Okies--They Sank Roots and Changed the Heart of California : History: Unwanted and shunned, the 1930s refugees from the Dust Bowl endured, spawning new generations. Their legacy can be found in towns scattered throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
There is a scene in “The Grapes of Wrath,” toward the end, when Pa Joad had just about reached the point of despair. “Seems like our life’s over and done,” he said.
“No, it ain’t,” Ma Joad replied, and spoke a prophecy:
“We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on--changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on.”
If so, where did they go? What became of those 350,000 Dust Bowl victims of the 1930s, the Okies, who piled in their overburdened flivvers and streamed west to California, the rejected refuse of the Great Depression?
Well, the Okies certainly did not die out. But it appears, three generations after their ordeal, that Ma Joad’s prediction was a bit off. It turns out that the enduring Okies did more to change California than California did to change the Okies.
“Stop in any town in the San Joaquin Valley and you might as well be in Tulsa or Little Rock or Amarillo,” said Dale Scales. “Same music, same, values, same churches, same politics.”
Scales was the baby in a family of six that arrived flat broke from Oklahoma in August, 1936. He nearly died of dysentery on a Bakersfield riverbank under one of hundreds of ragged tents. The shantytown of 1,500 other forlorn souls--a “Hooverville” as such wretched warrens became known earlier in the Depression--was finally put to the torch that December when the angry citizenry became frantic about disease.
But the Okies were a resourceful lot. They had to be to make it across the bleached and chalk-dry Mojave Desert on Route 66, past the “bum barricades” at the California border, past the hatred and abuse.
What was not so apparent at the time, though, was that the Okies did not come as the customary migrant laborers to follow the harvests. They came as families, strong and close families for the most part, looking for a piece of land where they could take root. And did.
Today Scales, 57, owns more than a piece of land. But his 1,800-acre farm is mostly for old times’ sake. He leases it out. He makes his living trading in huge tracts of farmland for corporate investors, lives on the highest hill in Bakersfield, keeps a $45,000 custom car in the garage and golfs at the country club.
An exact count does not exist, but one study estimates that as many as 3.75 million Californians, one-eighth of the state’s 30 million population, claim Okie ancestry.
Few of the children of that impoverished, homeless army attained the wealth of Scales, although a surprising number did. Many, though, pulled themselves up in a single generation to high levels of success, even prominence, across the whole spectrum of society. One became president of Bakersfield College, another head of a commuter airline, another the chief of a chain of hardware stores.
Most have simply blended an Okie thread into the tapestry of California. Their origins have become irrelevant as they have become as invisible as all of the unidentified others who fit the broad definition of good citizens.
So they find it unfair that only the inevitable share of misfits and troublemakers among them are still identified as Okies, as though it were a bad gene.
Across the Kern River from Bakersfield, over a bridge that practically spans the site of the long-gone Hooverville, is Oildale, a town of 25,000.
Oildale to this day is known as Little Oklahoma. It’s a gritty collection of truck stops and beer joints and loud country music over Buck Owens’ radio station KUZZ.
According to Ed Woodruff, a black cab driver, Oildale also is a town of occasional Ku Klux Klan rallies and at least one cross-burning on the bridge from Bakersfield. To Woodruff, the message to blacks was clear: Stay out. In the last year, three Oildale residents were convicted of hate crimes against blacks.
“The whole ‘Grapes of Wrath’ image formed years ago and we kind of got stuck in that mode,” says Carol Powers, president of the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce. It’s an image, she added, that the city is trying to shed.
It was along the ditch banks and eucalyptus groves around Bakersfield that most of the Okies clustered in their misery before questing northward.
The irony is that the message they received from the residents there was the same as the one Ed Woodruff received from their descendants. Stay out. But the Okies didn’t. Today those descendants number about half of the valley’s 2.7 million people.
Scenes of the Okie camps, the Hoovervilles, the pitiful, ragged children taunted and shunned, return with striking clarity to Doris Weddell. She is a Californian who witnessed the Okie migration during the decade of the ‘30s. The memory has haunted her.
