Before mechanical cherry shakers came along in the 1970s, most of the cherries on the Old Mission Peninsula were picked by Mexican migrant workers who came north for the summer. They would show up by the thousands in big trucks and gorgeous shiny cars painted bright pink, lime green and other amazing colors we never saw on the Peninsula, where the farmers chose staid blues, maroons and browns for their car colors.
Prior to around the 1950s, farmers housed Mexican migrant workers in giant canvas tents, which I believe may have been procured from the Army after WWII. By the 1950s and 60s, and with better regulations in place, farmers had to provide better housing. When that happened, those big tents came in handy when our Southern cousins visited and all of us kids camped out in the front yard.
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To house the migrant workers under the newer regulations, my dad, Walter Johnson, built a long building we called the Butler Building – because Butler was the manufacturer, and there was a small “Butler” sign up in the peak of the building. The building is still there, across the road from our cooling pad just north of Mapleton. Now it’s used primarily to store farm equipment.
Long and narrow, the Butler Building was divided into rooms for each Mexican family, and also included a bathroom with several shower stalls. Every summer up until the 1970s, hundreds of Mexicans worked for my dad. Their crew chief, Lupé, managed the workers and was very well respected by my dad. In the photo above are some of the Mexican kids from the Martinez and Guetteto family with my brother, Dean Johnson, in August 1951.
I was born in 1960, and some of my best friends during those early years were Mexican kids. On Saturday afternoon, I’d ride with my Mom and Dad to the Butler Building to pay the Mexicans. Lupe kept track of all their hours and lug counts, and would coordinate with Dad on how much each picker was paid. While my parents wrote and signed all the checks – which took hours – I played with the Mexican kids.
In the daytime, I rode with Mom and Dad through the orchards, helping them stack the lugs full of cherries onto a trailer pulled behind a tractor – probably the old Case VAO or DO. I can still hear those pickers singing Mexican songs at the top of their voice, way up on a ladder in the very tops of the cherry trees. Here’s a photo of Felixberto Rodriguez picking cherries on the farm in August 1950.
Below is a photo of my Dad with lugs of cherries on the trailer after they’ve been picked up in the orchards. It was quite a skill to not only stack the lugs correctly, but also walk on the edges of the lugs without squishing any of the cherries.
It was a great working relationship between Old Mission Peninsula farmers and Mexican migrant workers. Dean recently told me that when they switched to cherry shakers in the 1970s, it was a difficult transition for Dad, who had to call Lupe and tell them not to come that year. After so many years of relying solely on Mexican migrant workers to harvest the cherries, I’m sure it was a brave new world for Dad – one that took some adjusting to.
It’s interesting that during that time, the local businesses on the Old Mission Peninsula, as well as Traverse City and the surrounding areas, were really geared towards Mexicans during the summer. If you drove to downtown Traverse City on a Saturday night, you’d see a lot of Mexicans, and the stores and restaurants catered to them.
There is still agriculture in northern Michigan, of course, but now our industry is geared more towards tourism, especially in the summer months when folks seek out our beaches, vineyards and assorted festivals – a natural evolution for our lovely lands.
However, my family still employs many Mexicans, some of whom work on the farm all year round, and some who are here via an H-2A agricultural visa. This program, which has strict rules and regulations, gives farmers the ability to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the United States to work on a temporary or seasonal basis.
As a side note, in the 1950s and 60s, there was a “Mexican Drive-In” on the Old Mission Peninsula, located near Bowers Harbor Park (across the road, in that triangle that borders Bowers Harbor Road, Seven Hills Road and Peninsula Drive).
The Mexican Drive-In deserves its own story, which I’ll have my husband Tim write, because he worked as a bouncer there when he was 12 years old. Imagine a kid given a gun and permission to patrol the fenceline to keep out anyone trying to sneak in.
I don’t remember much about the Mexican Drive-In, other than you could hear it – all Mexican movies, of course – all over the Peninsula, even in the village of Old Mission five miles away, where my parents had built a house by then. If anyone has photos of the Mexican Drive-In, let me know. I haven’t come across any in my parents’ archives.
Leave your own thoughts and memories of Mexican migrant workers in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
Jane, great story!
I remember picking cherries in Traverse City and Sutton’s Bay in the early 60’s. I believe the man we worked for in Sutton’s Bay was, Bob Anderson. He was such a nice man.
Great story. My dad and grandfather had the same family, the Garzas, come to our farm for 20 years. I love your description of the trucks and cars. They always brought watermelons when they came up to work on our farm. They came from Homestead, Florida to pick cherries . I always loved the cherry season when they arrived with their crew and the farm came alive with children that became friends and playmates for the summer. It was sad to see them leave at the end of the season. Many memories created and brought back by your article.
Maria. Seasonal friend, a few yrs older. Family lived in a Butler unit. Hung out with her there while G/pa (Lester Johnson) spent some time at the shop.
Enjoyed your story! I lived in the 70’s and 80’s on Bluff Rd- very close to Tugs house! Miss TC and 0MP very much- sitting here in Plano Texas at 101 degrees thinking about area and all the old friends!
I remember Haserot Beach on Sundays. The Mexican workers and their families would come to the beach for the day. It was more crowded that the pictures of the Riviera in their season!
