Historical Markers
Potter County Historical Marker
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Potter County

Allegheny National Forest Region


Marker Location:
County Courthouse, 2nd and East Sts., Coudersport

Dedication Date:
July 31, 1982

Behind the Marker

Black and white image of migrant workers carrying cans of berries on their backs
Migrant workers carrying cans of berries on their backs, rural Pennsylvania,...
In the fall of 1953, an investigator approached a migrant-labor "camp." Set in an old farm field, the workers' housing consisted of a converted gambrel-roofed barn. Six doors had been cut into the long side, several feet off the ground; ramps gave access to each. Inside, the cold fall chilled the air. Workers complained of poor facilities, lack of showers and even of cooking stoves. Such conditions were not unusual in this county.

Such scenes were once common in the American South and California. But the 1953 inspection described above took place in Potter County, Pennsylvania. For a time, Potter County had one of the state's most significant concentrations of migrant farm workers - at one point, more than 3,000 in a county with a year-round population of just 18,000. What drew them to northern Pennsylvania? The short answer is potatoes. With its "the extremely high altitude and the short season," reported an agricultural extension agent in 1919, "Potter County gives us ideal conditions for growing seed potatoes. In fact our conditions are among the most favorable in the US."

In the decades that followed, Potter County did, indeed, develop into a leading producer of certified, disease-free seed potatoes. The county enjoyed a significant investment of research dollars, and developed sites such as "Camp Potato," where thousands of farmers, agricultural extension officials, and scientists came from all over each year to tour the potato growing and storage facilities.

During World War II, when the demand for potatoes skyrocketed while labor was in short supply, local growers, government officials, and the extension agent patched together a temporary system for planting and harvesting the crop by using high school boys and girls. In the postwar period, African American migrant laborers began to supplant local labor. By 1961 migrant workers harvested almost 90 percent of the crop. Taking advantage of this inexpensive and ready labor supply, farmers planted peas, snap beans, and other vegetable crops destined for canneries and freezing in plants in Centre and York counties.
Map of Migrant Crews in Pennsylvania
Map of labor crews of southern migrant agricultural workers in Pennsylvania,...

This extended the migrant-labor season and drew even more workers from the Carolinas, Florida, and Virginia. Displaced by mechanization of cotton production and excluded from education and well-paying jobs by racial discrimination, these southerners were propelled into a life of continual motion that began with the late-winter crops in the deep South, and ended in northern Pennsylvania and New York State in late summer and fall. Agents organized work crews and contracted with growers in advance. Farmers improvised housing for the workers in converted barns, sheds, and other makeshift shelters.

In Potter County, a Lafayette College survey conducted in 1954 found that more than 70 percent of the workers had no bathing facilities. When asked about violations of the state housing code, a Potter County official declared that, "We do not believe in prosecutions in Potter County." Pay rates were low – ten cents a bushel was a common wage. Often, school age children worked along with their parents. One desperate youngster wrote a letter to the authorities begging them to enforce the compulsory attendance law so he could attend. And indeed, local school systems in Potter County tried to accommodate migrant children, but their well-intentioned measures were held back by insufficient funding. In one district, migrant children too poor to afford shoes were given shoes to wear in school - but they were required to leave them at the schoolhouse door when they left to board the school bus.

After potato harvesting mechanized, the flow of migrants to Potter County diminished and eventually stopped. Migrant laborers, marker often poorly treated, continue however to be an important part of Pennsylvania agriculture. The state's mushroom industry, for example, which is centered in Chester County and produces half of the entire nation's output, is sustained by thousands of Hispanic migrant laborers, mostly from Mexico.

Immigrant labor is the most recent in a series of forms of non-family farm labor that changed from the indentured workers and enslaved African Americans of colonial Pennsylvania to the waged "hired hands" of the 1800s. Over time, hired workers furnished a greater and greater percentage of the labor on Pennsylvania farms. Today they continue to play a major role in food production in the Commonwealth.
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