Move was adventure on road to better life

09/16/2008 2:42 AM

09/19/2008 12:34 PM

Back in 1936, when their wheat crop failed for the second time, Jennie and Oatis Bates had to make a choice: move or starve.

They moved, and their eight children — everyone from 1-year-old Sam to 19-year-old Johnny — were thrilled. What kid wouldn't be? Camping on the side of the road, cooking dinner over a campfire and — for the teenagers — the promise of steady jobs picking and packing fruit.

"For us kids, it was an adventure," said Betty Young of Riverbank of the trip from Kansas.

Now 84, Young was 13 when her family made the journey. She and her siblings were barely aware of the dire circumstances on their farm.

Over the years, they pieced together the story. Like many farmers in the Midwest, their father received government money in exchange for raising hogs and growing wheat, oats and barley. They'd butcher the hogs, send the harvested grain to the mill, and receive salt pork and flour in exchange.

The family also got by on bartering with neighbors. They'd trade, say, a side of pork for a sack of sugar. They gave some of the vegetables they grew to cousins in town who had fallen on hard times.

It was a tidy living, with the farm producing almost everything the family needed. Then, in the mid-1930s, a dam broke, flooding that year's wheat crop. They replanted, but there was no rain, and the second crop failed, too.

It didn't take long for Jennie and Oatis to discover that the other things they produced — vegetables, milk, eggs and butter — weren't enough to feed the family. The children's grandparents lived in Riverbank and persuaded the parents that there were good livings to be made in California's Central Valley.

The trip took two weeks — two memorable weeks. There was the time they slept under the stars at the Great Salt Lake, and the time their 1927 Chevrolet overheated and a gravel truck pushed it up a mountain. Their route took them through the Colorado Rockies, a paradise for the children, who had seen little more than flat land back on the farm.

When they arrived in Riverbank, it was a Saturday.

"Sunday morning, we got up and six of us went to work," Betty said.

Oatis, Jennie and the older children picked and packed apricots and peaches. After two weeks, they got paid and moved from their grandparents' home into two tents in a eucalyptus grove on what is now McHenry Avenue, between Floyd and Briggsmore avenues.

The family was thrilled to be making a living. The children, who didn't often leave the farm in Kansas, were ecstatic with all their adopted state had to offer. It wasn't until they arrived here that they tasted Coca-Cola and store-bought bread.

After about a year, the family saved enough to buy a plot of land on Atchison Street in Riverbank. They built a three-bedroom house, mostly out of scraps of wood. When they ran out of wood, they used pieces of cardboard for walls.

Everyone helped — the children remember watching their mother saw two-by-fours. Their father worked construction at the time, and the children now suspect he pinched some boards from his job helping to build Cardoza Junior High School in Riverbank.

"We had a house, we were uptown people," Young said. "Most everybody we knew lived in tent houses."

Those tents were in Riverbank, a five-by-two block area bordered by Patterson Road, Terminal Avenue, Arizona Avenue and Eighth Street. The names of the streets — Texas and Iowa avenues, and Kansas Street — refer to the Dust Bowl states the residents fled.

The old Bates home, in the family for some 70 years, was recently sold. Five of the children are living, four of them in Riverbank.

So, how did the Dust Bowl change their lives? The family went from sharecropping to owning a home. One of the eight children, Sam, went to college, as did many of the descendants.

One grandson is the administrator for transportation at Riverbank Unified School District, which oversees the school his great-grandfather helped to build. Another picked up on the family's love of country music and is a session musician in Nashville, Tenn.

They're all proud of their heritage.

Said Young: "It's history."

Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at kmccray@modbee.com or 578-2358.

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