“The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.” In this plaint from the Gospel of St. Matthew, one has only to substitute “migrant labor” for “Son of Man” to describe the situation of California’s migratory labor — “interstate” and foreign-born — during the ‘30s. For the unattached male “hobo” or “bindlestiff” there were barracks, supported in part by state and federal funds. But a family, new to the state, penniless and without California relatives and friends, would be thrown into one of the tent communities collecting along ditchbanks.
“Transients in California,” a report of the Division of Special Surveys and Studies, State Relief Administration of California, 1936, described the ditchbank community: “In Imperial County, many families were found camping out by the side of irrigation ditches, with little or no shelter. One such family consisted of the father, mother, and eight children. The father hoped there would be some work in the valley later in the year. The mother had tuberculosis and pellagra, and it was because of her health that the family came to California. One of the children had active tuberculosis. The family had no home but a 1921 Ford. The mother was trying to chop some wood for the fire. A meat and vegetable stew was being cooked in a large, rusty tin can over a grate supported by four other can. A cupboard and a table had been constructed of boxes. There were no toilet facilities, Nature’s needs being attended to behind bushes. Some water was brought from the ice plant in El Centro for drinking purposes, but for cooking and washing, water from the irrigation ditches was used. The family had been sleeping on the ground. The mother told the worker on the survey that she had been known as the best housekeeper in her home town…”
Some larger growers set aside land on which a worker might pitch a tent or unroll blankets. Others rented shacks to workers, with rent usually one dollar per week. Typically, shacks were without water, power, heat, often without even outdoor pit toilet facilities. For toilets, foot-deep holes were dug in earth and then covered up with burlap or cardboard, or people would simply “go” behind shacks and bushes. In better camps, one shower and one chemical toilet served up to 200 people. Workers bought food, usually with IOUs or “brass” money, from company stores, where prices ran high, quality low.
Privately owned auto-trailer parks offered accommodations and fees as various as their owners. Some California counties, notably Madera, built public camps for housing migrants. But county-run public camps were a rarity. It would be fair to say that most “Okie” migrants lived in vicious squalor.
By the mid-'30s, Californians had come to recognize that the “interstate” migrant, or “Okie,” was a phenomenon new to the state. Statistically, this migrant was a family man with a wife of childbearing age and 2.8 children. He was destitute. He was here to stay.
In the winter of 1934 -35, Paul Taylor, a University of California economics professor, serving as consultant to the state’s Department of Rural Rehabilitation, was asked to help the department determine how the new migrants could best be helped. Taylor, whose area of expertise was migrant labor, recognized that a documented statement of need would be required. Facts and figures, of course, had been piling uo on desks. Something more persuasive was needed. Taylor asked to be assigned a photographer – Dorothea Lange. (She would later become his second wife.)
Taylor, two Cal graduate students, and Lange drove through the state, interviewing and photographing migrant families. Research complete, Taylor recommended that California build camps to house the state’s 200,000 migrant farm workers. The camps, to be located along the migratory route, would allow these new migrant families to maintain a home in one place and their children to stay in one school. (When migrants’ children did attend school, five, six, even seven moves within one school year were not uncommon.)
Early 1935, when talk of building migrant camps began to be bruited about, was not the most auspicious of times for such an idea. During 1933 and 1934 in the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys, the Communist-affiliated Trade Union Unity League had organized and led massive strikes among Mexican field workers. California growers were still smarting. Conservative California Republicans in the state assembly and their constituents did not look kindly on such a program.
In March of 1935, the director of California’s Rural Rehabilitation Department nevertheless requested the federal government give $100,000 for the “erection of camps for migratory laborers in California.” The $100,000 would be used to “take care of California conditions growing out of the preponderant element of landless wage laborers in the rural population, the arm of migrant workers which moves en masse from place to place for one harvest after another along a 700 mile trek; and the flood of drought refugees from the stricken states of the Middlewest.”
In spring of 1935, claiming Communist union organizers would turn camps into hubs of radical activity, that local taxes for schools and law enforcement would rise, that migrants would spread physical and moral contagion, California growers lobbied so effectively against the camps that construction was delayed. Then in May, the Department of Rural Rehabilitation was assumed into the Federal Resettlement Administration, headed by Rexford G. Tugwell (anti-New Dealers called him “Red” Rex).
On one hand New Deal Washington found the migrant camp plan attractive: on another they feared federally supported camps amounted to government subsidy for California’s large growers. In August of 1935, from a budget of $91 million intended for the entire U.S., Tugwell assigned $10 million to Region IX (consisting of California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona).
By summer of 1935, using the initial $100,000 applied for and won earlier in the year, the first migrant camp was built in Yuba County outside Maryville, and that fall, in Kern County at Arvin, construction began on a second camp. (In the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, the government camp scenes were shot in the Arvin camp.)