The Wilsons

December, 1961

The Wilsons proudly called themselves “fruit tramps”, traveling from fruit crop to fruit crop within California, sometimes to Oregon. Growers would claim they were the upper class of farm workers, earning good income for their labors. However, even with all five children working part time, their income was at a poverty level.

I spent a full day with this family—in a vineyard picking salvage grapes, then in their crowded trailer. They worked together closely at home and in the harvest. They stand out as one of the healthiest and most loving families I’ve ever met.

These pictures were taken on a cold foggy day shortly before Christmas. All five children worked the full day. The Wilsons and an older couple with whom they traveled arrived at the vineyard around 7:30. Equipment failures delayed the start of picking. This wasted hour was not credited in their piece rate payment, which amounted to twenty dollars for the day’s work of seven people. Generally low piece rates forced parents like the Wilsons to put their kids to work.

The father, Woody Wilson, explained how even with his children working, their total family income was low:

“Well, sir, of course, there’re seven of us. That little girl is only nine years old. You’d be surprised how much she can make during the summer. But the seven of us last year, I think we made $4,100 dollars. Well, that seems like a lot of money, but not when you don’t have a house, you’ve got to move from one place to another, you’ve got to tear up an automobile every year, you’ve got payments on a house trailer.”

$4,100 in 1961 equals $32,000 in 2013, about what two workers at minimum wage would earn today and half the median family income for a family of seven. Clearly the very hard working Wilson family earned poverty level wages.