|Placed Date||Jun 6 2004|
############ THE JALOPY JOURNEY ##############
History of Weedpatch Camp
(Arvin Federal Government Camp)
Written by Margaret Lutz for the Arvin Tiller/Lamont Reporter, October 20, 1999
Between 1935 and 1940 over one million people left their homes in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri to escape the wind, dust, and drought and set out for California on what was referred to then as the "Mother road", Route 66. They left their homes to find a better life for their families in California, where they heard there was a lot of work to be found picking crops, and where no one ever went hungry.
The Arvin Federal Camp, or the "Weedpatch Camp" began preparing for these "Okies" as they were being called in 1935. The land was leased to the United States Department Agriculture by Miss Bertha Rankin. A Managers house was built along with sanitary units, showers and laundry facilities, and spaces marked out for tents. These migrants were eager to settle at this camp because it was a clean and safe place to live. Safe because almost as soon as they crossed over the California border, they were ridiculed, rejected and shamed. They learned the word "Okie" meant they suddenly were lower class people and scum. "Weedpatch Camp" was no paradise, but for the families who settled there, it was a vast improvement over the "Squatter" camps and their life on the road.
In 1936 this camp housed about 300 people in one room tin cabins and tents. It cost $1.00 a week to live there. The first report recorded by the camp manager was for the week ending January 4, 1936. In this log was entered the daily goings on at the camp, including work assignments and illnesses.
On July 24, 1937, Miss Rankin executed and delivered a Mortgage to the Bank of American National Trust. This property was deeded to the United States Department of Agriculture on august 9, 1938 for the sum of $1200.00.
In 1936 a newspaper reporter named John Steinbeck became interested in the plight of the "Okies." He stayed near the "Weedpatch Camp" in the neighboring community of Weedpatch, California, and began gathering material for his controversial novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." Within weeks this novel hit the best seller list and by the end of the year, 500,000 copies had been sold. Although this book was once called an "obscene work of fiction," banned, and taken off library shelves, today many teachers at schools and universities call this book the "greatest American novel ever written." It won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. The movie rights were bought and some of the footage for the movie were filmed at the "Weedpatch Camp." The buildings which were partially shown were by the W.P.A. in 1935.
Families at that time were large, and many of the residents of the Camp were children. At school they were regarded by their teachers and fellow students alike as stupid and retarded, and were taunted by the clothing they wore which was ragged or ill fitting. Many went to school bare footed.
In 1939, newly elected Kern county Superintendent of Schools, Leo B. Hart became interested in the plight of the students from the Camp. He knew that given a chance, these children could be adjusted into society. He visited with these children regularly in a field adjacent to the Camp. The situation got so bad that teachers and other parents did not want these "Okie" children in the public schools. In 1940, Mr. Hart determined that these children should have their own school. This story is told in Jerry Stanley's Children of the Dust Bowl.
The Weedpatch Camp became the Sunset Labor Camp. On February 6, 1958, it was taken over by Kern County and on May 24, 1965 it was deeded over to the Kern County Housing authority.
Wooden frame buildings have replaced the tin buildings and tents, but the original Post Office, the Library and the large Community Building still are there in a fenced off area. They are in good condition but the Kern County Housing Authority plans to restore them to their original condition as closely as possible. This Camp now houses migrant workers from April to September.
Former Lamont librarian Doris Weddell became fascinated with this period in our history. She started collecting books, photographs and newspaper articles. Memorabilia was also donated to her by visitors to the Dust Bowl Room at the Lamont Library. In the past years, attention to the Dust Bowl Era has grown. The Dust Bowl Collection is being used more and more by teachers, students and historians and is getting world wide attention. Those migrants who came to California during the 1930s and 1940s are coming back to where it all began and many who revisit the Weedpatch Camp say they find their visit a "cleansing experience." Today they are proud to be called "Okies."
An exerpt from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:
“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate-died of malnutrition-because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
The Weedpatch Camp structures are the last to survive of all the many Hoovervilles and other such camps in California. To take a look at these remaining structures, head east on Highway 58 from Bakersfield towards Techachapi. Take the Weedpatch Highway exit and take it through Lamont and Weedpatch, turning left onto Sunset Boulevard. What was once the Weedpatch Camp is now the Arvin Migrant Center on the right side of the street. Northeast of the complex are the few remaining structures (the post office, library and community center). The largest building is the community center. Walk to the northeast corner of this large, old building and located the ancient cooler propped up on a wooden frame next to two volunteer trees. Underneath the cooler is a ventilation screen for the crawlspace under the building. A small hole has been worn in this screen and is used as a stray cat through-way. Reach within this hole to the left and you will find a see-through bright pink letterbox.
**UPDATE** The Weedpatch Camp is currently under changes. It will soon be a museum, but for now a new chain-link fence has been set around the perimeter. Only be special access can this box be reached. Contact Doris Weddell, Librarian, Lamont Library to access buildings.