Special report: Out of the dust

03/16/2010 2:26 PM

03/16/2010 2:37 PM

Kittie Clason Webb watched her brother scoop bucket after bucket of windblown dirt from the roof of their home on the Plains.

He handed each load down to his mother and sister, who dumped it on the ground and sent the bucket back up.

Left in place, the pile on the roof might have crashed through the house, one more misfortune for a family that was seeing its share in the 1930s.

The family, dairy farmers in the northeast corner of New Mexico, tried in vain to stand its ground amid the Dust Bowl.

"When the dust storms were on, I had to wear something over my face to keep the dust out of my nose," recalled Webb, a 90-year-old Modesto resident. "It blew so hard that sometimes we couldn't even put our food on the table."

The Dust Bowl migration brought more than a quarter-million people to California. More than 70,000 of them came to the San Joaquin Valley, which started the '30s with a population of about 540,000.

It was one of the key forces that shaped the valley, along with the migrations from Mexico, Europe, Asia and other parts of the United States.

Many people left the Plains with little to their name, and they faced continued hardship upon arriving in California. Some had family or friends already here, but others were strangers.

Some of the longtime residents derided the "Okies," as these rugged, often ragged, folks from Oklahoma and nearby states frequently were called.

But they endured. They put down roots, built businesses and left their mark on politics, religion and other parts of valley life.

"They made things work out of nothing," said Tom Whitfield, 81, of Modesto, who left a drought-ravaged part of Texas in 1935. "Little by little, I think the general population found out that these people were not as bad as they portrayed them to be."

***

"Dust Bowl," one of the most evocative phrases in the nation's lore, is something of a misnomer. Less than 10 percent of the migrants came from areas where dust storms hit hard -- the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico.

But these storms blew though other parts of the Plains and beyond. At times more than 10,000 feet high, they bore massive amounts of the topsoil that had supported buffalo grazing for millennia and grain crops for decades.

And the entire region, some 400 million acres from the Dakotas to Texas, faced severe drought through much of the '30s.

"I shall never forget the fields of wheat so blasted by heat that they cannot be harvested," President Franklin D. Roosevelt said after a 1936 tour. "I shall never forget field after field of corn stunted, earless and stripped of leaves, for what the sun left the grasshoppers took. I saw brown pastures which would not keep a cow on 50 acres."

A series of wet years in the 1920s had led farmers to believe that the Plains could sustain annual plowing, mainly for wheat. They hoped as well that grain prices would stay near the highs they reached during and soon after World War I, when European agriculture shrank.

But the '30s brought a long spell of the dry weather common in this mostly treeless land east of the Rockies. The soil was thin, irrigation scarce.

The drought extended into Missouri and Arkansas, which also sent many migrants to California, and to other parts of the West and Midwest.

Whatever the farmers did coax from the ground brought pitiful prices on the commodity markets during the Depression.

"We were literally about to starve to death," said Whitfield, who is from Beeville in southern Texas. "There was no food. The water was brackish, alkaline."

Jim Stevens, 73, of Turlock is from the northern Texas town of Tioga. He remembers his father pouring a cup of water at a time on each cotton and peanut plant in a desperate bid to survive.

"He couldn't even borrow $100 from the bank in order to buy seed to put in another crop," Stevens said.

***

Up near a place called Roll in western Oklahoma, the Lippincott family had a one-room farmhouse made of rock and sod.

Outside the door, little Vurl played in sand that his mother, Una Fay, had hauled from a nearby riverbed.

Child's play would give way to misery, as dust storms blasted the farm with ever-greater fury. The grit lodged deep in the boy's lungs.

"Vurl was just about 4 years old when he got dust pneumonia," his mother said in a 1992 oral history for her descendants in Los Banos. " ... Old Dr. Sanford told us we had two choices. First, we could get him out and away from the dust or, second, we could start paying on his pine box because he would never be able to live through another attack."

***

Over in New Mexico, Kittie Clason Webb quit high school in her sophomore year and got a job as a preschool helper.

She took $2.50 from one of her first paychecks and bought a sheet of linoleum for the family home near Grenville. No longer, she thought, would her mother struggle to sweep the worn wooden floor.

But it was no use trying to make the home livable in the face of the dust clouds. They forced their way through cracks in the walls, despite the wet cloths stuffed into them. Walking to the mailbox was an ordeal.

