Ralph Durst was born in Austin, Nevada, in 1865, the third of four sons born to Rose Francis Haines Durst of Pekin, Illinois, and Dr. Daniel P. Durst of Greenville, Pennsylvania. He had no sisters. His father, Dr. Daniel P. Durst, came to California in 1853. After traveling around Cape Horn and landing at San Francisco, Dr. Durst spent one winter administering medicine to the miners near La Porte before settling in Colusa, where he practiced medicine, farmed, and married Rose Frances Haines Durst, who had been working as a teacher in Colusa and was the daughter of a major farm equipment inventor and manufacturer in Illinois. The drought of 1864-1865 destroyed the family's crops, so the family moved to Nevada City until 1867, when Dr. D. P. Durst bought 35 acres just south of Wheatland, adjacent to the railroad tracks, and built a house there for the family. In 1876, Dr. Durst bought a 500-acre ranch just west of Wheatland, and in 1883, he bought another ranch southeast of Wheatland, adjacent to the Bear River. Eventually amassing 670 acres, Dr. Durst became the largest employer of migrant farm workers in California. He planted the first alfalfa grown in Wheatland and (when Ralph Durst was 18 years old) the first hops grown on the Bear River. He contributed to levee construction and belonged to the Anti-Debris Association. He retired in 1885 and died in 1911, leaving Ralph and his younger brother Jonathan in charge of the farm. (The oldest brother, John Haines Durst, had been a lawyer in San Francisco but died in 1903, leaving one son. The second-oldest, Murray Haines Durst, already had a large ranch of his own and was one of California's leading hop growers. Murray Haines Durst died in 1914, leaving three children.)
Ralph and Jonathan went into business as the Durst Brothers, continuing their father's practice of growing primarily hops. The pay and working conditions for the thousands of migrant hop pickers they employed were abysmally unliveable, though not significantly more so than was typical at other farms. It was common practice for farmers of all types to advertise for at least twice as many workers than they actually needed, because the resulting fierce competition for jobs among the excess migrant farm workers who showed up made it easy for them to treat their employees badly and simply replace any of them who complained. Thousands of employees and aspiring employees camped outside for the duration of the hop-picking season. The Durst Brothers provided no other housing and only nine outhouses. The nearby irrigation canals were filled with trash tossed there by thousands of past hop pickers who had nowhere else to put it, so the water in the canals was contaminated with dysentery. Workers laboring in 100-degree heat had to buy their water from the Durst Brothers, who charged 5 cents per glass for water mixed with acetic acid, a liquid compound found in vinegar and used in the production of paint solvents. Workers' only nearby source of food was the Durst Brothers' store, which sold similarly substandard and overpriced food.
Soon after they inherited their father's farm, the Durst Brothers hired a new foreman to help them streamline production and maximize profit. The new foreman laid off the athletic men assigned to the specialized tasks of climbing 30 feet up the hop vines to detach them from the fence, carrying the 100-pound sacks of hops to the wagon, and loading the sacks into the wagon. All the hop pickers, including women and children, were now expected to perform these tasks themselves, but they were only paid for the number of hops they picked, just as they had been before. The Durst Brothers also established a new "bonus system" in which workers were paid only 90% of the going rate during their first week on the job. The workers were paid 100% of the going rate during the second week of the three-week hop-picking season, and 110% of the going rate if they lasted until the final week. Since not all workers were able to stay the entire season, this system saved the Durst Brothers about $100 per day.
The Durst Ranch was chosen as the site of the labor strike leading to the Wheatland Hop Riot in 1913 because it employed the largest number of migrant farm workers in California, not because its abysmal treatment of the workers was particularly unusual. When an estimated 2,800 people showed up to pick hops at the Durst Ranch on August 1, 1913, and learned that the Durst Ranch only had enough drying ovens to process the output of 1,500 pickers a day, about 1,700 of them held an informal meeting at which they formed a grievance committee and elected leaders to notify the Dursts of their demands. The next day, about 300 to 400 hop pickers assembled and marched half a mile to the Durst Ranch headquarters. When Ralph Durst came out of his office and the grievance was read to him, he asked for an hour to think it over. The grievance committee gave him two hours.
