As the “double whammy” of drought and depression deepened on the Great Plains, more and more farmers gave up or were forced off of their land. In addition, the relentless march of new tractors meant that the farmers who were able to scrape together enough money to buy a tractor could buy out their neighbors. Fewer farmers could farm more land. But where would those who left go?
Some went to cities. But many decided to head west. In fact, during the 30s hundreds of thousands left the plains for the West Coast. So many migrated from Oklahoma that they were dubbed “Okies” in the popular press. For years, California, Oregon and Washington had been growing. Many who were pushed off of the plains were pulled west because they had relatives who had moved to the coastal areas. And the boosters of California had advertised that the state offered a perfect climate and an abundance of work in the agricultural industry.
Florence Thompson (above) says she was one of the Okies. She and her family had left Oklahoma in 1925, before the Depression. The 30s made their situation worse. She and the family were following the migrant trail moving from place to place as crops became ready for harvest.
“It was very hard and cheap,” Florence said. “We just existed! We survived, let’s put it that way.”
California – the state that had once advertised for more migrant workers – found themselves overwhelmed by up to 7,000 new migrants a month, more migrants than they needed. So for several months in 1936, the Los Angeles Police Department sent 136 deputies to the state lines to turn back migrants who didn’t have any money. Bordering states like Arizona were angry that California was trying to “dump hoboes” back on them. Eventually, the police were returned to Los Angeles, but the migrants kept coming.
There was some work, especially in the new fields of cotton that were being planted in California – a crop that southern plains people knew a lot about. But there was not enough work for everyone who came. Instead of immediate riches, they often found squalor in roadside ditch encampments.
The plight of the Okies and other plains migrants caught the sympathy of people across the country. In part, this was because these migrants were white, in contrast to the Mexican and Filipino workers who supplied the “factory” farms with the seasonal labor needed before and after Okies arrived. The Okies also came in family groups and were in desperate straights, living in tents or out of the back of a car or truck.
Photographs were taken of the migrants from the Great Plains and published around the world. John Steinbeck visited a migrant camp in California and wrote a magnificent piece of fiction The Grapes of Wrath which still sells millions of copies today.
Florence Thompson says she, and many others, lived the life that Steinbeck dramatized. Their story is part of a larger story of migration into and out of the plains during the 30s.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.