Unexpected Weather+Limited Resources: New People in Marshall County
The 2000 bilingual report Snapshot in Time: Una Foto Actual de la Comunidad Latina describes the experience of Latinos and Latinas in central Iowa at the most recent turn of the century. Marshall County, along with Dallas, Story, and Polk, are the focus of the report that the State Public Policy Group produced. The researchers interviewed a number of families and also used surveys to learn about Latinx families in the center of Iowa.
As historical context, the report notes that “after the Civil War, with a population of only 92,000, Iowa became the top immigrant destination in the world. Within about 70 years the state grew—largely because of immigration—to a population of two million.” In 2000, they wrote, “Latinos are the largest minority community in Iowa, and certainly in central Iowa.” One robust Latinx community is clustered around Marshalltown where, in 2000, a Swift meatpacking plant offered many employment.
One of these employees was a man named Federico who had moved to Marshalltown from Mexico with his wife Isabel and three school-aged children: Antonio 16, Ana 14, and Esteban 11. Isabel’s brother and parents were already in Marshalltown. Her brother already worked at the Swift plant and helped Federico with the process of acquiring employment there also. Isabel found housekeeping work at a local motel, and Antonio began work at the local Burger King. The children attended public schools and flourished in additional English classes.
Even with family present, the Iowa winter came both as a surprise and as an expense for Federico and Isabel and their family. It’s a story familiar in the annals of nineteenth-century immigrant families entering Iowa, this territory in the middle of such a large land mass, so far from any tempering ocean breezes. “In the fall last year, when the weather got cold, the Gomez family wondered if they really wanted to be living in Iowa. They were not used to Iowa weather. Everyone in town said it was a warm fall and winter, but it didn’t feel that way to them. They had to go find warm clothes, sweaters, coats, and even boots to wear. At home they needed warmer blankets and to be sure the heat was working in their [rented] house. Of course, all these things cost money and put an extra burden on the family to pay for them.”
When Nettie Sanford wrote about the history of Marshall County more than 125 years earlier, she too noted the vulnerability of immigrants who had little ability to pay for protection from the weather or ill health. “Many of the emigrants were too poor to pay a doctor’s bill, or else canceled the indebtedness with a sick calf or a basket of geese eggs.”
Despite the weather, and the need to learn another language, and some nonLatinos’ less-than-hospitable treatment of them, 79% of the Latinos surveyed for the 2000 report said they feel at home in Iowa. Given how many settlers came to Iowa in the bitterly cold 1850s, were overwhelmed by the winters, and moved on, or how many in the grasshopper-infested 1870s could not afford the multiple years without crop yields and went back east or further west, it seems unlikely that a snapshot of Iowa in some of those years would have gotten such high marks from new residents. James Raley Howard, one time president of the Marshall County Farm Bureau, wrote, “As I look back over the years, it seems that even nature seemed to resist the coming of the settler….Only those settlers who were very persistent or too poor to move again stayed in the new lands. For months many of these families had no revenue except that derived from the sale of buffalo bones picked up over the prairies. The bones were used for filtration by the early sugar beet factories. Many families had no fuel except buffalo chips.”
Source: SHSI: Snapshot in Time: Una Foto Actual de la Comunidad Latina, Spring/Primavera del año, 2000; Nettie Sanford, “History of Marshall County, Annals of Iowa 9.1 (1871); James Raley Howard, “Making an Iowa Farmer” n.d.