By 1933, nearly fifteen million American were unemployed and half of America’s banks were closed. Oklahoma had turned into a Dust Bowl. Crops just weren’t growing and the red dirt was blowing through the air whipping around and making life even harder on all the poor country people in Oklahoma. There was a mass exodus to California from Oklahoma of people looking for jobs. There were fliers everywhere talking about jobs in California. The Okies were all over California in large camps living in makeshift tents like refugees and still starving. They were all looking for work. There were big farms hiring workers and barely paying them, but it was work. The huge farms had rows of small wooden cabins with metal beds packed with people. There were company stores. The people had no money from the beginning, so the people opened up an account at the company store. The prices were high, but they were too far from town, and the people couldn’t get to town to shop around. The groceries cost more than the people made. The whole family had to work, parents and children. People were desperate to survive. There were people camped outside the gates of the farms that weren’t hired still looking for jobs. Fights broke out, men pulled knives and stabbed one another. They were stressed and hungry. The people back in Oklahoma didn’t know what was happening in California except that there were jobs, so they just kept coming because they wanted to eat.
Charles had grown up in Oklahoma when it was was called Indian Territory. Indian Territory was wild when he was growing up, and either Indians or criminals lived there. Charles had been there his whole life. His dad was the marshal to Indian Territory, and Charles had learned to carry a gun and to knife fight to protect himself. He grew up, got married, and became a barber. He was a town man, not a farmer like so many Okies were. He kept getting sick because of the red dust blowing through the air in Oklahoma. Every time Charles turned around, he had pneumonia. The doctor told him he had to get out of that red dust blowing through the air or he would end up dying. He had five kids. He had to make a living. The doctor recommended he go to California where the air was clean. He couldn’t drive. He had grown up riding horses and riding in covered wagons. He couldn’t just quit his job and take his wife and kids into the unknown, but the doctor told him if he wanted to live, he had to get out of Oklahoma. People weren’t getting their hair cut anymore anyway because they couldn’t afford it. His family had become so poor that one winter they ate nothing but potatoes. He felt forced out of Oklahoma. He had to think it out. He had no money. How could he get to California where there was clean air and jobs?
He decided to leave his family in Oklahoma and go alone to make a place for them. How does a man who doesn’t drive and has no money take a trip? He jumped a train and traveled to California in the luggage compartment dodging the porter and the law. If he got hungry along the way, he had learned there were houses that were marked for the men who had to travel on the trains. He could go there to get something to eat from compassionate people. He came on a house in the wee hours of the morning one morning that was marked. The door was unlocked, and he thought everyone was asleep. A little girl was in the kitchen as he let himself in, but the rest of the family was asleep. He told the little girl he had come for something to eat. The little girl went to work. She made him biscuits and eggs. He filled himself, thanked her and then left. He jumped the train again and went on to California.
When he got to California, he found the mess of desperate starving people far away from home trying to get jobs. He got into one of the camps outside of a big farm waiting to get a job. He had to wait several weeks to get in. Someone got mad one night and pulled their knife on him, but he was quicker, and the man backed down. The next day, he was able to get into the farm and got a job. When he walked into the farm grocery store, he saw the prices and knew what they were doing.. He knew that if he stayed, he would be trapped because the groceries were so expensive he knew he would be unable to pay for them, so he left.
He finally got a job at a fruit farm he was satisfied with. He was given a house in the middle of the orchard. The house was full of snakes, mice, scorpions, and all kinds of critters. He had to clean it up so he could bring his family to live there. He got a big metal barrel, He filled it full of sulfur. He lit the sulfur on fire and left for a few days. The smell of the burning sulfur chased everything out of that old white wooden frame house that was in bad need of paint. After a few days, he went back to the house and cleaned it up and moved in. Since he was working on a fruit farm, for the first time, in a long time, he could keep fruit in his house. He needed money to send back to his family for them to come. He didn’t have a barber’s license for California, so he kept picking fruit. Some people learned he was a barber and asked him to cut their hair. He didn’t charge them, but cut their hair as a favor. They began leaving money on his kitchen table when he was done. He was able to save some money to send to his family in Oklahoma to join him.
Back in Oklahoma, his wife was struggling because she was taking care of five kids with very little money alone.. Her oldest son was nine years old, and he had helped her a lot with the little ones. She was thrilled to get the money and wanted to join her husband in California so badly! The money he sent wasn’t much, but she figured out how to get to California on it. There was another family wanting to go to California too. They bought a car together, each paying for half of the car. There wasn’t room for all her kids, but there had to be a way. The weather was so hot, and there was no air conditioning! She had cried a lot at night because she didn’t know how to feed her kids. She was desperate! She even prayed to God to go ahead and take her kids because she couldn’t feed them. She was so happy to get the money to go to California even if it was going to be a hard trip. When it was time to go, they piled all the belongings they could into the car., but everyone wasn’t going to fit. Her oldest son would have to ride outside of the car. The car had a running board, and he had to stand on the running board holding on by the open window. He road all the way to California like that.
It was a long, hard, hot trip, but they finally got to California. They went to the little wooden house in the middle of the orchard. They had a new home! As the kids went into the house, the dad, Charles, had put a bowl of peaches from the orchard on the cabinet. They had never seen peaches! They couldn’t believe their eyes!! There was not only food in the house, but peaches! They couldn’t wait to try them! They were so luscious ! They were eating the most expensive thing they had ever had! The children felt like kings feasting on the peaches! They grew up working in the fields, and all the money they made went to supporting the family. They were never rich, but they all ate from them on. This is the story of so many Okies in he 1930’s.