October 27, 2007

Depression icon homeless again after seven decades

Katherine McIntosh is without a home again.

The 75-year-old Modestan gained national exposure as a 4-year-old leaning on her mother's shoulder in the iconic Dorothea Lange photo "Migrant Mother" taken in 1936. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the family was following the crops in California to eke out a living.

"I haven't been homeless since then. But I'm homeless now," McIntosh said Friday.

A house fire Friday morning gutted her home at 2112 Carver Road in Modesto. McIntosh was at work when the fire broke out. Her grandson was asleep in the home, but managed to get out without injury, according to Mo- desto Fire Department Battalion Chief Rich Sasser.

The grandson initially thought McIntosh was inside the home, prompt- ing fire crews to aggressively push into the house to conduct a search. The flames were knocked down in eight minutes and the fire was under control in 20 minutes, Sasser said.

"I'm pretty proud of my guys," Sasser said. "They cranked it up a notch above their normal excellent level" to search the house for McIntosh, he said.

The house was destroyed. Sasser estimated the damage to the structure and contents at $230,000. Investigators say they believe the fire was accidental, possibly caused by a cigarette, Sasser said.

"I lost everything I had," McIntosh said Friday -- including a copy of the picture that made her mother famous 71 years ago. "My mother's picture was hanging in the hallway. It was destroyed."

"It's left me in a pretty tight bind right now," McIntosh said. She has $4 in the bank, and has been living on Social Security and occasional housekeeping jobs, she said. The house was insured, but not the contents, McIntosh said.

The Red Cross has put her up in a motel and given her money for clothes.

McIntosh is the girl to the left of her mother, Florence Thompson, in the 1936 photo. The picture was taken near Nipomo, where the family had come to pick peas. But the crop had frozen, and they were headed to Watsonville, to the next harvest job. The family car had broken down, and Lange happened by and snapped the picture.

The photo has since appeared in countless exhibits, including the Louvre in Paris, and even on a U.S. postage stamp.

The family settled in Modesto after World War II. Florence Thompson died in 1983 in Santa Cruz.

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.

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