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The Dust Bowl Revolution

The following article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into California

Imagine what life would be like if you and your entire family lost everything and were forced to move across the country to an unfamiliar new place. Would you survive and even thrive? If you lived during the Great Depression and moved to California, the surprising answer is…probably yes.


One of the most enduring images of 1930s America is of the migrant farm family—their old car stuffed with possessions, hungry children with dusty bare feet, mothers trying desperately to put together a meal, fathers with signs begging for work. Between 1930 and 1940, more than 2 million people left the American interior, and about 25 percent of them headed to California alone. They were lured by rumors of plentiful jobs, great weather, and fertile fields. What they discovered when they arrived, however, wasn’t exactly the paradise they’d hoped for.

The crisis began with good intentions and bad weather. As immigrants poured into the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of them settled in the middle of the country and started farming. Southern plains states like Oklahoma and Texas had seen several decades of plentiful rain—something the newcomers figured was normal—so the new arrivals planted fields of wheat and other crops to feed their new countrymen and to contribute to America’s effort in World War I. When farmers from other parts of the United States heard about the agriculture boom in the Great Plains, many of them packed their families into wagons and cars and headed for the plains, prepared to borrow some money, stake a claim, and make a fortune.

But the wet weather was an anomaly. In fact, the Great Plains were notoriously dry, and beginning in 1930—and lasting for about 10 years—the area plunged into a terrible drought. The lack of rain combined with years of overplanting, no crop rotation, deep plowing, high temperatures, and no real effort at conservation meant that the soil lacked nutrients and simply baked. In Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Colorado, and Missouri, the topsoil turned to dust. When the wind kicked up, and with no natural grasses to keep the soil where it belonged—because the grass had been removed to create farmland—the dust blew everywhere.

“Black blizzards,” swirling dust storms with clouds more than a mile high, became the norm. Dust whistled through crevasses and windowsills into homes, causing blackouts, asthma, dust pneumonia, bloody noses, and a mess that could never be cleaned up. Even meals were covered with dust. Residents put wet towels around door frames to try to stem the flow, but the dust could not be stopped. In 1934 some of it even blew all the way to New York City, where it fell like snow. A hundred million acres of Great Plains farmland had turned into powder.


Their farms destroyed, deeply in debt, and facing an economic catastrophe made worse by the Great Depression, thousands of farm families packed what little they had left and headed out. Many of them had one destination in mind: California. Flyers advertising jobs for migrant workers called it the “Land of Sunshine and Opportunity.” Although the migrants came from several states and different cultures (surprisingly, a third of them were white-collar workers), the media lumped them together. California’s newest residents were mostly known—with a great deal of derision—as “Okies.”

California’s need for workers wasn’t a ruse. The state’s enormous farms produced many fruits, vegetables, and other crops and used a lot of migrant labor to do it. Typically, growers relied on homeless men and Filipino and Mexican immigrants who, for decades, had traveled from farm to farm picking up jobs as needed. But the flood of dirt-poor, newly homeless families in the 1930s created a labor glut, and jobs quickly became scarce. The state was so overwhelmed with migrant workers that, for several months in 1936, state police patrolled California’s borders, turning destitute migrants away.


Those who actually made it past the borders initially found that life in California offered little improvement. The overabundance of cheap labor meant that wages had dropped (in some places, by 60 percent) and with them went the standard of living. In the midst of the Great Depression, the state wasn’t prepared for all those new people—20 percent of L.A. County was so poor it was on government assistance. So camps were hastily set up, and Okie families moved into tent cities, ditch camps (in ditches along the sides of roads), or cardboard houses. Many slept in their cars.

Discrimination was also a problem. California growers were accustomed to using mostly immigrants as field laborers. One prejudice of the time was that Mexican and Asian workers were better suited for “stoop labor” (working in fields) than white workers were. Many growers refused to hire Okies in the fields, preferring to bring them on only for “ladder jobs” (like apple picking), further reducing the job opportunities.

Local Californians also often resented the new arrivals, who used up resources, contributed little, and were considered a drain on already low supplies of taxpayer money. Some hospitals refused to treat Okies, and one town’s mayor even spread the fear that the migrants were Communist spies. He said, “The whole proposition is Communist through and through. It stinks of Russia…The Reds are burrowing from within.”


And yet the Okies stayed. Certainly, they were poor and had few resources, so moving would have been difficult. But they had left their homes on the Great Plains with just as little. The fact was that many of them liked California. The weather was nice, and by the late 1930s, the U.S. government had started building official relief camps that included simple houses with indoor plumbing (something that was often lacking on the plains). But more importantly, the Okies could see opportunity in their new home. The Depression would end eventually, they reasoned, and then things would pick up. They were right. Life began to change dramatically as the country got involved with World War II.

The Okies left a huge cultural imprint on the state. For the most part, the migrants were hardworking but progressive, tending to support the rights of laborers and unions, which became hot political issues in California during the latter 20th century. During World War II, they contributed greatly to the state’s economy as a rise in government defense contracts pulled workers off the farms and into factories, where the pay was much better. And Okie artists like Woody Guthrie brought Dust Bowl blues and folk music to the mainstream. Today, despite the fact that many of their ancestors once hid their heritage in order to fit in, some grandchildren of the Dust Bowl have embraced the term “Okie” with pride and are even making a reverse migration back to their roots on the plains.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into California. This volume brings you stories of the Golden State you've never heard before. You’ll meet child prodigies, spies, traitors, celebrities (and sidekicks), gossips, hermits, humanitarians, and zealots.  

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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