When truck farming was ascendant in Arlington Hts.

 
Posted8/13/2015 6:00 AM

At Book Club a woman revealed, wonderingly, that the lot where her house stands was once an orchard. What she apparently found amazing was an old story to women in the group who'd lived longer in Arlington Heights.

I, for instance, recalled that when we moved into town in 1954, not only were there large swathes of fruit trees all over town, there were many areas that were virtually tree farms. And what was basically a small town -- it ended at Oakton Street -- was surrounded by truck farms.

 

The truck farms that supplied Chicago with fruits and vegetables ranged along Lake Michigan until railroads pushed them aside. Then the truck farmers moved northwest. As a result, people in Arlington were not only used to the sight of great clouds of fruit blossoms in the spring. They also, many of them, participated in the harvesting starting in August.

Many of the pickers were kids, but there were pickup stops near where we live today where adults also waited in the early summer morn alongside the teens for farmers to come for them.

The first I knew of this was when I was writing a history of St. James Church for its 75th anniversary. I interviewed an elderly parishioner, Mrs. Rajer, who told me that she weeded onions in her early wedded days. She enjoyed the company of the other pickers and being outdoors in the long hot days of August. But having a baby complicated the process.

When she arrived in the field with her baby, she knelt down and laid her child across the calves of her legs. When she'd get to the end of a row, her legs would be cramped. Then her mother would take the baby across her calves for the return trip on the next row. And so they would spend the day, passing what must have been a very good-natured child back and forth.

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Mrs. Rajer told me what joy it was for her to have a second child and be liberated from participation in the care of onions. Taking care of children, in comparison, was a breeze.

The other story in my mind from Arlington's truck farming phase has a biblical twist from the Zacchaeus story. Remember how it went in the New England Primer:

Zacchaeus, he

Did climb the tree

Our Lord to see.

As I recall, the Lord called up to him, "Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, come down."

That's the way I picture the Rev. Robert Reicher from St. James Church standing outside a converted farm building where a farmworker called Robert Munoz lived with his family. Munoz was on the roof, stringing an electric cord from the barn through the roof of his house so he could have electricity.

Reicher called out, "Robert, Robert, come down. I want to talk to you."

Reicher had found out, by inquiring around, that Robert Munoz was bilingual. As it turned out, this Zacchaeus incident was the beginning of a fruitful friendship.

Mentored by Reicher, Munoz completed his education -- probably by the light of the electricity strung out from the barn -- and founded a social service agency, Northwest Community Services. It was a great boon for migrant workers and local pickers, for many decades.

The kids who picked cherries, the mothers who weeded onions, Northwest Community Services, are all gone now. But they are part of our heritage, a rich part of the Arlington story.

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