MODESTO -- Jim Stevens of Turlock plans to tune in Sunday night to a Ken Burns film that speaks to his experiences.
"The Dust Bowl" on PBS recounts how drought and the Depression forced people from the Plains to the San Joaquin Valley and other points West.
Burns, the nation's premier documentarian, has turned his attention to a story many valley residents know well.
"We all came out here just looking for work," said Stevens, who left north Texas at age 3 and toiled with his family on valley farms as a boy. "My dad was always looking for the end of the rainbow, moving here and moving there."
Part 1, airing Sunday on Channels 6 and 9, tells of the drought that gripped the Plains, from Texas to the Dakotas, and the dust storms that mostly happened in and near Oklahoma.
Part 2 on Monday night follows people who headed West, mainly on Route 66, with the hope of finding work.
The Bee told the tale in a four-day series of articles and videos in 2008. Soon afterward, a researcher for Burns contacted the paper in search of Dust Bowl survivors to interview.
None of them was included in the film, but there's still a local angle. Four relatives of Modesto physician Bob Forester are among the 26 people whose interviews made the final cut.
They include his father, Bob Forester Sr. of Napa, who was 8 when his family left Oklahoma for Oakland in 1936.
Recalling the cataclysm
He recalled Thursday how the wind scraped up the parched soil on farms that had produced grain for decades, including one especially bad storm known as Black Sunday.
"The breathing is the hardest thing," he said. "When we had the dust storms, my mom would have us cover our faces with wet cloths so we could breathe through them and keep some of the dust from going in our lungs."
Burns' team also interviewed two aunts and an uncle of Dr. Forester, who live in Nevada and Oregon. Members of the extended family traveled to Oklahoma in April for the first screening of clips from "The Dust Bowl."
Burns has spent more than 25 years making films about iconic topics in U.S. history the Civil War, World War II, baseball, jazz, Prohibition and more. Some of the films have touched on places close to the north valley, such as the Mother Lode in a series called "The West" and Yosemite in a series on the national parks.
"The Dust Bowl" hits home. An estimated 70,000 people in the 1930s came from the Plains to the valley, which had started the decade with a population of about 540,000.
It was one of the major forces shaping the region, along with the migrations from Mexico, Europe, Asia and other parts of the United States.
The people from the Plains ran into hostility from some valley residents, who were struggling themselves in the Depression.
"There were a lot of people who looked down on us," said Stevens, who went on to own Latif's Restaurant in Turlock. "We were the Okies. It didn't bother me too much, but it certainly bothered my parents and grandparents."
Other residents offered a welcome, including the sizable number of people who had moved here from the Plains in the more prosperous 1910s and 1920s.
The newcomers gained a footing through work and the help of friends, family and New Deal programs. World War II brought new opportunities in the military and at defense plants.
Stevens was a boy when he set up a shoeshine stand in San Francisco, where his father had gone for the war effort. The values forged in the Dust Bowl had stayed strong.
"It sure made us determined to be hard workers and to try to succeed and have something for our immediate families," Stevens said. "It was a very different time. We didn't have anything, and we appreciated everything."
By the 1950s, the migrants had put down roots and made an impact on valley life. They started businesses, practiced their faith and enjoyed country music and other pastimes.
But the region remained a place of poverty for many, notably the people from Mexico who worked the fields.
Today, the Modesto area has yet to recover from the housing market collapse that started in 2006 and contributed to the worst U.S. recession since the 1930s.
Dr. Forester moved to Stanislaus County in 1985 to take part in a medical residency program. In 2004, he and Dr. Richard Heck founded St. Luke's Family Practice, which cares for poor patients via donations from those who are more well-off.
"I think the Dust Bowl experience of my family taught me a lot about hard work, thrift and self-sufficiency," he said. "It instilled a sincere respect for, and a desire to help, those who are down on their luck."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.