Newcomers had to beat many obstacles

09/15/2008 1:18 AM

09/16/2008 7:29 AM

Thirteen days on the road brought the Whitfield family, late of Beeville, Texas, to the little town of Tracy in 1935.

Andrew Whitfield, the father, set out to find work. Tom Whitfield, one of seven children, set off for school and found a harsh reception.

"I didn't conform too well and the teacher referred to me as a 'dumb little Okie,' " the Modesto resident recalled.

It mattered little that the Whitfields were not from Oklahoma. They were lumped in with other people who had been driven from the Plains to California by drought, dust storms and the Depression.

For the newcomers, the first few years in California were a time of unease. Some longtime residents of the San Joaquin Valley resented the competition for jobs in the fields, canneries and elsewhere.

Others were more welcoming. They sympathized with what the migrants had endured on the Plains, and they admired their willingness to work hard in their new home.

"No one looked down on them," said Agnes Picha of Modesto, whose father, Lee Swope, hired them to harvest his peaches along Floyd Avenue. "These were really good people who had been forced off their property."

The second half of the 1930s — between the low point of the Depression and the boom brought by World War II — would be a crucial time in the lives of the migrants and the history of the region.

This was their chance to prove their worth and to put down roots of their own.

    

The valley had a fair number of Plains people even before the Depression, thanks to migrations during the more prosperous 1910s and '20s.

Census figures show that as of 1935, near the start of the Dust Bowl migration, the valley had about 62,000 people from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas or Missouri, the main sources of the new migrants.

By 1940, the number from these four states was about 135,000 — 19 percent of the valley population.

"It was very profound in the '30s, but it was building up for 20 years," said John Nash, a retired Modesto Junior College history instructor who researched migration trends.

He said that in the north valley especially, many of the '30s migrants had relatives or friends who had come earlier. This could help them find housing and stable jobs.

Some Dust Bowl migrants created new communities, such as south Modesto and the city's airport neighborhood. The houses were bare-bones, the sewers and other services sparse, but the residents at least were owners.

    

Many newcomers spent much of each year on the road, harvesting crops up and down the state.

Al Menshew of Turlock said he was 5 or 6 when he started working the fields. He recalls grueling days in the cotton and potato fields near Bakersfield. Peaches, big in the Modesto area, were brutal, too.

"There's not a breath of air stirring and you'd get the fuzz," Menshew said. "The farmers would cut the price from 10 cents to 9 cents per box. The farmers were struggling just like we were and they had to do whatever they could."

Menshew's baby sister, Janice, lay in a blanket-lined fruit box while older family members worked crops.

The people from the Plains were mostly white, many of them descended from early English, Scottish and German immigrants to the United States. Some had American Indian blood, too.

In California, they took farm work that, since World War I, had been done largely by people from Mexico. But that did not always bring tension. Menshew remembers sharing food with Mexican workers and listening to their songs.

    

Many migrants lived in makeshift camps with poor sanitation. The federal government built better camps, but they were mostly in the south valley and served a small proportion of the people.

The migrants could get small relief payments if they met the state's one-year residency rule. They also could seek jobs with the federal Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program that built sidewalks, sewage plants, airfields and other public works projects.

Some longtime valley residents worried that the newcomers would burden taxpayers and threaten public health.

"We welcome them if they are coming to help us build up our state," said a 1938 letter to The Modesto Bee, "but if they come with the idea so many have of dragging our standard of living to lower levels, then we feel that we have a just right to complain."

Another letter writer grumbled after hearing the country-style music of the migrants on Modesto radio: "A few whoops and blood curdling yells and they play. Boy it was terrible! May I say, too, that the fact that they played with Gene Autry does not make them musicians."

Still another writer urged sympathy for the migrants: "I saw handsome little children. I saw women who could very well be our sisters, or our mothers. But through circumstances beyond their control they have been forced to leave a land which has become too hard in which to eke out an existence."

    

California's jobless rate in 1937 was 19 percent, better than the depths of the Depression a few years earlier, but still high. Times were tough for old and new residents alike.

Albert Peterson Sr. had a grocery store in Escalon, close to a canal bank where Dust Bowl migrants lived at harvest time.

"They would come into the store with no money and my father would grubstake them," recalled his son, Albert Peterson Jr. of Modesto. "And then he couldn't pay his bills, and he sold the store."

Lee Swope, the peach grower, let four families from Oklahoma camp in his orchard during the harvest.

"As long as they didn't break the branches, they could stay through summer," his daughter said. "There was a pump so they could get water, and there was a makeshift privy."

    

Jerry Caudle, who came from Oklahoma at 3 in 1937 and ended up in Empire, said having relatives already here helped his family adapt.

Still, it was rough going.

"We ate a lot of flour gravy and biscuits," said Caudle, now a Bay Area resident. "The places where we lived were only one- or two-room shacks, according to my mother."

He remembers his father, Nelson Caudle, being unable to pay the $5 monthly rent, and the landlord letting him slide until things got better.

The elder Caudle worked for farmers around Empire.

"The farmers were having a tough time, too, but we found if you were willing to work, they were willing to help you," his son said. "My mother (Jewell Caudle) worked in the canneries, as did many of the women. She also helped when we picked peaches or cut grapes on the farms."

    

The Eggink family, six sisters and their parents from eastern Colorado, found many fellow Dutch upon arriving in Ripon.

Cornelia Eggink Verver, who is one of the sisters and still lives there, said that connection, along with church ties, helped the family start its new life.

In the migrant camps, where such stability was harder to come by, a preacher based in Turlock offered a steadying hand. Paul Pietsch founded Missionary Gospel Fellowship, supported by local businessmen and devoted to serving migrants up and down the valley.

"Paul took the Gospel to the many camps in the area, some private, some county and some federal," Adell Harvey wrote in a 2007 history of the ministry, which serves other migrant groups to this day.

"All of them were grim, with unbelievable living conditions. Some of the lucky migrants found housing in the federal camps, which were nothing more than rows of tents stretched over wood floors and frames."

    

Dust Bowl families relied on several things — their faith, their work ethic and the programs of the New Deal — to get their lives on track.

Andrew Whitfield — the father of the boy who endured the "Okie" insult from his teacher in Tracy — went to work on Turlock's sewage plant, thanks to the WPA.

Many children helped their parents harvest crops, moving from county to county and school to school, trying to rise from grim conditions.

"I knew we were poor, but my mother always kept us clean," said Jim Stevens of Turlock, who came from Texas in 1937. "We had patches on our clothes, and the girls always had flour-sack dresses."

John Steinbeck visited some of the Plains people in the valley in 1936, as a reporter for the San Francisco News. He came away impressed.

"The new migrants to California from the dust bowl are here to stay," he wrote. "They are of the best American stock, intelligent, resourceful; and, if given a chance, socially responsible."

World War II would bring jobs for the migrants at defense plants near the coast, along with better wages on valley farms.

They would look back on the '30s as a time when hardship mingled with hope. They had made their way to a land of plenty, but they still had to buckle down and work.

"I'll bet that if you lined up all the rows of cotton, beans, cantaloupes and other crops that I've hoed in California, the line would reach from here to Oklahoma and back," Una Fay Lippincott of Los Banos said in a 1992 oral history for her family. "Boy, I'll tell you that the first 10 years that we were here were really rough, but we made it."

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

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