A child alone and hungry, waiting for the train to take him back to the orphanage. Santa Rosa, 1907.

The tiny item in the Republican newspaper that summer provides a glimpse into a time when local businesses used – and even relied upon – child labor in a manner that would be considered exploitation today. But around Santa Rosa, many apparently viewed the forcing of children to work as farm laborers or on cannery assembly lines as entirely different from toil in the infamous urban sweatshops, according to a 1905 Press Democrat editorial. Perhaps they didn’t explain the benefits of labor in Sonoma County to the kids who tried to escape and were returned in shackles to their “summer camp” near Sebastopol by bounty hunters.

These children came from San Francisco orphanages and shelters where they were entrusted. Charles Schuster, the forlorn boy at the train station, was hired out from “Youths’ Directory,” a Catholic charity that was the West Coast offshoot of a New York mission which had 2,000 boys working on the largest farm in that state. There children as young as seven were accepted (although some sources say the minimum was age six); an 1894 New York Times article on the mission explained that religious instruction was paramount: “Education amounted to nothing unless it made men fear and love God” while emphasizing patriotism.

The San Francisco branch was considerably smaller (around 150 children) and the priest in charge of the mission believed orphans were best left in an institution such as his, writing in a shocking 1909 essay that adoptions of children older than infants rarely worked out, despite efforts of do-gooders. A suitable job was the best any child over age 7 could hope for, thus the Youths’ Directory acted more as a kind of temp agency for hiring kids out to employers. As for how swell that sometimes worked out, see below, re: Schuster, Charles.

Like the New York operation, Youths’ Directory had a farm: the “St. Joseph’s Agricultural Institute” near Rutherford. But unlike the self-sufficient enterprise in the East where the boys even cobbled their own shoes, the children over in Napa were set to work making wine for the Catholic church, a tale best told in the recent Wine Country history, “When the Rivers Ran Red.”

St. Joseph’s farm was twinned in the early 20th century with the Beaulieu winery. Georges de Latour, a French entrepreneur who sold California wine growers an imported root stock that resisted the sap-sucking phylloxera bugs, started his own winery in 1904, the same year that the nearby “Agricultural Institute” was founded by Father Crowley, also head of Youths’ Directory. For the next thirty years or so, the orphan’s farm and the winery known familiarly as “BV” were intertwined. Beaulieu sold altar wine (supposedly) made from orphanage grapes, (supposedly) under the personal supervision of the Reverend Crowley. Latour built a guest house for visiting priests, and Crowley – along with the San Francisco archbishop – were the first directors of the Beaulieu Vineyard Company.

The relationship really paid off during Prohibition, when Beaulieu identified itself as “The House of Altar Wines” and became a million-gallon winery, even expanding into the Livermore Valley – which might have been necessary, because the orphanage vineyards were badly neglected, according to a 1926 report. Latour ended up buying much of the St. Joseph’s Agricultural Institute land, while surviving the years of the Volstead Act by making “sacramental” wine ostensibly for church use only.

Ultimately the boy at the Santa Rosa train station and the hundred (or so) others who worked at the Rutherford winery or were hired out from San Francisco faced a destiny little different from Oliver Twist and his mates, instructed by their keepers that only a hopeless future of toil and misery lay before them, and for that they should be some reason grateful. London, 1830.

Woman Leaves Him at Depot In Heartless Manner

Charles Schuster, a boy who was recently brought from San Francisco to work on the Felton ranch near this city, was abandoned Friday morning by the woman who brought him here. The boy is an orphan, and was formerly an inmate of the Youths’ Directory.

Officer John M. Boyes’ attention was called to the youth who told the story of his treatment. The officer ascertained that the boy had not been given any breakfast, and had been compelled to walk in from the ranch to the depot. The officer arranged for the transportation of the youth to the metropolis on the afternoon train, and entertained him while here.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 17, 1907

Read More