Written by Roger Spraque grandson:
She came to California some 15 years before, to a land of promise - a promise which, for her, had not been kept. In 1922 she had come, with her husband Cleo Owens and her three children. Her name was Florence and she was just 21 years old.
Her first house was in Shafter, California. Though it was small and poor, it was as much as she had in Oklahoma. But this place and these times held a promise of something more for her and her family. To own her own home, to raise her kids and give them more than she had, to live the American dream.
There was work in the mills and factories of California for Cleo. He was a frail man, light of build and weak of breath ever since a childhood fever scarred his lungs, making them a target for any germ that happened along, His only excesses were a tendency to overwork himself to provide for his family, and his deep, deep love for Florence.
Cleo had married Florence over the objections of his own family, who all felt that Florence was too headstrong. They all predicted that the marriage would fail, a "bad sin in 1917. A woman was there to raise the kids and do as she was told by her husband. Florence, in contrast, was only 17 when she informed Cleo’s family that they would never rule her or her kids. She loved Cleo, but she was who she was, and that was that! (Cleo’s people knew that Florence was a full blood Cherokee Indian, but they probably did not know that she was the granddaughter of the Indian renegade outlaw Ned Christy, who had died in a shoot out with a whole posse rather then be subdued by any man.)
In 1924 Florence and Cleo moved to Porterville, some 50 miles north of Shatter, where he and his brothers had found good work at good wages in the sawmill. But in 1927 the mill burned so they moved 125 miles further north to Merced Falls. There was no "Falls", but there was a sawmill, a strong river to carry logs down from the hills, and the prettiest little town they'd ever seen.
Merced Falls sat on the eastern side of the Great Central Valley of California, just barely in the foothills, and consisted only of five or six streets, one store and one school. The people were kind and caring, but it also was a company town: anyone who worked for the mill, even the store-keeper, for that too was owned by the mull. Life was good, full and happy. In September of 1929, Florence gave birth to the fifth of her 10 children, a girl, Ruby. Soon after that happy event, however, another event 3,000 miles away sealed the fate of a town and a family.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was little noticed in Merced Falls; its doubtful if any-one understood what it would mean to there town. As the Great Depression moved across the land, little would remain as it had been. Though the mill tries to hold on with small orders through 1938, for most of its workers the end came in '31. Cleo was one of many to lose his job. There was no other work; all they could do was move on, to join that army of people working the fields and orchard of California, the migrants.
Migrant was the polite word; most just called them Okies even though these "Okies came from all over the Midwest, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Some, like Cleo and Florence, has come early, before the Dust Bowl, but most were coming now, by the thousands, by the tens of thousands. In beat-up old cars, trucks, anything that would move, they came. They lived in tent cities called Hoovervilles (mocking the President many felt had brought on this Depression). If they were lucky, they had that days food; if they were rich, they had maybe five days food. In years to come it would be said of the migrants that "They had so little, but they always had enough to share with those that had less.
Cleo and Florence's first "migration was to Oroville in Northern California, where he joined his sisters and brothers working in the fields." After picking peaches all day, Cleo and his brothers came home covered in peach fuzz, tiny hair like fuzz that itches and demands to be washed off. The little house they all shared had no "indoor plumbing, so off to the Feather River they went to clean the days dirt from their bodies. Besides, the days were hot, and a dip in the river would feel good.
That night Cleo began to feel ill; it was hard for him to breathe in the house so he moved outside to a cot on the porch. Early the next morning they found him with a high fever. They nursed him as best they could there was no money for doctors or medicine and on the fourth night he asked to talk to Florence alone. His sister later recalled that they spoke softly, Florence sitting, holding Cleo’s head in her lap, leaning over to hear him. They talked for hours into the night, then she kissed him and rose and went into the house and told his sister that he would like their company. She sat with him throughout the night. He never spoke. In the cool hours before sunrise he left, his breath so light that his sister never knew the moment. He was just 32 years old.
Cleo was buried in Oroville, in an unmarked paupers grave. That same afternoon, his family met to discuss what to do about Cleo’s kids! Cleo and Florence had five kids, and another due in less then three months. The meeting took less than an hour; all they had to do was decide who would take what kid to raise, while Florence waited outside with the kids. The family made their choices, then went out to "tell Florence. But Florence spoke first: "I know what you want to do, but its not right and I'm not going to let any of you take Cleo’s kids. I made a promise to Cleo to see his kids raised, and by God I'm going to keep that promise. Cleo’s sister spoke up, saying, "But, Florence, we only want to help. To relieve you of the burden of trying to raise these kids alone. Florence looked her in the eyes, and said, "Then help me; be my sisters and my brothers. Be the uncles and aunts they need. But I'm their mother and they'll stay with me. And they stayed with her, for a promise made was a promise kept.
