Out of the Dust
Were you one of the thousands who came out of the dust from the Midwest and settled in the Central Valley? Do you have relatives who made the trek from the dust-worn region? We'd love for you to share your story with others. E-mail us your story, in 200 words or less, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please leave your name, hometown and a number where you can be reached for verification. Then, check back here to read what others have to say. The stories are starting to come in:
Where We're From
The Dust Bowl migration, for all its influence on life in the San Joaquin Valley, is just one strand in the social fabric. The 2000 census found that 7.4 percent of Stanislaus County residents were born in the Dust Bowl region, some of whom migrated before or after this 1930's upheaval. Most county residents were born in California - including descendants of the migrants - and a large number came from Mexico.
A Census, Of Sorts
Highlights of the 1940 study of airport neighborhood residents in Modesto newly arrived from Dust Bowl states:
- AGE: More than 80 percent were younger than 40.
- INCOME: Households made $260 a year on average.
- EMPLOYMENT: Most jobs were in farming, canning or packing; 31 percent of the residents were on relief or had jobs through the Works Progress Administration; 23 percent were unemployed with no public aid.
- HOME COST: Lots cost $100 to $300 but could be bought through installments. Building materials cost $150 on average. (For comparison, a five-room house in an established part of Modesto was advertised for $2,900 in a 1938 edition of The Bee.)
- PLUMBING: Drinking water was piped to 59 percent of the homes; 15 percent had flush toilets.
- HEAT: Half burned wood; some burned oil or kerosene; some had no winter heat.
- ELECTRICITY: Almost 65 percent were hooked up; half had refrigeration.
- CARS: Most families had them.
- SCHOOL: Only 10 percent of adults had any high school education. About 80 percent of the children attended school in Modesto. They tested at about the state average.
- RECREATION: Listening to the radio, swimming in canals, playing cribbage and baseball, reading Western magazines and novels
- DIET: Residents mostly ate starches, such as potatoes, fried dough, gravy, biscuits, fried cornmeal, oatmeal and cornbread. Protein came mainly from red beans, hamburger, weiners and salt pork. Many had vegetable gardens.
- RELIGION: They belonged mainly to evangelical Protestant churches, including Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene and Church of Christ.
Why the dust storms occurred
This 1930s calamity happened in the heart of the Great Plains, a 400 million-acre expanse east of the Rocky Mountains. The worst damage was in and near the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. Other areas in and near the Plains, while less affected by dust storms, did suffer from drought.
For thousands of years, the native grassland of the Plains had been lightly used by buffalo and the Indians who subsisted on them. In the 19th century, settlers of European background brought cattle grazing and plowing for wheat and other crops.
High grain prices and wet weather brought a major expansion of plowing in the 1920s. Over an eight-state area, cropped land went from 12.2 million acres in 1879 to 103.2 million in 1929. The emergence of tractors accelerated the process.
Grain prices plunged as the Depression set in during the 1930s. Farmers responded with even more plowing to make what income they could.
As the drought worsened, the ever-present winds on the Plains started scraping the thin soil from the ground. The first of the dust storms was recorded in 1930. They grew in intensity in the next few years.
The worst duster of all happened on April 14, 1935, known as Black Sunday. More than 300,000 tons of dirt took to the air — twice as much as was dug for the Panama Canal.
Occasionally, the dust storms drifted to the East Coast and a few hundred miles out to sea. In 1935, dirt from the Plains floated past the windows of the U.S. Capitol at the very time Congress was debating whether to create the Soil Conservation Service. Within a few weeks, the agency was in place.
By 1936, about 80 percent of the Plains had suffered at least some erosion and 15 percent had severe damage. "The physical results of a mistaken agricultural policy are now being experienced under the blistering winds of the droughts," said a report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As a junior high school student in Santa Clara in 1974, Sheryl Brady opened her U.S. history workbook and saw a familiar face in a famous photograph.
Before the 'Okies' and After
The Dust Bowl migrants were just one of many groups who have worked the farms of California in the past two centuries, usually for low pay:
- American Indians worked on Spanish mission farms near the coast in the late 1700s. Indians also worked the vast cattle ranches that dominated California under Mexican rule in the early 19th century, and the wheat farms that followed the Gold Rush.
- Chinese became the main group of farmworkers by the 1870s, after helping build the state's railroads. They played a large role in establishing fruit and other specialty crops but faded away about 1900, largely because of anti-Chinese sentiment.
- Japanese immigrants arrived about 1900 and quickly became a major force. Many worked around legal restrictions on land ownership to become farmers themselves. Some lost their land during World War I, and they ran into immigration restrictions in the 1920s.
- A smaller wave of immigrants from India worked the fields from roughly 1910 to 1920.
- Mexicans became a large part of the work force around World War I, which brought a labor shortage. Their numbers fell off in the 1930s as the Depression created a surplus of workers, including the Dust Bowl refugees.
- Filipino workers were prominent as well in the 1920s, but they also faced racist barriers.
- Mexicans became the main labor force during World War II, when the Bracero program was created to ease a labor shortage. That program is long gone, but Mexico remains the main labor source. Meanwhile, descendants of earlier farmworkers from that country have moved up in status in the state.
Find out more
- “Harvest Gypsies,” John Steinbeck, 1936
- “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck, 1939
- “Factories in the Field,” Carey McWilliams, 1939
- “California and the Dust Bowl Migration,” Walter Stein, 1973
- “American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California,” James Gregory, 1989
- “The Worst Hard Time,” Timothy Egan, 2005
- 1940 master’s thesis on migrants in airport neighborhood near Modesto, by Lillian Creisler, in special collections department of Stanislaus County Library
- “California and the Dust Bowl Migrants,” by Robert LeRoy Santos, May-June 2007 issue of Stanislaus Stepping Stones from McHenry Museum & Historical Society