Like many pejoratives, the word “Okie” has been reclaimed—particularly within the borders of its namesake state—as a proud regional identifier. Nearly a century ago, however, Californians spat the term toward the poor migrant families (whether they were actually from Oklahoma or not) rolling in across the deserts, desperate for food, shelter, and work.
Now here I am at a festival in southern California, surrounded by Okies—the real deal—and standing next to me is a fella wearing a dark blue t-shirt blaring a single word in white capital letters across his chest: “OKIE.” I ask for a photograph and, like every other genial character at this cozy little gathering, Cal Meek gladly shares his tale.
“I taught at Arvin [California] High School for 35 years,” Meek says, “and in 1999 I took a group of students to a leadership conference in Minneapolis, of all places. We would give students things to exchange with other students—you know, just stuff to barter with as a way to get them talking, trading. It’s a good mixer. The Oklahoma delegation had these shirts, and I wanted one.”
He pauses for a second, squints in the late-summer California sun, and swallows. “They were wearing them with pride, you see.” Another pause, but no loss of eye contact. “That’s what got to me, the change in pride. They were proud to be called Okies, to call themselves Okies.”
Listen to Kris Gosney tell how she and her husband switched from conventional to organic farming:
Now he looks away, scanning the flat cropland just beyond the schoolyard where hundreds of folks like him are gathered this Saturday morning. “It sure wasn’t like that in 1939, 1940. For sure, I can tell you that.”
On the surface, the annual Dust Bowl Festival is like any small-town fest. There are plentiful food booths—fried bologna sandwiches, biscuits and gravy, pit barbecue from Tomi’s Country Café promising the “Best OKIE food in town” (again with the proud capitalization)—as well as local art on display and various tchotchkes for sale, from crafty straw hats to “Dust Bowl Migration & Route 66” aprons. A table for the chamber of commerce. Sign-ups for this and that. Oleta Kay Sprague Ham, granddaughter-in-law of Florence Thompson, the “Migrant Mother” in Dorothea Lange’s famous photo, is signing copies of her new book. A band is on stage asking highly rhetorical questions between songs (“Anybody here like Merle Haggard?”).
A few hundred feet east of the festival site—the Sunset School on the outskirts of Lamont, California, just south of Bakersfield—sits the Arvin Migrant Center, the reason for the gathering. That’s its official, current designation, anyway, though you’ll hear it called by many names: the Arvin Federal Government Camp, the Lamont Farm Labor Supply Center, the Sunset Labor Camp (the camp’s address is on, no kidding, Sunset Boulevard), or its wider colloquialism: the Weedpatch Camp.
“Everyone calls the camp a different name,” says Faye Holbert, a member of the Lamont Women’s Club and a standout supporter of the camp’s ongoing preservation effort. “They’re always saying, ‘No, that’s not the right name…’ ”
Depending on the conversation, sometimes it’s “Steinbeck’s camp,” since the novelist immortalized the place in The Grapes of Wrath. This is the real-life, makeshift town where the fictional Joads ended up, along with all the other thousands in the Dust Bowl diaspora of the 1930s.
Each year, on the third Saturday in October, the children of those Okies (and Arkies, Texans, Kansans, and more) gather for a little catch-up with compadres and cousins. Whether by blood or simple shared experience, everyone at the Dust Bowl Festival is family.
“We’re looking for our cousins,” says Mary Ann Witham as she walks through the gate. A dozen people I meet say the same thing. “I think he’s a cousin of mine,” Mary Garland says about a man I had just spoken with.
Garland and her husband moved back to Bakersfield last fall. For the previous 23 years, they’d been back home, just south of Fort Smith, Arkansas, growing chickens for Tyson. “But we came back, because this is where family is,” she says. Without being asked, she produces family photos—but not the usual, color, Facebook-ubiquitous type. She instead fans out a hand of cracked, black-and-white snapshots, a few with scalloped white borders. One of them shows two teenage girls in denim overalls, scarves on their heads. “That’s my friend and me at 16, working in the fields,” she says.
She means those fields, over there, baking in today’s SoCal sun. Garland’s father, originally from Red Oak, Oklahoma, moved his family west from Arkansas in 1940. They wound up not at Weedpatch but another nearby workers’ camp, where Garland met her husband. Today is their first visit to the Dust Bowl Festival. She felt compelled to come, even if her kids don’t get it.
