Dust Bowl Refugees (08/28/2020)

During the Great Depression/dust bowl era many farmers abandoned their farms, packed all their possessions into battered old trucks, loaded up the family, and wandered the country looking for work. This is seen in Woody Guthrie’s song Dust Bowl Refugee. Woody sings:

We are ramblers, so they say,
We are only here today,
Then we travel with the seasons,
We’re the dust bowl refugees.

Yes, we ramble and we roam, and the highway that’s our home

Figure 1. Dust Bowl Refugees near Bakersfield, California

In a past Friday Footnote (Black Blizzards) we examined the economic factors and natural events (drought, dust storms, grasshoppers) that farmers endured during the 1930s which led to the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service. However, we focused on the events, not the people. It is estimated that at least 400,000 migrants hit the road during the dust bowl era (Gregory, 1989). How did they survive? In this Friday Footnote, we look at the human aspects of the dust bowl and focus on the Resettlement Administration (RA) and how it worked to help the displaced farmers.

A New Beginning

As the depression worsened in the 1930s and the drought and dust storms continued, many farmers were hanging on by a thread. Often a family didn’t know where the next meal or dollar would come from. During the dust bowl era, many farmers in the plains were ready to quit farming, but that was all they knew. Approximately 900,000 farmers had an annual income of less than $400. The federal government stepped in and started buying the small farms that were not economically viable.

What was to be done with the displaced farmers? Moving to the city was not a viable option since unemployment was rampant in the cities. The solution was to establish farming communities and migrant camps across the country. Two federal agencies facilitated these initiatives – the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (created by the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933) and then the Resettlement Administration (created by Executive Order 7027 on May 1, 1935). Later the Farm Security Administration took over the work of the Resettlement Administration.

Figure 2. An advertisement from the Resettlement Administration.

The Resettlement Administration went about accomplishing its mission utilizing two different approaches:

  • Build relief camps in the western states for the migratory worker, especially refugees from the dust bowl states of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and surrounding states.
  • Establish “greenbelt” communities across America that were communal in nature.

The Relief/Resettlement Camps

When the situation started getting bad on the plains, people started fleeing. Some traveled to neighboring states looking for work. However, most headed west which they believed to be the land of promise. Supposedly flyers like the one pictured below were used to entice laborers to head toward Arizona, California, and Oregon.

Figure 3. Advertisement for farm workers

But the American-born dust bowl refugees were not welcomed with open arms. Locals viewed them as competing for their jobs. There was a concern that the newcomers would “sponge off the government” even though few did (Kiger, 2019).

The police would meet the migrants at the state line and tell them to go away. In 1936 the Los Angeles Police Department sent 136 officers to 16 major points of entry on Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon state lines to turn back the migrants. The refugees were told there was no work for them. These checkpoints were known as “bum blockades.”

Rasmussen reports (2003):

Incidents at checkpoints were often tense and pathetic. When a weary-faced mother with six children, carrying only $3.40, was asked by police to pay $3 for a California auto license, she broke down and cried, “That’s food for my babies.” They let her in for free, making her one of the lucky few — about one in every thousand — who inspired mercy.

A variety of terms were used to identify these Dust Bowl Refugees. No matter what state you migrated from you were typically called an “Okie”(and sometimes an “Arkie”). These were derogatory terms. Rasmussen states (2003) “…they were the butt of derogatory jokes and the focus of political campaigns in which candidates made them the scapegoat for a shattered economy. They were accused of “shiftlessness,” “lack of ambition,” “school overcrowding” and “stealing jobs” from native Californians.

The migrant families often squatted on roadsides and ditch banks, pitched tents, or made shacks out of scrap lumber, cardboard, tin, packing crates, and whatever they could get their hands on.

Figure 4: Living Conditions for the Dust Bowl Refugees

It was also believed the refugees would spread disease and crime. Before the Resettlement Administration started building resettlement camps, the migrants lived in shantytowns built near fruit picking areas or on the outskirts of town. One California shantytown that housed 1,500 individuals was burned to the ground by disease-fearing residents in 1936 (Loh, 1992).

The shantytowns that sprang up across America at the start of the Great Depression were often known as “Hoovervilles”. These shantytowns were built by the homeless and were named after Herbert Hoover, the U.S. president who was widely blamed for the depression. Newspapers were known as Hoover Blankets, a Hoover Flag was an empty pocket turned out, and cardboard placed in shoes when the sole wore out was called Hoover Leather.

Figure 5: A small Hooverville. There were huge Hoovervilles with thousands of residents in New York City, St. Louis, Portland, and Seattle to name a few.

