Relentless pioneer cemetery evokes Mexican migrant workers roots in Arizona

Filed under: Employment,Featured,Racial Equity |

The labor of thousands of peasants brought from Mexico into Arizona in 1917 contributed to the farming revolution that placed a new state on the path of progress and the workers on a historical dimension.

Avondale. Arizona April 13, 2010. In the midst of the solitude of the Goodyear Farms Historic Cemetery,  there are countless of silent voices eager to narrate a story. They are the unheard but real voices of the men, women and children who are buried in this resting place for the dead ones, a graveyard that paradoxically hangs on to exist.

This story is not just the historical account of a man who came from Akron, Ohio to Arizona looking for an ideal land to grow a special type of cotton during World War I. Nor only the story about how the Arizona desert —deemed at one point a “valueless” land by a U.S. surveyor*— became a rich region full of homes, businesses and farms. This is also about the still unfinished story of the peasants who with their hard labor contributed to transform an inhospitable place inhabited by scorpions and lizards and carpeted by sagebrushes and cacti into fertile and  productive cotton fields.

Located about 20 miles west of Downtown Phoenix and surrounded by hundreds of new homes, the Goodyear Farms Historic Cemetery —also known as Pioneer Cemetery— remains today as a vestige of an important farming era. Almost a century ago, this became a vast farmland dedicated to the cultivation of high-grade cotton used in the production of tire fabric by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

The farms gradually disappeared under the spread of housing and commercial development, leaving the cemetery enclosed within a large residential area, struggling to not vanish as the cotton fields that established it, and hanging on to Arizona’s history.


The story begins at the dawn of the incorporation of Arizona into the Union, by then the 48th state of the United States. In 1916, two years into the Great War, the emergence of the pneumatic tire and the demand for the cotton needed to produce it, forced the United States to look into its own territory to find ways on how to grow a variety known as long-staple cotton, which they couldn’t obtain anymore in the same quantities from the Sea Islands (off the coasts of the State of Georgia) due to the devastation caused by the boll weevil, and neither from Egypt, due to the  activities of German submarines during the hostilities.

This situation created a challenge for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and an opportunity for the new state of Arizona. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had conducted experiments in the area of the Salt River Valley in Arizona, which revealed climatic conditions and soil properties similar to those in Egypt existed. The USDA urged an executive from Goodyear to travel to Arizona from Akron, Ohio to see this land for himself. Paul W. Litchfield was this man, and he concluded that the land in Arizona was indeed suitable for growing crops of the desirable long-staple cotton, analogous to Egypt’s.

To launch the ambitious and visionary farming endeavor, Litchfield established a subsidiary called The Southwest Cotton Company. Goodyear acquired thousands of acres of land and in 1917 set to turn it into a large and successful cotton farming operation. Thus, cotton farming would eventually give this area a distinctive identity and would deeply transform it, not only geographically, but also economically and culturally. And so, cotton culture would begin shaping this area of central Arizona.

In terms of human resources, the newly formed Southwest Cotton Company recruited a legion of about 2,000 men to get the difficult job of transforming the autonomous desert into disciplined agricultural fields done. The majority of these new employees were peasants brought from the country of Mexico and some were Native Americans. Not only World War I was taking place; the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) was at its height. Thousands of people were migrating to the United States to escape this civil war. It is very likely that the new cotton farming operation would also attract a good share of migrants fleeing Mexico and coming to Arizona on their own at that time of revolt.

This pioneer workforce of mainly Mexican and American Indians, making use of more than one thousand mules and about a dozen gasoline-powered tractors equipped with iron wheels, set to the heavy task of leveling the fields in the challenging Arizona desert. Part of their work consisted of removing the natural desert vegetation, plowing the soil and digging irrigation canals to bring to the fields the necessary water from the Agua Fria River, flowing a few miles south. It is easy to assert these laborers worked very hard to earn the $1.00 to $2.50 a day they were paid.

About this time, Goodyear also established a place to house these farmers in a large camp that became known as Algodón (the Spanish word for cotton,) and when it was later relocated it was called Agua Fria. The entire farming area was called Litchfield Park, and the workers camp was located at the core.

The first approximately 3,500 acres of land that were prepared for the initial planting produced a reported harvest of 264,000 pounds of fine cotton in the winter of 1917-1918. The amount of cotton rose to 6,734,000 pounds of the blue-ribbon grade long-staple cotton the following year. Cotton balls were rolling.

With their hard and pioneer work, these peasants undoubtedly became an important part of the farming and economic development of Arizona, as well as contributed to the demands of war. The historical record obviously indicates the Southwest Cotton Company sought to hire cheap labor, as well as a workforce who was at easy reach and in proximity to the farming operation. Nevertheless, they hired hard-working, skillful, and adept hands.

By exporting this foreign workforce to Arizona, the Southwest Cotton Company also played a part in creating socioeconomic and labor patterns of immigration into the United States. Within the context of the current immigration debate in Arizona, and elsewhere in the United States,  history can lend a hand to understand social issues like undocumented immigration in Arizona.

Ultimately, the case of Goodyear Farms further proves the historical need for migrant workers, as well as a mechanism to allow them to come to work and return home within a legal framework. Today, the Arizona Farm Bureau cites as a priority the need for a work visa reform and  immigrant workers, even during the recession.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

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