“We moved back here because, even though we’re from Arkansas, this is where home really got to be for us,” she says. “We went through hard times, and it’s important to remember them, and why. Our kids have no clue how hard we worked. My son should really see this. We can tell them what we went through, but they should see it. It’s the only way to really know how they got all they have today.”
The demographics at the Dust Bowl Festival, though, appear highly stratified: lots of grandparents, lots of grandkids, not many in between. Jimmy Thompson is holding out for a change in the age range. Thompson helped found the festival in 1990, and he’s been playing in bands and writing songs in the musical hotbed of nearby Bakersfield ever since his family settled in a tent at Weedpatch Camp in 1945. He’s a lively, wiry gentleman, and he’s convinced the inevitable passing of a generation with direct roots and experience at Weedpatch won’t deflate a growing annual event.
“Folks like us, we’re proud of what we had to work for, and our kids and our grandkids understand that,” he says. “They still see it. Migrant workers aren’t a thing of the past. The Arvin camp is full of them every summer. There’s a whole young generation coming up that has plenty of experience with the kind of hard work and history rooted here. They know how to appreciate it, celebrate it.
“I wrote a song about this,” Thompson says, then—because he obviously can’t help himself—he suddenly breaks into the song:
“Mom and Dad taught a way of life
that good things don’t come easy
You’ve got to work for what you get
and what you get will please you.”
When Thompson’s family arrived in California, they set up under some canvas in Weedpatch’s “tent circle,” and they were glad to be there. “At least this place had bathrooms,” he says, “so you didn’t have to go in a bush.” We’re standing next to one of the festival’s food booths, hawking hunks of cornbread smothered in chili beans, as Thompson describes the lean times decades ago on this same piece of ground: “People would work for a spoon of flour and a cup
Faye Holbert’s family arrived here in 1948. “We came out because all our siblings were here,” she says. She worked for 22 years here at the Sunset School, an institution built by and for the very Okies the locals sought to isolate. “The school was built for the Dust Bowl people. Locals didn’t want them. Really, that was fine by the Okies, because they took pride in their work and jumped right in. They helped build the school. They grew a garden; all the food in the cafeteria came out of that garden. They even built a swimming pool. There’s pictures inside of kids digging the hole for the pool.”
“He helped dig that pool,” Betty Holliday says, pointing to her husband, Jack. They lived and worked at Weedpatch from 1941 to 1949. “That pool was something else.”
Holbert chuckles. “Once the school got going with that pool,” she says, “suddenly the locals were coming around, wondering if they could bring their kids. A peacemaker, that pool.”
The swimming pool is gone, and that’s a shame. The land around the Dust Bowl Festival is itself a hot, dusty basin. Driving to Bakersfield from the south—where I now live, in San Diego, just another Okie who moved West—brings you through big-town LA before creeping up the steady grades of the Sierra Pelona Mountains, a long and barren moonscape resembling grassy dunes. On the north side, the interstate dumps you into the central valley. There’s a gas station, a Denny’s, and a Ramada—beyond that, it’s flat nothing as far as you can squint.
The trick is, though, you can’t really see. The air over the whole southern end of the San Joaquin Valley is some of the most polluted in the country. Once again, in 2013, Bakersfield topped the American Lung Association’s list of U.S. cities with the worst year-round air pollution.
Contrary to expectations, the thick brown haze hanging over the cropland here isn’t creeping in from Los Angeles—where Woody Guthrie, in 1952, penned a short ditty called “Smoggy Old Smog” (“Smoggry oley smog why are ya here? / Smoggery oldey smog what bringsya here? / Ta choker down my towne fr’m th’ middle of th’ air? / What warnin are y’ fr’m God?”)—but rather from the Bay Area and, as reported in a recent study, all the way from China. Ozone produced by that county’s voracious fossil fuel appetite “is transported at high altitude until it gets to the valley, where it takes a dive,” according to an area air-pollution official quoted in The Bakersfield Californian, which publishes a lot of stories about air pollution.
Off the interstate, the drive into Bakersfield—Wheeler Ridge Road, which eventually becomes the Weedpatch Highway—passes fields full of an astonishing variety of produce, including some corn, several orchards, and a lot of grapes. The occasional tractor can be seen kicking up plumes of dry, tan dust, and that’s part of the haze, too. By the end of the festival, my mouth was dry, and I could taste the dust.
