Water, as we know, is a precious resource - in the arid western portions of Texas and Oklahoma
battles about water rights are waged even today. When the expected rains do not materialize, the
precariousness of water supplies becomes even more evident. In 1931, the cyclical drought of
the High Plains wrecked havoc. The overuse of land by tractors and single crop farming methods,
coupled with major erosion by wind and dryness, caused the fragile top layer of soil to drift away.
What remained was a barren landscape of sand dunes and piles of dead animals.
The Real Refugees
However, we tend to think that all refugee farmers who left the Midwest during the 1930s were
exodusters - meaning they lived in the Dust Bowl. In fact, only 2-3% of farmers who moved west
hailed from drought country. The majority of migrants comprised folks from all over Oklahoma,
Arkansas and Texas.
Prior to 1932, Oklahomans and
Texans who lived outside of big
cities didn't really feel the pinch
of the failed market. The main
concern of family and tenant
farmers was the falling prices of
livestock and crops, the rains that
stayed away, grasshoppers and
boll weevils, and the larger farms
that mechanized. In southeast
Oklahoma and northeast Texas,
cotton farms withered. In the
western valley, sand replaced
the soil. While the late 1920s oil
boom sustained many communities
for a while, it didn't have an effect
on most farmers. Instead, as they
did not own the mineral rights,
farmers found themselves thrown off
the land by oil companies who bought
their mortgages. As the local banks, facing closure, recalled loans and lost life savings, farmers
suddenly found themselves penniless, landless, and starving.
Going to California
During these desperate times, handbills advertising work began to arrive in towns all along the
Red River. California, the sheets said, was a land of milk and honey. Thousands of acres of rich
crops awaited thousands of agricultural workers. Pay was decent and land to cultivate was
available to buy. With nothing to lose, families loaded up their cars or trucks with their meager
belongings and made the long drive west in search of work.
The road didn't always prove a salvation, however. Cars ran on bald tires, with rope doing
makeshift duty for broken fan belts. Spare tires had to be sold for gas money. If the car broke
down completely - a great possibility given that they were old and driving thousands of miles
through the New Mexican and Arizona deserts - families ended up walking.
The refugees made their homes in camps alongside the road, living in tents or under cardboard.
They'd eat their rations of salt pork and canned vegetables, but more often than not, women
would make fried dough balls out of flour, grease, and water. Unencumbered by formal schooling,
kids were free to help out by bringing in food such as frogs, squirrels, and birds. The plight of the
migrants was vividly portrayed by WPA photographers like Dorothea Lange, who captured the
mass migration as research for Roosevelt's relief programs.
Once in California, the refugees found limited work opportunities. They competed against
thousands of others for picking jobs, at depressed wages. They also faced discrimination. With
disdain, they were called "Okies," and their ways were mocked as "white trash." Migrants moved
into "Okievilles" or "Little Oklahomas," shanty towns built at the edges of fields where they could
live among "their own kind." Black families fared even worse, as they had to wait until whites
found work before they were hired. Latino migrant workers found themselves repatriated to
Mexico, although many were actually Americans!
Red River Viewpoint
Migrants didn't necessarily feel a sense of shame over their condition. Rather, and rightly so,
they blamed agricultural mechanization and do-nothing politicians. Oklahoman Peggy Terry told
Studs Terkel in his oral history collection, Hard Times, that "...we all had an understanding that it
wasn't our fault. It was something that had happened to the machinery. Most people blamed
Hoover..." (P. 47). It came as no surprise, then, that Red River Valley citizens who stayed put
elected more progressive leaders. Oklahomans voted for governor William Murray, a.k.a Alfalfa
Bill, and then Ernest W. Marland, both progressives - the latter one a New Dealer. They also
elected Will Rogers as state representative. Northeast Texans found a champion in
Representative C. Wright Patman, who fought corruption in Washington while appropriating work
relief funds. Socialists also gained a larger margin in state votes, at times garnering up to 15%.
The Oklahomans and Texans
who moved to California needed
a voice in Washington, too.
However, being landless and
penniless, barred from voting
by militant Californians, they had
to fight injustices themselves.
Laborers of all colors and
creeds banded together to go
on strike for better wages and
working conditions, the most
successful being the 1933 San
Joaquin Valley strike. Labor
organization persisted up until
World War II, which makes one
wonder what America would
look like today if we hadn't
engaged in the war.
President Roosevelt's New Deal
slowly but surely raised most people out of the Depression, and when sustaining rain fell on the
Great Plains in 1939, grown men cried. The rapid arms build-up for World War II and its resulting
infrastructure finally ended the greatest economic crisis in modern American history.
The migration of thousands of Oklahomans and Texans to California definitely changed the
cultural landscape of all three states. California was introduced to southern ways; Texas and
Oklahoma became (briefly) much more progressive in their outlooks. The Great Depression,
therefore, is not old history but a vibrant legacy that touches us to this day.
|Caddo, Bryan County, Oklahoma during
the Great Depression by Dorothea Lange.
Library of Congress.
|Migrant family from Muskogee, Oklahoma.
By Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress.
An Oklahoma landlord tells how he
threw out his tenant farmers:
In '34 I had I reckon four renters and I
didn't make anything. I bought tractors
on the money the government give me
and get shet o' my renters. You'll find it
everywhere all over the country
thataway. I did everything the
government said - except keep my
renters. The renters have been having
it this way ever since the government
come in. They've go their choice -
California or the WPA.
Donald Worster. Dust Bowl: The Southern
Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1979), 58.
|Migrant family from Idabel on the road to
Calfornia. From the Library of Congress.
|Dust storm in the Panhandle. Library of
|Desperation Road - The Red River Valley Migration
|Carter County Oklahoma (near Ardmore). By Dorothea
Lange. Library of Congress.
|Inside this building was the relief agency,
the Farmer's Crop Insurance Corporation,
in Pecan Gap, Texas.
|Poverty does not know race at a farmer's meeting in Oklahoma.
Library Of Congress.