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Indentured Servitude in the Heartland

Iowa has always been a “free” state. People cannot be bought and sold, and laws have always prevented indentured servitude ever since Iowa became a state in 1846. But what happened in the small town of Atalissa, Iowa can be referred to as indentured servitude. This did not happen a hundred or more years ago but is actually part of Iowa’s recent history.

I first became aware of the story in Atalissa when the Des Moines Register published an article about it several years ago. However, I really never gave it much thought until I went to see New York Times reporter, Dan Barry, at an event sponsored by the Iowa History Center and the State Historical Museum of Iowa on March 30th. Dan Barry wrote a book, The Boys in the Bunkhouse, about the story of 32 men with intellectual disabilities who were rescued from an old schoolhouse in Atalissa. They were employed and “cared for” by Henry’s Turkey Service, who claims they were giving these men a chance at life.
During the event, Barry described the deplorable condition the men lived in. The bunkhouse was heavily infested with roaches, and the men were sleeping on soiled mattresses. The roof leaked whenever it rained, windows were broken and boarded up, and the home was without central heat and air conditioning.

The work itself was very labor intensive. The men were up by 3 a.m. and worked full time. Each day about 20,000 turkeys was weighed, killed, and gutted. The men proved quite good at their job and worked hard day after day. However, after the “expenses” were deducted from their paychecks, each man brought home only $65 per month.
Barry spoke of the abuse the men went through at work and home. As I listened to him speak, I couldn’t help but think of one of the men that I had met earlier that evening. Willie Levi, one of the 32 men that lived in the bunkhouse, confidently introduced himself to me during the event’s reception. He was happy to be there and couldn’t wait for Barry to arrive. Our conversation was short, as he wanted to hurry up and finish his Coke before going into the auditorium to find a seat.

Henry’s Turkey Farm failed these men. Their caretakers failed them. The State of Iowa failed them, and anyone who knew what was going on that never said anything failed them. I am grateful that Dan Barry chose to come to Iowa and get to know the men that worked for Henry’s Turkey Farm in Atalissa and I am even more grateful that he wrote a book. I sincerely hope that it inspires people to do something instead of nothing when witnessing things that are wrong and immoral. I encourage all of our blog readers to check out Dan Barry’s article published in the New York Times as well as his book to learn more about the 32 men that worked for Henry’s Turkey Farm. It is because of people like Dan Barry, that we are able to learn about modern human trafficking and do something about it.

Barry’s book can be purchased on Amazon.