They first came 100 years ago, looking for a better life, to make a difference.

In April 1920, the first wave of immigrant workers from Mexico and the southern United States came to Lenawee County to fill unwanted jobs in the area.

Today, Tuesday, May 5, is a day that recognizes the Hispanic and Latino culture: Cinco de Mayo. This week's column takes a look at the history and culture in Lenawee County.

Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, commemorates the Mexican army's victory over French soldiers during the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Today, the moment in history is celebrated, more in the United States than in Mexico, with celebrations, dancing, parades, food and history lessons.

After World War I, after the flu pandemic, the migrant workers from Eastern Europe largely left the Lenawee County fields, for tenant farming and industrial opportunities, leaving farmers looking for workers to help their operations succeed. The sugar beet fields in-and-around-Blissfield especially, needed seasonal to permanent help.

On a rainy April night in 1920, the first caravan of workers arrived, some-200 of them, each looking for work, money to send or take back home. Each worker had a story. Nearly none of them could speak English. They brought with them what they could carry, including a requisition slip by the Continental Sugar Co. in Blissfield, allowing them to pick up food supplies and kitchen utensils, according to an article from the April 17, 1920, Daily Telegram.

The article is one of the first mentions of workers coming in from the south to contribute to the local economy. They started with only longings to see their families again; two cans of rationed sardines and four loaves of bread.

In 2015-16, the Lenawee County Historical Society Museum developed a heritage project to, as its website states, "expand and promote deeper understanding of two major ethnic groups in Lenawee: Germans and Latinos.” These groups have correlating stories of segregation and discrimination when they first settled in Lenawee and throughout their struggle to find home in an unfamiliar land.

Their work contributed that year to what was said to be the largest sugar crop in years, an estimated increase of 330,000 tons nationwide compared to 1919.

Some went back home after the season ended, never to return. Others returned in the spring of 1921 and endured hardships, language barriers and more, but persevered. Some brought their families. They worked the fields: sugar beets, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, to fill the employment need.

By the early 1940s, some had saved enough money to buy their own homes in Lenawee County.

In 2015-16, Amy Johnson and the Lenawee County Historical Society Museum, with a humanities grant of $18,000, set out to record the memories and stories of members of the Latino, as well as the German, communities. The Lenawee Historical Society's Heritage Project was created; the Hispanic community responded, as did the Hispanics of Lenawee Alliance (HOLA), with personal memories as well as the stories of their parents and grandparents: the work, saving every penny, looking out for each other, and growing the local economy.

The project explored how German and Latino immigrants have impacted the county through creation of enclaves in the larger community and creation of ethnic based organizations. The project was funded in part by Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Gloria Galnares Mattox this past weekend shared her memories of living in Blissfield and the "Sunnyside" part of Adrian. Mattox, who worked as a nurse at Emma L. Bixby Hospital for 44 years before retiring a decade ago, said the pride and hard work she sees today among the workers who continue to come to Lenawee County is as evident as it was 100 years ago, having heard the stories of her ancestors.

"With the crops this year, they are going to have a very special part in the community," she said, referring to the challenges of working during a pandemic.

"They're taking a risk" doing the work they will, sometimes within the six feet guidelines for reducing the potential spread of COVID-19, if the illness is prevalent next month or come fall.

Her family story in Lenawee County started 83 years ago, Mattox said.

"When my kin came in 1937, the farmers here were sending letters to small towns in Texas to invite workers to come and help here with the crops, " she said. "Our parents came to cut the sugar beets. Dad said that was very difficult work. Both my parents did a lot of hard work for quite a few years."

However, Mattox said, "he was fortunate enough in 1942 and got a job at Bohn 13. He would still go out and help (in the fields) when the need for extra hands were needed."

One by one, the families became homeowners, mostly on Adrian's eastern half.

"We lived in Sunnyside," she said. "There weren't that many houses before the factory was built." But as the housing subdivisions grew, so did the sense of family and community.

"You knew everyone. We were a family community," she said. "If someone needed help, they were helped."

And her father was one of those with a helper's spirit.

"He would pick up the kids who wanted to go to Catechism, and those who wanted to go to church, and he would pick people up to go vote at election time," she said.

And when Mattox was old enough, she, too, found opportunity to work.

"I remember going to pick potatoes; they were easy to pick up with the prong and put them on the conveyor," she said. "I paid for my (high school) class ring that way," she said with pride in her voice.

Mattox said while the climate and culture has changed over the years in some ways, the need for workers has not. They are found in the fields, the dairies.

"The migrants who came used to bring their families," she said. "Now they are picked up, brought in on a bus and then go home in the fall."

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more in the United States, and more recently than in the past, according to Mattox.

"We had Mexican dances for various celebrations, but it's definitely celebrated here in the states than in Mexico," she said. "When we were kids, it was more of an educational lesson. We recognized the day."

Lenawee County Historical Society Museum board member Ray Lennard said the cultural display at the museum is one of his favorites.

"It generates a lot of dialog" by visitors, Lennard said. "After World War I, when the Eastern European labor was shutting down, the Hispanic-Latino community rose up."

According to the 2010 census, Adrian was approximately 17% Latino or Hispanic by self-identification. Overall, Lenawee County's Latino or Hispanic population was 8.2%, or approximately 99,000 residents at the time.

And their contributions to Lenawee County history have not been forgotten.

For more stories by residents on culture and personal memories, visit lenaweehistoricalsociety.org and click the Heritage Project square halfway down the page.

Dan Cherry is a Lenawee County historian