Japanese labor was essential to Garfield County | PostIndependent.com

Japanese labor was essential to Garfield County

In October 1912, potato growers on the Sweet, Sievers, Mt. Sopris and El Jebel ranches eagerly awaited the arrival of Japanese immigrant laborers to harvest the crop. Japanese laborers in the early 20th century often were found working the farms near Carbondale and throughout Garfield County, contributing to the economic advancement of the entire county.
Photo Courtesy Frontier Historical Society/Schutte Collection |

We are for the development of Colorado if it takes the labor of the world to bring it about.

— Glenwood Post, June 23, 1906

Farming brothers Will and Charles Harris of Carbondale found themselves in the center of a firestorm in the spring of 1906. All the brothers wanted to do in April and May was to plant their sugar beet crop. Instead, the Harris brothers found themselves the center of a controversy over the hiring of Japanese labor, employer rights and immigration.

This controversy had been years in the making. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers who were seen as a workforce depressing the wages and taking the jobs of Americans. To fill the void, more and more Japanese immigrated to the United States, unrestricted by the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Japanese immigrants worked for low wages and performed the hardest work for Colorado’s railroads, mines and farms.

Japanese were found laboring in the fields from Carbondale to Parachute. They prepared the fields in the spring and harvested the crops in the fall.

The Harris brothers had contracted their fields to a Grand Junction sugar beet factory, which had placed a tenant family on the property to care for the crop. A dispute between the tenants and the Harris brothers developed over the covering of expenses by the Harris brothers. As the dispute escalated, Will and Charles were both physically assaulted by the male laborers. The tenant family was removed from the property, but a community outcry started when it was rumored the tenant family had been replaced by Japanese laborers. While it was true the Harris brothers had Japanese laborers on their properties, the removed tenant family was not replaced with Japanese labor. An indignation meeting in Carbondale “to decide the Japanese question” was subsequently called off after the Harris brothers explained the circumstances.

The Glenwood Post newspaper watched the situation, and editorially fell in support of the Harris brothers. Amos Dickson’s editorial defended the rights of American workers to employment. However, Dickson also editorialized that all Colorado industries and farm owners had the right to protect their property and livelihoods by being allowed to hire who they needed to get the job done.

In the years following the Harris incident, more and more Japanese were found laboring in the fields from Carbondale to Parachute. They prepared the fields in the spring and harvested the crops in the fall. Labor contractors filled the farmers’ need for workers, and perhaps no labor contractor was more successful than Naoichi (Harry) Hokasono.

Hokasono, seeking an education, immigrated to the United States in 1893. He studied at Stanford University, and came to Colorado after 1900. He contracted with some of Colorado’s largest sugar beet factories, recruiting Japanese immigrants to fill the workforce needs of his contracts. To attempt to minimize friction between the Japanese immigrants and American citizens, Hokasono, a newspaper owner, published a pamphlet for Japanese workers. He outlined 10 rules of conduct, which prohibited public intoxication, loitering and the frequenting of immoral establishments. He also instructed workers to “hold themselves upright in public and do not talk or laugh too loudly.”

In April and May 1910, 25 Japanese men were employed in Garfield County. Harry Hokasono and his brother, George, were two of these men. The Hokasono brothers were foremen for Japanese workers tending the orchards and building irrigation ditches at the Antlers community near Silt. For the next few years Harry Hokasono held contracts with the Antlers Orchard and Development Co. near Silt, supplying equipment such as horses, dump wagons, graders and labor for construction and agricultural needs. Eventually, Hokasono would become a prominent building contractor, building dams and roads throughout Colorado.

Hokasono’s image would later be placed on a stained glass window in the Colorado state capitol building as a tribute to his pioneering influence and lasting impact on the state. Undoubtedly, Garfield County is indebted to his contributions and the contributions of his workers. And while it will probably never be known how many Japanese laborers worked the fields of Garfield County, these workers provided an economic impact and an improved social awareness to the communities in which they worked.

Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.

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