The following is from a series I am writing about the history of farm labor in California, based upon the book Factories in the Field, by Carey McWilliams.
Henry Miller's Hoboes
When Americans think of "Captains of Industry" we normally think of men like Rockefeller (the oil baron), Carnegie (the steel baron), and Vanderbilt (the railroad baron). We do not normally think of agriculture. But, according to Carey McWilliams, California's Captains of Industry definitely included agriculturalists or "farm industrialists." McWilliams titled his book Factories in the Field to emphasize this point.
One of California's first and most ruthlessly successful farm industrialists was a man named Henry Miller (not the author). A German immigrant, Miller began his career as a butcher and cattle trader in San Francisco. He began acquiring more land through shady deals involving buying out heirs to Spanish land grants, purchasing land "scrip" from U.S. surveyors, bribing local officials, lobbying the state legislature, and making friends with the powerful railroad companies.
By the turn of the century, Miller owned well over a million acres of land and over a million head of cattle. According to McWilliams, "Miller liked to boast that he could ride on horseback from Canada to Mexico and sleep every night in one of his own ranches."
As a result of his land grabs and power, Miller was able to push many small farmers and original settlers off the land. Many of these displaced farmers and settlers became "tramps" and hoboes." Miller discovered that these hoboes and tramps could be hired for very low wages, as long as they didn't settle and kept moving along his farm empire. What developed was a route called the "Dirty Plate Route" (hoboes carried their own plates with them). McWilliams calls this "the beginning of migratory farm labor in California."
Sometimes Miller would pay local constables and sheriffs to round up tramps and hoboes from freight yards, arrest them on vagrancy charges, which they could pay off by working for free on a Miller ranch. Conditions on the ranches were often "lousy and foul."
H.A. Van Coenen Torchiana, who was once a foreman on one of the Miller ranches wrote, "The whole system was vicious, and bred industrial oppression on a large scale."
Despite the fact that he was largely responsible for this system of industrial oppression, Miller went to great lengths to create a public image of himself as benevolent: "In the mornings, in Bakersfield, the tramps, who had jumped off the train, would line up in front of the bank when they saw Henry Miller enter. When he emerged from the bank, it would generally be with a large bag of coins--two bit pieces. As Miller shuffled out of the bank, he would hand each man two bits, while he, hat in hand, would murmur, 'Thank you, Mr. Miller' or 'God bless you, sir.'"