The Dust Bowl

By Donald D. Erwin

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The term “Dust Bowl” came about as the result of the great drought that hit first in the eastern part of the United States in 1930. As the years passed it rained less and less, and by 1936 the rains had stopped entirely throughout the Great Plains. The sun came up bright and hot every day, but was obscured by a thick layer of dust. Then the wind began blowing, and soon it was stripping away the fertile top soil. It blew the plowed soil up into the air, and every morning the sun would rise, only to disappear behind a sky of swirling clouds of red dirt and dust. The worst of it was centered in the Oklahoma Panhandle, but the lack of rain would ultimately affect the northern part of Texas, the western part of Arkansas, most of Oklahoma and Kansas, the eastern third of Colorado, and the southern half of Nebraska. The fierce gale-force winds knocked open doors, shattered windows, and leveled barns. In some areas it buried chickens, pigs, dogs, and sometimes even cattle and horses that stood with their backs to the wind.

The drought alone didn’t cause the top soil to blow away. Although cyclic dry spells occur every twenty-five years or so, it was the combination of drought and misuse of the land that led to the incredible devastation during the Dust Bowl years. Most of the plains area was originally covered with grasses that held the fine soil in place. Elk, antelope, deer, as well as vast herds of buffalo, had grazed there for centuries. It was excellent range land, but overgrazing by cattle and sheep herds soon stripped the western plains of their cover. And the mostly European homesteaders, who had brought their farming methods with them, plowed it to make way for their farms. Then, when the fertile topsoil was exhausted, they simply moved on and homesteaded again. In just a few decades vast tracts of land were laid waste.

When the next big drought hit the loose top soil just blew away in the wind. The wind and sand made life on the farms almost intolerable. Life had always been hard on the farmers who lived on the small family farms of forty to two hundred and forty acres. They were dry farmers for the most part, but when the drought and dust storms showed no signs of letting up many people abandoned their land. Some would have stayed but were forced out when they lost their farms in bank foreclosures. In all, one quarter of the population left, packing everything they owned into their cars and trucks, and heading west toward California.

If you would like to have your heart broken, just come out here, wrote Ernie Pyle, a roving reporter in Kansas in June of 1936. This is the dust-storm country. It is the saddest land I have ever seen.

My father, as a blacksmith and part-time sharecropper in southeastern Kansas, didn’t own real estate, and thus didn’t have to go through the agony of seeing it gradually blow away, but aside from that, he was in the same boat as his neighbors. Most farmers, especially the small ones, had already been battered by the effects of the Great Depression, which had started in 1929 when the stock market collapsed. When farm crop prices fell below the cost to produce them most farmers couldn't make their mortgage payments. Many were also in deep hock to local banks for machinery and seed. Penniless and destitute, some didn’t even bother to declare bankruptcy; they just packed up and left. My folks weren’t exempted. I can remember years later—after we were in California—my father railing on about ...that damned Ollie Weymeyer at the bank. He had left owing the local bank $220. But he was honest, and vowed to pay it with interest when he could. In 1942, when the war economy began to kick in, he tried to contact the banker, but old Ollie had passed away, and the bank had gone bust.

 

It was seventy years ago, and in the time frame and conditions described above, that I have my earliest recollection. It was June 1936, and my family was preparing to leave Kansas and strike out for California as part of the “Dust Bowl” migration. My four oldest siblings were already married, and three would remain in Kansas, while Raymond—the fourth oldest—was already in California with his wife and his Lynch in-laws. Helen Virginia—number six—would stay in Topeka with oldest sister Goldie to finish high school, while Mary Elizabeth—who had just graduated—would travel with us to California, but planned to strike out on her own on arrival.

Dad had disposed of all of his farm machinery, his blacksmith tools, as well as the family household furniture. He had purchased a 1930 Dodge sedan and a little two-wheeled homemade trailer. All of our worldly goods were packed in the car and trailer. Goodbyes had been said and everyone was ready to go, except me. I took off down the driveway. I can still remember…it seemed like the gravel was a foot deep. My dad ran after me and scooped me up. The trip to California had begun. I was three years old.

Prior to our move my father had been a blacksmith in Virgil, Kansas, but at one time or other he had been a farmer, a teamster, and an oilfield worker, but in fact he would, and did, do most anything to feed and clothe his family. While many farmers in the area were still using horses and mules to work their farms, mechanization in the form of tractors—both steam and gasoline powered—had gradually put my father’s blacksmith shop out of business. And those that still occasionally required his services to shoe an animal or to put a new point on a plow—more often than not—did not have any actual cash.

