There is a photograph taken just outside my grandparents home. Its a man, a Hobo, a Bindlestiff, walking up Shannon Hill. Mount Picacho is in view just a the top of the grade. Cramer William’s home is nestled under a copse of trees on the right. The man wears bagged trousers, cuffs rolled above working mans shoes, a flat cap on his head. Slung over his right shoulder is a rucksack with all his worldly belongings, over his left, his bedroll. He’s walking away from yesterday, towards tomorrow.
Okies, Arkies, people starved out of Missouri and Texas have driven and walked half way across our country hoping for some opportunity so they could feed their families. The Haas family who worked for my grandfather, uncle, father and Ed Taylor came on an old broken down Model T truck from Joplin, Missouri, or “Missoura” as they called it. Ma and Pa, three teenage boys and sis. All their furniture, mattresses, a couple spare tires and what ever belongings they could stuff into every nook and cranny. They might as well have been the Joads or a least the family they were modeled on. We knew them. They were “Baked out, blown out and broke.” When they crossed the Colorado River in to California they saw the signs, “Turn Around, No Jobs in California.
There is no telling his age. He could be 30, he could be 60. If I was to guess, he’s just left my grandmothers kitchen door. Cap in hand, “If you please Ma’m, I’m lookin for work, mebbe a bite to eat? Sandwich in hand he walked up to the dairy barn and had a conversation with my grandfather who must have had no work. He’s headed towards the Nipomo pea fields, maybe his luck will improve. The migrant camp is under Eucalyptus trees on the old Rancho Dana where peas and beans are grown every year. A job there pays a few cents for each hamper filled. Men, women and children crawling on their hands and knees through the rough adobe fields, but they have to get by somehow and here, this, this is the somehow.
When FDR became president the country was in dire straights. Millions were unemployed. Not just unemployed but unemployable because the industries they had worked in were now gone and in many cases never to return. The tenant farmers in Oklahoma and Texas were “tractored out,” their leases cancelled, their houses bulldozed, the land consolidated for farming on a large scale. In the dust years, even those farms failed. Too much wind, dust storms brought by the devil as punishment for what they didn’t know. The cotton and rice fields of Louisiana and Mississippi lay fallow and the sharecroppers gone, unable to make even a trace of a living off the exhausted land. In Oklahoma alone more than 20% of the population fled the state, mostly headed west.
The financial system was in tatters. Credit was almost non-existent, the vast majority of local banks had failed, unable to meet the demands of their depositors. Congress slashed the budget of the military. The Army practiced their maneuvers with big wooden boxes mounted on Model T Fords and called them Tanks. The US Army was ranked 17th among the world military powers. The Navy, under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Conference was scrapping more warships than they were building. The Army Air Corps was practically non-existent. Young men in particular had few opportunities in the military, schools or jobs other than subsistence work. Families literally put their older children out because they couldn’t feed the. Other kids left home to spare the family. William Wellman, one of the finest movie makers of the time and a great story teller made the best film about those kids. “Wild boys of the Road,” which premiered in 1933, is a film, not in the least romantic but gritty and mean and presents an honest look at those kids.
A story told by Franklin Roosevelt, a wealthy educated man is of his future bride Eleanor taking him down to the settlement house on the lower east side of Manhattan where she volunteered working with destitute mothers and giving him a tour. It was their first date and says a lot about both of them. He later said he had no idea that people lived like that. It colored his views for the rest of his life. The Roosevelt government recognized that something must been done and it needed to be on a massive scale. Working with congress numbers of programs were put in place to boost employment. Federal projects such as the Hoover dam on the Colorado River which was to irrigate southern California and send water into the Los Angeles which stimulated growth. The Grant Coulee Dam on the Columbia River provided electricity and water for wheat growing in the Palouse area of Washington state. The Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri. One of the most famous and successful projects begun by the federal government during the Great Depression was the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA. … The TVA aimed to help reduce these problems by teaching better farming methods, replanting trees, and building dams.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a voluntary public works relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942. It was for for unemployed, unmarried men ages 18–25 and eventually expanded to ages 17–28. The American public made the CCC the most popular of all the New Deal programs. the CCC led to improved physical condition, heightened morale, and increased skill levels. The CCC also led to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors and the nation’s natural resources, and the continued need for a carefully planned, comprehensive national program for the protection and development of our natural resources. About three million men served in the corps until it was discontinued by act of congress in the spring of 1942. Those three million boys went to war, an invaluable resource for the military.
CCC projects are scattered throughout San Luis County and Arroyo Grande. The roof of the Paulding Middle School gym is a CCC project. My dad worked along with CCC boys and other local men to build it. The retaining wall along east Branch street by the same school is another. The old Odd Fellows Cemetery wall was also built by the CCC. As you drive around the back roads you can still see culverts and bridges with the CCC or WPA stamp on the concrete.
A lesser known outcome of these attempts to jumpstart the economy were a variety of programs to support the arts. People were sent into Appalachia and the deep south to find a and record old timey music before it was lost forever. They sought out storytellers and recorded legends and fables that were about to be lost. The old timers who knew them would soon be gone and that part of our heritage simply gone. Actors troupes were formed and toured small towns across America bringing Shakespeare and the plays of the greatest writers to all corners of the U S. Painters were employed to paint murals in public buildings. They went out across the country to record our marvelous natural resources. Photographers loaded their cars and set out to document the life of the people.
Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White photographed cities and farms. Maynard Dixon, and Georgia O’Keefe painted and Diego Rivera created murals. Their work is now cataloged in the National Archives, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
Two things I must say. First, the Republican and very conservative farmers I grew up with were not OK with these programs. I heard many disparaging comments about the CCC, the Works Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration which funded them at the Federal level. Resistance was intense at the congressional level each time they came up for renewal and all were eventually stricken from the federal budget. By 1946 they were all gone. “Waste of money they said, nobody cares about taking a bunch of pictures of Okies,” it’s government overreach. The government has no business telling us what to do. One of the things that always struck me about the time, was that my dad and grandfather would have been the first to pull a dollar from their pockets to help someone in need. They helped me learn the vast difference between casual spoken cruelty and who they really were. Socialism by the government, Socialism by the individual, there is a big difference between the two.
The second thing is this, families who lived and worked here volunteered meals, food and clothes to the refugee camps. A school was established for the children of migrants who lived in the camps. Today we have an elementary school that my wife taught at named for Dorothea Lange who took so many of her iconic photographs here. I’ve met her son who spoke at the dedication and presented a print of her most famous photograph to be hung in the school lobby. The photo that heads this piece is hers. Local people take a proprietary interest in her legacy. We are proud of her and by extension, proud of those she pictured.
All of the people mentioned here and many other who worked for the FSA left an indelible record of America. They worked for peanuts. They had no pension, no retirement and took a great deal of abuse in the conservative press. But what they left us has no equal. Those that opposed it are all dead now and mostly unremembered. History marches onward, constantly shedding, constantly adding.
The list that follows are some of the most iconic historians of all of those that worked for the FSA. You can Google all of them. Please do so.
Margaret Bourke- White