Wheatland Hop Riot's 100th anniversary to be marked in Yuba County

07/30/2013 12:00 AM

07/30/2013 8:05 PM

You may have never visited Wheatland, a city on Highway 65 in Yuba County.

And even if you've been there and toured the town's tiny grid of streets, you probably didn't notice the grassy field next to the electrical substation on Spenceville Road, empty except for telephone poles.

But on Aug. 3, 1913, 1,700 seasonal hop pickers gathered in that field to demand higher wages and better working conditions. They later clashed with authorities.

The protest – known as the Wheatland Hop Riot – ended up making history, recognized as an early shot across the bow in what would become an ongoing battle over compensation and conditions for field workers in the Golden State.

"It was a huge event in California," said David Rubiales, an emeritus professor of history at Yuba College. "It was picked up by The New York Times and other major papers."

In 1913, organized labor was a growing force in America and strikes often turned violent, but seasonal farmworkers – an unskilled and unsettled group who were naturally hard to unionize – had mostly been passed over.

While the riot's legacy is a matter of debate, the circumstances that preceded the strike and the bloodshed that followed are largely settled fact. The account below comes from newspaper articles and the work of historians.

It was the beginning of hop-picking season at the farm of Ralph Durst – one of the largest agricultural employers in California – and temperatures were in the mid-90s.

Durst had advertised widely for the harvesting jobs and ended up attracting nearly a thousand more workers than he needed. Pickers, who often came with their families, earned on average $1.50 a day.

With one toilet for every 300 workers, clean water scarce and sanitation nonexistent, conditions were deplorable. In addition, Durst had the monopoly on food and tents. It didn't take long for discontent to rise among the ranks. Hundreds of workers walked off the job in protest in the first days of the harvest.

About 100 of the farmhands were members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a socialist union that had grown rapidly since its founding in 1905. Days after the picking started, the IWW, led by Richard "Blackie" Ford and Herman Suhr, managed to rally the majority of the farmworkers to their cause with fiery speeches, songs and slogans staged in a field.

But organizing wasn't enough. While Durst agreed to improve some conditions, he wouldn't meet all IWW demands. When Ford told Durst that the workers would strike, Durst slapped him.

With a work stoppage becoming a reality, Durst brought in the constable from Wheatland, who was shot and wounded by a striker. The constable then called in the sheriff from Marysville. The sheriff and his men asked the county district attorney to join them as they arrested the men who spearheaded the uprising.

The strikers did not go quietly. When the sheriff and his men moved in to arrest the protest's organizers, the sheriff was knocked down by the crowd. A deputy fired a warning shot, sparking a melee.

The lawmen and the strikers, some of whom were armed, exchanged fire. The district attorney and a Marysville deputy were killed, as were two unnamed hop pickers. Bullets and buckshot whizzed through the air as strikers and lawmen fled on foot and by car.

By the end of the day, four men were dead and several were wounded. Thousands of hop pickers fled on foot and by train as militias and lawmen closed in to enforce martial law and hunt for the IWW men who organized the strike.

The riot made headlines throughout the country. A state committee investigated the riot, and the IWW quickly dubbed it "Bloody Sunday." Today, the riot's aftermath and legacy are still debated.

Much of the attention given to the riot was because of the role of the IWW, said Rubiales, which "was perceived to be a radical labor organization" at the time. While the event contributed to the passage of progressive labor laws, Rubiales said that World War I quashed the momentum of the IWW and its allies.

In the trials that followed, the two main IWW organizers at the Durst farm were convicted of second-degree murder for stirring up the crowd.

Ryan McCarthy, whose book about the riot, "Blood on the Hops," is set to be sold as an e-book for the Amazon Kindle, said that while conditions on the farm were deplorable, the wages were typical, and the trial of the organizers is often romanticized.

It "doesn't come across as the horrible injustice it's often said to be," he said. Still, McCarthy doesn't discount the IWW's role in drawing attention to the plight of farmworkers.

Today, few signs hint that the riot occurred. A state monument, which questionably labels the strike as the second major labor dispute in the United States, marks the site near the electrical substation.

The office where workers would turn in their hops in exchange for a payment voucher still stands, as does a pair of sagging hop kilns – tall, pyramidlike buildings where hops were dried before being baled and shipped – that were built in 1912.

"Most of the hops grown here were exported to England," said Jack Gilbert, a longtime Wheatland walnut grower who owns former Durst land with his wife, Sandy. He said that the land hadn't been used for hops since the 1960s, when brewers started making lighter, wheatier beers.

The Gilberts are restoring the Durst house, originally built in 1870, to use for events. They've shored up the property's sagging barn and last year planted walnut trees on more than 500 acres where hops once grew 30 feet tall.

The area's labor needs also have changed over time, Gilbert said. "The walnut business has mostly been mechanized," he said, adding he needs to hire only a handful of workers for harvest.


Information: The Wheatland Historical Society has published a book on the 1913 Hop Riot. It can be purchased by sending a check for $15 to the Wheatland Historical Society, P.O. Box 164, Wheatland, CA 95692. The price includes sales tax and shipping.

To commemorate the riot's 100th anniversary, Yuba College Professor Emeritus David Rubiales will speak about the riot and its legacy at 7 p.m. Aug. 7 at the Sutter County Community Memorial Museum, 1333 Butte House Road, Yuba City.

Call The Bee's Jack Newsham, (916) 321-1100. Follow him in Twitter @TheNewsHam.
Editor's note: This story was changed July 30 to correct the name of the union that organized hop pickers in Wheatland.


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