Living as Migrant Workers
While canning factories employed many people from Johnson County during the harvest season, they also relied on migrant workers to fulfill their labor needs. Migrant workers were people from outside the county who were brought in by the companies to help pick the produce that would be canned. They came from Appalachian areas in Tennessee and Kentucky, southern states, such as Texas or Arkansas, and from other countries, such as Mexico. During World War II (1939-1945), canning factories had to search even farther afield, bringing in workers from Jamaica and the Bahamas. They even utilized German and Italian Prisoners of War from Camp Atterbury.
This camp location was used by migrant workers for the Rider Canning Company of Trafalgar. The company was in operation from 1930-1969. This camp serves as an example of the several camps spread across the county. A 1963 Franklin Evening Star article listed eight migrant worker camps, from near Greenwood down to Trafalgar and most of the communities in between. Since these camps were always meant to be temporary, not much remains of the sites.
While migrant workers were important to the canning industry, they also faced stigma and difficult living conditions. Residents of the county feared the possibility of an increase in crime, and local workers thought the migrant workers drove down wages, although there is not documentation to suggest that either of these things happened. Living conditions in the camps were often substandard. While the canning factories provided housing for the workers, it varied from tents to small cabins to retrofitted buildings such as barns. They were often overcrowded and lacked adequate sanitation. In the 1940s, a coalition of local church groups worked together to improve living conditions after the Franklin Evening Star reported on the conditions of migrant workers’ housing. By the 1960s, the State Board of Health and the Indiana Migrant Workers Division investigated sites, including such as this one, for possible sanitation violations.
The collapse of the canning industry in Johnson County ended the need for migrant workers here, but they still make up a large portion of farm workers in many places in the United States and around the world.