The changes that followed intrigued her as well. She watched her native valley, she says, steadily take on manners and folkways of the rural Southwest that weren’t there before.
The Okies brought with them not only the externals--their country music, for example, and their distinctive speech--but they also brought the idioms of Southwestern populism as well.
They brought the values they had received from rural pulpits about the dignity of hard work, the moral corruption of power and privilege, and those they heard over the radio from the social justice preachers of the era such as Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, Francis E. Townsend with his pension plan, the Rev. Charles F. Coughlin and his attacks on Wall Street and others who found receptive ears in rural America.
Historians aren’t sure just how many Okies poured into California in that turbulent decade. Keeping tidy records of so many people on the move was chancy. It was by all accounts the last great migration of a nation moving west and may have numbered as many as 500,000.
Even the term Okie is imprecise. Only about one-third of the refugees came from Oklahoma, the rest from Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and other states. If they weren’t blown away with the topsoil of their farms they were, as they said, “tractored out.” A landowner with a new all-purpose tractor could replace 10 tenant farmers who had only mules.
But Okie became the term that summed up the general feeling toward all of them, whatever their origin: failures where they came from, dirty, ignorant, superstitious. They wouldn’t take orders and complained about their wages. They were, as one report to a government agency put it, “unprincipled degenerates looking for something for nothing.”
What sustained them through their hunger was the deeper hunger to survive with their families intact. Circulars and newspaper ads held out the promise of jobs aplenty in California. So they piled their cook stoves, scrub boards, mattresses and kinfolk onto their jalopies and turned into the setting sun bound for glory.
Land reform in Mexico in 1934 had slowed the customary seasonal supply of migrant pickers in California and growers regarded the Okies--briefly--as a godsend. But they came in such overwhelming numbers they quickly became a scourge, and their desperation for a few coins was such that growers discovered that by lowering wages they actually increased the labor supply.
Route 66, the Mother Road, ran from Grant Park in Chicago to Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. From 1935-39, the height of the migration, flivvers clattered along its 2,448 miles like ants on a honey trail.
Weedpatch, south of Bakersfield near Lamont, was the location of the Arvin Federal Migratory Labor Camp celebrated by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath.” It was the first of 13 set up in California by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration when what began as a labor problem became a national catastrophe.
When the labor camp opened, the community of Weedpatch, about a mile away, consisted of a couple of dozen small frame houses along a dirt road, Alexander’s General Store, a poolroom, a two-pump Red Wing gasoline station and a blacksmith shop.
The labor camp is still in business. Its two-bedroom plywood bungalows shelter 130 families, mostly from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, for $3.50 a day from April through September. All of the signs are in Spanish.
Half a dozen of the original buildings remain, still sturdy, now used mostly for storage. One is the old auditorium. It was built of heavy beams and wood-shingle roofs, vintage WPA construction.
“It’s the one the old-timers want to see when they come visiting,” said Rigoberto Martinez, who has managed the camp for the last 20 years.
“Oh, yes,” Martinez said, “folks come by often to look around, like, you know, a shrine. They look for the slab where they used to live.”
Thousands of alumni with happy memories of Arvin Labor Camp are scattered throughout the state.
Many, though, have chosen not to stray far from Weedpatch. Former camper Mary Lynn Chess (Broken Bow, Okla.) now runs the Okie Girl Restaurant and Brewery down the highway at Lebec. C.A. Ross (Blanchard, Okla.), who lived in the camp seven years, now owns a furniture store in Arvin, five miles away, which was the closest town with a post office when it gave the camp its name. Ross drops by frequently to spin yarns with Martinez about the good-bad old days.
The Okies left an indelible mark on California, all right. But one thing they brought that was not lasting was the stigma attached to their nickname. Mary Lynn Chess’s joint is evidence of that.
Three generations later, most feel as Betty Faulconer does about the epithet.
“It made me mad to be called Okie when I was growing up,” she said. “But, you know, now I’m rather proud of it.”