As you exit Farmersville’s city limits heading west on Walnut Avenue, a small collection of single family residences catches your eye at the corner of Mariposa Avenue. The modest homes might be considered an afterthought in our daily lives, just a stop on a backroad for commuters traveling from Farmersville to jobs in Visalia. Many might not even notice as they drive by one of many farmworker communities that have cropped up along the fertile fields of Tulare County.
But Linnell Camp is essential to life as we know it in the Valley. It was a second lease on life for those escaping the devastating effects of overfarming in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. It remains a symbol of hope for a better life for those escaping the lawlessness of Mexico. And it will forever be an essential part of the American way of life, providing homes for those who provide the country with food.
The Tulare County Library will be hosting a free exhibit offering a glimpse into the lives of migrant men, women and children living in the farm labor camp through a combination of photos and text. Titled “Through a Compassionate Lens: Life in Linnell Camp, 1940s-60s,” the month long exhibit opened yesterday, Sept. 2.
The exhibition features reproductions of photos and slides taken by Julius “Jim” Stein, during his time as housing project manager of Linnell and Woodville camps. Stein’s photos are accompanied by details about the camps and first-hand accounts from people who lived there, giving a snapshot into life in the camps during its early years.
All photos and slides are from the Library’s Annie R. Mitchell History Room collection, and information for the exhibit is derived from oral histories and primary source materials, especially local newspaper articles.
Both Linnell and Woodville were built out of necessity following the influx of farmers and farm workers from Oklahoma and Arkansas in the 1930s. Long lines of Model T’s and trucks overloaded with entire families, sometimes more than one, and all their possessions filed into tent cities, squatter camps and Hoovervilles in places like Farmersville. Living conditions were poor – sanitation being the most serious problem – with people literally living in ditch banks on burlap sacks. Malaria and small pox were huge health concerns in Tulare County in the 1930s.
In response to the problem of inadequate housing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt included a large package of programs to address the problems of the Great Depression. As part of his “New Deal” with America, Roosevelt signed an executive order on May 1, 1935 setting up an independent Resettlement Administration (RA).
Under the RA, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) found suitable land about 5 miles southeast of Visalia on Edgar Linnell’s farm near the town of Farmersville. The government acquired 76 acres of Linnell’s property on which to locate 315 low-income farm labor families in 150 steel shelters, apartment buildings, and small single-family cottages with enough space for gardens. Families made an annual income of about $350 and were to pay 10 cents a day in rent. Permanent homes were built in 1939 and rented out for $8.20 per month, which includes water and electricity.
Linnell Camp opened on Dec. 16, 1938 with its own water and sewer system, shower and laundry facilities, community hall, health center, library branch, U.S. Post Office, a school and a newspaper (“The Hub”). Children there attended East Union School, which still stands today, although it has been abandoned. There was no store at Linnell, but there was one across the street. Built and owned by William Hester, kerosene for lamps and ice for hot summers were popular items for those living in the metal huts.
On April 2, 1940, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made an inspection visit to Linnell, saying she found the government labor camps superior to the ones that were privately owned. A crowd of about 1,600 “Arkies” and “Okies” gathered around to listen to Roosevelt’s replies to reporters’ questions. Roosevelt noted that the residents of federal labor camps displayed a spirit of cooperation unlike any other in the country. They rousingly applauded her as she departed. “You can’t just say you like democracy, you must work for it,” she told reporters. “If we care enough about democracy we can make it meet the needs of the people.”
A labor shortage during World War II brought a new wave of pioneers, those from south of the border, into California’s fields and labor camps. In 1942, Congress enacted the Emergency Labor Program — called the Bracero Program (Spanish for arms) — to allow temporary Mexican migrants into the United States to work. During the 22 years of the Bracero Program, more than 4 million Mexican workers left their families behind and came to work in the fields of California. This migration had an enormous and lasting impact on the state’s economy and demographics. By the time Farmersville became a city with a population just over 3,000 in 1960, Linnell had housed 12,133 families in its modest homes. An annual report in 1961 showed that Linnell had 321 housing units, including 50 garden homes, 30 apartments and metal shelters, a community center, utility facility, five comfort stations, mess hall, three storage facilities, a shop and office. The assessed value of the labor housing tract was $96,480. In 1965, modern apartments, replaced the old metal buildings, although there is one that still remains just off Avenue 156. The new, 624-square-foot apartments included two bedrooms and a combined kitchen/living area.
Today, Linnell Farm Labor Center offers 191 housing units. Houses are two to four bedroom with rent ranging from $296 to $475 per month, including water, sewer and garbage. Rental assistance is available, as well as classrooms for Headstart programs and daycare facilities while parents are at work.
The exhibit, “Through a Compassionate Lens: Life in Linnell Camp, 1940s-60s,” will run through Thursday, Oct. 2. The exhibit is located on the 2nd floor of the Visalia Branch Library, and is open from 1-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. There will be an opening reception for the exhibit with light refreshments from 6-7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept.3, in the upstairs Blue Room at the Visalia Branch Library, located at 200 W. Oak Ave. in Visalia. The public is invited to attend. For more information, contact Lisa Raney at 559-713-2723.