Dust Bowl Legacy : 50 Years After ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ Five Okies Remember How Their Families Struggled During the Great Migration--and Endured

<i> Richard Lee Colvin is a Times staff writer. </i>

CLOUDS OF DUST BLEW across the South Central United States in the 1930s, yellow and opaque as tule fog. King Cotton had sucked most of the life from the topsoil, and drought had finished it off. Farmers there had endured years of boom and bust, their crops failing with the weather, their mule-and-plow livelihoods falling to mechanization. When the wind--and the Depression--swept the land, it blew the earth’s thin blanket as far as the Atlantic Ocean and laid bare the lives of half a million families.

Farming folk and townspeople abandoned their homes in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri. Whole towns headed west on Route 66 in rattletrap cars, in buses, on foot. About 350,000 people landed in California, half of those in the Central Valley. They came expecting a green paradise where, advertisements said, good jobs paid good money. They wanted a place to settle, a small farm to pick up where they had left off, a second chance. No matter where they came from, they would be branded “Okies.”

The migration to California swelled in the last half of the decade. In 1936, a reporter named John Steinbeck wrote a seven-part series in the San Francisco News investigating what the Okies actually found in the Promised Land. It told of filthy camps along irrigation ditches, starving children, epidemic dysentery and tuberculosis. It told of worker surpluses, low wages, violent strikebreakers and the contempt of rural residents.


It wasn’t until 1937 and 1938 that California acknowledged a crisis. Flooding that year in the San Joaquin Valley brought reporters to the hinterlands and made the hard-hit Okies newsworthy. More and more reporters discovered the story, state agencies investigated and the plight of the Okies moved to the front page around the state.

Steinbeck had continued to follow the migrant situation and planned to write a “big” book. Early in 1939, “The Grapes of Wrath” was published. Its portrait of social upheaval, personified by the Joad family, Jim Casy and Rose of Sharon, topped the best-seller lists, sold 500,000 copies in one year and prompted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to venture West on a fact-finding mission. Suddenly, the problems in California’s Central Valley were a national scandal.

The roots of the problems were complex. California had always encouraged immigration, especially in the Central Valley, where a tractable, migratory labor force was basic to the agricultural economy. But the Okies were different. Their tremendous numbers and their sudden arrival in rural towns overtaxed minimal social services and challenged the existing farm labor system. These were families, not single men following the harvest. They wanted to settle down, enroll their children in schools; they needed houses, not just a place to lay down a bedroll. And they were white Americans, not foreigners--Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos or Mexicans--who could be “repatriated” should they object to harsh treatment and starvation wages and whose misery was easy to ignore.

In response, the growers consolidated their substantial power. The Associated Farmers, an organization of the major California growers formed in 1934, was ultimately implicated by a federal commission in acts of violence, collusion with local officials and violation of workers’ civil rights in labor disputes throughout the ‘30s. The growers group countered criticism and attempts to organize the Okies with armed vigilantes, anti-Communist rhetoric and charges that the migrants were stealing jobs in the state while they bankrupted its relief system.

The firestorm created by “The Grapes of Wrath” brought about a federal investigation. But the solution for the Okies’ situation in California was already being worked out in another arena. By late 1940, World War II defense industries were drawing from the Central Valley labor pool. And eventually, the war economy put an end to farm labor surpluses and the worst of the Okie problem.

What remained was in many ways a new California. Nearly one-eighth of the state now traces its ancestry to the Okies; in the San Joaquin Valley, the proportion is nearly one-half. The Central Valley “was not biscuit-and-gravy country before the Okies,” says Gerald Haslam, an English professor at Cal State Sonoma, who grew up near Bakersfield and has written extensively about the Okies. “They brought it. By the second generation, those people are Californians, but the definition of what it means to be a Californian is changed by them having come here.”


“The Grapes of Wrath” is the familiar text for the Okies’ story. But it is really just a beginning. What follows are the real-life histories that tell the rest of the tale.

“No, we ain’t got no money. But they’s plenty of us to work, an’ we’re all good men. Get good wages out there an’ we’ll put ‘em together. We’ll make out.”

