End of an era: Final Dust Bowl Festival held at Weedpatch Camp

Weedpatch Camp, immortalized by John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” recently held its 30th and last Dust Bowl Festival on the outskirts of Bakersfield, California.

Simply put, the festival is being shut down because the survivors of that calamity have gotten too old to run it.

A local television station did a preview about the festival:

A moving story in the Los Angeles Times about the now-defunct gathering begins with a memory from 84-year-old Pat Rush:

The girl was afraid to speak in class because of her accent.
The clothes sewn by her farmworker mother made her self-conscious. She lived in a field laborers’ camp outside the dusty town of Lamont, and many Californians despised people like her. Go back to where you came from, they said.
“I felt inadequate. I felt like they was all smarter than me, prettier than me,” Pat Rush said. “I was completely, totally intimidated.”
In the 1940s, her family was part of the wave of migrants who fled their farms in the drought-ravaged South and Midwest after the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, traveling west on Route 66 in search of work, and hope.
They were hated newcomers lumped together — people from places such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Kansas — under a single pejorative: Okies.

W.C. Stampes, a former Oklahoman who lived in Weedpatch Camp for 16 years, also held troubled memories from his arrival in California:

“Here, we weren’t accepted very well. They thought we were communists, all that sort of stuff,” Stampes recalled. “I never did get out of the camp. It was like a secured, safe area.”
When he was in high school, the girls from Bakersfield “wouldn’t even date you,” he added. They’d say, “Oh, he lives in that government camp.” […]
He paused and shook his head at an image from 1936. Two police officers stand on a bridge, near a sign reading CALIFORNIA STATE LINE, behind two dejected men they had just turned away.
That year, the Los Angeles Police Department deployed 136 officers, called the “bum blockade,” to the California border with orders to turn back migrants with “no visible means of support.” The Los Angeles Times, which called the migrants “undesirables” and the “hobo horde,” supported the blockade in its editorial pages.
Back then, the skinny, malnourished Okies — vulnerable to diseases such as “valley fever,” a fungal infection linked to exposure to agricultural dust — were seen in California as practically subhuman. One Kern County health officer, in 1937, wrote that “the struggle for existence [had] dulled their untrained intellect and made their bodies gaunt and tough.”

The Works Progress Administration built Weedpatch Camp in 1935 to help house Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico — many who took the westward path on Route 66 to California. The years-long drought that caused the calamity and exodus was bad enough; it was exacerbated by widespread economic ruin brought about by the Great Depression.

Several people in the story wondered whether anyone would remember the Dust Bowl after they and their festival were gone. It will continue to live on in “The Grapes of Wrath” book and movie, Ken Burns’ “The Dust Bowl” series from PBS and Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time,” the definitive history book about the disaster.

During the summer, a part of the camp now is used to house migrant workers.

The parallels between the Okies and the more recent Mexican migrants and the prejudices they faced weren’t lost on both groups.

Luis Barron could relate:

“No matter your skin color, economically, we’re all the same,” Barron said. “We all eat bologna sandwiches. We eat the beans, like everyone else.”
His friend, Pablo Madera, cut in, laughing, saying he was sure going to miss this festival and its food.
“I can eat a taco any day,” Madera said. “Today, I’m eating biscuits and gravy. That’s country!”

Bakersfield, which once brimmed with Dust Bowl refugees, now is more than 50% Hispanic. Like the Okies that brought their music (Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart) and culture to California, the Mexicans, also looking for a better life, have transformed much of the Golden State as well.

The Times’ story is remarkably empathetic. Then I realized one likely reason: The writer, Hailey Branson-Potts, grew up in Perry, Oklahoma.

(Image of the Weedpatch Library in Weedpatch, California, in 2006 by Howard Owens via Flickr)

3 thoughts on “End of an era: Final Dust Bowl Festival held at Weedpatch Camp

  1. This is an unparalleled chapter of our history, ten years of agony with a lifetime of scarring of the survivors. Just watched the Ken Burns Dust Bowl documentary and it was so moving.

  2. What the officials in California did to those Dust Bowl Migrants back then was reprehensible and utterly inhuman. I would also argue that it was blatantly unconstitutional. It’s unfortunate that those individuals have evaded justice to this day.
    That being said, there is one glaringly obvious distinction between the Dust Bowl migrants and those that cross our border illegally – the “Okies” were US citizens.
    The so-called “Mexican Migrants” you referred to in the article, a good percentage of which today actually come from places south of Mexico, most often illegally crossed an international border without proper documentation. Not the same league, most likely not even the same sport.
    What the Dust Bowl Migrants went through should be remembered, and as such, should also be put into context – and your gratuitous, one-sided reporting doesn’t help much at all.

  3. When writing “What the officials in California did to those Dust Bowl Migrants back then was reprehensible and utterly inhuman. I would also argue that it was blatantly unconstitutional. It’s unfortunate that those individuals have evaded justice to this day”, Brando V should remember that all the people involved – the Dust Bowl migrants, the Californian officials, the Works Progress Administration, any policemen – all were all the result of European invasions of north America. They or their ancestors had driven off the rightful owners of the land, put them in “reservations”, attacked and killed many of them in the so-called Indian Wars in the defence of their ancestral homes. Now all that was “reprehensible and utterly inhuman”.

    Brando V is correct in mentioning “gratuitous, one-sided reporting”. Where is the side of those who land was so badly managed agriculturally – in the name of farming exploitation – creating the entirely man-made dustbowl conditions caused by many of the migrants themselves?

    As for, “It’s unfortunate that those individuals have evaded justice to this day”, the same could be said of Washington, Lincoln, Custer and all the Europeans who took the same land from the aboriginal owners. That land theft was done largely under the Europeans’ grand constitution which Brando V thinks was abrogated in connection with how the Dust Bowl migrants were treated. So much more so the victims of the invasions of the whole continent.

    Despite what the Los Angeles Times reported, it was in the 1930s – not the 1940s.

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