June 10, 2012 in Idaho

Caldwell Labor campers to reunite

Former residents recall community fondly
Kristin Rodine Idaho Statesman
 

CALDWELL, Idaho – Their stories are tinged with poverty and prejudice, but when former farmworkers’ kids talk about growing up in “El Campo de Caldwell,” the recollections are joyful and saturated with a sense of community.

“I just remember it was fun. We knew each other, and we treated each other like family,” said Estella Ozuna Zamora, a Canyon County court interpreter who spent childhood summers at the Caldwell Labor Camp from 1958 until around 1967.

Now she and more than 300 people who grew up in the former “Campo” are looking forward to their first reunion, June 23-24. Residents from the 1940s through the ’70s are expected, some from as far away as Texas and California.

“People have so much love and admiration for this place,” said Mike Dittenber, executive director of the Caldwell Housing Authority, which operates Farmway Village on 110 acres north of Caldwell.

Dittenber recently completed a history of the rural community, which broke ground in 1939 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and for decades has housed much of the workforce that powers Canyon County’s agricultural economy. As he gathered human stories to accompany statistics about the labor camp’s formative decades, Dittenber said he was surprised at first by how overwhelmingly positive the memories were.

“The people made it work,” he said. “People were all treated the same in the labor camp. And because they were all treated the same they thought they were treated well.”

“I have such wonderful memories of the labor camp and wonderful memories of school,” said Amparo Rojas Rendon, who wore leg braces starting at age 7 because of polio. “Nobody ever treated me like I was handicapped.”

“We really didn’t know we were poor,” she said. “We had food on the table – beans, rice and potatoes. And the most important thing we knew we had, we were loved by our parents.”

Quarters were cramped and primitive, especially for the many families crowded into one-room “barracks” units, now long gone.

“It was pretty cozy, but we were bonded,” Rendon said. “And we continue to be bonded. It’s not like nowadays, when everybody has their own room and they don’t even have to talk to each other.”

All was not idyllic, of course.

Part of the strong community feeling was borne of a sense of separateness from neighboring cities. Some of that was rural isolation, Zamora said, but also, “we knew our place.”

“You go where you feel welcome, and you go where there are other people like you,” she said. “And Caldwell back then wasn’t as welcoming as it is today.”

Zamora’s family, initially from Texas, traveled the western United States according to crop and season. Generally they stayed on the farms of their employers, she said, and Caldwell was the only labor camp on their circuit.

The family moved into Caldwell in 1967 after their father, Ernesto Ozuna, got a year-round job. Zamora married a man who grew up in the Wilder labor camp and went on to head the Canyon County court interpreter’s office and chair the Idaho Human Rights Commission.

She also serves on the board for the Caldwell Housing Association, keeping close tabs on her former home.

Much has changed: The units are newer and nicer, virtually all of the 1,000-plus residents live there year-round, and their occupations are more diverse. Renters and staff eschew the label “labor camp.”

But the layout and the community feeling are still pretty much the same, Zamora said.


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