Okie Life in California

Desperate for jobs, and tired of struggling to eke out a living on their dying farms, Okies, Arkies, Texies and Missies turned to bulletins sent by California farmers promising an abundance of farm work opportunities in the Golden State ("Voices" 3). 300,000 Okies set off for California in search of work ("Voices" 3). Mr. Tom Higgenbotham chose to make the journey to California because he and his family had " worried [their] head[s] off for the last five or six years trying to make everything meet, andwere getting tired of worrying" ("Voices" 2). When they got to California, however, instead of family farms where they could lend a hand until they obtained some land of their own, the Okies found, as Mr. T.H. Watkins states eloquently, "land monopoly and agriculture on an industrial scale" (Watkins 98). As a result most Okies assimilated into the urban culture and areas of California, sacrificing their farming roots for greater economic security (Watkins 98). It was only a small minority of Okies-about 110,000, who went to the rural, agricultural areas in and around the San Joaquin Valley (Watkins 98).


The experiences of these rural farm-worker Okies in California was the main factor in shaping their developing California-Okie culture. Unfortunately, it was common for these experiences to be unpleasant. The Okies who went to the San Joaquin Valley went there primarily because farm work was familiar to them (Gregory 53). To lure them, California farmers had originally sent out flyers because the professionalized agriculture of California needed, as historian James Gregory puts it, a "reliable pool of temporary workers who could move about the state with the rhythms of the growing season" (Gregory 56). Okies provided just such a pool and soon numbered nearly half the state's migrant farm workers (Watkins 93).

As migrant farm workers, Okies proved themselves to have a vigorous work ethic in their daily struggle to make enough money to survive on. They worked and traveled in families, harvesting crops familiar to them, like cotton, potatoes and peas as well as new fruits and vegetables that they had never seen before (Gregory 56). Mr. Loop and his son "had never sprayed an apple tree in [their lives] and never knew anything about it," but took jobs in apple orchard anyway and made 30 cents an hour for their labor ("Voices" 3). Many Okies worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for starvation wages with which they could barely support themselves, let alone an entire family (Stanley 24). In addition to having to accustom themselves to an entirely new range of crops, Okies also had to contend with ethnic strictures in their jobs. California had a long history of using immigrant ethnic minorities for its farm labor: Chinese, Japanese and more recently Mexicans were thought to be well-suited for so-called "stoop labor." Except for cotton, potatoes and peas, Okies were not hired for field work, which was relegated to non-whites only (Gregory 56). They did "ladder-work" (fruit picking), an occupation with which they had very limited experience (Gregory 56).


Whether picking fruit or doing field work, all migrant Okies needed a place to stay. When they first arrived in California, migrant Okies lived in ditch camps set up by farmers in the ditches beside roads. Mr. Loop reflected how he, his wife and his son, while spraying apples lived in a farmer-provided " little cabin which [one] could throw a cat through the roof, and the stove was just about ready to fall down" ("Voices" 3). The ditches were unsanitary and often covered in a permanent layer of water and mud ("Voices" 3). Many Okies living in the ditches suffered from pellagra, asthma or other lung diseases ("Voices" 3). In 1936, however, the Farm Security Administration (a New Deal program) saw the need for relief and began construction of 12 camps in the San Joaquin Valley for migrant Okie families (Stanley 1). (See Appendix B.) According to Mr. Charles Todd, who was hired by the Library of Congress to document the camps, they "began as just tent camps, then metal shelters, but they had excellent recreation facilities and a big hall for entertainment, and even had a library" ("Voices" 6). Each camp held 2,000 to 3,000 people, cost $1 a week in rent, had hot showers, flush toilets, breakfast for children for 1 cent a day and a one year maximum occupancy rule ("Voices" 3). Mr. Higgenbotham, an occupant of one of the camps opined that "the government [had] never spent a dollar that's done the people more good than [the] government camps" ("Voices" 6). Some Okies who had saved up enough money bought small land lots and built themselves homes on subdivisions (Gregory 72). The subdivisions were apart from the core community, however, and some lacked even a decent water supply.


Another part of the Okie experience was discrimination. Most camps and subdivisions were located close to towns or small cities and Okies encountered much discrimination and bigotry when dealing with local Californians ("The Dispossessed" 592). Okies competed with residents for jobs and their presence led to increased taxes (the sanitation budget, education cost, and property tax all rose with the sudden influx of Okies) ( Behrens 1). Farmers who hired Okies were often especially cruel. California-Okie Mr. Augustus commented that "those ranchers, it got to be that if [the Okies] talked back or even sang in the orchards or talkedsomebody else picking therewould come up to [the Okies] and tell [them], 'You'd better shut up, you're not supposed to sing; you're not supposed to whistle; you're not supposed to do anything,' like peons" ("Voices" 5). Farms produced more food than could be picked or sold, yet instead of allowing the starving Okies to have some of the surplus, farmers burned it to make Okies move on (Stanley 34). Some hospitals would not treat Okies or their children and in schools, many times Okie students were ignored or harassed by teachers and bullied by classmates (Stanley 34). Okies were viewed with such suspicion that they were even equated with that entity most terrifying to Americans: Communist spies. The mayor of Brawley, California said of the camp near his town that "[t]he whole proposition [was] Communist through and through. It [stunk] of Russia. [The] women [of Brawley would] not be safe on the streets with [the Okies]. [The people of Brawley] never wanted [a] camp in [their town]" ("Voices" 5). Furthermore, he commented, the "bulletins which [the Okies] said [Californians] sent out to get [the] migrants [to California], they [were] the work of the Communist Party, [they'd] checked on it. The Reds [were] burrowing from within"
("Voices" 5).

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