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.