Plains people put down roots in 'Little Oklahoma' by airport

September 15, 2008 

Out by the Modesto Airport, families could put $10 down and stake their claim to a new life far from the Dust Bowl.

That's all it took to move onto one of the lots the Beard Land & Investment Co. created in 1935.

The families agreed to pay $5 a month on top of the down payment for the lots, priced at $100 to $300. And they found that, with salvaged lumber and other thrifty measures, they could erect a house for about $150.

Thus was born the airport neighborhood, one of the main settlements in the Modesto area for people who had just come from the Plains.

"Their simple little homes spell security to them; with ownership came the feeling of permanency," wrote Lillian Creisler in her 1940 study of the community.

The neighborhood, dubbed Little Oklahoma, was home to an estimated 1,500 people in 1940. It was just outside Modesto's incorporated area, which had about 16,000 residents.

Today, the neighborhood's original homes have been upgraded or replaced, and it is occupied by a largely Latino, low-income population. Curbs, gutters, sidewalks and such still are lacking in some parts, a subject of recurring debate.

The 1940 study was part of Creisler's work toward a master's degree in economics at the University of California at Berkeley. She surveyed about two-thirds of the residents, asking about employment, education, religion, diet, plumbing and a host of other subjects.

The residents told her they had trouble finding jobs and they earned little when they did work. But they were resourceful. Many homes began as tents and evolved into houses as people built walls with scavenged materials.

"Many of the temporary homes were made of lumber from packing boxes, carpenter lathes -- even charred wood from the remains of a burned Modesto church," Creisler wrote.

She tells of wives and husbands working together to dig foundations, pour concrete and pound nails.

'Well-behaved, industrious'

Many homes had no water or sewer pipes, and garbage often was tossed on the ground. But Creisler also noted "heavily laden clotheslines," "gay flowers" and other signs of stability.

"In general, the people are sober, well-behaved and industrious," she wrote. "They are a family-loving group whose home relationship is close. Their children are wholesome, happy youngsters. The moral and religious standards are rigid."

Creisler was well-aware of the hostility that some longtime residents of Modesto had for the newcomers. She asked about 100 students at Modesto Junior College to write essays on the topic.

About half of the students had a favorable opinion, seeing the migrants as hard workers and good neighbors. Others, including some who had lost farm or cannery jobs to them, said they were filthy people of low morals.

"Oklahomian workers cannot be depended upon to do their work," one wrote. "When the farmer needs work done immediately, the Oklahomian workers are likely to walk out, leaving the farmer in a jam."

Creisler defended the newcomers. She checked with local officials and found that the airport neighborhood had no major crime or health problems. She noted that one of the homes served as a lending library -- and that residents had a soft spot for Zane Grey and Jack London.

Creisler did say the migrants, virtually all white, tended to have low opinions of minorities.

She also said they shunned the labor movement and served as strikebreakers at the Pacific Grape Cannery in 1939. This likely improved their image among people in Modesto, a "notoriously anti-union" city, she said.

The plight of the neighborhood's residents touched some of Modesto's charitable groups, which gave them clothes, bedding, food, Christmas toys and other items.

The Beard company, which later would develop a major industrial tract nearby, was impressed with the residents of its subdivision.

"They are a class that are anxious to better their conditions both socially and financially," a company official wrote to Creisler.

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