In the 1930s, Nature and human folly joined forces to turn America’s fertile Great Plains to fields of dust.
Several years of high rainfall, the application of new, more efficient sowing and harvesting technologies, and higher demand for produce—these sparked optimism among midwest farmers. They plowed more deeply than ever, stripping off protective layers of Buffalo grass. Rather than rotate fields, every available acre was pressed into service. All seemed to point toward abundance.
Then, starting in 1931, dark clouds which gathered at the horizon and lumbered north, rich (or so it seemed) with the promise of rainfall, inexplicably passed over the Plains leaving a mere spatter of droplets. This was true, in Steinbeck’s language, for both “the gray country” and “the dark red country.” But the sun blazed on and the winds came with merciless fury.
In Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado, with the topsoil stripped away, winds raised the dust to mighty clouds. The sun scorched the earth and the crops died. The year which had begun with the hope of an Edenic abundance, ended in an apocalyptic landscape. And it continued for ten years. On Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, the worst storm of all hit, convincing some that Armageddon had arrived. Surrounded by this pessimism, Woody Guthrie wrote his song, “So long, it’s been good to know you.”
In some regions of the Plains, 75 percent of the topsoil was gone with the wind by decade’s end. Great black clouds often reached as far as New York and Boston. One two-day storm in 1934 deposited 12 million pounds of dust on Chicago.
After the dryness had taken life from the ground, many of the people left. In great waves they left. In jalopies, Model-Ts, and trucks, they packed up their lives and moved, sometimes to the next town, sometimes to the next county, sometimes the next state, looking for work and food.
Tens of thousands of families abandoned their scorched farms. Between 1930 and 1940, the so-called “Dirty Thirties,” 3.5 million people—farmers, mechanics, carpenters, and businessmen—moved from the Plains States.
Many of them migrated to California. Many of those who braved it past border signs like, “Okies go home!” found that the Great Depression had crushed employment opportunities in California also, and people were struggling there.
The federal government responded by setting up farm labor camps for migrant workers. What would become one of the most famous camps, the setting from much of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, still sits today on Sunset Boulevard in Arvin/Lamont, in the Shadow of Bear Mountain.
Government had stoked the flames of agricultural optimism and, facing problems which seemed insurmountable, most looked to government for help.
The Roosevelt administration created the Surplus Food Commodity Cooperation in 1933, and it bought surplus foods like flour, rice, oats, pinto beans, butter, milk, beef, and pork from struggling farmers. The goods were packaged and canned and distributed to needy families. There was also a housing crisis in the country, to which the Dust Bowl contributed its misery, worsening the economic depression.
To address the problem of people living in their vehicles, in roadside tents, and in disease-ridden squatter camps, Roosevelt established, by executive order, the Resettlement Administration (RA, later to become the Farm Security Administration) in May of 1935. The mission of its administrator involved approving projects “for resettlement of destitute or low-income families from rural and urban areas… [Executive Order 7027].”
The country’s first resettlement community—sometimes called a “migrant camp”—was opened on June 28, 1935 in Marysville, CA. The second opened six months later just south of Bakersfield in the Arvin/Lamont area.
Its official government name is the Arvin Farm Labor Supply Center and when it first opened, it consisted of canvas tents set atop plywood platforms. The tents were replaced later by 12-foot by 20-foot tin cabins and, still later, the box-like wooden homes that stand today.
“To us, though, it was always Sunset Camp,” said Suzanne Garrison, a local teacher, who works weekly with her mother, Sharon Garrison, to renovate the three remaining original buildings at the community: a small library, post office, and recreational building.
Sharon Garrison was born at the camp in 1946 and spent her childhood there. She is a member of the Dust Bowl Committee, which sponsors the annual Dust Bowl Festival each October (this year, it’s October 17).
“I’ve lived in Bakersfield forty-four years,” she said, standing within the renovated original camp Post Office, “but this was home.”
Her memories are vivid of her childhood there, but bereft of some of the violent and oppressive circumstances of Steinbeck’s fiction. Every item she examines within the preserved buildings triggers a recollection: an old rug beater, a bread box, a baby doll, a photograph of an airplane which became, for a time, classrooms for Sunset School.
“When I remember things the way they were here,” she said, “I don’t remember a lot of bad times. What I do remember is that there was abundance somehow and, if you had an abundance, you shared it with your neighbor.”
Elizabeth Strickland, a Florida author (and 1963 graduate of Bakersfield High School), worked in the fields harvesting crops for nearly twenty years, listening intently to the stories of migrant laborers. She collected many of those stories, along with research in primary sources, for her 2008 book, From the Arvin Migrant Camp to the American Dream. She noted that each government camp, including Sunset Camp, had a camp manager who administered duties according to a written “procedure manual,” and a Camp Committee which governed in a more or less democratic fashion.
“Migrant resettlement camps,” she wrote, “offered many services for the residents: medical and dental care, religious services, a children’s day care nursery, general store…community newspapers, adult education classes,” and other amenities.
Strickland quotes one of those she interviewed, Wayne Slusser, who describes his first night at the camp recreation center, after a harrowing trip from Oklahoma: “By the time the dance was over that night, I loved the Arvin Camp. It was the most modern place I had ever been, and they partied and danced every Saturday night.”
Over time, the “Okies” blended into the communities to which they had come as the dispossessed. They bought homes, started businesses, entered politics, developed their own special music (the “Bakersfield Sound”). Local musicians Red Simpson and Jimmy Phillips are former Sunset residents and set down roots much deeper than the Buffalo grasslands from which they had wandered. Some of them even became “depities.”
Since its earliest days, the Sunset camp has welcomed other migrant workers, many from Mexico and Central America.
Today, the little village, still standing east of the Weedpatch Highway, on the south side of Sunset, in the shadow of Bear Mountain, is home to a moving community of workers, sometimes as many as 500.
And still, they are all workin’ together.