Cliff combined an old automobile rear axle, surplus Army truck wheels, a smaller automobile wheel, a discarded motorcycle transmission, a hydraulic hoist, an air compressor, a quantity of channel iron, and a lot of native ingenuity into a mechanical pruning aid designed to eliminate the need to carry ladders, that he called a “go-devil.”

Although the scrapbooks don’t go past 1957, Charles D. Grant continued working as the farm labor placement representative until his retirement in 1965. What became of the Farm Labor Office is a topic for another day. In the meantime, the information packed into Grant’s seven scrapbooks will provide a rich source of material for anyone interested in Sonoma County’s farm labor history. The scrapbooks and other items from the Farm Bureau Archive will be made accessible to the public by appointment within the next few months.

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