Organized labor was a growing force in 1913 and strikes were often violent. English cigar maker Samuel Gompers had started the American Federation of Labor (AFL) almost 30 years earlier, and Upton Sinclair’s exposé on the Chicago Stockyards, “The Jungle”, had been in print for 7 years. Yet seasonal farm workers were difficult to organize. They were an unskilled and unsettled group, largely transient and until now, mostly passed over by Union organizers.
Ralph Durst, one of the largest agricultural employers in Yuba County, California, advertised widely for hops pickers for the 1913 harvest season. He got 1,000 more than he needed, which had the effect of depressing already low wages.
Sanitary conditions quickly became deplorable. There was one toilet per 100 workers, which quickly filled up in the July heat. Fresh drinking water was scarce. A Durst cousin selling watered down, ersatz lemonade out of a wagon for a nickel a glass did little to improve things.
The International Workers of the World, (IWW), established in 1905, was a radical socialist labor organization. 100 of Durst’s hop pickers were members. Two of them, Richard “Blackie” Ford and Herman Suhr, managed to rally a majority to their cause with speeches, songs and slogans.
104 years ago today, 1,700 seasonal hops pickers gathered in the field of the Durst Hop Farm. They demanded an increase from their $1.00/100 lbs of hops picked, and they wanted better working conditions. Durst agreed to some changes, but Ford and Suhr stuck to their full list of demands and called a strike.
A mass meeting was called on the afternoon of August 3, as a succession of speakers addressed the crowd in English, German, Greek, Italian, Arabic, and Spanish. Most were in favor of a strike. Tensions were high when Durst arrived just after 5pm with Marysville Sheriff George Voss, a number of deputies, and Yuba County District Attorney Edward Manwell, who was also Durst’s personal attorney.
The group was surrounded as a deputy fired a warning blast into the air from a shotgun, but the warning had the opposite effect from what was intended. The crowd attacked District Attorney Manwell and Deputy Sheriff Lee Anderson and began beating them. Gunfire erupted in what soon became a full-fledged riot. Deputy Sheriff Eugene Reardon and District Attorney Manweel were both killed, along with two pickers. A third lost an arm to a shotgun blast.
There were over 100 arrests in the aftermath of the riot, the prisoners beaten and starved to extract information on strike leaders. A field worker named Alfred Nelson was hauled from one county to another and held in secret locations while being sweated, starved, and beaten. He was repeatedly threatened with death, unless he confessed to participation in the killings. The pressure was so severe that Nels Nelson, the picker who lost his arm in the shotgun blast, hanged himself in his cell. Another prisoner tried to do the same, and a third suffered a mental breakdown and had to be committed to an asylum.
Blackie Ford and Herman Suhr were found guilty of second-degree murder in the following trial, and sentenced to life in the state penitentiary. Two other strike leaders, Walter Bagan and William Beck, were acquitted.
The Wheatland Hop Riot was one of the first major agricultural labor confrontations in American history, but it was far from the last. Today, the site is registered as California Historical Landmark #1003.