LA GRANDE — Eastern Oregon University’s latest presentation in its colloquium series focuses on hop-picking cultures in Oregon, Washington and northern California from the late 19th century through the late 20th century.
Ryan Dearinger, associate professor of history at Eastern Oregon University, La Grande, presents his colloquium on Thursday, Feb. 11, at 4 p.m. via Zoom. Presenting on his book project, “Beer’s Dirty Work: Native, Immigrant, and American Hop-Pickers in the Pacific Northwest,” Dearinger explores the lives and struggles of workers in the region’s hops industry.
Prized hop fields put the region in the national and international spotlight from the 1870s on as the Northwest cultivated its reputation as the hops — and later craft beer — capital of the world. Far less is known, however, about the people who picked hops.
“Motivated through holes he noticed in scholarly research, Dearinger has spent the last several years becoming more familiar with the conditions these workers faced,” according to a press release from EOU. “Their labor coincided with the hops industry’s massive expansion, rampant business corruption, labor radicalism, indigenous relocations, burgeoning tourism and furious campaigns against Native Americans, immigrants and labor unions with no shortage of violence and repression.”
“My book should fill some gaping holes in the study of the Pacific Northwest—its environment, people, culture and economy—while tying the history and legacy of its prized hops industry to national understandings of labor and immigration,” Dearinger said in the release.
Noting he doesn’t study brewing itself, Dearinger, a labor historian, focuses instead on immigration, migration, working conditions and debates over national belonging. When starting his research, two aspects of the topic stood out. Because of the short-term, seasonal work these laborers were hired to do, there was little to no paper trail, which made the research particularly challenging and is likely the reason why no book-length studies of hop-pickers have been written.
“The second thing (was) how incredibly diverse the labor force actually was. This included a kaleidoscope of human beings — you have American resettlers, European, Asian and Mexican immigrants, Indigenous peoples, convicts, prisoners of war and ages ranging from very young to very old. All of them are picking hops, sometimes together in the same location, and they’re doing it seasonally,” Dearinger said. “It’s one of those stories that suggests to us, despite their incredible diversity, just how much working people have in common until they’re told, whether through politics, xenophobia, fear or conspiracy theories—they don’t.”
As a historian, Dearinger is interested in using stories and episodes from the past to illuminate bigger questions and issues.
“Often the most meaningful histories offer us a window into the past,” according to Dearinger said, “but then hold up a mirror for the present. I try to achieve this in my book.”