(Arvin Federal government Camp)
Written by Margaret Lutz for the Arvin Tiller/Lamont Reporter, October 20, 1999
The Arvin Federal Camp, or the "Weedpatch Camp" began preparing for these "Okies" as they were being called in 1935. the land was leased to the United States Department Agriculture by Miss Bertha Rankin. A Managers house was built along with sanitary units, showers and laundry facilities, and spaces marked out for tents. these migrants were eager to settle at this camp because it was a clean and safe place to live. Safe because almost as soon as they crossed over the California border, they were ridiculed, rejected and shamed. They learned the word "Okie" meant they suddenly were lower class people and scum. "Weedpatch Camp" was no paradise, but for the families who settled there, it was a vast improvement over the "Squatter" camps and their life on the road.
In 1936 this camp housed about 300 people in one room tin cabins and tents. It cost $1.00 a week to live there. The first report recorded by the camp manager was for the week ending January 4, 1936. In this log was entered the daily goings on at the camp, including work assignments and illnesses.
On July 24, 1937, Miss Rankin executed and delivered a Mortgage to the Bank of American National Trust. This property was deeded to the United States Department of Agriculture on August 9, 1938 for the sum of $1200.00.
In 1936 a newspaper reporter named John Steinbeck became interested in the plight of the "Okies." He stayed near the "Weedpatch Camp" in the neighboring community of Weedpatch, California, and began gathering material for his controversial novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." Within weeks this novel hit the best seller list and by the end of the year, 500,000 copies had been sold. Although this book was once called an "obscene work of fiction," banned, and taken off library shelves, today many teachers at schools and universities call this book the "greatest American novel ever written." It won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. The movie rights were bought and some of the footage for the movie were filmed at the "Weedpatch Camp." The buildings which were partially shown were by the W.P.A. in 1935.
Families at that time were large,
and many of the residents of the Camp were children. At school they were
regarded by their teachers and fellow students alike as stupid and retarded, and
were taunted by the clothing they wore which was ragged or ill fitting.
Many went to school bare footed.
An Okie child with a cotton sack at Weedpatch Camp, 1936.
photo by Dorthea Lange
In 1939 newly elected Kern county Superintendent of Schools, Leo B. Hart became interested in the plight of the students from the Camp. He knew that given a chance, these children could be adjusted into society. He visited with these children regularly in a field adjacent to the Camp. The situation got so bad that teachers and other parents did not want these "Okie" children in the public schools. In 1940, Mr. Hart determined that these children should have their own school. This story is told in Jerry Stanley's Children of the Dust Bowl.
The Weedpatch Camp became the Sunset Labor Camp. On February 6, 1958, it was taken over by Kern County and on May 24, 1965 it was deeded over to the Kern County Housing authority.
Wooden frame buildings have replaced the tin buildings and tents, but the original Post Office, the Library and the large Community Building still are there in a fenced off area. They are in good condition but the Kern County Housing Authority plans to restore them to their original condition as closely as possible. 2008: The post office and library are nearly completely restored, but the larger Community Hall remains battered and in need of a major effort. The foundation will require additional funds in order to fulfill the goal of complete restoration.
This Camp now houses migrant workers from April to September.
Former Lamont librarian Doris Weddell became fascinated with this period in our history. She started collecting books, photographs and newspaper articles. Memorabilia was also donated to her by visitors to the Dust Bowl Room at the Lamont Library. In the past years, attention to the Dust Bowl Era has grown. The Dust Bowl Collection is being used more and more by teachers, students and historians and is getting world wide attention. Those migrants who came to California during the 1930s and 1940s are coming back to where it all began and many who revisit the Weedpatch Camp say they find their visit a "cleansing experience." Today they are proud to be called "Okies."
In early 1995, members of the Lamont Women's Club began working on an application to have these buildings put on the National Historical Register of Historic Places. After many months of research, reading through countless pages of newspapers, magazines and books, the application was finally mailed off. In November, 1995, two of their members were invited to Sacramento for the State Office of Historical Preservation Commissioners hearing and in March of 1996 they received a letter stating the three remaining buildings at Weedpatch Camp had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places on January 22, 1996. It was also listed in the California Register of Historical Resources.
Thanks to Assemblyman Dean Florez, $5,000 was budgeted by the State to help in the restoration of the three remaining buildings. Plans are underway to start with the library, which will become a temporary home to the ever growing Dust Bowl Collection of photos, stories, books, videos, magazines, newspaper articles, and memorabilia. It eventually will be housed in the Community Building at the Camp.
This camp and Dust Bowl Migration has been the focus of History Day Projects. BBC in London, German TV, and PBS in New York all have done documentaries and series using the camp as their focus point. Also a Swedish journalist and Koreans have visited the camp. The Discovery Channel used the camp for filming part of their series, Great Books, focusing on the Grapes of Wrath.
To aide in the restoration call 661-845-1992.