Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


"Okies," as Californians labeled them, were refugee farm families from the Southern Plains who migrated to California in the 1930s to escape the ruin of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The refugees came from several states, including the drought-ravaged corners of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico but especially the impoverished parts of Oklahoma (the origin of one fifth of Okies), Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri.

Okies were escaping two distinct although simultaneous and bordering catastrophes, one economic, the other more environmental. Many Okies–families from Arkansas, Missouri, eastern Oklahoma, and East Texas–were not Dust Bowl refugees but instead were tenant-farming casualties of sinking commodity prices and agricultural mechanization during the 1920s. Beef and oil prices plummeted after World War I, and the price of cotton fell from thirty-five cents per pound in 1919 to six cents in 1931. Farmers hung on by expanding production and assuming more debt, prompting widespread foreclosures after 1929. In an effort to raise prices, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 subsidized landowners to take land out of production, allowing them to mechanize, consolidate holdings, discontinue leases, and evict sharecroppers. This was especially the case in Oklahoma, which had by far the nation's highest rate of farm tenancy.

The Dust Bowl years on the Southern Plains also had economic origins. Mechanization and falling wheat prices in the 1920s combined to fuel the "Great Plow-Up," a decade of aggressive expansion of cultivated acreage during which farmers hoped for a good year that would allow them to recover spiraling debts on new equipment and land. In 1931, however, the rains stopped, and the Great Plains entered a decade-long drought. Suitcase-farming speculators wrote off their investments, but everyone's farms began to blow away in spectacular dust storms in 1932. Families suffered drought, wind, dust, and death from dust pneumonia for half a decade before the horrific dust storms and heat of 1935-36 forced many to abandon their homes and search for a new life in the Golden State. The Dust Bowl exodus reduced the populations of Texas and Oklahoma panhandle counties by as much as onefourth and killed or stunted numerous towns. The images of the refugees–hungry, gaunt families riding overloaded jalopies over lonely Route 66–remain vivid in the American collective memory.

Predominantly upland southerners, the half-million Okies met new hardships in California, where they were unwelcome aliens, forced to live in squatter camps and to compete for scarce jobs as agricultural migrant laborers. They displaced Mexican workers, but despite the initial fears of landowners that they would demand better working conditions, these conservative, self-reliant, and persevering folk proved even easier to exploit. With many more willing hands than jobs, wage rates dropped. Crowded, filthy squatter camps rose up along the roads and streams of the San Joaquin Valley, leading Californians to attribute the scene to the refugees' own regionally derived ignorance and sloth. Federal relief in the form of labor camps (such as Steinbeck's "Wheat Patch"), dubbed "Little Oklahomas," were hardly effective.

Genuine relief for the Okies arrived in 1940, when federal defense dollars inflated West Coast industries, allowing many to abandon the orchards for shipyards and bomb plants. In fact, while the squatter camps disappeared, the number of people coming to California from the Southern Plains actually increased in the 1940s. These "defense Okies" poured into Los Angeles and Orange County during the war years and continued to take jobs in the state's aeronautical, petroleum, and automotive industries in the 1950s.

The Okie migration brought the dialects, denominations, politics, and attitudes of the Southern Plains to California, where they persist in places like Bakersfield. Although the Okie experience is best described in Steinbeck's works, it also affected popular culture in diverse musical genres, including the ballads of social radical Woody Guthrie, which inspired urban folk and rock music, as well as infusions into country music in the steely, apolitical, bumpkin sound of Buck Owens and the melancholy, oppressed-yet-patriotic ballads of Merle Haggard. Separated by ideology and a generation, both Guthrie and Haggard painted in their lyrics the imagery of a cruel, decadent California and a righteous, nostalgic Oklahoma. That image lasts in the regional meanings of "Okie": a California insult and an endearing nickname in the Southern Great Plains.

See also FILM: The Grapes of Wrath / MUSIC: Guthrie, Woody / PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Dust Bowl / TRANSPORTATION: Route 66.

Brad A. Bays Oklahoma State University

Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Shindo, Charles J. Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Steinbeck, John. The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath. Introduction by Charles Wollenberg. Berkeley CA: Heyday Books, 1988.

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