Skip to main content

Faces From The Past—xi

July 2024
3min read

Behind was the road, fifteen hundred miles of concrete stretching eastward to the past. Back home they had had three bitter years, each worse than the one before. All the way from the Dakotas to the Rio Grande, men said, the same wind blew, working away at the dried-out crust of the Gelds, loosening the dirt, carrying it off in whistling swirls, gathering strength until great brown clouds swooshed off with an angry roar. On Armistice Day in igg; the sky was dark as far cast as Albany, New York, and a red, poker-chip sun hung over the plains. Men and women huddled in their houses, tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths when they went outside, and children choked on the dust. When the wind wasn’t blowing, the dust lay like fog, sifting down endlessly, piling up on houses and fence posts, smothering what few plants survived.

Always before there had been someplace a man could go when things went wrong—forests unimaginably rich, streams running clear, grass for grazing. And a man who owned an acre of ground could look a stranger in the eye or tell him to go to hell. Now the land was used up: where there had been trees there were millions of stumps, rivers were choked with sewage and trash, and year after year the topsoil blew away on hot summer winds or ran off with the snow and spring Hoods. Great chunks of the continent had turned to hardpan or dust, and families that once owned the land worked it now for someone they didn’t even know. Debtridden, their only harvest weeds and misery, they were hated in the towns, where they applied for relief or looked for jobs. Finally there was nothing to do but move.

Leaving home meant weighing the memories of generations, sorting out family belongings, paring them down to what would fit into one crowded vehicle. Farm tools and equipment and animals were sold for next to nothing. All the non-essentials had to go—chest of drawers, stove, scraplxx)ks, toys, pillows, old letters, lamps. Next they needed a car, and in every town were hard-eyed, fast-talking men with jalopies for sale at a price. As fast as they could find them, dealers sold the old wrecks, squeezing every penny they could out of the desperate, impoverished men who were departing. When they had gone, nature usurped their homes: birds and bats and field mice moved into the deserted shells, the dust settled permanently on the floor, piling up, covering every trace of the people who had lived there.

Westward they drove, heading for a Promised Land in the tradition of their forebears, jamming Routes 66 and go and the old Spanish Trail in dilapidated cars and trucks piled high with people and possessions. Out of Arkansas and Oklahoma went unending streams of them, joined at each new crossroad by more grotesque arks feeding into the main stream of Route 66. Refugees no less than people who flee in the path of a conquering army, they were fugitives in their homeland, running from a nameless force, running because in their own country there was no one who undcistood them or their problem or wanted to help. On the road they fell into the old ways of pioneers, rolling all day, stopping at night near water, congregating for company and comfort in little groups. At night by the fire, storytellers and guitar players talked and sang until the coals turned white and it was time to lied down for the night. In the morning tents were struck, pots and pans and beds were loaded back onto the cars, and the chuHing, cranky heaps started off again, their drivers solemn-faced, wary, worrying about a weak tire, a noisy valve, wondering if the old wreck would hold together until the next town.

Westward, ever westward they chugged, across the Texas Panhandle, the New Mexico mountains, the Rio Grande, the high mountains of Arizona, over the Colorado, into the terrible desert, mountains again, a pass, then suddenly, the Promised Land—the lush, sun-warmed valleys of California. Hut where they had hoped to find a new home and a new life they found only thousands of others like themselves, camped in Hoovervilles at the edges of town. Hatred they found, too, hatred born of the fear and contempt that men of property so often have for those who have nothing. Yearning for food and a piece of land, they saw food and land along every road, but none of it for them. Sheriffs and deputies, bully boys with guns and clubs, came to push the squatters ont, move them along, “keep ’em in line,” calling them commies and dirty reds along with the contemptuous “Okie.” Always the children were hungry, dirty, tired, and sick, and still the migrants came by the thousands. There were ten pairs of hands, twenty sometimes, for every job. and men who had learned their farming on the plains found that things were different here: the California ranches were food factories, not farms, and when the peaches were picked, there was no more work on that place until they ripened again, so you had to look for the next crop, move fast to catch another harvest—walnuts, apricots, grapes, celery—whatever it was and wherever you found it. Along the highways were signs: “Cotton Pickers Wanted,” “Pea-Pickers Wanted,” but so many wanted work that the price of labor went lower and lower. Who was fool enough to pay laborers twenty-five cents an hour when hundreds of men stood by, pleading to work for twenty?

All these things and more the woman had seen when Dorothea Lange, the photographer, came upon her at Nipomo. It was March of igg6 and the woman was stranded: the pea crop had frozen, there was no work, and for days she and the children had lived on frozen vegetables from the fields and the few birds they could kill. Now she had sold the tires from the car to buy food. The picture-taking didn’t bother her; she seemed to think it might help someone else. Anyhow, it couldn’t hurt.

Richard M. Ketchum

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.