In the 1930s a severe drought that was to last almost seven years ravaged the windy panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma, parts of Kansas arid beyond. Terrifying dust storms swept across the land.
Farmlands crumbled into great dunes of shifting sands. Topsoil blew away. Smothering “black blizzards” clogged the roads, invaded the houses, choked the livestock, wiped out the harvests, half-buried trees, farm buildings and machinery under mounds of sandy black grit. They called it “The Dust Bowl.” Families were left destitute and suffering. Thousands and thousands of farmers went bankrupt. It was one of the worst environmental disasters in history—adding further to the misery of The Great Depression.
In 1935-36, refugees of The Dust Bowl fled westward, in ancient family jalopies piled high with their possessions. They streamed into California and Oregon, where they competed for jobs with West Coast migratory “fruit tramps” who followed the harvest from California’s Imperial Valley up through the San Joaquin Valley, the Willamette Valley, and into the valley of Oregon’s Hood River and the Yakima Valley of Washington.
Locals called the incoming refugees “Oakies.” When wave after wave of “Oakies” poured into California, where jobs in the fields were already scarce, the farm labor market became glutted.
The new migrants often met with violence from bands of local vigilantes as well as hostile deputies.
In Oregon, however, folks received The Dust Bowl families with greater sympathy. I remember vaguely an occasion when my grandmother took part in some kind of canning festival in nearby Gresham for the benefit of drought victims. Both of my grandparents had worked in the fields alongside the migrants. They knew the life.
I came to know the “0akies” myself, during the time I worked the cherry crop with my grandparents and we stayed in a migrant workers’ camp along the banks of the Clackamas River. I worked alongside the migrants again during my high school fruit picking days in the Willamette Valley and again, later on, up in the Hood River Valley apple country.
I thought they “talked fanny.” But there was a kind of music to their voices. I always found the “Oakies” to be good, friendly, hard-working people.