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HomeHistory StoriesFrom the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Susanville's Filipino Workforce

From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Susanville’s Filipino Workforce

Members of Susanville’s Filipino Union in front of the old Lassen High School building in 1926.

by Susan Couso

The Republic of the Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands which, until Spanish control, had varied languages, traditions, and cultures. But, in 1543, as Spanish explorer Lopez de Villalobos named the islands, Las Islas Filipinas, to honor King Philip II, the land and people were grouped as one.

The people of the Philippines continued under the domination of the Spanish for over 300 years. Spain was challenged by the British during the ‘Seven Year’s War’, but as the war ended, the 1783 Treaty of Paris returned the islands to Spain, and that control lasted until the U. S. forces managed to gain ‘victory’ in the Spanish-American War.

At the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the U.S. agreed to compensate Spain with $20 million, and the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico became U.S. territory.

The Chinese Exclusion Acts of the late 1800’s, attempted to stop the migration of Asians (and some other European ethnicities) into the U.S. This severely hampered the operation of many industries, as ‘cheap’ labor was scarce. The most severely impacted was the agriculture business.

As the Philippines became a U.S. Territory, the Filipino people became U.S. Nationals, and the Exclusion Acts no longer applied. The agricultural industry, particularly in Hawaii and the West Coast of the U.S. took note, and eagerly began to entice the Filipino workers to come fill the need.

The 1920’s and 1930’s saw a huge influx of hopeful workers in the fields of Hawaii and the valleys of California. With this introduction of cheap labor into the valleys, the lumber industry decided to take advantage of the new possibilities. They began to lure this workforce into the mountains of the Sierras, and it was not long before Lassen County saw its lumber mills receive the first group of Filipino workers. But it was not an easy partnership.

The Fruit Growers Supply Co. had made many accommodations to help the European emigrant laborers. Their beautiful Story Club, built to welcome and entertain the European workers, was located where Riverside Park is today. It was three stories tall, with amenities such as a library, movie theater, dining hall, dance hall, bowling alley, and even an indoor golf course.

The dormitories, which partially remain as apartments at the corner of Alexander and Riverside Streets, contained the best of amenities. The Italians, French, Swiss, Spanish, German, Irish, and many others, settled down in semi harmony.

But the Filipino workers were not so lucky. They were placed as far away as possible, right next to the railroad on the south side of the Fruit Growers site. Their ‘clubhouse’ was a small, simple building, nestled between their one-story dormitories, and it contained little to help the Filipinos live a comfortable life.

In 1930, locals began protesting the hiring of the Filipino workers, claiming that ‘white’ workers were being replaced. In Westwood, the Red River Lumber Co. insisted that there were only a few Filipinos, and that they just worked in the cafeteria. But relations between the races did not improve.

Robert Martin, a young Filipino boy was accused of “running around with ‘white’ girls”. He was found, bludgeoned to death, on the Eagle Lake Road. He had been blindfolded, hands tied, and his skull crushed.

Two Filipino men, Juan Vaquilar and Sergio Ente, were arrested, in 1931, for stealing money, because they were, “traveling in a high-priced roadster” automobile.

Accusations and assaults against the Filipino workers continued until 1933, when Fruit Growers Supply Co. announced the discharge of all single and Filipino workers.

Today, few remember the Filipino workers in Lassen County, and the impact that they had on our history. They were an essential boost to our local industry when it was desperately needed. The opportunity to learn from a different culture was lost as these young workers left our county to flourish elsewhere.

A 1926 photo of the Filipino Club on Monrovia Street in Susanville.
Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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