** The Depression -- Dust Bowl response

American Dust Bowl: The Oakies (1930s)

Figure 1.--America faced the Great Depression during the 1930s. In the Middle oif the Depression, the people of the Southern Plains had toi cinfront the Dust Bowl. Those that fled bedcame known as the Oakies. The Oakie movement west went from a substantial movement to a mass exodus after Black Sunday (1935). Most headed west to California. The primary route was Highway 66 a large oart of which is now Interstate 40. They were not received with open arms in a state with its own Deression era problems. .

It should not be thought that the Dust Bowl storm was the only problem faced by the people of the Southern Plains. Many even before the rains stopped were facing serious priblems. Some were farming marginal land. And they were involved in a boom and bust farm economy. There was a long-standing agricultural depression that began after World War I in the 1920s when European countries devestated by the War no longer needed Amerucan relief shipments. As many as 10 percent of the farmers in the Souther Plains lost their farms due to foreclosure (1931-33). This and other data vaties from state to state. And tenant farmers who did not own their had little incentive. This was a substantial group. Tennant farmers were nore than half of the farmers in Oklahoma. [Mullins] The steadily falling porices which began long before the Wall Street Crash (1929) were another major problem. Another factor at play was the ongoing mechanization of American agriculture. This required small farms to be coverted to larger ones. Presudent Roosevelt's New Deal addressed agriculture as a priority. There were many agrucultural projects. One was the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The New Deal efforts did not always have the desired effects. The AAA program of paying farmers not to raise crops comminly resulted inm landowners taking their land out of production rasther than continue to engage tennant farmers. One Oklahoma source reports, "many tenants and small land-holding farmers, especially in southeastern Oklahoma, simply had a migratory habit. They had come to Oklahoma for opportunity and continued their pattern of seeking greater opportunities farther west." [Mullins] And of course when relatives and family friends left, the ties to the land were further diluted. Black Sunay turned a trickle of people from the Southern Plaons into a mass exodus. It would become the largest migration in American history from the Plains. They fled from the dust and a developing desert. They headed for Washington, Oregon and California hoping to find migrant labor jobs, working on other people`s lands. These were the Oakies because so many came from Oklahoma, perhaps the hardest hit state--but more accurately they were the farmers of the Southern Plains. They were not well received because the Dust Bowl developed in the middle of the Depression and large numbers of people in those states were out of work themselves. some stayed put and tried to weather it out. The Grapes of Wrath is about the Oakies, the ones who left, often in their cars. Many struck out for California hearing the jobs were available there. Actually most in the affected areas stayed. Incredibkly, some farmers attempted to fight the dust and wind. This included both prarie farmers and people in the small towns scattered throughout the Plains. This was more possible in the towns than on the farms. People were attached to their farms and remained and for several years prayed for rain. Many only left when unable to pay their mortgages, they lost ther farms. It was not at first understood that the Dust Bowl was not entiely a natural event, but a man-made disaster. Many families found ways to survive and hold on to heir land. Farm families packed what belongings they could into their cars piled aboard headed west. The fact that many farms had been somewhat profutabke when the rains came meant that that they had cars, nit the larest models, but tghey had cars. And the cars gave them mobility. The maiun highway head west toward Califirnia was route Route 66. It was also known as the Will Rogers Highway, the Main Street of America or the Mother Road. It was was one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System. Today miuch of it is Interstate 40. The Oakie movement west reached substabtil proportions after Black Subday (1935) and eaked between 1937 and 1938. Finally the recoivering economy fed by the War in Europe began creating jibs in America (1939). It is oftenb thought that the New Deal ended the Deoression. It did not, but the NBew Deal dud have major achievements. When the Oskies reached Barstow, California, they had a major choiice to make. They could follow Highway 66 into Los Angeles and seek cuty jobs. Or they could turn turn north toward California's rich Central Valley and seek agricultural jobs. About 40npercent of the Oakies (meaning refgugees from the Southern Plains) chose the route ton Los Angeles. They were not welcomed. Tthe Los Angeles police established what they called a 'bum blockade' at the state border to keep the Oakies out. Lawsuits and court orders reopened the borders. The Oakies that had skills might find a job. And the New Deal expabded relief efforts, called The Dole at the time. They first, hoewever, had to establish California residency. Many lived with family and friends. Jobs were at first hard to get. There was even the Roosevelt Recession (1937-38). But then the job markert opened up as war broke out in Eyrope (1939). Britain, France, and other countries placed orders in Ameruca. Oakies is the derisive term that was used for people from the Southrrn Plains fleeing the Dust Bowl. Oaklahoma was one of the states most severely affected by the Dust Bowl. It became a general term for all the people of the various states of the southern Plains. Many packed their belongings in a drecepit Modet T and headed west for California where there were rumors jons were available. At the time the term took on connotations of vagabonds or shiftless people. The term has since neen embraced by the people of Oaklahoma as describing a tough and resiliant people. They were the people Will Rodgers described when he said, "America was the first country to go to the poor house un an automobile." Actually Rodgers came from Oaklahoma himself and after moving to California and working in Hollywood quipped that the Okies arriving in California managed to increase the average intelligence of both states.


Mullins, William H. "Okie Migrations," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (Oklahoma Historical Society).


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Created: 2:16 PM 9/23/2021
Last updated: 2:16 PM 9/23/2021