"I'm Ray Rush, I'm 70-years-old, I'm from Bokoshe, Oklahoma and
I came here to this government camp in 1941." "I'm Al Metters
and I came from Mulberry, Arkansas in 1936." "Earl Shelton.
69-years-old. I'm from Sippi, Oklahoma and I landed here in this old camp
in 1941." It's breakfast time in Bakersfield at a local coffee shop.
And on this morning - in fact, every Thursday morning - these are the
guests of honor.
A group of men who personify the phrase "good old boys". These
are some of the last survivors of one of the hardest times in U.S. history.
As they sat around the table the men were talking and laughing and remembering
when they came to California.
"My mother died when I was four and we left Oklahoma when I was
seven" said Earl. The dust bowl migration during the great depression
is perhaps the quintessential example of "tough times", so the
memories are not all fond. When so many families left their homes in the
south and came to a place in California called Weed Patch. Ray said, "It
was a great place for being a kid. I'm sure my mom and dad didn't feel
It was those families who were so vividly portrayed in Dorthea Lange's
photographs. Brought to life in John Steinbeck's classic novel "The
Grapes of Wrath" and, of course, the film that so precisely stamped
the stark reality of the time on the country's consciousness and conscience.
But behind the mythical characters are these very real men. These old
men were boys when their parents brought them to the promise land. "Well
everyone was leaving. Everybody was going to California. You know, money
grows on trees", said Earl.
And as they walk down the same dusty roads where they walked in the 30s
and 40s, they remember the fields where they worked. "You got out
there in the hay and in the potato fields and you bend over and you pick
up potatoes and put them in the sack." Bruce Polk said, "My
mother and I, we picked cotton. We did the fieldwork but my dad used to
get jobs repairing buildings or doing that type of thing."
Certainly a tough life, but it was better than what they'd left behind.
Bill Stewart said, "There wasn't any work to be had back there. So
they sold everything they possibly could sell and they took the old car
we had and moved out here and landed in the government camp."
For those who lived it, most of the memories are good, but there is little
tangible evidence left at Weedpatch. The post office still stands, the
library's still there, and at the central point of the camp, the community
hall, it's still there, too. But the original homes are long gone. Bruce
said, "You started out in a tent and when a house come vacant or
a tent with a floor in it, you moved into that and from that, if you stayed
there, you went to a house."
The tents were replaced in the 70's by homes, built for the newer generation
of migrants, the vital workforce made up mostly of Mexicans. But now,
these homes are going down. New plans call for updated living quarters,
certainly immeasurably better than what was here for the Oakies. Yes,
Oakies. It's a description they embrace now. But back then
blacks or Oakies, they would say", said Jerry Pool. There was a definite
"us versus them" mentality.
Wherever they came from - Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico or Oklahoma - they
were, and today they proudly are, Oakies. But there aren't many
of them left. And, soon, there will be none. The buildings will stand
as historic landmarks, the stories will stay and the memories will linger.
As long as the sun rises and sets on the land that so many generations
A special thank you goes to the Courtyard by Marriott for accommodating
the Heartland crew during our stay in Bakersfield. Please visit them at: www.marriott.com