Ask around about the former labor camp on Cox Lane in Cutchogue and the reaction you’ll get is often the same: a slight frown, a widening of the eyes or a small shake of the head. The history of the camp — which housed hundreds of migrants during its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s — is now seen as an embarrassment, longtime farmers and local residents say.
“It was horrible conditions,” said Josephine Watkins-Johnson of Greenport, who knew many who worked the fields at the time. “That was the worst camp of any of them.”
The Cutchogue migrant camp, which included barracks-style housing for single men and families, opened in 1946. It was the last of three camps that had been created in Southold and Greenport during World War II to help farmers tend their fields.
The Eastern Suffolk Cooperative, a group of 139 Southold Town and Shelter Island farmers, spent $15,000 to build the camp, which it operated along with the Suffolk Farm Bureau, according to a 1946 article in the Long Island Traveler.
It would become one of more than 50 camps — though many were much smaller — scattered across Riverhead and Southold towns, according to a map created by Suffolk County health officials in 1959. More than 1,000 migrants were working on the North Fork at that time, the map’s legend states.
But throughout the 1960s, migrants who flocked to Long Island each growing season to work the fields complained about subpar conditions at the Cutchogue camp.
It was criticized as messy and dangerous, a place that barely met county building codes as its owners cut corners on maintenance and supervision. Abusive crew leaders took cuts from each migrant worker’s pay and allegedly manipulated the workers to keep them in poverty and debt, according to contemporary New York Times reports.
Only after years of exposés by television and newspaper reporters, as well as investigations by federal and county government agencies, were issues at the camp finally addressed.
Though the Eastern Suffolk Cooperative sold the camp in 1983 to Prime Purveyors, which built a dry goods warehouse on the property soon after, it’s unclear exactly when the camp closed for good, as documentation about the its final days is scarce.
Today, the former camp property is at the center of a dispute between Prime Purveyors owner Robert Hamilton and Southold Town, which is accusing him of violating town code by renting out apartments at the site.
Still, for the those who remember it, the former labor camp remains a shameful and rarely discussed part of the North Fork’s farming history.
“We grew up and didn’t think anything was wrong,” said Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joseph Gergela, whose family ran a Jamesport potato farm when he was young. “Those were part of the dark days.
“We were kids,” he continued. “Now, I look back and say, ‘Oh my god.’ We all look back and remember these things and are shaking our heads that this was the way it was.”
That feeling is echoed by some of the farmers who worked on the North Fork during the years the camp was open.
Cutchogue farmer John Zuhoski would pick up migrant workers at the labor camp each morning at 7 a.m., said his wife of 65 years, Lucille.
The workers came each morning, she said, prepared with a breakfast egg sandwich provided by the crew leader. At the end of the week, that breakfast would be the first of many deductions from their salaries, part of a cycle of endless debt.
Ms. Zuhoski told The Suffolk Times she can remember her nine children going to the Dixie Inn, the combined restaurant and convenience store at the labor camp, to buy soda, ice cream and candy.