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Onion harvest in Bettendorf.
Drivers traveling east along U.S. 67 outside Bettendorf encounter a road sprinkled with a variety of businesses: places to fill their stomachs, store possesions, fuel their cars.
Journey past Crow Creek and a sign announces "Riverside Development Park". Need a another vehicle? There are places to trade.
Pigeon Creek Park nests nearby. The U.S. Post Office, Pleasant Valley Station 52767, sits on the north side of the highway, proudly proclaiming its founding in 1836.
There are examples of industry linked alongside fenced, rolling, fields.
Turn back the hands of time and this same stretch of paved highway is a dusty path lined with acres and acres of onion fields.
Peter Macias, 87, of Davenport, knows the area well. He grew up near the river, near where the gaming boat is docked.
His uncle, David, came to the area in 1914, and his dad, Manuel, came the following year, the first Mexicans to settle in the area. Mr. Macias remembers working the onion fields when he was about 14.
"A truck would come and pick up people to go to work. Different farmers had different trucks. You could choose who you wanted to work for," he said.
One pickup location was at 26th and State streets. People came from across the area to get the seasonal work, from spring to late July.
"It was a hard, stinking job, hard on the back," Mr. Macias said. Workers kneeled or stooped, changing positions when they got tired. They cut off 1 1/2 to 2 inches of the onion tops with a knife and tossed the onions into baskets.
"The young guys were fast at it," Mr. Macias said. "My dad was good at it."
He remembers earning 3 cents a bushel. His father could top 100 bushels a day; the other younger people, 80 bushels.
But his father made things fun for Mr. Macias and his two brothers in the fields.
"Sometimes, we would sleep in fields, lay on the sacks, stare at the sky, count the shooting stars and look at the heavens. We would be thankful for what God had given us," Mr. Macias said.
Despite hot temperatures and hard work, there were lighter moments: sometimes there would be a competition to see who could top the most onions.
Most farmers were honest, Mr. Macias said, but one promised to pay 10 cents per hour, and after working for one month, refused to pay, saying his crop had failed. The workers knew better.
Mr. Macias, who stopped working the fields after the Depression, remembers the names of some of the onion farmers he worked for: Rice, Twyner among others.
"Schutter was the biggest onion grower out there" he recalled. Stanley Schutter of Bettendorf was born on an onion farm and farmed onions all his life.
It was a family business started with his great grandfather, Henry Schutter, called the "Onion King," according to "Bettendorf, Iowa: The First Century, 1903-2003," by Kristen Schipper with Mary Louise Speer.
Schutter farmed hundreds of acres of onions in the mid-1800s and developed a local version of the Red Globe onion. He was 16 when his father died, and he and his mother continued the family's work.
Stanley Schutter, now 86, said his biggest crop was 10,000 bushels, and the 1950s and '60s were the best years. "I had a bunch of fellows working for me. I had a bunkhouse for them."
He said there were "a lot of nice guys. I got to know a lot of people. I had a lot of friends."
"It was something that he thoroughly enjoyed" his wife, Arlene Schutter, said. "It was a good business to be in.
"It wasn't easy work for the toppers," who cut the top of the onions, Mrs. Schutter, said. "They worked hard."
When Mr. Schutter quit farming onions about 10 years ago, he had about 1 acre, and sold the onions at the Farmer's Market in downtown Davenport.
Bettendorf Ald. Norm Voelliger also grew up in the area and remembers the onion fields, and farmstands along the road selling onions in bags ranging up to 100 pounds or so.
Mr. Voelliger's family owned the first service station in town, a Texaco at 14th and State streets, started by his father and uncle on Feb. 22, 1922. As a boy, he was very aware of onion farming.
"I can remember it was quite active at harvest time. There were many people working up there. Some of those people could harvest onions quicker than others. We had a lot of those folks as customers," Mr. Voelliger said.
"It was a big industry," he said. "I know they used to send onions all over the country from here."
And there was no doubt when the onions were being harvested. "You certainly could smell them," Mr. Voelliger said.
As a teenager, Mr. Voelliger remembers onion fields running from Crow Creek to Pleasant Valley, on both sides of U.S. 67.
According to Ms. Schipper in "Bettendorf, Iowa: The First Century, 1903-2003," Capt. Isaac Hawley was the first to grow onions in the Pleasant Valley area in the early 1800s. By 1858, 13,000 bushels of onions were being produced.
Many families farmed onions. The Pleasant Valley Onion Growers Association was formed in 1912, and the United Onion Growers of Pleasant Valley in 1923.
Ms. Schipper writes that there were "many reasons for the industry's decline, including the Yellow Dwarf epidemic (1927), the Depression, the inability of small farmers to mechanize and, later industrialization and urbanization in the valley."
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