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GEARY, Okla. (DTN) -- The red land of Oklahoma agriculture carries the true lore of Route 66 in its 350 miles along the Mother Road that opens up to the Southern Plains.
The Joad family from "Grapes of Wrath" was immortalized as the "Okies" who fled a Depression-era farmstead for life as migrant workers in California. Route 66 was the migrant road used for people to escape their poverty. The Joads were from Sallisaw in Steinbeck's fiction, about 90 miles south of Route 66. The days of mass migration out of the Plains appear gone, but Oklahoma farmers are trying to recover from another major drought, and appear to be seeing signs of hope.
DUST BOWL DAYS
Agricultural depression actually hit Oklahoma hard before the 1930s and the documented Dust Bowl. By the mid-1920s, the Daily Oklahoman wrote in disdain about migrant farmers, or "carpetbaggers" who agreed to crop a piece of land for a year or two, and then move on to other ground. The Dust Bowl, however, sent a shock through the region that redefined economic hardship on the Southern Plains.
"The Dust Bowl drastically changed that part of Oklahoma where I lived, and southwest Kansas and the Texas Panhandle," said Pauline Hodges, a retired teacher and historian, who was a researcher for Ken Burns' documentary, "The Dust Bowl," which aired last year. "It changed that area more than any other event, ever. It changed it in terms of population, but more importantly it changed how people farmed and viewed the land and the water."
Her family originally came from Missouri, but moved to Beaver County, Okla., in the Panhandle for the chance to farm more land.
"For 10 years they had bumper wheat crops," she said. "They had the farm half paid for. Then, for 10 years you couldn't grow anything -- anything. Well, maybe you could grow Russian thistles, but that's about it. So eventually the bank foreclosed and we lost everything."
Hodges' dad was lucky enough to get a job with the Works Progress Administration to help build Route 64 and Route 83 up through Kansas. Route 64 went right by her family's house. It also was a migratory road. "The migrants to California would stop every day and ask for food. My mother would feed them. Sometimes it was just bread and butter, but she never turned anybody down."
GOING WHERE THE JOBS ARE
At the height of the Dust Bowl, as many as 300,000 Oklahomans left the state. Some panhandle counties saw their population cut in half. While a significant number saw opportunity in the journey to California, more people migrated to larger cities in the region.
"The greatest migrant streams were into nearby cities, because if you are going to look for a job, why go all the way to California when you can go to Oklahoma City and work in the packing plant where your farm skills will work?" said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Yet, the exodus of people along the road also helped others survive. First, camps formed up and down the highway. Then, Route 66 filled up with motels, gas stations and hamburger stands that grew throughout towns along the route even as farmers across the Midwest and Plains were facing foreclosure and forced to look for work elsewhere.
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