--Pa Joad, “The Grapes of Wrath”

KILE JIM YOCUM can recall a day in 1942 when he picked 756 pounds of cotton. With his brothers and father, the family total came to more than a ton and a half. For that feat, the Yocums earned $24--four weeks’ wages for the average California cotton picker at the time. The hard-won success of that day stands for one version of the Okie story: A strong work ethic and a tightknit family conquer all. For Kile and his family, the dream came true, for a while at least.

Kile was 13 when his family came to Hanford, south of Fresno, from Blaine County, Okla. It was Christmas, 1937. His father, Hadley, had come first. Hadley had agreed to drive eight neighbors west and left behind 140 acres of sharecropped cotton devastated by dust storms and grasshoppers.

For three months, Hadley Yocum worked in the cotton fields and slept in a barn on a cotton sack. Back in Oklahoma, his family picked the “little ol’ crop” that survived. “We liked to starve to death out there the year we came out,” Kile remembers.

When his father sent money for Kile, his three brothers, two sisters and their mother, Mamie, to make the trip west, they sold their possessions for $40 and came looking for “the Promised Land,” Kile says. “People talked about it being like peaches and cream, and everyone had orange trees in their back yards and all that.”

The reality was two rooms in an unheated 14-room labor-camp house that also sheltered four other families. The day after they arrived, Kile and his brothers went to work, picking cotton and doing odd jobs before and after school. For the next six years, the Yocums--the family came to include another son, Gene--concentrated on work, pooling their wages and creating a nest egg. Eventually, the three eldest quit school so that they could work longer in the Hanford fields.

Then, in 1942, an auto accident left Mamie Yocum with a broken hip. It would lead to her death from complications a year later. Out of the tragedy came the turning point in the family’s fortune. The $2,500 insurance settlement helped the Yocums pay $8,000 for an old three-bedroom house on 65 acres.

During World War II, Kile worked stints at the Richmond shipyards near Oakland and in the Navy. After the war, he married and formed a partnership with his father and brothers Charles and Bob. They began buying and renting more land--including the parcel they had lived on and worked when they first arrived in California. Kile took a hammer and chisel and tore down the house they had shared and the labor camp that surrounded it. “That was quite a satisfaction to us to be able to farm the land we’d worked,” he says with pride.

Long after the Yocums’ survival was assured, the brothers and their father--who died only last month at age 88--continued to put in 16-hour days, seven days a week. It wasn’t greed that drove them, Kile says, just pride and their dreams of being successful farmers again. “I guess I felt guilty if I wasn’t out there working every day,” he explains. “It was something I needed to do. I had a lot of responsibilities, but we were good farmers and we were making good money. The work didn’t hurt me at all.”

The payoff was impressive. Kile retired in 1976; four years later, the partnership sold off parcels of its 1,200 acres of land for $3.3 million. It still owns 850 acres of land, worth at least $3 million. Other Yocums own more land, rental homes, a Hanford bar and two lucrative seafood restaurants in Morro Bay.

Today, Kile, 65, and his wife, Wynema, 62, contribute as much as $15,000 a year to the Hanford Church of Christ. Kile still wears bib overalls every day, and their only indulgences are an annual vacation and a collection of antique cobalt blue glass displayed in the living room of their four-bedroom home on Hanford’s most exclusive street.

But material security, in some ways, is where the American Dream stops for the Yocums. None of Kile and Wynema’s four children and, in fact, only one of the third-generation Yocums is a farmer. Somehow, the dream didn’t translate. “That was a disappointment to us,” Kile says mildly. Was it too many bosses--with grandfather, father and three uncles to contend with, he wonders, or maybe too much hard work? “If you’re a workaholic, maybe your kids go the other way,” says Kile, who did not insist that his children join him in the fields. “I’m sure my boys probably said at different times . . . that they were not going to work as hard as Dad.” The Yocums have seen their disappointment in the next generation turn to tragedy. Their youngest son, Gary, died at age 20 of a drug overdose in 1972, one nephew committed suicide and another conspired to commit murder. In December, 1983, Kevin Yocum, then 17, hired three friends to kill his father, Ray, and his mother, Gayle. Kevin promised his friends $27,000 and a fast car out of the estimated $1.75 million inheritance he stood to gain.

