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My Memories of Migrant Labor Camps – Henry Drexler

My Memories of Migrant Labor Camps

Henry Drexler  0:00  

My name is Henry J. Drexler. I grew up on a farm in Smyrna, New York.


Henry Drexler  0:06  

When I was young in grade school and high school during the 50s and early 60s, I remember seeing migrant laborers go by in trucks and buses by our farm, which was located on county route 14 In the town of Smyrna. They were traveling in between a camp at the 101 Ranch, which was just over the border into Madison County from Smyrna. Not far from our farm, which was owned by my grandfather at the time. And some of them were also traveling from the west Hill camp and in Sherburne, which my grandfather worked with in some capacity, because I have photographs showing my mother managing the camp one summer when she was home from college, in the 40s. 


Henry Drexler  1:09  

What do I remember about the camps themselves? camp that I remember the most is the Earl B. Clarke camp in North Norwich, which was located just below the viaduct on the east side of New York State Route 12. Along the tracks, and I remember, every time we went to the county seat, which was Norwich, we would travel down Route 12, from Smyrna and you could look down and see this camp and the squalid conditions that existed there. At least that was the impression that made up on me as a, as a young person. Basically, the people were living in what I would consider chicken houses. And in fact, the housing look just like our chicken house. And I had no direct contact that I can remember with the migrant laborers themselves, but because of that early childhood experience, primarily of seeing them go by our house, as I indicated earlier, just virtually hanging off the back of a truck, you know, no seatbelts or anything. It’s just a truck load of human beings and they were just loaded to the rafters are loaded to the top of the truck anyway. made an impression upon me.


Henry Drexler  2:30  

So later, you know, as an adult, knowing that my grandfather had been a while he created the 101 ranch and operated it for many years, it was both a series of dairy farms and produce farms. And he obviously was both a produce grower and a dairy farmer. And I, as I say, my interest in it was connected because of my family connection to that and I wanted to learn more about them. When I started researching it, I found it very difficult to find any information about these migrant camps. I was able to use the soil conservation maps to locate the aerial view of the camps, at least some of them and so I started gathering whatever I could find together. And I’ve done research over at Cornell in the Kroch library and the Keele Library and at Colgate library, looking for materials related to this project, I have scoured the countryside looking for people that know anything about it, remember anything about it, photographs, you know, whatever I could find, and it’s been very difficult. The most of the photographs I have, I have come either from those libraries or from personal papers that came down to me and my family. There is a wonderful film by Edward R. Murrow that was produced in 1960 and aired for the first time on Labor Day in 1960. And I’m trying to think of the name of it. Harvest of Shame, isn’t it? I think, yeah, Harvest of Shame. And if you haven’t seen it, it’s available online, and it’s definitely worth watching. And it traces the experience of the migrant laborer. It’s being recruited at a site down in the state of Florida, and then traces their trip up the East Coast, ultimately to a migrant camp here in Chenango County, and I’m not sure which camp it was, but I think it may have been the Clark camp in North Norwich. I understand my church was involved because I’ve searched newspaper not just my church but churches I should say. We’re involved from newspaper searches that I’ve made. There was a concerted effort by local churches. As to alleviate or advocate on behalf of the welfare of the migrant laborers that were here during the summer. There was also a public health program and an education program to work with vaccinating the migrant workers and to provide some schooling for the migrant children of the migrant laborers, who must have had a terribly difficult time acquiring their education when their parents were on the move continuously. And they were never in a stable enough environment in order to get a quality education.


Henry Drexler  5:40  

So it’s an ongoing project. I hope to do more. I’ve been working with a young lady Sophia Lopez, who’s a Colgate student this summer. She’s been trying to find some background information and put together material on this. So it’s an ongoing project and I hope we can add to it in the future.

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