Holy City, Bettendorf
The Mexican barrio known as Holy City was situated on land owned by the Bettendorf Company in Bettendorf, Iowa, just a few miles upriver from Davenport. Its residents worked in the company's foundries, building underframes and railroad cars that supplied the national railroad industry.
In 1903, when William Bettendorf decided to locate the Bettendorf Axle Company in the village of Gilbert, its residents changed the name of their village to "Bettendorf." Bettendorf became a single-industry town with the company holding city franchises for water and electricity and William Bettendorf assuming a prominent role in the community. He founded the Bettendorf Improvement Company to build and finance new homes and attract new businesses and he embodied the ideas of corporate welfare to make the workplace more appealing. When Bettendorf added a new machine shop to the plant, he had hard maple floors installed for parties and dancing. The Bettendorf Company grew rapidly. It quickly became a major supplier to the national railroad industry through its single production process for the manufacture of underframes for railroad carriages. The company expanded production with a huge new foundry and started selling boxcars to the meatpacking company, Swift & Co. At the time of William Bettendorf's death, in 1910, the manufacturing shops of the Bettendorf Company stretched for nearly a mile along the Mississippi River and the company had a global reach that extended to Mexico, Canada, Germany, and Australia.
During its early years, Serbian, Greek, and Italian immigrants had worked in the foundries of the Bettendorf Company. But as these workers assimilated into the local community and advanced economically, the company began to experience a labor shortage, exacerbated by the onset of World War I, the disrutption of existing migrant channels, and ensuing restrictions on immigration from Eastern European countries. In 1914, the company hired Mexican immigrant David Macías to work in its foundry. David had previously worked in a laboratory for an American mining company in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. He spoke English well and traveled extensively on company business in the United States. After a year in Bettendorf, David encouraged his brother Manuel, who worked with explosives for American mining companies in Mexico, to join him in Bettendorf.
After the U. S. entered World War I in 1917, David and Manuel Macías helped recruit 150 Mexicans from Kansas and El Paso, Texas, to work in the foundries of the Bettendorf Company. Similar to a company town, the residents of Holy City lived in converted boxcars, cottages, and "red shacks," on land owned by the Bettendorf Company in a neighborhood bordered by the Mississippi River and the railroad tracks that ran along State Street. Ernest Rodriguez, born in Boxcar #8 in Holy City, recalled:
Holy City was cut off from the main part of town and was literally "across the tracks," (Milwaukee R.R.) and along the river bank. There was no city water or electric lights much less paved streets or sidewalks. Some dwellings were converted boxcars which were partitioned off into two or three rooms usually with scrap lumber, and outhouses were the common toilets at that time.
Manuel Macías's son Peter Macías described his recollections in Bettendorf, Iowa: The First Century, 1903-2003:
There were three sections. One was off near the entrance to the Bettendorf Co. foundry on 26th Street, and there was a quarry. Three or four families were located there in a series of boxcars. We called it the Boxcar Section. To the south of them toward the river, was a section we called the Flats - three and four-room two story apartments, with a dike to separate them from the river, . . . Up the river about two blocks, at 30th and 31st streets (there was no through street of course, only the entrance on 26th Street) was the bigger section that we called the Cottage Addition. It had two rows of houses about one block long with an alley between, and 22 families. In this section we had some Anglos.
To document Mexicans in the upper Midwest for the U.S. Department of Labor, George Edson surveyed the Holy City barrio in 1926 and his field notes corroborate local accounts of Holy City's first Mexican residents passed down through local families. Edson's records tell us that by 1925, Holy City was a predominantly Mexican community, its residents employed as pieceworkers and day laborers with earnings ranging from as little per year as $46 to as much as $1,853. He made a list of Mexicans employed by the Bettendorf Company, detailing their earnings and where they lived. From his records we can see the names of individuals and the specific jobs they held. He notes that they worked in the "shake-out, rough chip, pouring, molding and chipping departments with some in the sand room, core room, furnace stock, carpenter, construction, riveting and track gangs."
Edson described the racism Mexicans faced in terms of employment, noting their employment opportunities were limited to railroad and foundry work because most Davenport factories had "policies opposed to hiring Mexicans." As a result, many worked in foundries throughout their lives with little opportunity for economic mobility.
As the Depression deepened in 1930, the Bettendorf Company, like other railroad corporations, faced declining orders for its railroad cars. It operated until the fall, but with no further orders, it officially closed its doors in late 1931. Many residents stayed on - in part because they had nowhere else to go and in part because they could live rent-free in Holy City, but also because they had made this community their own. As additional Mexican and poor white families moved into Holy City during the Depression, it grew to around 600 residents. During the Depression, many men in Holy City worked on Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs and most families received assistance from local charities. Like many other Mexican families, Francis Puente's family moved to Holy City during the Depression. In an interview published in the book Bettendorf, Iowa, she remembered:
In Holy City families gardened, went to church, cooked, and celebrated special events en masse. There was a strong sense of community. Families gathered on porches to sing "cuentos" [stories] and listen to guitar music. Everyone shared with everyone, no matter what. Whether it was work, whether it was food, whether it was pleasure, whether it was sorrow. On Christmas Eve, we all walked to church together. I remember singing hymns in Spanish, and the laughter and the gaiety - and when we returned from church, the kettle of tamales would be ready, and we'd feast until morning.... I don't remember an exchange of gifts. It was just a sharing of food, the sharing of the joy of Christmas, the going to church together.
In 1939, the Bettendorf Company sold its land to Standard Oil Company, but allowed families to continue to live rent-free in the boxcars until 1941. When the U. S. entered World War II, the land was cleared by J.I. Case Company to build oil storage tanks. Many Holy City residents relocated to Cook's Point in Davenport.