The trip must have been a tremendous undertaking in 1936. There were five of us in the Dodge: Mom, Dad, my sister Mary who was eighteen, my brother Bud who was eleven, and me. The only piece of furniture that Dad allowed Mom to bring on the trip was her Singer treadle sewing machine. He had placed it in the trailer upside down, and then packed other prized possessions and necessities around it. On top of everything went a mattress. Money was limited, so there was no thought of staying in “tourist cabins” or of eating in restaurants. We would camp out each night and cook our meals on a Coleman gasoline stove. Mom and Dad slept on the mattress in the trailer, and Bud, Mary and I spend the nights in the car.

My father had heard horror stories about early day pioneers dying as they attempted to cross the Mojave Desert, as well as rumors of depression-era travelers dying of thirst (probably much exaggerated) after their vehicles had broken down in Arizona and New Mexico, so he had elected instead to take the northern route to California. I feel certain, however, that he hadn’t bargained on the heat of the Utah salt plains, or the high passes in the western mountain ranges.

The only thing that stands out in my memory of the trip is of a seemingly endless expanse of white dirt, and of standing on a bucket in the back of the car in order to see out the side-window. Bud tried to convince me that the white stuff on the ground was snow, but even then I knew that it was cold when it snowed, and it was hot! The white dirt was, of course, the salt of the Great Salt Lake Desert west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

My father drove at a stately twenty-five miles per hour, and often felt the wrath of other drivers wanting to pass. He would ignore them as they went by, their horns honking in frustration, for he was in constant fear of a breakdown. Although most cars of the era were prone to mechanical failure, apparently our 1930 Dodge didn’t miss a beat the whole trip. It did have a propensity for vapor lock though, but Dad soon learned how to overcome this irritation.

Our Dodge was, however, a model that still had wheels with wooden spokes, and my father was in constant fear that they would collapse. The dry weather, especially across Utah,

caused the oak spokes to dry out and shrink a bit. As we rolled down the road Dad would cock his ear, and at some given point, known only to him, he would announce that it was time to “check the wheels.” Anticipating the dry-spoke problem, he had brought along a supply of little moon-shaped spacers that he could pound in between the end of the spoke and the rim. Each evening he would also “wet down” the wheels, hoping that the oak spokes would expand.

We made it across the blistering Utah desert okay, but then we had to cross the ten thousand-foot-plus passes in the Rocky Mountains, and finally the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’m sure that about this time my father wished that we were all back in flat old Kansas. Picture if you can, that my father had only learned to drive about fifteen years previously, and that he had never in his life seen real mountains. The Ozark Mountains of northwestern Arkansas, where he was born and lived until he was ten, can be compared to the low foothills on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley in Central California. The only “mountains” that he had seen as an adult were the rolling hills of northern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas. Add to this the reality that in the 1930s there were no freeways or four-lane highways on the way to California. Although U.S. 66, established in 1926 and known as the “Mother Road,” was a good road for the time, the “northern route” that my father chose because of his fear of the desert, was not. In places, especially where it crossed the mountains, it was only a narrow two lane winding road, and in places not even paved. There were places—when two cars met—where there wasn’t room to pass; one or the other would have to back up.

Dad constantly worried about the fact that he had just enough money to get to California, if he had planned right, and if nothing went wrong. But we made it. The trip took about three weeks. Nothing drastic happened, but my father always said that he had exactly twenty-five cents in his pocket when we arrived at my brother Raymond’s house, which was near the little community of San Joaquin, in Fresno County, about thirty miles south of Madera . 

 

Our fellow migrants, for the most part, were poor white dirt farmers from Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. Many had little formal education, and their baggy pants, ragged dresses, broken-down cars, bare-footed children, desperate-looking faces, and Ozarkian twangs offended the sensibilities of native Californians. All were soon all lumped into one category and labeled “Okies.”

Almost all were descendants of early day English, German, or Scots-Irish pioneers who had blazed their way westward in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the Great Depression of the 1930s, in combination with a drought in the Great Plains, had forced them to leave their homes and head for California where—it was said—laborers were needed to work in the cotton fields and orchards of the rich San Joaquin Valley.

When they arrived in California, however, they found—because of excessive advertising in the Midwest by large farming operations—that there was an over supply of willing workers. Everywhere they went, it seemed, it was the same: too many workers and not enough work. It soon became apparent that California was not the fabled land of milk and honey. Instead—for many of the migrants—it was a place of hunger, despair and misery.

My memory of the first couple of years in California is hazy, but I know that early on we lived near Kerman for a time, and that Mary went on to Fresno where she worked part time and attended Fresno State College. My father found work where he could. It was probably in late 1936—after the summer harvest season was over—that my parents and my brother Bud and I—as well as my brother Raymond and his wife Alma, and Alma’s parents—moved up into the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Oakhurst in Madera County. It is believed that we all lived, at least initially, at Big Cedar Springs, which is about three miles or so north of Oakhurst on Highway 41. There was a general store, a saw mill, and a number of “tourist cabins” there, all owned by a Mr. Allen. Bud recollects that all three of our families lived in the cabins, and that Raymond, Ray Lynch, and my father worked for a time at the saw mill.

