In 1948, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act. This allowed for 200,000 refugees living in the American, British, and French zones of occupied Germany and Austria to enter the United States in excess of the nationality quotas established by the 1924 Immigration Act. Beginning in April 1949, more than 650 Estonian Displaced Persons would join the labor force and residential community at Seabrook Farms. C.F. Seabrook, the company’s founder and chief executive, was approached by Rudolf Kiviranna, the chairman of the Estonian Relief Committee in New York City and a local Lutheran pastor in Bridgeton, New Jersey, who convinced him to become a sponsor for these refugees. Seabrook would personally travel to Germany to visit the DP camps in 1949, and, in much smaller numbers, also sponsored Poles, East German, and Latvian refugees.
With the Cold War already dominating American foreign policy, the Displaced Persons Act was heralded by U.S. officials for providing refuge to Europeans who, due to Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, could not return home. In line with existing immigration restrictions, entrants accused of being Communist spies or sympathizers were barred from the United States. The 1948 Act did not, however, include enforcement measures that allowed immigration officials to vet whether or not arriving refugees had been Nazi collaborators. For Seabrook Farms, the Act offered another way to obtain cheap and semi-captive labor. While C.F. Seabrook portrayed himself as a beneficent savior of these refugees, the reality was more complex. The 1948 Displaced Persons Act specifically required that only refugees who “shall not become public charges and will have safe and sanitary housing” were eligible for admission. As a company town that could guarantee immediate employment and housing, Seabrook Farms was uniquely positioned to meet both of these criteria. To reject Seabrook’s living and working conditions meant losing sponsorship, and therefore encountering a fate unknown or possible deportation. Wages began at 52 cents an hour – slightly more than what guestworkers and black migrant laborers were earning in 1944, but less than the union wage.
Estonians arriving at Seabrook noted that their new living and working environment bore a resemblance to the camps in Germany that they had left behind, as did their relative state of confinement, at least during their first years in the country. Some Estonians like Tonu Vanderer preferred the 16’ by 48’ “wooden barracks” of Hoover Village, where they were housed to the camps in Germany. Others like Reet Sikkemae remember fashioning cardboard paper rolls into bed springs and using bathrooms without doors.
Estonians in transit camp in Germany
Most of the approximately 40,000 Estonians who ended up in the German Displaced Person camps fled with Nazi troops and officials after the Red Army reoccupied Estonia in the fall of 1944. By 1948, when the United States began accepting refugees, the plight of the Estonians, Poles, and Germans who ended up at Seabrook was framed in the context of the Cold War, and the need to assist refugees who could not return to homelands now controlled by the Soviet Union. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway
When they initially began arriving, Estonian and other refugees were initially housed in Hoover Village, which the company had built in 1944 when the federal housing complex had proved insufficient for the numbers of paroled internees coming to Seabrook. The 16' x 48' prefabricated wooden homes were cramped, barely separated from each other, and served by a communal bathhouse and an open sewer. Refugees, however, had limited options. To reject Seabrook’s living and working conditions meant to risk losing the company's sponsorship, which was a precondition of their resettlement. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway
Prefabricated Gunnison Houses being put together in 1952 to be occupied by the overflow of workers for the Seabrook firm.
In the early 1950s, to accommodate the workforce, which had reached its peak, Seabrook's construction firm began assembling 80 prefabricated Gunnison Houses. These opened for occupancy in 1952. As F. Alan Palmer notes, at that point the Housing Manager employed by Seabrook was responsible for collecting rent from over 1,000 heads of families. Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, New Jersey Digital Highway