BAKERSFIELD, Calif.– Sharon Garrison has long fought the dust that comes up through the floorboards of the historic Weedpatch Camp Community Hall, but she has never been able to rid the room of the thin film that hangs on the displays.
Even on Saturday, as she made her way through the building, she was wiping laminated newspaper clippings clean with her fingers when she suddenly stopped to smile at some familiar faces.
“That’s Mom and Dad,” she said. “You know, people say that I look just like her, but I’m a little taller.”
Garrison has spent decades restoring the Weedpatch Camp’s three remaining historical buildings as a volunteer for the Dust Bowl Historical Foundation. For her, coming to the camp where she was born and raised is a family affair.
Weedpatch Camp is the home many Okies found when they arrived in California during the height of the Dust Bowl.
Her mother and fathere were among a group of migrant workers who moved to the community north of Hollywood that helped strengthen the Republican base in California. Bakersfield, unlike much of the rest of California, hasn't voted blue since 1964, but the demographics are changing. That may be changing in this year.
Her parents, like other Okies, came to California from Oklahoma fleeing the drought-stricken Southern Plains in the 1930s and 40s and joining a migrant movement travelling west along Route 66 in search of jobs and prospect.
Though the group was made up of travelers from throughout the South and Midwest, they came to be known by a single moniker – “Okies.”
If families were lucky, they settled in government sponsored labor camps, like Weedpatch, and worked in the fields. If not, they pitched tents.
“They would camp along the road getting their families here,” Garrison said remembering the shantytown that lined the road across from Weedpatch for about half a mile in either direction.
“It was extremely hard times.
She said for these people, living under a tin roof was a luxury if it meant a shower and protection from the elements after a long day in the fields.
In May, the Weedpatch Camp, now called the Arvan Farm Labor Supply Center, will reopen its doors to a group of mostly migrant workers originally from Mexico and Central America who travel through California every year in search of field work. The camp, which has operated continuously since 1936, now only operates durng the summer housing farm workers.
Just as today, Okie migrants in California’s Central Valley spent long hours bent over the carrots, potatoes and radishes they planted and harvested
The work was hard on their bodies and hard on their reputations. Garrison recalled bullying she faced in school, where they called her “Dirty Okie.”
Discrimination against migrants was common, said Seth Hammond, curator of the No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell, Oklahoma. Businesses hung signs that called for Okies to sit in the back, wait in a separate line or otherwise singling them out as less valuable than local patrons.
According to Garrison, the challenges the Okies faced were not unlike the challenges migrant laborers face today.
Though the tent cabins that Garrison lived in were torn down long ago and replaced by more contemporary lodgings, she couldn’t help but relate to the situation of today’s migrant workers to the situation her family faced growing up
“I was raised out in these fields, and I didn't want to go back to it,” she said. “It is hard, hard work. And I respect these people that do it. Really, they fight a battle. That's for sure.”
Garrison went on to express concerns that recent technological advances would limit the need for migrant farmworkers in the future.
“I don't know where it will go. Modernization has got it to where they're cutting down and everything's going to a machine, or a robot or something, unless it's organic.”
According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, the number of migrant workers has been steadily declining since the advent of this century. While 42 percent of crop workers fell into this category in 2001-2002, only 16 percent did in 2013-2014
For those who do still make the journey to Weedpatch every year, Garrison believes that restoring the historic buildings from her childhood will bring some hope.
“This is our way of helping,” she said. “You could hear my story and know that you can overcome adversity. We are no better than these beautiful people that come and live here through the summer.”
She recalled a story of an elderly couple who had lived in the camp a few summers ago and were reluctant to enter the run-down buildings.
“They didn't like it. They said we had ghosts here,” she said. “But I said, no, we don't have ghosts. We have the wonderful memories of families just like yours that lived here.”