My dad soon found work at the Murray Ranch nearby, which was much more to his liking, especially since he was able to get a house on the ranch itself. He liked working with horses and cattle, and it was the first time since leaving Kansas that we were able to live in a real house, primitive though it was.

By 1938 Dad’s job at the Murray Ranch ran out, and we moved to the Bakersfield area, following the harvests like thousands of other refugee families of the Dust Bowl. We were migrant farm workers, much like those described in the 1939 John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath. There was still an over supply of farm workers. This was great for the growers, and most took advantage of it by offering starvation wages. On average they were offering thirty-five cents an hour to pick peaches and nectarines, twenty cents for potatoes and lettuce, and one dollar for a ton of peaches. The average field hand worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, and earned five to seven dollars a week.

During “dead time,” the idle time between jobs, the migrant workers would live wherever they could. Some lived in the bottoms of isolated dry lakes, such as Kern Lake, or along the banks of rivers, such as the Kern, the Kings, and the San Joaquin. Others lived on canal banks, under bridges or in a squatter’s camp in a deserted field, called “Okievilles” by the locals. Some of the lucky ones were able to get into one of the labor camps operated by the Farm Security Administration, an agency of the Department of Agriculture. One of the better known was the Weedpatch Camp near Arvin, where my family lived for a time. While Weedpatch Camp was no oasis, life there was a big improvement over living in an “Okieville.”

My family was no different. While moving around, following what work there was, we lived where we could and how we could. Part of the time we lived in unorganized labor camps in a makeshift tent, part of the time in a labor “cabin,” which was always just one room—usually about ten by twelve feet squareand part of the time we camped temporarily with another family or two as squatters. In today’s vernacular we were homeless.

For a short time we lived in an abandoned Santa Fe Railroad building north of Bakersfield, which at one time had been

the railroad station for Rosedale. We were there several months, probably the winter and spring of 1938-1939. I vaguely recall that there was a potato packing shed just on the other side of the railroad tracks, and I still have a mental picture of my father crossing the tracks after working in the sheds all day. He would take my hand, and we then walked together back to our “house.”

At times my mother and father picked cotton. They would go to the fields at sunrise, drape a nine-to-twelve-foot cotton sack over their shoulders and then, bent at the waist, start out down “their” row that would go clear across the field. Picking cotton by hand entailed tearing the fluffy pinkish-white cotton from the bowls on the stalks, using both hands, and then reaching around and depositing it in the cotton sack. Babies and small children would often nap on the end of the sacks as their mothers dragged them along. A good picker, such as my father, could pick up to five hundred pounds in a twelve-hour day.

At one point, while we were still living in the abandoned Santa Fe depot near Rosedale, California, Dad finally admitted that he could not find work of any kind and, much to his shame and embarrassment, applied for welfare. He insisted, however, that he be allowed to work in return for it. So, in contrast to many welfare recipients, Dad worked on local WPA crews until he could again find regular work. He earned a dollar a day working on government projects, more than he sometimes earned working in the fields or in the packing sheds, but to my father it was not the same. As a life-long Republican, taking President Roosevelt’s WPA money was humiliating.

Eventually the Santa Fe Railroad told us to move on, and the early summer of 1939 found us back in Madera County, living in a real house. I recall that the rent was eight dollars a month, not an insignificant amount when my father sometimes earned only one dollar a day. Our rented house was a half mile down the road from where Raymond and Alma lived. I started the first grade at Easton School that fall, walking the one mile morning and afternoon.

In early 1940 Dad had managed to accumulate $50. With this as a down payment he was able to convince Jim Beck—a Kerman cattle dealer—to sell him fifteen dairy cows. At the same time he made a deal with a western Madera County farmer to sharecrop forty acres of alfalfa, which included a small house. A team of big mules, a flat-rack hay wagon, and a McCormack-Deering sickle-type mowing machine mysteriously appeared as well, and we were in the dairy business. Dad’s self-respect shot up a mile. He was no longer an “Oakie” cotton picker. It was there that I finished the first grade at Ripperdan Elementary School. I was pleased that they had buses. Bud couldn’t tease me anymore, at least not about having to walk to school while he rode a bus to Madera Union High School in Madera.

In the spring of 1942 my father bought thirty-two acres about three miles south of Madera, on the east side of the Southern Pacific Railroad and US 99. It had been a vineyard at one time, but all of the vines were gone. The property had a barn, but no house. The farm cost $2250, and he put $100 down. There was a well on the property, but it had been drilled when the water table was less than one hundred feet down. By 1942 the water table had dropped below one hundred and fifty feet, making the well useless.