The Resettlement Administration (RA) started an ambitious program to replace the shantytowns for the Dust Bowl refugees starting around 1935. The RA built 95 camps that provided clean living quarters plus running water, toilets, showers and laundries, and garbage disposal. These camps were built in areas where agriculture labor was needed. Some 75,000 Dust Bowl Refugees lived in these camps. The camps were designed to provide temporary housing. When the local harvest was completed the inhabitants were expected to move on. Todd (1939, p. 10) described the camps as a place where the Dust Bowl refugees could “organize [their] wits and get started again.”

Figure 6. Entrance to a Farm Workers Camp.

Each camp had simple cabins or, in some locations, tents erected on platforms. The camps also had a health clinic staffed by a part-time public health nurse. Typically, a camp had a child welfare committee that was organized by the women in the camp. New arrivals would be educated about hygiene, sanitation, housekeeping, and related topics. There were camp nursery schools and play areas. The camps were self-governing. (Gavin and Milam, 2017).

Figure 7. The Shafter Resettlement Camp in Kern County, California.

Figure 8. The Health Clinic/Nursery at a resettlement camp.

The camps had libraries and a post office. Typically, there was a community garden. There were also recreational facilities. The camp residents also elected a city council and sheriff. The emphasis on community is illustrated by Marshall Huffaker, the camp manager for the Tulare (CA) camp writing in The Hub (the camp newspaper, June 14, 1942, p. 2):

“From the very beginning, our Farm Workers’ Communities have been organized and governed in the true American way–through self government.” The camp featured an elected council to enact legislation, an elected community court to adjudicate violations of community laws, and a number of committees to oversee other activities. But the camp was still a government operation, and the community manager “vetoes any Council legislation which violates laws of Federal, State and County, or regulations of the Farm Security Administration.”

The evolving emphasis in the camps is reflected in the names of these camps. In 1940 the camp in Visalia, California was known as the Visalia Migratory Labor Camp but the name was changed by 1942 to the Tulare Farm Workers Community.

Figure 9. Dust Bowl Refugees in a baseball game at the Tulare camp.

Concluding Remarks

Life was difficult for the Dust Bowl Refugees. They were often not welcomed in their own country. However, as time went by the Resettlement Administration, through the resettlement camp program, helped the refugees to realize they were human beings and had dignity. They were treated with respect in the resettlement communities.

What lessons can we learn by studying the plight of the Dust Bowl Refugees? The lessons we can learn are applicable to agricultural education today. Do we welcome students who are different in our classrooms? You don’t necessarily have to be from a foreign country to be ostracized or ignored. You could be poor or from a single-parent family or have diverse beliefs.

Is the racial diversity in your classes representative of the community? Do we cater to certain groups of students who look like us? Do we treat students from well-to-do families in the community differently from students from poorer families? Does ethnicity or religious beliefs of our students make a difference? Do all students have worth in our classrooms?

These are some things we should think about. The Resettlement Administration camps made a difference in the lives of the people who resided in them. The FFA and Agricultural Education, like the Resettlement Administration, should also make a difference in the lives of our students.

Next week we will look at the other side of the Resettlement Administration’s mission which was very controversial – to establish “greenbelt” communities that were communal in nature across America.

Teaching Suggestions

Show the following videos to your students and then ask them to suggest solutions to the problems identified.

The Library of Congress has a collection of audio files titled Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941. There are songs and poems played or written by the Dust Bowl Refugees. There are also interviews about the experiences of the migrants. Most of the recordings were collected onsite at the various refugee camps. Have your students browse through the collection, select an item that interests them, and then listen to it. The student should then share their impression with the class.


Gavin, Christy & (2017) A “Flat Tired People”: The Health of California’s Okies During the 1930s. http://csub-dspace.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/183557/Flat%20Tired%20People.pdf?sequence=1

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

Executive Order 7027 Establishing the Resettlement Administration. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/executive-order-7027-establishing-the-resettlement-administration

Huffaker, Marshall. The Hub, vol. 3, no. 20 (14 June 1942), 2.

Kiger, Patrick (March 14, 2019). How the Dust Bowl Made Americans Refugees in Their Own County. https://www.history.com/news/dust-bowl-migrants-california

Loh, J (Sept. 6, 1992). Okie’s Legacy Lives on in California Communities. https://oklahoman.com/article/2405519/okies-legacy-lives-on-in-california-communities

Rasmussen, Cecilia (March 9, 2003). LAPD Blocked Dust Bowl Migrants at State Borders. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-mar-09-me-then9-story.html