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LeBARON: 'Dust Bowl' sheds more light on Sonoma County history

Published: Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 2:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 2:14 p.m.

“All history is local history,” the pundits tell us. Which is exactly why local historians love it when filmmaker Ken Burns presents another PBS epic.

Oh, I know. Burns can get long and even repetitive. I know people who say that his monumental Civil War series took longer to watch than it took to happen.

But if you can stay alert, every new Burns topic provides the framework for an added chapter, a close-to-home addendum, to the subject at hand.

Sonoma County is well positioned for closer looks at Burns' big pictures. Well, maybe not Lewis & Clark, but certainly the Civil War, with all those generals — Halleck and Sherman and the immortal Joe Hooker — stationed on the Sonoma Plaza in the 1840s, keeping the peace in this new U.S. territory.

In the series on the West, we find a photograph of Santa Rosa House, the stage stop and gathering place of the 1850s that was central to the new town's business and social life. Never mind that the narrative misplaced it in early San Francisco. For people on the East Coast, that was close enough.

And now, this past week, it was Burns' two-part film about the Dust Bowl that brought another chapter of Sonoma County's history to life.

These are not untold stories, although I'm sure there are plenty of those still out there in families that just don't want to talk about those bad, old days. There have been various triggers to memory in recent years — the obituary for a man born in Quanah, a Texas town on the Oklahoma border, south east of Amarillo, that sent so many families West to get out of the drought and dust that, as one migrant told me years ago, “When we got to Camp Windsor there were more people from Quanah there than were left in Quanah.”

Sometimes it's a literary landmark, like the centennial of California writer John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath told the story of the migrants to the world and called up memories for the extended Crownover family of Santa Rosa, who started off in eastern Colorado and thought they'd found heaven when they reached the government camp in Sonoma County.

Let's face it, any old excuse to tell the old stories will do.

In Burns' film about what author Tim Egan calls “The Worst Hard Times” we hear the elders who were children when the family farm literally blew away and their lives were dominated by the choking dust and progressive poverty.

Many undertook the trip to California, which one woman called, referencing the Old Testament's “land of plenty,” “our Canaan Land.” They told about the rigors of the trip, in early-model automobiles that were already old when they began, of the officers at the state line trying to turn them back, of camping on the roadside to pick crops in the Imperial Valley, of the prejudice against “Okies” they found when they arrived.

Listening, I heard the voices of people I was fortunate enough to meet here more than 30 years ago. Of Opal Garrett remembering the chicken coop tied to the top of the car so “When we stopped, my mother would get out and gather eggs.” Of her brothers, who would jump out of the car to help push it up the steepest mountains. Of her father having to borrow $2 from a fellow traveler to pay for the ferry that would take them across the bay to the hop fields of Sonoma County — her father, who said he used to dream about heaven and “when he got to Sonoma County, he thought he'd found it.”

I was reminded of Jay Baker, the Gualala entrepreneur, who talked about the family's exodus from Arkansas and of standing back-to-back with his brothers on a California playground, fighting with the classmates who tormented them for their ragged clothes and their accents and called them Okies. “We were Arkies,” Jay would say, defiantly.

And there was Glen Crownover, who was 10 years old when they left Oklahoma, picking cotton though Arizona and being paid in food scrip, but not enough to live on. “We almost starved to death,” Glen told me, recalling also how relieved his mother, Jessie, was to reach Camp Windsor, with running water and sanitation and tent cabins with floors.

That story of joyous relief has been told and retold about Camp Windsor — not the German prisoner of war camp that it became during WWII, but the first Camp Windsor, the camp the Farm Security Administration built on Windsor River Road in 1938.

Sonoma County in the Great Depression years was ranked 10th in the nation in agricultural production. The agricultural dollars came from a variety of crops and products, from milk and butter to chickens to grapes, to almost everything that grew on trees, and to the almighty hop, grown with such success along waterways.

In the harvest season more than 20,000 workers, almost twice the population of Santa Rosa, were needed, for three months or more.

By the late 1930s, one-third of this labor force was Dust Bowl migrants. They stayed around. And their families are still here.

Burns' film makes it clear how the Dust Bowl experience altered lives, sometimes tragically, of the people involved.

In more subtle ways, this prairie disaster, half-a-continent away from Sonoma County, changed life here as well. Certainly, the arrival of the migrants added another, sturdy strand to that tapestry of people and cultures that make up the larger community.

So, thanks to you Ken Burns, for opening another window to our little world.

And, should you seek input about what you might focus on in the future, well, let me suggest the Japanese American experience.

We have a lot of amazing Sonoma County stories about that slice of America's past.

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