"The dust piled up to where the cows could walk over the fence and didn't have to go through the gate," Webb said. "It blew the Bermuda grass all out of the land, out of the pastures. Our cows had nothing to eat."

***

Near Vona in eastern Colorado, the Eggink family had seen enough.

"With the dust storms, they had crop failures two years in a row," recalled Cornelia Eggink Verver, 79, of Ripon, the second of six daughters.

"Sometimes at noon, in the middle of the day, it would be dark like night," she said. "Of course, we didn't have electricity, so my mother got out the kerosene lamps."

On June 30, 1935, having decided to head for California, the Egginks auctioned off most of their worldly goods. Two tables, seven chairs and a baby carriage were among the items listed on the auction notice. Eight dozen fruit jars, a cream separator and a 110-egg incubator. Fifty chickens, five head of cattle and parts to a 1926 Chevrolet.

"They sold my mother's Singer sewing machine," Verver said. "That must have been hard for her, to wonder if she would have one here."

***

All over the Plains, families were accepting that the land was spent, that hope lay westward.

"Everyone was just scraping to make a living, and of course we heard of the Golden State called California," said Al Menshew, 76, of Turlock, who's from a part of Oklahoma that was beset by drought but not dust. His sharecropper father was making just $6 for each 60-hour workweek.

"A lot of people left," said Margaret Bozarth Mitchell, 85, of Modesto, who fled drought and dust in southern South Dakota. "Nobody had any money. My dad didn't get paid for a lot of the work he did for people, because they couldn't pay."

Bertha Whitt Alspaugh left the town of Monett in the Missouri Ozarks in 1938, after two crop failures.

"We couldn't raise anything that last summer," the 86-year-old Modestan said. "It was a pretty rough time, although we didn't have it as bad as some people."

From Oklahoma and Kansas and other states on the Plains, families loaded up and headed out, most of them on the fabled Route 66.

"They made up their minds they were going to get out of that part of the country before we all died," Whitfield said of his parents in Texas.

"Their lands are destroyed and they can never go back to them," John Steinbeck wrote in a 1936 series for the San Francisco News, three years before "The Grapes of Wrath," his classic novel about the exodus.

"Thousands of them are crossing the borders in ancient rattling automobiles, destitute and hungry and homeless, ready to accept any pay so that they may eat and feed their children."

***

It's a part of popular culture, this image of old vehicles packed with Dust Bowl families and their few possessions.

For some, the image is wrong. They were struggling, but they were not dirt-poor.

For others, the image was reality. Among them were the Whitfields, who piled into a 1929 Dodge sedan with a mattress and box spring tied to the roof.

"Nine people stuffed in that old car," recalled Whitfield, who was 8 at the time. "We had to take turns sitting on another person's lap."

They had no air conditioning in the September heat. They fixed one flat tire after another as they rolled along Route 66, parts of it gravel.

"It took us 13 days to go from there to Tracy, California, and every night we had to camp somewhere along the road, hopefully in a place where there was water, which wasn't often," Whitfield said.

"We could buy a loaf of day-old bread for a nickel and get some bologna, and that was the best meal we ever had."

Menshew was 5 when he left Oklahoma with about 15 relatives. Some rode in a Model A towing a small trailer, others in a school bus with its back half converted to a truck bed. He remembers eating mostly beans and bacon during the 13-day trek.

Before leaving New Mexico, Webb had to part with a favorite possession from the Sears, Roebuck catalog -- "a beautiful organ with a high top and mirrors and little shelves."

Her family departed in 1936 in a Model A towing a trailer. Her brother's skill as a mechanic made the trip somewhat easier.

***

Route 66, which starts in Chicago, brought migrants across the southern Plains and the deserts of the Southwest. Some stopped for a while to work the cotton fields in Arizona. Finally, they reached the Inland Empire region east of Los Angeles, where oranges, lemons and other crops lay before them.

It was a welcome sight, Webb said, "after you have lived where there are no trees and nothing but dirt and sand."

Many migrants stayed in Southern California, but others headed for Bakersfield and points north on Highway 99.

Verver's family came west to Ripon via the highway that would later become Interstate 80. She remembers her mother promising the girls that their new home would be "paradise" compared with the Plains.

"When we came to California and saw the oleanders along the 99 highway blooming, we thought Mom was right."

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service