Arvin Tiller/Lamont Reporter:
P.O. Box 548, Lamont, CA 93241, (661) 845-3704
Arvin Tiller/Lamont Reporter supplement, October 20, 1999
Singer Gives Voice to Dust Bowl:
Guthrie was at the Weedpatch Camp recently to do an interview for the discovery
Channels series. "Great Books' A Cronleite-Ward Production.
This episode will focus on John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath."
Tom Steinbeck, John's oldest son, was also at the camp that day.
Pictured left to right:
Betty Elkins, Arlo Guthrie, Doris Weddell, Margaret Lutz
He (Woody Guthrie) became a voice of Okie
migrant farmers of the Dust Bowl - a balladeer of the beleaguered. Woody
Guthrie got there by doing things his own way. He wouldn't even conform
with the nonconformists.
Most of all, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, was
one sharp songwriter with an eastern Oklahoma twang.
Guthrie fought Fascists, not just in his
lyrics, but in the merchant marine in World War II. His ships were sunk by
Nazi torpedoes three times. He promoted the building of a giant dam in
Washington state, the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, because he liked
the jobs and affordable electricity it created.
Some of his songs have endured for more
than five decades - more than half the 20th century.
Many schoolchildren have learned his song,
"This Land Is Your Land."
Born in Okemah on July 14, 1912, Guthrie
lived under black clouds all his life. Misfortune started when his mother,
Nora, developed the same disease that killed him, Huntington's disease, and she
was sent to the state mental hospital in Norman. His sister died after
suffering injuries in a house fire.
His family moved and he lived, literally,
under the big black clouds of the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle.
Then he moved to California and found work
singing on the radio.
Some didn't much like his work
singing for the Communist Party and unions. But Woody was more of a
populist, in line with the common man.
"I ain't a communist
necessarily, but I been in the red all my life," he said. He never
joined the Communist Party, but he also was known to have joked, "Left
wing, chicken wing, it don't make no difference to me."
His 1943 autobiography "Bound for
Glory" touched the nation like Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," of
1939. He wrote popular songs like "Do Re Me." "Union
Maid" and "Pastures of Plenty."
Woody died in 1967 with degenerative nerve
disorder, Huntington's disease.
In summer 1998, hundreds from around the
world, led by British singer Billy Bragg and his famed son Arlo Guthrie gathered
at the Crystal Theatre in Okemah to sing his songs and honor his name, whether
it meant plugging a political cause or just hearing some good songs.
Story by Abby Fox /
Aug 13, 2001
Camp, the temporary home for Depression-era migrant farmers that John Steinbeck
describes in The Grapes of Wrath, is being restored by 20 local
preservationists in Lamont, California, 100 miles north of Los Angeles.
summer, the Dustbowl Historical Foundation is trying to raise $500,000 to
preserve Weedpatch's 1935 community hall, post office, and library, one-room
makeshift buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic
Places. It also plans to build an information center, says Doris Weddell,
a retired librarian in Lamont who is leading the preservation effort.
2003, when workers finish restoration on the three public buildings and tenant
cabins, Weedpatch will continue to operate as a migrant labor camp. Today,
Hispanics have become the state's main migrant group, making up 88 percent of
Lamont's population of 14,000.
is the only one of 17 Works Progress Administration labor camps established by
the federal government in the 1930s that still contains original
structures In 1936, 300 itinerant workers, or Okies, lived there in
one-room tin cabins and tents for $1 a week. Scenes from the 1940 movie
based on Steinbeck's novel were filmed in the camp.
Weedpatch is closed (now reopened), Weddell guides tours year-round."
The New York Times
|February 5, 2002
Oklahomans Try to Save Their California Culture
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
Calif. — The relentless geometry of the farm fields still vanishes
into infinity. When Earl Shelton, a 68-year-old retired oil refinery
mechanic, walks the grounds of the former Weedpatch camp to which he and
thousands of other Okies migrated during the Depression, the scrapbook
in his mind turns to the image of Slab 529. That spit of concrete with a
tent on it was home, on and off, for 13 years.
Mr. Shelton was 7 when he arrived at the camp, which was immortalized
by John Steinbeck in his 1939 novel "Grapes of Wrath." Like
many other Dust Bowlers, who have revived the once-derogatory word
"Okie" as a term of endearment and source of pride, he can
vividly summon the chapters of his own life: Of losing a wheel at night
en route to Needles and burning a Sears catalog for light, of hot summer
nights cooled only by bedsheets soaked with a hose and then draped over
In the 1930's, Mr. Shelton's father, Tom, a widower with four sons,
joined tens of thousands of other dispossessed farmers —
Shelton, 68, is trying to preserve his Okie culture in the San
Joaquin Valley of California.
/The New York Times
Shelton was 7 when his family and thousands of other Dust Bowlers
flocked to California, where they lived in camps like Weedpatch,
which was immortalized in John Steinbeck's ``Grapes of Wrath,''
and Arvin, above.
|real-life Tom Joads hailing from Arkansas,
Texas and Missouri as well as Oklahoma — leaving the log house three
miles from Scipio, Okla., in a Model A. In these fertile fields they
sought deliverance from drought and the Depression in the largest
peacetime migration in the nation's history. "I don't recall going
hungry," Mr. Shelton said. "But I know my dad did."
