They say I’m a dust bowl refugee
They say I’m a dust bowl refugee
They say I’m a dust bowl refugee
And I ainta gonna be treated this a way.
--Woody Guthrie, “Goin’ Down This Old Dusty Road.”
Bouncing west in the rumble seat of a Model-A Ford, 8-year-old Carlton Faulconer had reason to be a hopeful boy. The family farm in Oklahoma had dried up due to drought; Carlton was hungry as a result. Now, however, he and his five brothers and sisters and his mom and dad were headed for California where they expected to be eating steadily again.
But the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley received the Faulconers and many of the 350,000 other farm laborers who migrated West in 1935-39 as if they were the dreaded drought itself.
“Okie kids--they were the scum of the earth,” said Faulconer, now a 54-year-old insurance agent in El Toro. “Nobody wanted us around.”
Leo Hart, then superintendent of Kern County schools, watched the dust-bowl refugees accumulate in migrant camps, under bridges and in ditches throughout his jurisdiction. Most of them were children.
“It was a real problem. It affected our schools seriously,” said Hart, now 90 and living in Shafter, a small farming town north of Bakersfield.
They Fought Backs
Because they were thought to be unwashed and slow-witted, the Okie children had to sit at the back of classrooms. They were bullied by classmates--and they fought back. Carlton Faulconer’s older brother, Roley, was one who had a reputation for responding to classmates’ taunts with his fists.
Although the newcomers weren’t wanted in existing schools, Hart was determined to provide the migrant children with an education. “It was really my job,” he said.
Hart leased 10 acres of land and two condemned buildings from the federal government for $10. The site was next door to the migrant camp near Weedpatch where the Faulconers were living, the same camp made famous in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The shovel and hoe-swinging superintendent, along with 50 underfed children and a crop of hand-picked teachers, proceeded to build their own school. Roley and Carlton Faulconer helped dig water lines; their sister Joyce sewed curtains for the home economics room.
Arvin Federal Emergency School opened in September, 1940. With very little in the way of state emergency funds, Hart and the students made their school one of the best in the county. It got so that local farmers who had once ostracized the migrant families eventually demanded to send their own children to the school. (In 1944, the migrant school merged with a facility for non-migrant children. It’s called Sunset School and operates today at the same site where Arvin Federal once stood.)
Hart has been retired since 1959. Nothing in his personal or professional life before or since the dust-bowl days much suggests that he is given to tackling large social inequities.
In a recent interview in his homey white cottage surrounded by plowed-under fields, Hart sat back in a recliner, his arms folded about him for warmth on the chilly afternoon. He got into education in the first place for practical reasons, he recalled. “What made me go into education was I didn’t have any money.”
Hart grew up in Vinton, Iowa, where his mother taught in a rural school and his father operated a plumbing business by horse-drawn wagon. Hart came back from his service in France during World War I with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium in Tucson to recover.
After leaving the hospital, Hart attended Arizona State University, graduating with a master’s degree in education. He was offered a job in Bakersfield, taught high school there for awhile, then ran for county superintendent of schools.
He was elected to his first term (he served two) in 1939, the same year that thousands of formerly successful farm families fled drought and dust storms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and other states. It was the same year that “The Grapes of Wrath” was published.
When Hart took over as superintendent, local farmers and migrants had already faced off in angry confrontations. Some migrant camps nearby were ordered burned by health officials for unsanitary conditions. And “The Grapes of Wrath"--a sympathetic dramatization of suffering and injustice in the migrant camps--was banned in Kern County public libraries.
Pete Bancroft, who served as principal of the migrant school, said that like undocumented workers today, the refugees were both needed and hated. Local farmers, with their neat homes and routinized lives, were threatened by the starving migrants.
As they began to organize, the laborers were perceived as desperate agitators, yet the farmers required their cheap labor to bring in the crops on time. “The farmers wanted the laborers, but they didn’t want them to stay,” said Bancroft, who now lives in Fallbrook.
When Hart attempted to place migrant youths in existing schools, some local residents accused him of being a communist, and said he was not fit to hold his position.
“The feeling here was pretty bitter (toward the refugees),” Hart said. “Local residents were not inclined to help these people. They were more inclined to wish they’d move on.”
Pete Bancroft said that Leo Hart “made himself a one-man team” in support of the migrant children. “He really had to do a lot of it alone.”
Hart convinced the Arvin-Lamont School District that they had an emergency on their hands. He was allowed to set up an emergency school for the children from the Weedpatch camp and make-shift migrant camps, but the emergency designation was good for only five years, so all the buildings had to be temporary.
The school district donated an old auditorium. “We had it sawed off and hauled down here,” Hart said. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) assisted students in molding 125,000 adobe bricks to form the walls of temporary structures. They converted a boxcar and a war-surplus airplane into classrooms. They used old fruit crates for desks.
During recess, students formed teams and made a competition out of digging what became Kern County’s first community swimming pool.
A teacher at Hart’s school faced exceptional challenges because many of the children were behind in their studies. They’d been out of school for several years as their families moved around in search of work. Hart said he recruited gifted teachers from all over the country--"Mostly attitude was what I was looking for.”
Lessons were designed to help students civilize migrant camp life. A janitor taught the youngsters shoe cobbling so they could repair their own worn shoes. Girls learned to sew so their families need not go about in oversized clothes or rags. The children learned to make toothpaste and shampoo.
Other courses in self-sufficiency included raising livestock, agriculture, carpentry and masonry.
Many of the children were sickly due to poor conditions on the road or in the camps. Hart said that for ailing youngsters they prescribed cod liver oil, orange juice and an hourlong rest every school day. The Health Department instructed the school to discontinue these measures because they constituted practicing medicine without a license.
“We still gave them rest,” Hart said.
When teachers noticed that the students often brought nothing more than dry bread and a cold potato for their lunch, the school opened a cafeteria where youngsters could get a hot breakfast for 1 cent, a hot lunch for 2 cents.
Because the school was not a popular project in the community, Hart pursued duties unrelated to the migrant school on weekdays and spent his own time on weekends working at the new school. The superintendent’s wife, Edna, used to go with her husband to the school on weekends. She canned beets and cooked meals with women from the camp. The Harts sent their own daughter, Patricia (now 54), to the migrant school when she was in the eighth grade because they felt she could get the best education there.
“The kids used to cry when their parents would leave to look for work elsewhere,” Edna Hart said.
The public was not much interested in what was going on at Arvin Federal in the ‘40s, and Leo Hart has been surprised to find that anyone cares about it now. A professor of history at California State University, Bakersfield, resurrected the saga of the Arvin Federal School last year in an article in American West.
Since then, Hart has had calls from students he hasn’t seen for four decades. It turns out that the children had never really forgotten.
Carlton Faulconer graduated from the migrant school and went on to attend Bakersfield High School and Bakersfield Junior College. His family eventually moved out of the camp and bought a home on seven acres in Weedpatch.
Faulconer, now an insurance agent, recalled recently how the school “gave us pride and dignity and honor when we didn’t have those things. The school did a great deal to cause us to believe we were special.”
Faulconer said he doesn’t remember his life as a dust-bowl refugee as bleak at all. In fact, if he were to write a book about it today, he’d call it “The Grapes of Opportunity.”