on April 21, 2012
There is no question Mark Wyman's book is informative, well-written, extensively researched and documented, so it might seem strange to assign it only a 3-star rating. Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West is a history book, a detailed account of the agricultural development of the West, post-Civil War and early 19th century, and the factors that brought this vast, for the most part deserted territory under the plow.
According to Wyman the steam locomotive perches atop the New West food pyramid, and his account of the iron horse's crucial role in the settlement and agricultural expansion of the Western Frontier is the most fascinating segment of the book. It was a "win-win" situation for the railroads, their owners, and backers. To encourage railroad construction, the Federal government offered free land--so many acres per mile of track laid (6,400 acres per mile to one railroad), and federal loans as enticements. The railroads in turn carried passengers and freight to the frontiers, not only charging travelers fares, but also selling them the land on which to settle. Towns sprung up along railroads, attracting more settlers to this new "civilization." When the land was farmed and crops harvested, railroads transported the goods to markets. And, of course, the railroads brought workers to the fields to harvest the crops. For those who may have wondered how the wilds of the West came to be parceled out into the hands of private landowners, the answer lies with the railroad industry.
Extensive monocultures became part of the West's agricultural landscape: wheat, corn, sugar beets in the Midwest; cotton moved westward from the deep south: and hops, nut crops, citrus fruit, apples, soft fruits and berries were cultivated in the Far west. The rest of Wyman's story involves the matter of harvesting these crops, the mass of humanity needed to reap, pick, and gather the fruits of the field. The author emphasizes how oftentimes ambitious farmers overextended their acreage to the point there was inadequate labor to harvest the surplus. The introduction of irrigation systems, Wyman explains, transformed once arid lands into fertile fields and the increased acreage further served to exacerbate labor shortages.
As well as the native drifters ("hoboes, bindlestiffs and fruit tramps") employed to "bring in the sheaves," Wyman's book discusses the many immigrant ethnicities who worked the harvests: Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, German-Russians, and most prominently the Mexican labor force. Wyman further explains the attitude many farm owners, townsfolk, and settlers had toward these migrants: much sought after come harvest time; spurned when harvest was over. These attitudes and subsequent mistreatment of the labor force led to labor disputes, rise and involvement of agricultural unions (and the IWW) which in turn led to strikes, riots, and bloodshed.
(Note: two of the issues Wyman addresses still exist today in the agricultural West. The Hispanic (Mexican) immigrant situation, an issue then, continues to be an issue; Mexicans, whose histories are tightly intertwined with the agriculture of the West and its expansion, have fallen in and out of favor time and again with resident Westerners. Secondly, the labor shortages that plagued the early agricultural industry persist still. Just last fall the governor of my home State of Washington issued a statewide plea requesting help in the harvesting of the season's record apple crop.)
But while Wyman includes a generous amount of fact, numbers, and figures in his narrative, the book's title--why I purchased the book in the first place--is sadly misleading. Aside from a few definitions of the native itinerants who worked the harvests of the West: "...the hobo 'a migratory worker, a tramp is a nonworker, a bum is a stationary nonworker,'" we learn very little about the humanity behind the unwashed, weatherworn faces. Who were they? What were their stories? I wanted to know and Wyman never says.
If one seeks information about agriculture and its role in the settling of the west, and the crops that turned desert and wilderness into farms...how those crops were harvested, I recommend Wyman's book. But if you truly want to understand the drifters, ("apple knockers"), gypsies who "followed the fruit," read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (by the way, Wyman overlooks the exodus of Dust Bowl victims). Or better yet, rub elbows with Woody Guthrie and sixty "troubled, tangled, messed up men" aboard a rattling boxcar in "Soldiers in the Dust," Chapter One of Guthrie's autobiography Bound for Glory.
on October 8, 2013
I was interested in reading Mark Wyman's Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps and the Harvesting of the West because I think that hoboes are interesting. I knew about how they lived and traveled, but not why, or what they did for money besides begging. What I mostly learned instead was the story of how America replaced slavery, and on whose work-bent backs our agricultural might was built on. A better title probably would have been Hoboes:What were they doing, and who replaced them.
Wyman organized this book by the different crops the west is known for, ordered by the chronology of each one's rise to prominence. Everything from great plains wheat to California produce is covered. However, each chapter is repetitive, because the story of the workers changes little. As speculators and landowners opened up new possibilities for agriculture, they despaired of finding the seasonal workers needed to harvest it. The instant the work was done, the workers, whether they were traditional hoboes, oriental immigrants, or migrant Mexicans, residents and landowners wanted those people to clear out immediately.
Wyman does not shy away from presenting terrible situations and inequalities in his work. Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps and the Harvesting of the West tells rather horrifically on p. 126 how permanently damaging cotton picking could be, despite being considered "women's work," while easier jobs such as driving horse drawn equipment was considered "men's work." Some jobs, however, were truly reserved for men because literally no one could do the exhausting work, such as fruit harvesting in California, as described on p. 206, with many miserable details. Sugar beets, the American answer to Caribbean sugar cane, appears to be just as awful to produce, only with a certain preference for children doing the work, for their small nimble fingers. Descriptions on p.170 and p. 194 tell of six year olds using machetes to chop the tops off the beets, with their knees as chopping blocks. There is also a picture of this in the photo section.
I expected photos of hoboes, and lists of grisly train riding injuries, such as appeared on p. 36, but even those were worse than I imagined. I got more than I bargained for with this book, in the best of ways. I would definitely recommend this for historical reading, especially the final chapter. It would be a good source for picking and choosing chapters to supplement other materials, especially as that would keep readers from noticing the repetitive aspects of some chapters.
on October 9, 2010
I'm about 2/3s of the way through and I can say that the book is well researched and written. I certainly know more now about the economics of agriculture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than I thought I ever would. The contrast between employers' labor needs and nativist waves throughout American history is thought provoking, especially in the current climate. And early in the book where the author ties revolutions in transportation (railcars and later refrigerated cars) to famers' ability to move from staples to higher value crops in low population areas (thereby leading to higher labor demands and itinerant workers) is something I truly hadn't thought of and was very interested to learn.
However, I have two major problems:
1) I feel the book is far more focussed on the farmers' points of view or that of the immigrant laborers that come in. Hoboes (and their like) are hardly mentioned in many chapters (e.g. I just finished the chapter on beet farming and it focussed mostly on Mexicans, German-Russians, and farm-factory relations). When I bought this, I was hoping for something that delved into hobo society and the things that made the hobo the cultural touchstone that is today (and possibly strip away the romanticization).
2) I feel the author jumps around in time too much. Quotes and examples are sometimes drawn from anywhere between 1880 and 1930 without much in the way of segue.
If the title had been more along the lines of "The Havesting of the West: Farmers, Immigrants, and Hoboes", I probably wouldn't be complaining. As I said, on its own the book is pretty good. It's just that seeing "Hoboes" at the top of every other page is a reminder of what I'm not reading about.