He and other members of the local Dust Bowl Historical Foundation are
now trying to raise money to restore the remaining original buildings of
Weedpatch camp, which opened in 1936 as a response to unsanitary living
conditions among migrants.
But, in this year of the centennial of John Steinbeck's birth, the
vestiges of Okie culture are vanishing, as the Dust Bowl generation ages
and the texture of the community changes. Every morning, Doris Weddell,
a retired librarian who is spearheading the preservation effort, picks
up her scissors to clip the obituaries: Ann M. Heid (1929, Cici, Okla.),
Alice R. Terry (1912, Anadarko, Okla.), Roy Earl Livsey (1913, Thayler,
There are new migrants now, who have altered the face of small towns
like Arvin and Lamont, Calif. In Lamont (population 13,295), not far
from the corner where a young Buck Owens used to play hard-knocks
country music on a cotton truck, Mexican panaderías, or bakeries, open
at 5 a.m. while in Arvin (population 12,956), the old Safeway
is now a supermercado.
In 1950, 33 percent of the population in the southern San Joaquin
Valley were whites from the Southwest; today, just under 10 percent is,
said James N. Gregory, an associate professor of history at the
University of Washington and the author of "American Exodus: The
Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California" (Oxford
University Press, 1989).
"It's a generation passing," Professor Gregory said.
"Because their experience was memorialized by artists and writers,
they are an important and very special part of the American
Every Thursday morning, several Dust Bowlers have breakfast together
at a bowling alley in Bakersfield, 90 miles north of Los Angeles.
"We called ourselves rich Okies, because we had two
mattresses," said Billy Ross, 66, a retired high school teacher.
"It made me not want to look at a farm the rest of my life."
Discrimination was rampant. Although "Grapes of Wrath" is
now required reading in California schools, in 1939 it was burned in
downtown Bakersfield. The Arvin Federal Emergency School, an innovative
school for Okie children known locally as the Weedpatch School, was
created in 1940 largely because of public resistance to educating
"I remember coming home dirty from the fields and going to a
store in Upland," Mr. Ross said.
"Mother went in to get some milk, and they didn't want to sell
her anything," he said. "But it was clean dirt she had on.
Clean, honest dirt."
The Weedpatch camp, now the Sunset Migrant Center, has continued to
operate, housing migrant workers who are mostly from Mexico by way of
Texas or the Coachella Valley. The Kern County Housing Authority, which
runs it, is replacing 100 termite-infested, substandard modular cabins,
hauled in by truck in the 1970's, with permanent stucco houses with
foundations. The new houses are being paid for by $6 million in state
and federal money.
Preservationists hope to raise $250,000 to restore the historic
buildings and create a small historical park.
Half of seasonal agricultural workers in California have incomes
below the poverty level, according to the Department of Labor. In the
Lamont area, which is 89 percent Latino, and in Weedpatch (population
2,726) — a dusty intersection down the Weedpatch Highway — about 95
percent of students are eligible for a free or reduced-cost lunch,
compared with 60 percent in the rest of Kern County, said Roy Malahowski,
a lawyer with Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, a nonprofit
In some stretches of Weedpatch, three or more families share a mobile
home in the summer, and it is not uncommon to see three or four small
backyard cabins filled with families, an electrical cord running from
the main house to the shacks.
At the former Weedpatch School, now the modern Sunset Middle School,
8 percent of the student body is Latino, a quarter of them migrants,
said Miguel A. Gonzalez, the principal.
Seventh graders there read "Children of the Dust Bowl: The True
Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp," written by Jerry Stanley, a
retired history professor from California State University at
"It makes you feel there were other people like you,"
Emilio Vela, 12, said.
An identification with poverty still marks the lives of even the most
successful and highly visible Okies like Buck Owens, who left Texas with
his family in a 1933 Ford sedan and spent his childhood as a "fruit
tramp." His Crystal Palace dinner club on Buck Owens Boulevard is a
false-fronted shrine not only to his music empire, which includes three
country radio stations, but also to the "Bakersfield sound," a
raw brand of country honed in No. 3 galvanized tin wash tubs and hot
In Tulare, an 83-year-old poet, Wilma McDaniel, the fourth of eight
children born to Oklahoma sharecroppers, writes poems in longhand each
morning with felt-tipped markers. She stores them in a plastic dishpan.
"It used to be a shoebox," she said. "I've moved
She has 14 books in print but never finished high school. She has
been a maid, a governess and a farm worker in fruit cutting sheds and
alfalfa fields. From her small apartment, she writes of hard times large
and small, her words as straightforward as twine.
In "Pies," for instance, she recalls 1933, her unemployed
father's job prospects dwindling, her mother's mulberry pie the only
thing to bring "a crinkle of hope around his eyes."
"I feel that if I do not tell what I know about my past it will
be lost," Ms. McDaniel explained the other day. "I wrote what
I wrote and I lived what I lived."