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The Martinez and Guetteto kids with Dean Johnson, 1951 | Mary Johnson Photo
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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.

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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.

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.

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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. Lupé 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.

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Felixberto Rodriguez picking cherries on Johnson Farms/Crescent Hill Fruit Farm, August 1950 | Mary Johnson Photo

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.

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Walter Johnson with lugs of cherries on Johnson Farms/Crescent Hill Fruit Farm, July 1952 | Mary Johnson Photo

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 Lupé 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.

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Cherry Lug Tickets from Johnson Farms/Crescent Hill Fruit Farm, circa 1960s | Jane Boursaw Photo

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.

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Walter Johnson with lugs of cherries on Johnson Farms/Crescent Hill Fruit Farm, July 1952 | Mary Johnson Photo

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.

READ ALSO:

Here’s How a Cherry Shaker Works – VIDEO

14 COMMENTS

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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

  6. 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!

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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!!!!

  10. 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!

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