Sunday, March 31, 2013

Seabrook Farms: history and diversity through vegetables

Sometimes in our travels we drive through places that just feel as if they have a history but don't give it up with historic markers or preserved buildings. Their stories are so obscure that even if they've been documented and presented somewhere nearby, that place is hidden from casual view.

Such is the case with Seabrook, deep in Cumberland County. Despite the countless hours I've spent banging around back roads and farmland, I'd never found a single sign of its fascinating history. In fact, without knowledge that the community is part of the larger Upper Deerfield Township, it's hard to find Seabrook at all. I knew that somewhere in that flat expanse had been a unique place that had made agricultural history and achieved a level of cultural diversity few rural communities could boast.

After some investigation, I found the story in the basement of the Upper Deerfield Township Municipal Building. The volunteer-run Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center does an amazing job of telling the community's story, from the technological advances made by the Seabrook Farms company to the factors that brought workers of many ethnicities to a remote part of the state to work together.

Photo ID badges 
First, the business of the Seabrook Farms company. Started by Albert P. Seabrook in 1870, the farm really hit its stride under the leadership of A.P.'s son Charles F. (also known as C.F.). Among the agricultural firsts at Seabrook was the use of overhead irrigation and gasoline-powered tractors. In the early '30s, C.F. partnered with Clarence Birdseye and General Foods to quick-freeze vegetables, which subsequently enabled Seabrook to become the first major produce supplier for the U.S. military. At one point, the company operated the largest processing plant of its kind, supplying 20 percent of the nation's packaged frozen food.

Providing that kind of output requires a sizeable workforce, and the need became especially acute during World War II. Migrant laborers, Caribbeans and college students traditionally worked the fields during the summer, but many were called to war, leaving a severe labor shortage. Japanese-Americans who'd been placed in internment camps at the start of the war were eventually permitted to move to other parts of the country for work, and many chose to try Seabrook. German prisoners of war, held in nearby Centerton, were sent as additional labor. Displaced Europeans from Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary and Germany also found their way to Cumberland County and the farm. During the 1940s and 50s, 32 ethnicities were represented within Seabrook's workforce, with more than 20 languages being spoken around the farm. By 1947, the community had the highest concentration of Japanese Americans in the country, representing the largest ethnic group to work for a single U.S. employer at the time.

A representation of part of Hoover Village
With so many new people coming to the community for work, C.F. also realized it was necessary to provide living accommodations. The Japanese named the housing Hoover Village, and exhibits recall the crowded and drafty buildings, with communal bathroom facilities.Whether the housing was better than that at the internment camps isn't said, but it most likely fell far short of the homes they had originally been forced to leave. On the other hand, workers' spiritual needs were addressed with new Japanese Christian and Lutheran churches, as well as what was probably Southern New Jersey's first Buddhist temple.

Many of the WWII-era arrivees chose to stay in Seabrook after the war's end, and the Educational and Cultural Center highlights their contributions to community life. Displayed next to the scout uniforms and sports trophies are various traditional ethnic crafts and artifacts, demonstrating how residents retained their cultural identities even as they became more Americanized. For those who want to learn more, the center maintains scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine articles about Seabrook, dating back to the 40's.

C.F. sold Seabrook Farms to another operator in 1959, and though it remained as a subsidiary for several years, the company name eventually left store shelves. However, if you drive down State Route 77 today, you'll see a small sign pointing to Seabrook Brothers and Sons Company. C.F.'s grandsons have brought the family back to the frozen vegetable business, right in the community where their great-grandfather started it all in 1870.

And the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center? Its friendly volunteers continue to collect artifacts and oral histories as they work to establish a permanent home for the collection. The museum may be a bit off the beaten track (and hidden, at that), but it's well worth the trip.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for finding this. I recently read a wonderful book called Silver Like Dust, about one family's story of Japanese Internment, and in fact, the family eventually came to work for Seabrook Farms as a way to escape the Internment Camps. I hadn't known about Seabrook's role and it is great to know that there are carefully maintained archives.

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    1. I hadn't heard about the book -- thanks for letting me know! If you can find your way down to Seabrook, it's definitely worth spending a little time with the folks at the museum.

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  2. I am amazed at this addition to research I have been doing for the family history of my mother. She is an Estonian whose ship registry shows that she named Seabrook Farm as her location when she was coming over with her son, my half-brother. I further researched her parents, my grandparents, and they did the same, just at a different time. We had always heard different stories and were told how difficult it was to escape the conflicts and war, so it comes as a surprise, because they eventually bought property in New York and Connecticut. I/we had no idea they first came to New Jersey. It was a pleasure to read these details, and imagine how much she went through to escape where she was from.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing your family's story! The travels of Europeans during and after the war are so fascinating, and so little known by most Americans. We were stunned to learn that the first stop on so many immigrant stories was a rural community in South Jersey. Good luck with your further research into your family history!

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  3. My mother was born and raised in N.J. and lived there until she was in her early 40s. I have a photo of 20 very well dressed men and women and on the front it say "Monmouth Day - SeaBrook Farms - June 6, 1937. My parents are in this picture and I'm wondering what the significance of it might be.

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  4. Many of us went to BHS with the children of the immigrants at Seabrook Farms. They could speak German, etc. play soccer, chess, etc. I used to bike from Bridgeton to Seabrook to visit immigrants that kept homing pigeons. The homes were not very nice but adequate and the people friendly. Seabrook Farms was a big business at the time (all of the 50s)and basically a town venue.

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