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Doing the Research
 

First, however, we knew we had a story we wanted to tell around the Watsonville setting that focused on California and agriculture. And to give it shape, I read history books about California in general and about agriculture and books that would help me put Watsonville in the bigger picture. From those texts, I began to understand the shape of California’s agricultural economy. I wrote myself a “position paper” on the history of California and two big themes emerged that we wanted to explore in the exhibition. They were the growth of commercial agriculture (something that came to California early, but that also has affected farm life in the whole country), and the role of immigrants in California’s agricultural economy.

The history goes like this. California cultivators began widespread commercial agriculture in the 1860s, so by the time Watsonville became connected into a national rail network in the 1870s, California growers were an established part of a market-based economy. Huge, profitable wheat farms made California the second-biggest wheat-producing state in 1890. But although wheat remained an important cash crop, its success by 1890 masks the changing face of agriculture in California during the 1880s. By that time, fruit production had become a critical part of the agricultural scene. By 1888, according to historian Cletus Daniel, “the aggregate value of cereal crops had fallen to $49 million [from $70 million less than a decade earlier], while the value of crops produced just in orchards and vineyards of the state had jumped to $25 million . the latter crops were grown in an area equal to only 9 percent of that devoted to cereals.”

Chinese workers in a strawberry field, Pajaro Valley, California, about 1900
Chinese workers in a strawberry field, Pajaro Valley, California, about 1900
Immigrants were, and remain, critically important to California's agricultural economy.
Filipino farm workers, Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville, September 1939
Filipino farm workers, Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville, September 1939
Workers picking strawberries, Pajaro Valley, California, 1980s
Workers picking strawberries, Pajaro Valley, California, 1980s
Latinos, many of them immigrants, were the main source of farm labor at the end of the 20th century.
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