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Dust Bowl Reunion Brings Survivors a Flood of Memories

The terrible drought that forced a half-million desperate farmers and their families to migrate to California from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Missouri in the 1930s was vividly recalled at a Dust Bowl Days reunion here recently.

Several hundred people--including many who lived through the wrenching experience, and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren--spent the day in Lamont Park renewing acquaintances, looking at old photographs, exchanging stories.

Atwood Risner, 75, and his wife Vergie, 66, who live in this small farm center 15 miles southeast of Bakersfield, brought memorabilia of years spent living in the Sunset Migrant Labor Camp here. The camp was the scene of John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel “Grapes of Wrath.”

Risner came to California with his parents, 17 brothers and sisters from Durant, Okla. His wife, one of nine children--one was born on the way--came from Ada, Okla. The year was 1931.

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As a young girl Vergie Risner weighed cotton to help feed her large family. She brought to the reunion her old hand-fashioned cotton weigher, the family washtub, a quilt her mother made in camp in 1935, a washboard with homemade lye soap.

“I’ll tell you we had hard times,” she recalled. “My father lost his farm in Oklahoma when the drought and Depression hit at the same time.

“When we arrived in Lamont, Daddy went to work picking cotton for five cents an hour. So did my brothers and sisters. Somehow we got by. We didn’t starve. We made our clothes out of chicken feed sacks.”

Jerry Smith, 54, a retired California Highway patrolman who lives in Bakersfield, came west in 1936 in a dilapidated old car with his mother and grandparents from Porum, Okla.

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“As a little kid, I didn’t know what poor meant. I thought everyone lived in a camp and picked cotton,” he mused.

All the old tin shacks, tents and other structures erected at the Sunset Camp during the 1930s and ‘40s have long since disappeared. But the site continues to this day as a migrant labor camp, with its residents mostly Latino farm workers and their families.

The Dust Bowl descendants sat around in the park on lawn chairs. They feasted on barbecued tri-tip roast, listened to down-home tunes played by musicians who lived in the camps. Mostly, they talked--for hours.

Donald Judd brought a poem his father, Dick Judd, wrote in Sunset Camp in 1938 after following the crops that year throughout the Southwest. The last stanza read:

And after the cotton was over, to California we must go

Where Uncle Sam would feed us, of course, he does you know

We found the people friendly and ready to lend a hand

Of all the states we had worked in, by this one we will stand.

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Doris Weddell, 56, Lamont librarian, has been collecting every book, magazine and newspaper clipping she can lay her hands on for the Dust Bowl Room in the library.

“We’re hoping for a new library with a wing devoted to our Dust Bowl collection that will be both library and museum filled with 1930s artifacts,” she said.

The idea for the reunion was that of Sharon Garrison, 44, a cotton gin bookkeeper, and Jim Phillips, 48, a barber, both of Lamont, and both products of the Sunset Camp.

Stella White, 72, who came from Oklahoma in 1936, told Claudis Conley, 73, who arrived from Auroa, Mo., a year later: “We lived under a walnut tree that first summer drawing water from a standpipe.”

Then Conley recalled:

“We camped under a tree our first summer, too. We drove out in our Model T. It had a big hole in a tire all the way but we still made it.”

Sue White, 50, who came to the reunion from Willows in Northern California, recalled how other people “considered us dirt, because we lived in tin shacks and tents, wore tattered clothes and chopped cotton and picked grapes and sugar beets.

“But out of that experience has come judges, doctors, business leaders, land owners, the civic and political leaders of the San Joaquin Valley.”

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