Kevin’s parents were shot, and their bodies were found in the living room of the sprawling ranch home where he grew up. But Kevin was caught before collecting any money from the scheme. He was tried and found guilty, and in June, 1986, he was sentenced to mandatory life in prison for conspiring to commit murder.

Kile Yocum believes that faith as well as work measures a man. But it is in terms of work that he tries to understand what happened. “If Kevin had halfway worked, by the time he was 25, Ray would have turned the thing (the family holdings) over to him,” he says. “But it was because he was greedy and wanted a little more than he’d had that he destroyed the whole family.”

Disturbing as it was, Kile seems almost as bothered that his children did not learn what, for him, is the lesson of the Dust Bowl’s hard times. “We come out with people . . . that had every opportunity that we did, and they didn’t take advantage of it,” he says. “They didn’t have anything when they came out and they don’t have anything today. They didn’t sacrifice like we did.”

Yocum believes that the greatest sins are “wastefulness and slothfulness.” They are, he said, “almost as bad as murder.”

Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you’re scum.”

--A man telling the Joads what to expect in California

TO BE AN OKIE in the Central Valley during the 1930s was bad. To be black and an Okie, like Aleck Thompson and his family, was worse. At first, both white and black faced discrimination. A Bakersfield movie theater in the 1930s displayed this sign: “Niggers and Okies Upstairs.” For white Okies, the obstacle was class, and as they assimilated, the obstacle was hurdled. Race was a more stubborn issue. Black migrants encountered problems that would far outlast the Dust Bowl years.

Aleck’s mother, Minnie, was a black woman from Oklahoma, and his part-Mexican, part-black father, John, was from South Texas. They met as migrant workers, married and, like many farm laborers, drifted west with the work. Aleck’s oldest sister, Mary, was born in New Mexico. He was born in Arizona. Three more children were born after the family arrived near Arvin in 1929 in the first wave of the Dust Bowl migration.

At the time, many of the area’s farm workers were Mexican, and John Thompson got a ranch foreman’s job in part because he spoke Spanish. With the job came a two-bedroom home in the ranch’s labor camp.

Thompson’s job gave the family an advantage over most of the migrants. But the color of his skin may have canceled it out. Arvin was a town with signs in the shop windows that discouraged “colored trade.” The Okie culture was also segregated. Blacks lived in separate areas in the government labor camps.

“Some of what we called Okies were nice people, and we got along real well,” Aleck remembers. “And then some were just as bad as the people already here. Although they were poor, they were still white. And they didn’t particularly want to associate with you, even though some of them were living in their cars, sleeping on their cotton sacks.”

A foreman’s wages weren’t enough to keep the Thompson children out of the fields. Aleck remembers irrigating, chopping and picking cotton, cutting grapes and tying vines after school and during the summer.

For a while, Aleck thought his ticket out might be sports. He starred in track and football at Kern County Union High School, now Bakersfield High School, graduating in 1948, and became a school hall-of-famer at Bakersfield Junior College for his quarter-mile time of 49.6 seconds in 1949.

But when he went looking for work in Bakersfield, he was no longer Aleck Thompson, speedster, or Aleck Thompson, halfback. He was, instead, just another black man. “After being thought so well of as an athlete, I thought some of those people would have gone to bat for me,” he says, tears welling in his eyes.

Right out of junior college, Aleck found himself back in the fields, picking 700 pounds of cotton a day at $3.75 per 100 pounds. But by the fall of 1950, he landed a job at Pep Boys. He married and was drafted a few months later, returning to the shop after serving in the Army. In 1956, he became Bakersfield’s second black salesman, in an auto-supply store. When he applied for other jobs, he met with discrimination. Eventually, Aleck turned to civil service jobs, starting as a janitor and retiring on disability in 1980 when he was a supervisor in the Probation Department.

