Dust Bowl roots show in work ethic, religion, music and politics

September 16, 2008 

In the early 1940s, soldiers and sailors in San Francisco could get their shoes shined by a kid who had seen his share of dust and dirt.

Jim Stevens, whose family fled the Dust Bowl for the San Joaquin Valley when he was 3, did that job while his father worked at a Richmond shipyard.

He was still a boy when he set up his stand in Union Square, but work was nothing new to him. He had helped his family harvest crops around the Central Valley.

"I always had a good work ethic, and I had to," said Stevens, who went on to own Latif's Restaurant in Turlock for many years. "I bought my school clothes every year and always had a few quarters in my pocket."

The work ethic is something that Dust Bowl survivors and their descendants mention often when talking about the legacy of this social upheaval.

They have left their mark on the valley in other ways: Their politics tend to be moderate to conservative; their religion evangelical Protestant. They helped create country music and have spread their love of chicken-fried steak and chili.

"I think we brought a fairly strong sense of family," said Al Menshew of Turlock, who came from Oklahoma and eventually became purchasing manager at Gallo Glass Co. in Modesto.

"In my bunch, people were basically honest," he added. "You could have them hold a $100 bill for you, and they would sit there and starve before they spent it."

The Dust Bowlers are not the largest migrant force that has shaped the valley. People from Mexico are greater in number, and they have left their own legacy in work and faith, music and food.

But the Dust Bowl migration stands out. It happened fairly quickly and dramatically, in the second half of the 1930s. Many of the migrants were destitute, and they came to a region also suffering from the Depression.

The newcomers had to be willing to work hard, live frugally, and rely on friends and relatives for support.

"People were very moral, I think, most everyone," said Margaret Bozarth Mitchell of Modesto, who left South Dakota in 1940. "They helped each other. You had to help each other to survive."

Cornelia Eggink Verver of Ripon, who came from Colorado in 1935, said the ordeal made her family appreciate what little it had.

"My folks never told me we were poor, and we were happy, and I credit them for that," said Verver, who later married into an established farming family. "My folks always instilled in me that we were rich because we had Jesus and we had each other and we had good health."

World War II brought an end to the Depression, and to the worst of the migrants' trials. A labor shortage boosted farm wages, while others headed off for military service or defense work.

In the late 1940s, the Dust Bowlers were moving up in valley society, according to census figures gathered by James Gregory for his 1989 book, "American Exodus."

In 1940, farm labor was the occupation for 42 percent of the valley workers from the main Dust Bowl states. The figure dropped to 25 percent in 1950 as the jobs shifted back to the largely Mexican work force that had held them before the Depression.

The people from the Plains moved into skilled trades, business ownership and other higher-paying work. Their annual median income went from $550 in 1939 to $2,420 in 1949. The rate of growth was twice that of other white valley residents, who stood at $2,970 in 1949.

The war years and the rise of the defense industry helped put the migrants on the path to stability, said former Oakdale resident Toni Alexander. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the "Okie" identity and now teaches geography at Auburn University in Alabama.

In a recent e-mail, Alexander, the granddaughter of Dust Bowlers, said such people "came to epitomize the idea of 'boot-strapping' in-migrants who pulled themselves up by their own efforts, despite being persecuted, and have become business owners and community leaders across the Central Valley."

Tom Whitfield of Modesto migrated from Texas in 1935, served in the South Pacific during the war, and went on to be a trucker and correctional officer. During that time, he saw the tension over the migrants fade away.

"Little by little, people took a better view of Okies," he said. "Just like the Japanese. We don't hate them anymore."

Gregory, the "American Exodus" author, said the migrants' greatest influence may have been been on religion. Their main churches stress fundamental Bible values and evangelizing about Jesus Christ, with often lively services.

"You can pretty much map the migration by counting churches, where the concentration of Baptist and Pentecostal and Churches of Christ is greatest," said Gregory, who wrote his book while a history professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He said the migrants and their descendants ranged across the political spectrum, but for many, their outlook could be summed up as "plain-folk Americanism."

They believed in self-reliance, although many joined unions. They could be suspicious of big business and leftist organizers.

Gregory wrote that Rep. B.F. Sisk, a Dust Bowler who served the valley in Congress from 1955 to 1979, typified these politics. The Fresno Democrat's district included Modesto and Merced. He was "cool to labor, lukewarm on civil rights" and he parted ways with President Johnson in the 1960s.

That outlook has continued with the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s -- people who were registered Democrats but had no problem crossing over at times -- and the mostly centrist stance of today's valley congressmen.

In 1935, people born in the main Dust Bowl states made up 12 percent of the valley population. The share rose to 19 percent in 1940, then to

22 percent in 1950, reflecting the continued migration after the Depression.

The concentration was greatest in the south valley, notably Bakersfield, but the north valley was home to plenty of these people, too.

By 1970, the Dust Bowlers' share of the valley population dropped to 12 percent. The 2000 census showed a further decline, as Mexican and other groups increased in size.

Gregory, now at the University of Washington, said the Dust Bowl was just one of many migrations in U.S. history, but it has outsized appeal for many people. He attributes that to another, more famous author.

"We can thank John Steinbeck for the continuing fascination with the Dust Bowl migration experience," Gregory said. "This became a big story in the late 1930s, partly because of journalists who were seeing what was going on there. It was cemented into popular consciousness by John Steinbeck and that very popular novel that continues to be read today."

"The Grapes of Wrath," a book and a 1939 movie, told the world what the migrants were enduring.

The migrants themselves told their stories to their children and grandchildren, and passed on some of their character in the process.

One of them, Kittie Clason Webb of Modesto, had several jobs in the decades after she moved from New Mexico. She and her late husband, Bennie Webb, picked fruit, had farms of their own and owned a laundry business.

At one point, she supervised granddaughter Carrie Patino in a housekeeping job at Casa de Modesto Retirement Center.

Patino, now a first-grade teacher at Lakewood School, said the Dust Bowl work ethic has been passed down in her family.

"My parents worked very hard for everything they had," she said. "My dad and his brothers became very, very successful in business."

Bertha Whitt Alspaugh did various jobs, including picking fruit and plucking turkeys, in the years soon after she moved from Missouri in 1938. She went on to a 30-year career at the J.C. Penney store in Modesto.

Kent Whitt, the son of Bertha and the late Hurley Whitt, said the Depression and World War II shaped his parents' character.

"They learned the value of things," said the younger Whitt, who has had a career in the Army and in music. "They learned the value of hard work and being a responsible citizen."

Brit Lippincott left Oklahoma in 1936 with his wife, Una, and their 5-year-old son, Vurl. They ended up in the Los Banos area, where Una worked for several decades at jobs that included packing cantaloupes and cleaning houses. She still found time to grow vegetables and make jam.

Brit became a ranch foreman. His son remembers how he always carried barbed wire and staples, in case someone's fence needed mending.

"A neighbor had a ditch broken, and he'd get out there and fix it," said Vurl Lippincott, who became a land development consultant. "He said you've got to help your neighbor."

Jim Stevens, the Union Square shoeshine boy, went on to work as a meat cutter in Stanislaus County before buying Latif's in 1971. It became famous in Turlock for its sizable portions, pies and as a community gathering place.

For a brief time in the 1960s, Stevens supplied meat to a farm labor camp in Westley, established for Dust Bowl people but by then serving Mexican workers. He saw history repeating itself with the latter group.

"I saw how hard the people worked and the way they moved their families around," Stevens said. "The Okies were the same way in the '30s and '40s as the Mexicans. You can see that even right now."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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