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News / Northwest

‘It was our home’: Former Caldwell labor camp residents remember their homes, community

By Rachel Spacek, The Idaho Statesman
Published: December 27, 2021, 6:02am

BOISE, Idaho — When Daniel Ozuna walked into the room, he remembered the smell of the wood stove and homemade tortillas cooking at 5 in the morning. He remembered the backbreaking labor he and his family did every day, working in the beet fields of Southwest Idaho.

Ozuna, 77, was a teenager when his migrant family lived for awhile in the farmworker housing barracks then known as El Campo De Caldwell. Now, on a crisp December morning, Ozuna, a pastor, stood in one of the wooden living units, a single 225-square-foot room within the old barracks, as he and five other former residents recalled what life was like there more than half a century ago.

From the 1940s to early 1970s, the barracas, or barracks, housed up to 10 people in each room in the spring and summer while they worked in the sugar beet, onion and potato fields in southwest Idaho.

Mike Dittenber, executive director of the Caldwell Housing Authority, relocated one of the barracas last month, from Idaho 55 and Middleton Road in Nampa. It is now back in its original home at Farmway Village, previously known as the Caldwell Labor Camp, or El Campo to the people who lived there.

Dittenber and a group of former labor camp residents are leading an effort to educate people and bring attention to the role the barracks played in the lives of migrant workers, their families and Canyon County’s farm economy. Dittenber had the barracks returned at the housing authority’s expense so that it could become an interpretive center.

At the Idaho Statesman’s request, Dittenber and the group of former El Campo residents, who still live nearby, gathered at the barracks to share their stories.

Life in the labor camp

The barracks were built in the 1940s, Dittenber said. Each barracks building had six living units, each with a front door. The rooms were about 15 feet on each side, 225 square feet in total.

The labor camp had 35 six-room barracks and 47 two-bedroom cottages, Dittenber said. The cottages were more expensive and often housed permanent residents. The labor camp was home to 1,200 to 1,400 residents in the spring and summer, Dittenber said.

Each room was furnished with four beds in two bunk beds, a wood stove, small refrigerator and a table.

Ozuna remembers living in the barracas with his family of 10 in one of the rooms. He slept on the floor or wherever he could find an available bed.

Ozuna was 14 when his family moved to Caldwell from Texas in the spring to harvest sugar beets. They were a migratory working family who traveled from Texas to Idaho in search of farm jobs.

The workers would spend 12 hours each workday in the sugar beet fields. Then, they would return to their small homes.

Ozuna’s mother used to wake up at 3 a.m. to start making tortillas. This was because it got hot in the daytime, close to 100 degrees most days, he recalled.

“It was kind of rough,” he said. “There was no air conditioning. All we could do was open the windows so we could go to sleep at night.”

Families who lived in the barracks also had to walk to the bathroom, showers and laundry room that were located in separate buildings. “Sometimes in the middle of the night,” Ozuna said.

The work was hard, and the living conditions were tight, but Ozuna said the other workers and their children were family.

‘It was our home’

Jeanette Archuleta-Callesen grew up at El Campo. Her family lived in one of the two-bedroom cottages. She said she often played with the other children in the barracas.

“The people who worked here and came here were trying to make a better life for this generation,” Archuleta-Callesen said, gesturing to her granddaughter, Rose. “Their hopes and dreams were to better themselves and to provide for their children. They worked hard to put food on the table, not just for their families, but for everyone.”

Archuleta-Callesen was 3 years old when her family move to El Campo. Her family was one of the first to live at El Campo full time. She worked in the fields with her mother and brother, harvesting onions, potatoes and fruit.

“It was hard work, but this place was our family, our home,” she said.

Aurelia Flores’s parents ran la tiendita, the store at the labor camp. She was born in 1967 at the camp and grew up working at the store.

Flores and Archuleta-Callesen embraced when they saw each other earlier this month — they had grown up together.

Flores’ mother, Antonia, was known for her barbacoa and chorizo at the store. They also sold staples, like milk, eggs and shampoo.

El Campo was a refuge from an unfriendly Caldwell

Barry Fujishin, who owns Fujishin Family Cellars, a winery in Sunnyslope near Caldwell, was born at the labor camp. His father got a job harvesting sugar beets after leaving a Japanese internment camp in Wyoming during World War II.

During the wartime labor shortage, Idaho farmers were desperate for workers to harvest the state’s crops. So they relied on U.S.-imprisoned Japanese Americans. Many of them came straight from internment camps to the fields.

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“I think our country did a terrible thing to the Japanese Americans during the war,” said Dittenber. “And then we asked them to help us with our agriculture. They did good by us.”

The small group of former El Campo residents remembered in the 1970s that Caldwell was often an unfriendly place for the Latinos and Japanese Americans who lived in the camp. Fujishin said the camp was a welcoming place for Japanese Americans and Latinos.

“There was only one restaurant I could eat in in Caldwell,” he said. “One restaurant that allowed Japanese Americans and Mexicans in.”

Archuleta-Callesen and Ozuna remembered the signs, “No Mexicans allowed. English only.”

The good thing about the camp was people could be themselves and around people who accepted them, the group said.

“We could speak Spanish,” Ozuna said.

Relocating the original building

The old buildings were removed from Farmway Village in the early 1970s. The relocated barracks building, now back at Farmway Village, had been sitting until recently on an undeveloped property in Nampa.

Dittenber said he kept his eyes on the building, worried that if the area was going to be developed that the building and its history would be demolished. In early November, Pacific Movers set the building down at its original location. Home after 50 years.

“This building represents a simpler time,” Dittenber said. “We live in an era now where houses are approaching half a million dollars in Canyon County. Housing is almost unattainable for people. People created families here, people lived here, contributed to the economy here, and they have fond memories here.”

Dittenber hopes to restore all the rooms to what they looked like in the 1940s with the bunk beds and stove. He also hopes to collect a registry of the names of people who used to live in the labor camp and in the rooms.

“Most people remember the exact place where they grew up,” Dittenber said. “This place, when they were growing up, isn’t much different from the kids who live here today. I want this to be a place where people can come and reflect on where we came from.”