Like most of the children of the Dust Bowl, the father of three believes that hard work and individual effort pay off. “I am quite proud of what I accomplished because I had such a rough time getting there,” says Aleck, 60, who still favors athletic sweat suits and high-top sneakers. “I’m proud of my family. I’m proud that I’m able to live comfortably.”

But there is a tinge of regret in Aleck that doesn’t seem to touch the other Okies. He still dreams of what he didn’t get: a bigger house, a better chance. “I still suffer from all that segregation . . . being mistreated and denied jobs when I got older. And it all started when I was a kid,” he says. “It’s still quite hurting.”

“Goin’ west?”

“Nope,” said the man. “We come from there. Goin’ back home. We can’t make no livin’ out there.”

--Pa Joad and a man on the road

FOR SOME OKIES, THE POVERTY and the loss of dignity in California were too much to bear. Those who had a place to return to went back for one more fresh start.

June MacArthur’s was one such family. June, her Cherokee grandparents, her mother and younger sister lived in Bakersfield for just over a year around 1938, when she was 4, before returning to their farm in Hollis, Okla.

Ironically, although her California sojourn coincided with the peak of anti-Okie sentiment, she remembered it as a brief, sweet dream--a brush with exotic people who spoke in accents as flat as the Central Valley floor. Eventually, she settled here as an adult.

Edgar and Myrtle Masters, MacArthur’s grandparents, owned 1,000 acres along the Red River in southwest Oklahoma, where they grew cotton and wheat. Water came from a well, light from kerosene lamps and heat from a potbellied stove. A vegetable garden, turkeys, chickens, cows and pigs made the farm nearly self-sufficient.

Although his family was better off than many others, Masters worried that the good times would not last. “Some parts of the land were blowing away, and I think he thought it was going to happen to our farm, too,” says June, 54. “And all around us, people were leaving.” When people who had been to California reported that “everybody’s making it good there,” the family left the farm in the care of relatives and headed west.

June remembers that her mother, Jewel Susan Masters MacArthur, was happy to leave. “She was ambitious . . . and I think she wanted to get away from a farming situation,” June says. Jewel MacArthur had left her father’s farm once before and married, but when her husband died, she brought her two infant daughters home.

“Junebug” has a child’s memory of the trip out of Hollis--the Studebaker had tiny windows, and there were four flat tires in the first 50 miles. Once in Bakersfield, her grandfather landed work as a farmhand, and the family lived in a one-room cabin that featured the unusual luxury of indoor faucets.

She started school in California and found both ridicule and approval. Her classmates teased her about her accent--she was a “dumb Okie” to them. But she already knew how to read. “The teacher paid a lot of attention to me because they thought that was surprising,” she says.

While she was beginning to like school, her mother and grandparents were becoming discouraged. Masters was proud and stubborn, and it was not easy for him to work for someone else. He drew stares and derogatory comments from townspeople because he was Indian. Besides, June’s uncles had written to her grandfather, asking him to come back to help on the farm.

So the family packed its bags, but June didn’t want to leave: “I told them to find me people to stay with.”

In Oklahoma, wind still blew dust through cracks in the walls and under doors, piling up in corners. But Masters planted mulberry trees as windbreaks, plowed deep furrows to help keep the soil in place and rotated crops to give the land a rest. Even in the driest years, the farm was successful enough to provide June with piano, xylophone and tap-dancing lessons.

Still, June inherited her mother’s wanderlust and longed for what she remembered as the excitement of California. “I knew there were places out there I wanted to go,” she says. She wanted to be considered a sophisticated city girl, so she even took elocution lessons to lose her accent.

In 1956, at age 21, she made the trip west again. In Los Angeles, she married, adopted one child and gave birth to another who is mentally retarded, and ultimately divorced.

Now a paralegal and volunteer teen counselor, June lives in La Crescenta. She realizes that hers has been a life of contradictions. “I was saying, ‘Oh boy. I so want to go to California. I so want to leave Oklahoma.’ And now I think about it, and my best memories are of Oklahoma.”