“Our folks had their Dust Bowl,” says Gary Richards, son of a Colorado farm worker at Weedpatch from 1940 to 1945, “and we’ve got this. Some days you can barely see the Tehachapi Mountains over there. My folks used to say this valley was starting to look like the one they left.”
“It was mighty clear when we got here, a real picture,” says Earl Shelton. “You could see every farm.”
Shelton was 7 years old when he settled at Weedpatch in 1941. The family farm near Scipio, Oklahoma, simply dried up. When he couldn’t water his crops, Shelton’s dad, Tom, turned to selling skunk skins. The market for those, as you might imagine, stinks, so shortly after New Year’s Day in 1941 Tom, a recent widower, packed his four sons into a rickety Model A Ford—the very embodiment of the Okie cliché—and started heading west on Route 66.
The tires came off the Ford near Seligman, Arizona. Tom managed to park the heap behind a gas station. For several days, Tom and his boys lived in the car. “I never went hungry, but I know my dad must have,” Shelton recalls.
With his last nickel, Tom Shelton bought a cup of coffee and struck up a conversation with a rancher who offered Tom room and board for the family plus $2.50 a day—a fortune then—to dig a pond on his land 30 miles away. Eight weeks later, the Sheltons and a small nest-egg crossed into California and set up a tent among the sage brush on the edge of Weedpatch Camp.
Life at the camp was a relief. “Clean water, nice toilets, baseball, bands and dances on Saturday nights—we had the time of our lives, believe it,” he says, brightening at the recollections. “Yessir, mighty nice.”
Three of the camp’s original Weedpatch buildings are preserved in the northeast corner of the fenced-in, gated Arvin Migrant Center, moved to this part of the site once becoming protected by the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. During the festival, a bus makes regular rounds between the school and the campsite. It’s perfectly walkable, but—feel that sun, taste that dust—who’d want to?
The resituated buildings, awaiting further restoration, include the camp’s library and post office. Outside the library stands a short granite monument, into which is embedded a plaque reading, “From the people of Oklahoma—the Okies—who found a home here and helped build California.” Signed: Governor Frank Keating, 2002.
The big community building is the centerpiece—and the one that Okie kids still talk about. “We called it Magic Mountain,” Earl Shelton says of the building, with its pitched roof and walls covered in bright green clapboard. The interior is about the size of the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, with a similarly sized stage on the far end. The floor is original, with surprisingly few creaks and sags. This is where the camp held most events, dances, concerts, suppers, church services, and self-governing meetings.
“One thing you notice when looking at [original] pictures from the camp and around the community building: There’s no trash,” Faye Holbert says. “One lady who was born in the camp said you didn’t dare have things dirty. They’d call you out in those meetings and scold you. There were loudspeakers around the camp—they’d even say your name over the speakers.”
The rest of the Arvin Migrant Center is still tidy today. While the Dust Bowl Festival celebrates its sepia-toned history, the old camp remains quite active in the present. From May to October each year, the camp provides the same service it has since it was built by the Farm Security Administration in 1936. Since 1965, the Arvin camp has been operated by the Housing Authority of the County of Kern. The tents and tin shacks are long gone, of course, replaced by 88 tidy wood-frame units—$11.50 a day for a two-bedroom duplex, $12 for three bedrooms, $12.50 for four.
Nearby states such as Arizona may seek to criminalize immigrants seeking work, but California’s $43.5 billion-a-year farm industry still depends on a migrant labor force. Machinery can only do so much. Even in 2013, the grapes that make that sumptuous glass of California red wine you just photographed and posted on Facebook were plucked directly from the dusty vines by itinerant farmhands.
Just ask Mateo Martinez. He’s 15, gangly, shy, wearing a Misfits t-shirt. While the tour bus crew empties into the historic buildings, Mateo and his mother stand by the side of the road while she points out some of the existing, functioning buildings in the other direction.
“They [his parents] first came here in the ‘90s,” Mateo says. “She says they picked celery and lived here two years.” Work, wages, and some semblance of stability in the camp allowed Mateo’s parents to save, move on, move up, buy a home, later work for and then start their own landscaping business further upstate.
I ask Mateo if he knows what an Okie is. He shoots me a withering, quizzical look; he does not. I mention they were a group of migrant workers who lived here before his parents did. “Did they build it?” he asks. In a way, I say, yes. He shrugs.
“That’s cool,” he says, and he looks back toward the neat rows of houses. “Otherwise, I guess I wouldn’t be here.”
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 8, April 15, 2014.