As we celebrate Labor Day, we honor the American worker and pause to reflect on the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well being of our country.
Tracing the roots of the holiday leads us back to 19th century America, where there was an established tradition of having parades, picnics and other celebrations in support of labor issues, such as shorter hours or to rally strikers. But a specific holiday to honor the working man/woman was proposed by the labor movement in 1881, followed by a pivotal celebration in which 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.
The holiday evolved over the next few years as many states began to pass legislation recognizing the holiday. By 1909, the first Monday in September was declared a national holiday.
The founder of Labor Day has yet to be identified. Many credit Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, while others have suggested that Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, first proposed the holiday.
East Valley Workforce Beginnings
But what was specifically happening with the East Valley workforce during that time period? Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) from Utah and Idaho arrived in the Salt River Valley in 1878 and founded the town of Mesa. The original Mesa town site was one mile square and lots were large (1.25 acres) to encourage residents to plant gardens. Each family was given land based on how much labor it contributed to building the Mesa Canal irrigation project. Shareholders in the Mesa Canal Company were paid $1.50 per day to work on the project.
Because of irrigation, agriculture became a major industry in the Mesa/East Valley area, with 50 percent of the residents earning their living directly or indirectly from farming. Citrus and cotton were the main crops, although farmers also raised grain, melons, alfalfa, grapes, nuts and vegetables. Livestock, dairy and poultry farming were important as well. Three of Arizona’s “Five Cs” (citrus, cotton, and cattle) arise from agriculture.
Citrus Groves and Cotton Mills
Historian Jay Marks says, “Amanda Pritchard is credited with establishing Mesa’s first citrus grove in 1892. The orchard of Washington navel oranges was located about 21/4 miles northwest of the original square mile — in the vicinity of Dobson and University.
“At the peak of its operations, the packinghouse seasonally employed between 125-200. During its 78-year history, the facility averaged 800,000 cases of citrus fruit annually.”
Cotton was a strong industry as well. One of Mesa’s earliest cotton gins was built by the Egyptian Cotton Company in 1912, and soon thousands of acres of land were planted with cotton. According to The Arizona Museum of Natural History, “Mesa celebrated this new industry in 1919 with the King Kotton Karnival and a meeting of the Arizona Cotton Congress. The cotton boom was followed by lean years after prices fell in 1920. Eventually the market stabilized and cotton joined citrus as an important crop for Mesa farmers.”
As late as 1960, half of the residents of Mesa made a living with agriculture, but over the next few decades this declined as Mesa’s suburban growth continued on track with the rest of the Phoenix metro area. Today, ranching and agriculture (statewide) still form the state’s second largest source of revenue and contribute $10.3 billion to the state’s economy.
Tourism, Aerospace and Technology Develop
As urbanization took over the East Valley area, other workforce and economic generators came into play.
In the 1940s, Falcon Field Airport and Williams Air Force Base were built to provide training for World War II pilots and many of the military families settled in the Mesa area. During this time, air conditioning came to the Valley and this encouraged tourism, which would become a major industry in the coming years.
In the 1950s, more commerce and industry developed in the area, including early aerospace companies. By over the next four decades more high-tech companies moved to or began start-ups in the East Valley area. The mild winter climate and strong economic conditions attracted more residents each year. As the population grew, health facilities and education offerings grew to serve the larger population.
Today, the East Valley has 1.5 million residents with an average median age of 34. More than 40,000 students are enrolled in higher education in just the Mesa area, creating a smarter workforce. Companies such as Amkor, Apple, Boeing, Bridgestone, FUJIFILM, General Dynamics, GoDaddy, Honeywell, Intel, PayPal, Microchip, MD Helicopters and Ulthera all have large operations in the East Valley.
While the East Valley’s workforce continues to evolve, its deep roots are worthy of admiration and emulation for future generations of locals looking to create their own legacy.
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