“We come to work there. They says it’s gonna be fi’ cents. They was a hell of a lot of us. We got there an’ they says they’re payin’ two an’ a half cents. A fella can’t even eat on that.... So we says we won’t take it.” --Jim Casy describing how he and others started a cotton strike

IF THE POLITICAL situation isn’t to your liking, then you work to change it,” says Michael Dunn, a quiet, well-heeled Orange County Republican. For Dunn, political involvement--albeit somewhere to the left of Republicanism--is a legacy of his Okie past. His mother, Lillian Dunn, now 81, was dubbed the “redheaded Communist “ by newspapers in 1934. She responded to the hardships of the ‘30s and ‘40s with a touch of Jim Casy-like radicalization. “Being without food for your children,” she says, “makes an activist out of you.”

Lillian plowed, hoed, planted and picked crops while growing up on an Oklahoma farm. When she and her husband, Dell, headed to California in 1931 with two sons and another child on the way, she knew how to work. They stopped in New Mexico, where Lillian and a partner started a small cafe in the town of Roswell. But Dell, a mechanic, persuaded her to trade their 1927 Chevy for a broken-down Essex and some cash--enough to try for a new start farther west.

They joined Lillian’s mother, her brother and sister, and her mother’s four young children from another marriage on a ranch in Tipton, north of Bakersfield. Six months after arriving in 1931, Lillian’s 17-month-old son, Donald, ate some rotten fruit that was part of the family’s field wages. The Tulare County Hospital refused to treat him because he wasn’t a California resident; he died less than a week later.

That tragedy was the beginning of Lillian’s fight for better working and living conditions for farm laborers. She supported the unions and participated in strikes. In 1934, she was at the Pixley union hall during a cotton strike when drunken ranchers killed two union sympathizers. That same year, at a food-distribution center in Pixley, a relief worker denied Lillian a share because of her union activities. “She called me a Communist, and I told her I never heard that word before. The supervisor finally came and said (to the worker), ‘Sack ‘em up.’ He knew I wasn’t going to leave without food.”

That night, Lillian was arrested as an instigator of a “food riot.” She explains it now as a case of mistaken identity; another woman had also been vocal about the situation at the food-distribution center. But Lillian was tried and convicted and spent two weeks in jail.

By 1936, Lillian had three other children--Michael was the middle one. Lillian continued to work in the fields and the packing sheds, and in 1944, she says, she divorced Dell because he worked too little and drank too much.

Michael Dunn remembers picking cotton, tying grapevines, trimming lettuce and packing vegetables wherever the family could get the most money. There were few friends at home in Bakersfield: He worked every day after school and moved with the crops every summer. Besides, he says, “a lot of the kids I couldn’t talk to or play with because their parents had better jobs, better houses.”

It was a fact of life Michael never forgot, even after quitting school and joining the Navy at age 17. He would get even, he vowed, and his children would be “as good as the rest of them.” He attended classes at Bakersfield Junior College and became an insurance agent. But there was too little money in it.

Michael, who now has two children, married in 1955, moved to Long Beach, saved his money and began investing in real estate. His timing was perfect, and every investment seemed to double or triple in value. Ten years ago, he bought into a convenience-market chain; “getting even” spurred him to work until midnight six or seven days a week. Now he and his partners share the profits of 12 stores between Oxnard and Mission Viejo. He owns two stores outright; more are on the drawing board. His business, he says, is worth millions.

While Michael was investing, his mother was again helping to organize farm workers, this time with Cesar Chavez. She retired to Bakersfield in the early 1970s.

Michael credits his mother for his success. “She taught me to keep my backbone stiff and to not give up. I learned to get up in the morning and go to work. She showed us everything she knew how in the way of work, and we built on that.”

She taught him one more thing: “I get up every morning and see what problems I can solve.” That, in his mind, is the legacy of the Dust Bowl: a generation of Californians driven by childhood poverty to work hard, at whatever work was available, to make their lives better.

