The Devil in the Garden of Eden
The men and women who moved from Meade County to Chula Vista and other areas of California were farm workers with limited prospects in Kentucky. Despite its occasional droughts, earthquakes, and the 1916 floods caused by a break in the lower Otay Dam, destroying homes and killing more than 20 people, California provided emigrants with a living based on citrus crops, celery, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and other produce. Chula Vista, for a while, became the largest lemon producing center in the world. Most of the Meade County people found work in the citrus groves. The Japanese and Mexican immigrants along with migrants from the eastern United States were ripe for organizing by the Wobblies. The radical anarchist I. W. W. seeing an opportunity to exploit the agricultural workers for their anarchist goals set up operations in California.
Other industries provided jobs. Railroads were built, and in 1916 the Hercules Powder Company began the design and construction of a 30 acre Kelp processing plant in Chula Vista. The kelp, harvested by a fleet of boats, was processed to make a smokeless powder for explosives and cordite. The Hercules kelp harvesting fleet was the largest in the world at that time. They supplied the British with explosives and cordite throughout WW I.
The opportunities to make some money, and then return to Meade County appealed to some of the men. Houston Pollock returned first, and wrote his brother Eugene about a farm that belonged to Oscar Burke only a few miles from the family home. In it he told Eugene that the farm would cost $1300.00 and Eugene should send what money he could. Ed Shelman told Houston that if they paid part of the $1300.00 down, he would fix the rest for them. The deed would be made in both Eugene and Houston’s name. Both men returned home. Some of those that returned brought with them some geologic samples of fool’s gold. Fool’s gold is iron pyrite that glitters and looks just like gold. There is an anecdotal story about a farmer in northwest Meade County that brought back a large box of fool’s gold. He purportedly salted his farm with the worthless pyrite, and managed to sell his farm for a considerable profit. While this story may or may not be true, it derives from the Meade County migration that is part of our history and lore.
By June of 1911, the I. W. W. had begun to lose members. Exact numbers of their membership cannot be determined. Having become the target of lawmen, vigilantes, the Ku Klux Klan, and others including the United States government, they chose as a target the “Sugar King,” J. D. Spreckels, a wealthy businessman who was trying to build a railroad through the Corrisso Gorge on the border between Baja California in Mexico, and California not far from Chula Vista. The targeting of Spreckels was to provide I. W. W. funding in order to take Baja California from Mexico by armed insurrection. The Wobblies would then form a communist country of their own. They decided to commandeer the San Diego and Arizona Railroad and make Spreckles pay to support the army. Whether they were going to ransom the rail train, other property or the employees of Spreckles is unclear. General Price and Captain Mosby, the I. W. W. insurrectionist’s military officers, and several hundreds of their army began operations.
On May 8th, 1911 the Wobblie army began cutting telegraph wires along the railroad track leading to Tijuana, Mexico. On the 9th of May they attacked Tijuana and drove most of the inhabitants to the United States. They killed the Mayor, burnt the church and the bull ring. The next day General Price put his men aboard the construction trains to ensure the railroad men did not interfere. Construction crews were laying rails near the Redondo Valley heading toward Tecate. The I. W. W. army began taking railroad supplies from the trains and giving worthless receipts in return. Sport the railroad’s bulldog mascot, not liking the way his friends were being treated, proceeded to bite Wobblie Quartermaster Melford on the behind.
On May 19th, the I. W. W. army raided a construction camp and took charge of a train. Conductor McCormick objected and by some fast talking took his train back, and returned to San Diego. He was advised not to be so forceful with the insurrectionists, but he told them not to worry. Spreckles vowed he would rather lose everything than have one of his employees harmed. Five days later General Price arrested a party of railroad workers and held them in the Tijuana Jail. Conductor McCormick talked them free the next morning. On May 29th, General Price collected a large sum of money from Wobblie supporters, and with it disappeared. Before he left, he ordered Captain Smith to take charge, but Smith refused. Captain Mosby, who had been wounded in a fight at Tecate, took charge. General Price, probably as a way to make sure he took command, promoted Mosby to General. More railroad workers were arrested and Quartermaster Melford, careful to avoid Sport, appropriated more supplies.
Leaving a few soldiers to guard Tijuana, General Mosby took the bulk of his army in the direction of Ensenada; however, hearing 1,400 Mexican Federals were approaching, Mosby took charge of McCormick’s train and headed it south with less than 130 men remaining. The little I. W. W. force stacked bales of straw on a flat car as a barricade, and at a place called Frenchman’s Ranch, the Federals fired machine guns from hills beside the tracks with deadly effect. Mosby raced back to Tijuana where he stopped the train straddling the border. By this time the United States Army had massed at the Mexican border on the California side to intercept the Wobblies, and avoid an international incident. Mosby was in the caboose on the Mexican side, and he asked if he could surrender to the American army. The few insurrectionists left alive were fearful of the Mexicans because in the battle at Frenchman’s Ranch, they had killed 21 Federals. Mosby laid his guns on the table in the caboose, and was allowed to surrender to the U. S. Army. Thus ended the war Wobblies had with Mexico, June 22nd, 1911. Poncho Villa would start another conflict five years later.
The question comes to mind, were there Meade County men in the Wobblies? While it’s impossible to tell, I think it unlikely. Excepting Grangers, most Kentucky farmers were fiercely independent, usually not flush with cash and unlikely to pay Union dues, and forty six years earlier many Meade County men supported the losing side during the Civil War, and would be reluctant to join in this fight. There is no doubt in my mind that Meade County, folks working in construction, transportation, mining, and agriculture, were inconvenienced by the affair. The largest area Meade County people settled, Chula Vista was, and it continues to be rich in agricultural produce as well as manufacturing. The brochures that were sent out by the San Diego Land Company drew people from our area when times were hard. There are still descendants of people from Meade County there today.