Dad was a good talker and always seemed to elicit trust in people. At a time when consumer credit was not all that common, he seldom had any difficulty buying things “on time,” often with just a handshake. He was able to convince a local pump company to drill a new well and install an irrigation pump. He put $150 down and made payments on the rest. At first he had an old Buick automobile engine hooked up to the pump with a long belt, but the engine ran erratically, and he soon replaced it with a conventional agricultural electric motor. As soon as we had water we moved to the farm, making numerous trips with a borrowed truck and a two-horse (cow) trailer.

We camped out for a couple of weeks or so until my father could build a simple one-room cabin. He would later add a screened-in porch that would serve primarily as a sleeping area for me. We must have appeared pretty pathetic to our neighbors about that time, but Dad was proud. It was the first time in his life that he’d actually owned land.

 

In California I went to school with children of many ethnic backgrounds. There were several principle groups. The Negro (the politically correct term these days is Black, or African-American) group of people had probably not arrived as the result of a mass migration, but more likely as single individuals during the time of slavery, and as family groups after the Civil War. The Chinese first arrived as laborers to work on the trans-continental railroads and in the gold fields, and later—as result of their inborn work ethic—they prospered, brought additional family members from China, and educated their children—more often than not—as professional people.

The Japanese arrived half a century or so later; first in Hawaii to work on pineapple and sugarcane plantations, and then in the central valley of California on “truck” farms, and they evolved much like the earlier Chinese. As the Chinese and Japanese second and third generations became more educated, and moved from hand-labor occupations, the Filipinos filled the void in Hawaii and on the West Coast.

Other groupssuch as Italian, Portuguese, Yugoslavian, Russian and Armenianarrived, for the most part, in California directly from their countries of origin. Most of these groups had came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They tended to settle in “colonies,” and were generally industrious and frugal, and many were property owners as well.

Then there were the just plain vanilla Americans, descendants of early day soldiers, trappers and merchants who had arrived in California in small groups, as well as from the “forty-niners” of the gold rush era, many even before California became a state in 1850.

All of these “native-born,” and/or landed Californians, whether they spoke with a foreign accent or not, seemed to feel superior to the “Okies,” and made little effort to conceal it. Their children were even worse, often going out of their way to make cruel and cutting remarks about the worn and ragged clothing, the mannerisms, and the colloquialisms of the migrant children.   

When I was old enough to think about it I thought of myself as an American, but it was common for me, and many of my close friends, to be to sneeringly called “Okies,” or, more

often than not, “dumb-Okies,at school by the children of some of the more established citizens. And while I might protest that I was from Kansas, and not Oklahoma, I realized early on that “Okie” was a term of derision, and not one that identified my ethnic background or where my family originated from. John Steinbeck’s book, although a work of fiction and banned in many libraries and most school districts in California at the time—helped to firmly affix the label.

Of course many of the Mexicans (the preferred label today seems to be Latino or Hispanic) preceded all of us, and their countrymen continue to pour across our southern border into California—as well as into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—seeking a better life. When I was a child they were just one of the many minorities, but today the Hispanic population of California, legal and otherwise, exceeds fifty percent of the total population. Their children, sad to say, are experiencing much the same type of prejudice as my friends and I did. We were “Okies,” and they are called “Wetbacks.”

 

The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, was really the turning point for all of the people derisively labeled Okies. Although the drought was over in the Great Plains, and the Great Depression had started to ease throughout the country, and even though many Dust Bowl refugees had managed to find meaningful employment, there remained others who had not yet escaped the poverty and drudgery of the fields.

The war economy changed everything. Suddenly the country needed the help of everyone, even the “Okies.” The younger ones joined the armed forces, while the older folks found work in the tank factories, aircraft plants and shipyards as the nation ratcheted up the effort to win the war. Those on the farms suddenly found that they were needed as well. Foodstuffs of all kinds were needed for the war effort. The small truck farmer, the dairyman who had only twenty or thirty dairy cows, and the small hog or chicken farmer, was as important as the big guy; all were needed. It didn't matter if one spoke with a Texas drawl or hailed from the panhandle of Oklahoma.

When the war ended our troops came home, and many went to college on the G.I Bill. They learned proper English, but would often use their Ozarkian twang or Texas drawl as an in-your-face badge of honor. They would be doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners, and (horrors!) even politicians, but the time was past when they had to step off the sidewalk to let a “local” pass.

The farmers and factory workers had done their patriotic duties, but along the way they had earned the respect of a grateful nation, and most had gained considerable financial security as well. By this time also, most of the so-called Okies realized that they need not be ashamed of their place of origin.

The oldsters who experienced the hopelessness of the Dust Bowl Era of the 1930s are mostly gone now, and the folks born in later years—especially the young people of today—have no conception of how it was.  For them, if they are interested, I recommend that they go to their local library and check out a copy of  The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, it was a work of fiction, but it was right on.                    »»»

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