I really enjoyed reading the history of Mexican farm workers at OM. I am Mexican and visit Old Mission every summer with my husband whose family owns a home. I have felt a certain sadness when I drive by the mobile home park that house them. I always make a point of stopping and saying hello to them even though they do not know me. My father was a migrant farm worker and I have a great deal of respect for them, thank you for the article
I always remember how close knit the families were and the Dads and Grampas were the law! I often wonder about some of the kids we were friends with over the years. Mrs Rangel made the best tortillas ever and tried to teach us but as kids we just wanted to eat not cook!
Are you Mary Jo Solmonson?
Yes I am! HI Peggie.
I used to go the mexican drive-in. We had friends that picked on the peninsula and we would make the trip from Cedar. Many other friends would come from Sutton’s Bay. Great memories. I was there in 1968 – 1969
In the early 70’s I taught at OMP school during the summer months when the Migrant population was in residence. I loved the children. They were always very respectful and eager to learn. It was a treat for me to interface with the families.
Thanks for the note, Mary! Agree – some of my first best friends were migrant kids, and we had so much fun playing in the orchards.
Great article Jane!!! I grew up in “the city”, on 6th St and Division. I can still remember watching in awe, the migrant trucks driving by as they entered town. They were so full of families, kids riding in the open-air back section of these large vehicles. And my mom always said “pretty soon we’ll be eating cherries!!” I can still picture it!!!!
I was a teacher’s aide with the Migrant program at OMP school during the early 1970s for four summers. We would ride the school bus every morning and afternoon to pick up/drop off the children at the farms. It was a wonderful experience for me and one of the best summer jobs available in TC!
About 10 years ago, I was exploring some backroads on Old Mission Peninaula and ran across a red-painted wood building that had been out of use for many years and was over grown by brush, scrappy trees, and years of neglect. When I drove by it, I immediately slammed on my car brakes because I was overwhelmingly captivated by its structure and design because I felt quite certain that in its prime, it would have been used to house the Mexican migrant workers that my father used to tell me about that would populate the area and streets of Traverse City during harvest season when he wss a kid. I’m so mad now that I never took a picture of this building when I had originally seen it 10 years ago. The building was elongated in size and had small units, each of which were about 10 to 15 feet wide and designated with their own front door. I’d love to find this building again to take a picture of it. I have scoured the peninsula to try to find it but have had no luck. Can anyone tell me where I can find it, and can you tell me if my assessment of its original use as migrant workwr housing is correct?
Thank you so much!
Thanks for the note, David! Hmmm… trying to think where that building might have been. It doesn’t sound like a Johnson Farms building (that’s my family). Any idea of the general area of the Peninsula where it might have been? Ok if I ask our Gazette Facebook group?
Thanks for your reply, Jane. Sorry for the misspellings in my original post. As a teacher, I’m embarrassed by that. I guess my only excuse is that it was early in the morning under low light. Anyway, with regard to your question – yes, feel free to share with anyone who might be interested in the topic. Due to the developed nature of the southern one-third of the peninsula, my geographical instincts tell me that it would be located in the northern two-thirds. It was in a densely wooded area and probably on one of those roads that are not maintained during all seasons, which are thus, often quite eroded in spots or very sandy and tougher to navigate safely. I use to take more chances in my younger days when exploring by vehicle on more isolated and unstable roads or roads labeled as private or with “No Trespassing” signs. That’s why I probably can’t find this structure today because I’m more conservative in my risk-taking now. I hope that one of your connections might know someting about this. Thank you for taking interest.
I taught at Old Mission School in the late 1980’s through the mid 1990s. By that time mechanization had greatly reduced the need for migrant labor. However every April the population of the school would increase because our farmers still needed extra help. It seemed to be the same families returned year after year. The kids fit in well and liked the school. On several occasions their parents reported that they liked coming here also because they were treated well and paid fairly and reliably.
On Independence and Labor Day the farm owners and their employees would have barbecues together and were seen at the beach. When mid October came around and all the apples were picked the families left for the labor intensive crops down south.
[…] They would travel all the way north to Michigan where they often picked cherries. Here is an article on migrant workers in Michigan. Not all the people were Mexican, many were Americans who were denied many of the benefits that […]
many of the orchards allowed kids like me to pick cherries in the summer months to equal an allowance. I lived in Traverse City and was a “normal” kid and was 8 9 and 10 years old and allowed to pick cherries / I remember having a lug around neck filling with cherries and then at the end of a few hours getting paid (of course to my Dad) a few dollars / I attended Hickory Hill Elementary / (if still there on the top of a hill) and lived on N. Spruce Street.
Wow I have been researching for the campsites we lived at in ludington. our family picked cherries and my dad always spoke great of the orchard owner he called him Lester. Our family (salazar)was in the newspaper a picture of all of us picking cherries. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures . Just good memories of ludington, michigan.
My father picked cherries for the Thompson’s (just past Old Mission Tavern) during the depression and he mentioned Moots Camp and Wildcat Corners. Anyone recognize those locations? His Saturday night job was to drive slowly down the roads and offer rides back to housing locations for those who had partied a little hard.