For more than 50 years, the highlight of the year in Polk County was the annual hop harvest.
It centered on Independence. The town – which had a year-round population of about 1,000 – saw an influx of between 10,000 and 50,000 pickers, family members, peddlers and hangers-on who filled the boarding houses, labor campgrounds and hotels. (There is never-ending discussion over how many actually came to help with the harvest. But most agreed that it was a lot of folks, and was the economic highlight of the year for the Independence area.)
Hops were grown beginning in the Middle Ages. Hops were used as a medicine and in the brewing of beer.
The Willamette Valley’s first hop field was planted by William Wells at Buena Vista in 1867.
Hops grew in popularity. Demand for hops, and those who harvested them, grew. In 1893 the Independence School Board delayed the start of school so its students could help with the harvest.
Work in the hop farms started in the Spring, and reached the peak in August through November when the hop vines were lowered from their high wires, picked by hand and packed in over-sized bins which were then hauled off to wood-fired dryers where they were dried for transport both to the Eastern states and to Europe.
The hop dryers frequently caught on fire, which led to at least one good fire each season in the Independence area.
Between 1905 and 1915, Oregon was the world’s largest hop producer, and Independence was known as the “Hop Center of the World.”
Local families trooped to the fields. They were joined by itinerant single adults and picker families. Groups of Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese were brought in from out of state by farm labor contractors. Native Americans were brought from Oregon reservations.
Special trains loaded with pickers came from the Portland area.
They were housed in tents and tiny picker cabins erected on the dozen or so hop farms in the county. The E. Clemens Horst Ranch had as many as 2,500 pickers in its crew.
Each camp had a string of portable outside toilets and the better-equipped of them, a wash house and laundry facilities.
Local merchants set up branch grocery, dry good and meat markets in the camps, and the downtown streets of Independence and other hop centers in the Valley were flooded during the evening hours as the pickers came to town from the camps.
Independence as a whole did all it could to make the seasonal residents welcome.
In 1927 the Independence Chamber of Commerce organized a five-night series of entertainment during the evening hours. Two featured concerts by town bands from Dallas and Sheridan. A third was the American Legion drum and bugle corps from Salem. Entertainment has changed over the years.
Starting in 1933 Independence sponsored a Hop Festival which took place at the peak of the harvest season. It featured a parade, carnival, talent contest and professional entertainment. A Queen of the festival and her Court were elected annually. The prize for the elected Queen of the festival was a trip to Alaska. The festival was held on the athletic field named the Hop Bowl which now is Riverfront Park.
Things sometimes got too lively and Independence’s tiny jail saw frequent occupants. Each hop camp had its hired Camp Boss who was charged with keeping the peace in the camp.
Children who were old enough to do the work – aged eight or nine -- were hired. All hands got paid on a per-pound per-basket basis and the average wage is quoted as anywhere from $2 to $5 a day depending upon skill and the type of hops being picked.
Production dipped some when passage of the Prohibition Act eliminated beer production the U. S. But the loss of the U. S. market was balanced by disease which cut production in European fields.
Labor competition during World War II and the adoption of mechanical means of production and harvest cut into the hops markets, and most of the hops ranches in the Independence area switched to other crops in the 1950s.
But the growth of boutique breweries has seen an increase in demand for hops and an expansion of hop fields in the Willamette Valley in recent years.
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Information in this article is from the Library of the Polk County Historical Society. The Society’s Library and Museum, located at the Polk County Fairgrounds at Rickreall, is open to the public from 12 to 4 p.m. each day, except Sunday, Monday and holidays.
Admission: adults, $5.00; seniors (age 62+), $4.00; children ages 6-17, $1.00; children under age 6, centenarians and Society members, free.)