After thinking it over, Ralph Durst agreed to provide fresh ice water in the fields three times a day, sanitary toilets, and garbage collection, and to rehire the athletic men to resume performing their previous specialized tasks. However, he refused to raise the workers' pay to a flat rate of $1.25 per 100-pound sack of hops picked, saying he would stick to the bonus system and continue to pay them 90 cents per sack the first week, $1 per sack the second week, and $1.10 per sack the third week. When leader Richard 'Blackie' Ford replied that in that case, the workers would strike, Ralph Durst slapped him across the face with a heavy work glove and ordered him and the other marchers off his property. When they refused to leave, Ralph Durst went to the Wheatland Police Department and the office of his attorney, Edmund Tecumseh Manwell, who was also the district attorney of Yuba County. When Ralph Durst returned to his ranch, he was accompanied by Manwell, by Yuba County Sheriff George H. Voss, and by four constables, three of whom sheriff Voss deputized just before they drove to the Durst Ranch.
Upon their arrival, Sheriff Voss fired his pistol into the air and yelled, "I'm the sheriff of Yuba County! Disperse!" Not only did the workers not disperse, but one of them threw a rock that hit Sheriff Voss in the head. Ralph Durst then pointed out Blackie Ford and yelled to the deputy to arrest him. As the deputy grabbed Ford, the crowd grabbed Sheriff Voss, knocking him to the ground and taking his weapons. Deputy Henry Daken fired his sawed-off shotgun into the air. Deputy Eugene Reardon pulled out his pistol, but one of the striking hop pickers grabbed his arm and the two men wrestled, the gun firing wildly several times while they did. Eventually the hop picker wrenched the gun away and beat Deputy Reardon over the head with it, then shot District Attorney Manwell in the heart, killing him. Deputy Daken then shot the hop picker through the heart, killing him. Ralph Durst and the Durst Brothers' private security guards fired randomly into the crowd until their guns were empty, then jumped into Durst's car and retreated to his farmhouse, leaving the sheriff and deputies to fend for themselves. (One of the private security guards, Nels Nelson, was shot before the escape, shattering his right arm.) The crowd beat Deputy Daken until he broke away and ran to the Durst Brothers' company store, where he shaved off his mustache, threw out his false teeth, darkened his face, and posed as a company bookkeeper, fooling the strikers until he found the chance to escape later that day. The crowd beat Sheriff Voss until they broke his leg. Deputies L. B. Anderson and Elmer Bradshaw were each shot in the arm, and Anderson was also severely wounded in the head. An 18-year-old hop picker named Ed Donnelly, who was not part of the strike, was shot dead, and many other hop pickers were shot and injured.
The Durst Brothers ended up paying the hop pickers a flat rate of $1 per 100-pound sack and giving in to all the strikers' other demands. The riot focused public opinion for the first time on the plight of California's agricultural laborers, and spurred Governor Hiram Johnson to create a new State Commission on Immigration and Housing. The commission created new state legislation that regulated working conditions for migrant farm workers. For more information, see the Wheatland Hop Riot page.
Rose Frances Haines Durst died in 1917. In the spring of 1923, Ralph Durst bought a 260-acre ranch on the south side of the Bear River, across from the old Durst Ranch, where he planted peaches and other orchards. In 1930, Jonathan Haines Durst—who had financed and edited the Wheatland Four Corners as well as farming hops—died in San Francisco, leaving a wife but no children. Ralph Durst then took over sole management of the Durst Ranch until he died in the 1940s.
Ralph H. Durst from History of Yuba and Sutter Counties, 1924 "Hops of Wrath: 1913’s bloody Wheatland Hop Riot eventually led to better conditions for workers. Too bad it was only temporary." by David A. Kulczyk, Sacramento News & Review, August 30, 2007