As for politics, Dunn is proud of going door to door for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. “I saw things that needed to be changed,” he says. And he is also proud of what his mother helped accomplish. “I believe you can’t let government do it all. But, in her generation, government was doing nothing.”

“This here’s a nice place. We could be happy here awhile.”

--Ma Joad, referring to the Weedpatch government labor camp

IN “THE GRAPES of Wrath,” the Weedpatch camp meant respite. It was an oasis of fairness, even generosity. The real Weedpatch, also known as the Arvin Labor Camp, was little more than a clutch of one-room tin cabins and tents on wooden platforms. It housed about 300 people, and it was one of about a dozen camps around the state built and maintained by the federal government. A school nearby was designed for migrant children. For those lucky enough to land there, the camps often paved the way to success.

Carlton Faulconer, 56, a wealthy Mission Viejo businessman, partly traces his achievements and his upbeat attitude about those times to Arvin and its Federal Emergency School. “They tried to make (our) lives as comfortable as possible. The teachers made me feel important and like somebody really cared,” Carlton says.

The odyssey that brought the Faulconers to Arvin in 1940 began in Colgate, Okla., more than a year earlier. Gustavus Faulconer had mined coal, raised cotton and brewed moonshine to support his wife, Nan, and his six children. But the coal mine closed, the cotton dusted over and “Tave” was thrown in jail for selling home brew. The final straw came when government agents killed the Faulconers’ mules, bought on credit, when the family couldn’t make the payments.

With the three oldest children already on their own, Tave and Nan left Colgate with Carlton, the youngest, his sister, Joyce, and his brother, Roley. They picked cotton in Texas and grapefruit in Arizona before they made it to Stratford, in Kings County. By then, the three children were so thin a teacher thought they were starving and offered to adopt them. The family moved into a muddy, makeshift camp and then managed to rent a house before the rain began and the seasonal work ran out.

Within months, Tave was penniless. He traded the car jack for a tank of gas, and the family went looking for work farther south. They found Arvin: communal hot showers, flush toilets, breakfast for a penny for the kids. Maintenance work around the camp was accepted in lieu of rent. And an auditorium featured as the dance hall in John Ford’s movie version of “The Grapes of Wrath” was used for dances and children’s song recitals.

“Those were very hard times for us, just like for everybody else,” Carlton says. “But when we lived there in the camp, people had a lot of pride and kept it clean and attractive.”

The Arvin Federal Emergency School, set up by two extraordinary educators especially for the migrant children, also made a difference. In addition to learning academics, students grew vegetables and raised livestock. If their parents had no work, the school fed the children cod-liver oil and orange juice to maintain their strength.

Nearby townspeople and ranchers objected that education would be wasted on the Okie children, but school founder Leo B. Hart and Principal Pete Bancroft ignored them. Bancroft spent $200 of his own money to buy a surplus C-46 airplane and taught the boys aircraft mechanics. The girls learned hygiene, homemaking, grooming and other life skills.

“The school helped increase my interest in education and helped me understand education was important,” Carlton adds. “It was the first place where I found people who were interested in me as a person.”

The Faulconers lived in the camp from 1940 to 1942, when they traded a $500 car for the down payment on a small house and seven acres in the hamlet of Weedpatch. Without their car, they tended their land and continued working as farm laborers but only on farms within walking distance.

Carlton graduated from high school in 1949, and later was drafted into the Army. In 1955, upon his return from military service, he married Betty Wagner, whom he had met in the camp, and they moved to Santa Ana.

Carlton started an insurance agency 12 years ago after having worked in banking and insurance. The agency employs five people and generates a six-figure income. He and Betty, 53, who also works in the business, live in a comfortable home in the Lake Forest community in Orange County.

He is quite willing to talk about where he has been and where he is now, crediting strangers for giving him hope and his parents for giving him the basic qualities that have led to his success. “Mom and Dad did the very best for us with what they had--which wasn’t a hell of a lot. They taught me values to do whatever I have done: pride, dignity, honor and integrity.

“I’m not ashamed of where I came from,” he says. “I’m proud of my family. I’m proud of what I did. And I’m proud of where I am today.”