Malheur County: Women in the Fields


We don’t know much about the woman in this picture, apart from the fact that it was taken in 1946 and she is a Japanese American field worker in Ontario, Oregon.

In general, people working the land in Malheur County came from diverse backgrounds. During World War II, when many American farm workers left the farm for the battlefield, OSU Extension agents traveled through Oregon with large-format cameras to document wartime farm workers. We are quite lucky to have their pictures in our Extension and Experiment Station Communications photo collection (P120).

During World War II, the federal government forced West Coast Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans to leave their homes for internment camps or inland states. Because of an acute agricultural labor shortage, Malheur County was the only place in Oregon where Japanese were allowed to live outside of internment camps. So, in May 1942, Malheur County became one of the first counties to recruit Japanese American evacuees for farm work. Some of the evacuees remained in Eastern Oregon after the order excluding them from the West Coast was lifted in January 1945; the 1960 census reported that 1,136 people of Japanese heritage were living in Malheur County.

In the spring issue of Oregon’s Agricultural Progress magazine, the magazine of the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station, Bob Rost wrote an excellent article on Malheur County, featuring a piece about WWII workers.

Prisoners of war, primarily German, worked the fields in Malheur County and were largely responsible for planting and harvesting 7500 acres of potatoes, 3500 acres of onions, and 3000 acres of lettuce in 1945.

Braceros were Mexican citizens who provided most of the international migrant labor in Oregon through a wartime labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico.

Japanese American citizens who had been forcibly removed from their homes during World War II were welcomed to Ontario by the city’s mayor, Elmo Smith, at a time when other communities around the nation shunned them because of their Japanese ancestry. Most of the displaced Japanese Americans lost their homes and businesses during their internment, but many remained in the Ontario area following the war to rebuild their lives, becoming leaders in the community and the agricultural industry, and giving Malheur County the state’s largest percentage of Japanese Americans.”

There is also a great article on the Oregon History Project page!

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