During the next two years, Florence stayed around Oroville while her husbands family followed the crops around the state returning to winter at Oroville. In 1933, Florence informed them that she was expecting. The whole family was in a uproar, but Florence never told who the father was. Proud, she took her kids and returned to her mother in Oklahoma to have the child.
Florence returned the next year, leaving the sickly new baby with her mother, and rejoined Cleo’s kin wintering in Merced Falls. The kids remember these times as the happiest of their lives, but the town was dying slowly. One by one families moved away. Then Florence and the kids moved to Shafter and the migrations continued, from one town to another, from one camp to the next. They stayed and worked in every town from Tehachapi to Redding. They remember well the school and government camp at Arvin, but such nice camps were rare. Florence counted herself lucky whenever she had a real wood floor under the tent.
The year was 1936, the place some 30 mile south of Salinas on U.S. 101, the time was early morning. The car, overheated, coasted to a stop just inside the camp, really just a group of trees and a large field, a place to pitch a tent next to a river. The cars cooling system was bad and they had barely made it; maybe they could make enough picking peas to eat, repair the car and get gas to continue to follow the season north, to the next crop.
Florence noticed that the camp was full of people; it shouldn't have been. They should already have been in the field working. Then they were told that during the night a freak frost had frozen the peas in the field. There would be no work in this place, not this year. Those that could had already left; the others had nowhere to go and no way to get there if they did. The look of hunger was already in the camp; then in a week death would be there too. First, the very young, and the very old. Soon the locals would descend on the camp, arresting some, beating others, but scattering all to the four winds. Florence had seen it all before.
Jim Hill had joined the family a year before, and acted as husband and father to Florence and her children. Florence was grateful.
As Jim began to take the car apart, Florence started to set up their tent just inside the entrance. It would mean a long walk to get water an it was the most dangerous if the camp was attacked, but this was where the car had died, so this was where they would stay.
As Jim and the boys started walking down the road with the radiator to a town some five miles away, Florence sat down under the tent. How long she sat she didn't know, her mind perhaps on the past, of promises lost and promises kept. Perhaps she was thinking of the new infant in her arms, or the young girls around her. Perhaps her thoughts were of Cleo, and the world as it had seemed 15 years before.
Then a shiny new car pulled into the entrance, stopped about 10 yards in front of Florence and a well dressed woman got out with a camera. She started taking Florence’s picture. With each picture the woman would step closer. Florence thought of herself, "Pay her no mind. The woman thinks I'm quaint, and wants to take my picture. The woman took the last picture not three feet away then spoke to Florence: "Hello, I'm Dorthea Lange, I work for the Farm Security Administration documenting the plight of the migrant worker. The photos will never be published, I promise. Florence said, "O.K., if you think it will help. The woman turned, walked away, got in her car, and was gone.
The next day the promise was broken: Florence’s picture taken by the well dressed lady was on the front page of all the newspapers. The story told of the hunger and the needs of the people of the camp. By the third day cars and trucks began to arrive at the camp with food and supplies for the people in need. All were fed, many given clothes and help with repairs. It was a miracle of love and giving. Doctors came to help the sick and the weak. Many jobs were offered and the people were grateful. But Florence wasn't there to see it.
Florence’s oldest boy, working as a paper-boy, picked up his papers to sell and his mother's picture hit him in the face. He ran all the way to his uncle's house to tell them his mother was dead. What else would a poor persons picture be in the newspaper? His uncle quickly read the newspaper, got into their car and headed off north to rescue Florence; that's what families were for.
From author to reader: As the years passed Florence
found more work in the grain mills and factories and less in the fields. In the
potato and cotton fields around Shafter, one day in 1945, Florence’s daughter
Ruby met young Robert Spraque, who drove a truck for the produce buyers. Robert
often invited Ruby to ride along with him. On one such trip Robert asked Ruby to
marry him. Robert and Ruby are my parents. I am the youngest of their four
children. Ruby was the small child on my grandmother’s left shoulder in what
were refereed to as "The Picture."
For more information on the Migrant Mother