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Dust Bowl Part IV: Symbol of an Era

Florence Thompson is shown in Oct. 10, 1978, during an interview with Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan. Acting on a tip, Corrigan found her at Modesto Mobile Village.
Florence Thompson is shown in Oct. 10, 1978, during an interview with Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan. Acting on a tip, Corrigan found her at Modesto Mobile Village. The Modesto Bee

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.

"I went up to Mr. Hannah and said, 'There's my grandmother,' " said Brady, 47, who lives in Turlock.

"That's nice, Sheryl," Mr. Hannah replied. "Now go sit down."

"I said, 'No kidding, Mr. Hannah. That is my grandmother,' " Brady said. "And he said, 'You're serious.' "

The photo was Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," taken in 1936 at a pea pickers' labor camp in San Luis Obispo County and long considered the most representative and pertinent image of the Dust Bowl era.

Lange never asked the names of the woman and three children she photographed that day while working for the Farm Security Administration, and their identities remained a mystery for more than 40 years.

Had he really believed Brady, Mr. Hannah might have solved it that day in 1974. Instead, four years passed before Florence Owens Thompson confirmed, during a 1978 interview with Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan, that she was the woman in the black-and-white still that became symbolic of the Great Depression. Her young daughters Katherine and Ruby stood on each side of her, shielding their faces from Lange's camera lens while Thompson held baby Norma on her lap.

Thompson ultimately settled in Modesto after World War II and raised her family here. She had 10 children. Brady's mother, Shirley, was the youngest and not yet born when Lange snapped the photo. Three of them, Katherine McIntosh, Norma Rydlewski and Jim Hill, still live in Modesto. The seven others have since died.

Thompson long harbored bitterness that others made money off the photo -- the Library of Congress offers prints at $120 each -- while she got nothing when she was the one most in need.

Meanwhile, her family contradicts Lange's account of the circumstances surrounding the photo -- that they had to sell the tires off their car to get cash for food.

The car needed a replacement fan belt, Brady said. One of Thompson's sons had gone to a nearby town for the part.

"They drove away that same afternoon (after Lange took the photo)," Brady said. "They didn't sell the tires."

Thompson also claimed that Lange promised the photo never would be published and felt betrayed when it appeared in newspapers a day or so later. Her eldest son, Leroy, had been staying with an uncle in Shafter and worked as a paperboy.

"He picked up the day's papers to sell, and his mother's picture hit him in the face," Thompson's grandson, Roger Sprague, wrote on his Web site "He ran all the way to his uncle's place to tell them his mother was dead. Why else would a poor person's picture be in the paper?"

Thompson wasn't dead. The printing press, it seemed, accidentally had created an ink blot that resembled a bullet wound on her forehead.

It's a picture that, regardless of the circumstances, is an incredible work that garnered Lange respect not only as a photographer and artist, but also as a social commentator of the time. The six photos she took of Thompson that day are part of the Dorothea Lange Archives at the Oakland Museum of California.

None of the other shots, though, had the emotional impact of "Migrant Mother," which has been displayed in galleries throughout the world.

Lange took the photo while working for a government agency, which makes it part of the public domain and therefore available for anyone to use. Thus, "Migrant Mother" has graced a U.S. postage stamp. It's been featured in numerous photography publications. Brady found it on the cover of the Discovery Kids' April 2006 issue.

Sprague went on to lecture to service clubs and other groups about his grandmother's life. He offered T-shirts bearing the "Migrant Mother" photo for sale through the Web site.

Unfortunately, Sprague died in 2004, before his book, "Second Trail of Tears -- The Migrant Mother Story" could be published. The Web site remains online.

The photo became news again in October 2007 when fire destroyed the Modesto home of Katherine McIntosh, the daughter on the left of Thompson in the picture. Normally, a house fire might merit a few inches of copy or even be relegated to a brief. But the blaze also destroyed her copy of the famous photo -- the copy that had once been her mother's. The Bee ran a story on Page B-1, and it was mentioned in two columns as the community rallied to support McIntosh and another family that had been displaced at the same time.

The photo that never was supposed to be published continues to be published and stands as an iconic tribute to those who endured hard times during the Great Depression.

When Florence Owens Thompson died at 79 in Santa Cruz in 1983, The Bee's Corrigan wrote that the photo "didn't help Mrs. Thompson financially, but publication of it in newspapers stirred the consciousness of Americans and widespread efforts were started to ease the plight of the migrant workers."

Well-wishers raised $15,000 for the family to help with funeral expenses. And the family received condolences from President Reagan, who wrote, "Mrs. Thompson's passing represents the loss of an American who symbolizes strength and determination in the midst of the Great Depression."

She is buried at Lakewood Memorial Park in Hughson, next to her husband, George Thompson. Her plaque bears the words, "Migrant Mother:

A legend of the strength of American Motherhood."

Brady said she often comes out and talks to the grandmother she remembers as warm, funny and loving, with none of the bitterness depicted in the story of the photo told and retold over the years.

"She loved music," Brady said. "She loved her family. She was not the person they portrayed her to be."

But she definitely was the woman in one of the country's most famous photos.

It's not a matter of whether it will enjoy another rekindling of its popularity -- only when.

No kidding, Mr. Hannah, that really was Sheryl's grandma.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at or 578-2383.