“This rusty car creaking along the highway to the west…”

In 1935, facing mounting pressure from Congress about the “Dust Bowl” problem, and thanks in part to Hugh Bennett’s passionate plea to save the Plains, President Roosevelt created the Resettlement Administration. The main purpose of this entity was to give a buy-out, about seven hundred dollars per family, for people affected by the drought and dusters of the 1930s to start life new somewhere else.

For that price, the government promised in a Resettlement advertisement, we will buy your land, freeing you from debt and allowing you to relocate somewhere you can “have a better opportunity to succeed.” For thousands suffering through hunger and abject poverty, it was too good of a deal to pass up.

Or so it seemed.

Many signed up for the deal believing the plan included new, better farmland elsewhere. For example, in 1935, forty families near Mills, New Mexico agreed to sell their drought-stricken land and move to an area specified by the Resettlement Administration. The new land turned out to be 2,400 acres near Los Lunas, New Mexico, which was to be irrigated by the nearby El Vado Dam.

But, when the families arrived to claim their new farmland, they found the irrigation ditches had yet to be built. The land, which was covered in creosote and cottonwoods, was not cleared. The displaced families sent months living in barns and abandoned shacks before their “better” land was even close to farm-ready. When the families complained to the authorities, they were told it was in their contract that, they were responsible for clearing the land and ensuring its success–a process that could take anywhere from months to years. And, although the cost of doing so would be covered by the government, the resettled farmers were left with no way to support their families in the meantime.

In addition, the new plots of land were less than half the size of farms they left behind. Unbeknownst to many, the small print stipulated those wishing to continue an agricultural lifestyle would be allowed a small plot of land for “subsistence farming” purposes only, “the returns from which may be supplemented by by part-time work in nearby forests, parks, or grazing districts, on farms operated by more capable individuals, or in nearby industries which may be introduced.”

In other words, they would be allowed to farm for themselves, but they would never again make a profit from it. The only way to survive would be to become a worker in another larger, more commercially viable farm or, similarly, in another nearby industry. By signing the contract, the farmers were essentially giving up their lifestyle, their farms being swallowed up by larger corporate entities.

Because of this, many people decided to give up on the region all together. It would be better to move further away, abandon the Plains altogether, and find work in an area they’d heard was an agricultural goldmine. The place all the stories said the sun never stops shining so the crops never stop growing. A place where the fliers promised so many jobs, you could take your pick, and all your friends could, too. The Promised Land: California.

The only problem was it just wasn’t true.

While California farms were larger and more bountiful than those in the Dust Bowl states, it was no unaffected by the Great Depression. Many farmers simply could not afford to hire any more workers. The mass influx of migrants strained the already over-burdened infrastructure. There were no jobs, no food, no money, and simply no place to put them.

Many migrants were turned away at the border, their long journeys resulting in naught. Those who did cross over and found jobs found the pay to be too low to sustain any type of living situation for their families. The luckiest were housed in the Resettlement Administration’s “relief camps,” where they had access to housing and clean water. Thousands more, however, had no choice but to pitch tents along the side of the road. These makeshift communities were unsanitary, unslightly, and created high tensions between native Californians and escaping “Okies.”

Pushing by the locals to do something about the “migrant problem,” the Farm Security Administration began construction on dozens of labor camps. These were more permanent structures build around the state to house seasonal workers and keep them out of tents. Although nowhere near the normal standard of living, the camps offered housing, water, food, and even schools and libraries. Most importantly, however, the camps offered a sense of community to those who had lost theirs in the drought and dust of their home states.

The most famous of these camps was Arvin Federal Government Camp and Sunset Labor Camp, located outside the small town of Weedpatch, California. In 1936, a young writer commissioned by the The San Francisco News to write a series of articles about the conditions inside the migrant camps, visited the Arvin camp. Unable to shake what he saw, he would soon write a book centered around the experience.

In it, the camp would become Weedpatch, and the fictional Joad family would travel there from their Dust Bowl farm in Oklahoma. And the book would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

That man, of course, was John Steinbeck and his book, The Grapes of Wrath, would continue to shine light on the conditions faced by those fleeing the Dust Bowl for generations to come.

“The Western States nervous under the beginning change.
Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, New Mexico,
Arizona, California. A single family moved from the land.
Pa borrowed money from the bank, and now the bank wants
the land. The land company–that’s the bank when it has land
–wants tractors, not families on the land. Is a tractor bad? Is
the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor
were ours it would be good–not mine, but ours. If our tractor
turned the long furrows of our land, it would be good.
Not my land, but ours. We could love that tractor then as
we have loved this land when it was ours. But the tractor
does two things–it turns the land and turns us off the land.
There is little difference between this tractor and a tank.
The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think
about this.

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car
creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a
single tractor took my land. I am alone and bewildered.
And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another
family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat
on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the
node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these
two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each
other. Here is the anlarge of the thing you fear. This is the
zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split
and from its splitting grows the thing you hate–“We lost our
land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and
perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still
more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have
none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little
food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction.
Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are
ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-
meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women;
behind, the children listening with their souls to words their
minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby
has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s
blanket–take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb.
This is the beginning–from “I” to “we.”

If you who own the things people must have could understand
this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate
causes from results, if you could know Paine, Marx,
Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive.
But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes
you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”

The Western States are nervous under the begining
change. Need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action.
A half-million people moving over the country; a million
more restive, ready to move; ten million more feeling the
first nervousness.

And tractors turning the multiple furrows in the vacant land.”
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

 

 

 

 

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