"When you spend that many years doing that work, it’s very, very difficult to turn your back on it. As hard as it is, it’s fun."
My parents first came to Wisconsin as migrant workers back in the ‘40s. My father’s heritage is Hispanic and Comanche, and we think my mother was Apache and Hispanic. Their prior place of residence was San Antonio, TX, which they tried to escape because they were so poor and food was so scarce. In Texas, Dad worked in the fields, doing menial jobs for farmers (picking stones, cleaning the barn, making repairs). For a short while, he was working as a laborer for International Harvester, a manufacturer of equipment for the war effort.
After the war, someone from the San Antonio area must’ve gone up to Wisconsin and worked in the fields for the Menominee Sugar Company, then came back, and spread the word. Dad heard about it, so in 1946, he and my mother drove to Allenville, Wisconsin and started working for this very large company, with trucks and railroads bringing in sugar beets which were grown in the Fox Valley at the time.
My family lived in one of these little houses that the locals called Little Mexico. They’re one-room shacks. There were about seven of them that I remember when I was a kid. They were still there until probably the mid-‘60s, before they were knocked down. In 1947, my mother, father, and five children all lived in that little house.
Each consecutive year, there would be one more child. The rooms were probably twelve by twelve. They had no interior walls. They had two windows. They had one door. They had little wood stoves inside of them. They had no foundation... I think they sat on railroad ties. They were very low—even as a little child you almost could jump up and touch the ceiling.
The Allen family settled the town. It’s one of those particular points in history… a group of English move into Wisconsin. They sent letters back or somebody goes back east and says, ‘Hey, I found an area.’ So they all tend to follow. Again, chain migration. The earliest of the Allens had the money to purchase a large swath of land, and they were able to be the center of the community and name it after themselves. I think it was Timothy Allen who had the land and he made a deal with the railroads to get the tracks to go through their property and then to build a station. The Allens offered the railroad free land and the railroad says, ‘Oh, okay, if you’re going to give us free land then we’ll put our station there.’
During the 1940s the Allens were hiring my dad to work, and in return, they were giving him meat and milk so he had a way to sustain his family. You have to keep in mind that in those days when my family went back to San Antonio, they didn’t have any community to take care of them, but you could barter and make deals with people here in Wisconsin.
It was George Smith, my father’s friend and mentor, who was ultimately the reason why we ended up staying in Wisconsin. George was the foreman of the Menomonee Sugar Company. He made sure that all the migrant workers were present and were on time and were transported to the work locations where they were needed. Because we were there in 1946—and came back in 1947—George Smith told my dad that he knew of some property that was for sale. On the property was an old abandoned blacksmith shop. So my dad works a deal and buys the land in February 1949. He then rebuilt the blacksmith shop into a house.
I was born in 1954. The Allens gave me my first job, I’m going to say I was in first grade. And, I remember that Ted Allen would put me on his lap and carry me to the top of the silo, My arms and legs weren’t actually long enough to climb the rungs of the ladder, so, he would carry me up there, and toss me on the silage. I would then grab a pitchfork and start throwing silage down and I would be up there for hours and I would yell, ‘Is that enough?’ and he would say, ‘No, more,’ so I’d do that. But in the meantime, he would go up there and he would want to know, ‘Are you cold?’ and I was always, ‘No,’ I wasn’t cold. Well, he would still take my gloves off and feel my hands. We didn’t have belts so he would tie the loops of my pants together with binder twine to keep them up. He would make sure I had shoelaces.
Where do people get their moral compasses from? One of the things, of course, is church, but I think more strongly in my case or for many of us, it was the Allens. They were strong Baptists, which was unusual at the time in a state mostly settled by Germans, Norwegians, English, and Irish. Because of the way they treated us, the way they behaved toward other people, the things they said, and just the way they lived... as I grew up, I began to realize I’m kind of like them.
Growing up here, the one difference today as opposed to then is that we had no boundaries. I could be gone overnight... I would walk out to Allen’s woods and wouldn’t come back ‘til the next day. I had a backpack. I’d sleep on the ground, on a blanket. Sometimes my brother came with me. We would walk as far as Winchester from our house. We’d walk to Oshkosh.
For all of the people that I knew and grew up with, we all had the same reason for leaving.We understood that to stay there as an adult, your life was going to be limited. The opportunities were not going to be there. We didn’t know what was out there, but we were going to go out there and go see if we could find it... and that’s what happened.
I left to go to California, but I came back in the ‘80s because the Allens needed help on the farm.
There was no money in it, but it gets in your blood. I really don’t know how you can get it out of your blood. When you spend that many years doing that work, it’s very, very difficult to turn your back on it. As hard as it is, it’s fun. As miserable and cold as you are—dirty and smelly—it is fun.
David’s story is part of Love Wisconsin's collaboration with the Lands We Share a project that focuses on the intersection of farming, land, ethnic culture, and history in Wisconsin. Through this collaboration we featured five farmer stories from the project including: Mike Dettman, Danell Cross, Loretta Metoxen, and Cheu Vang.