Sunday, July 19, 2009

A trip to Weedpatch Camp

On the trail of Woody Guthrie, Erin and I visited Weedpatch Camp, in Lamont, the other day. I believe it's the last existing migrant camp that was set up under the New Deal, in the 1930s, to house the dust bowl refugees. I had heard that Woody Guthrie played there for the migrants, and I've been wanting to check it out for some time. Displaced farmers, fleeing the dust bowl, came to California by the thousands in the 1930s seeking employment. There was always more workers than there was work, and wages were abysmally low, and they wound up living in ramshackle camps on the edges of the fields enduring hunger, disease, discrimination and abuse, until the government set up "clean" camps to house them safely and humanely. This is the story told by John Steinbeck's, The Grapes Of Wrath, and Woody Guthrie's great Dust Bowl Ballads. The Weedpatch Camp was the first of the government camps and it's still here, still in use by migrant farmworkers, and some of the original buildings have been preserved.

You can drive out there any time and see the old buildings. A couple of them can also be seen in the 1939 film version of The Grapes Of Wrath, with Henry Fonda. They're adjacent to the Arvin Migrant Housing Center on Sunset Road, between Weedpatch Highway and Comanche Road. If you make an appointment with the folks who take care of it they'll have a docent open it up for you and give you a guided tour. We were given a very authoritative presentation by researcher, Doris Weddell, and treated to the personal reminiscences of Earl Shelton, who actually lived in the camp in the 1940s and worked in the fields for much of his life. I highly recommend taking the tour. All you have to do is call them, or send them an email, and they're happy to do it. There's a public celebration called Dust Bowl Days that is held there every year in October. I've been meaning to go to Dust Bowl Days for a couple years now, but it seems that I'm always busy on that weekend, so I was glad for the opportunity to check it out in this way. I've been a Woody Guthrie scholar for years, and I'm working on a Woody Guthrie show, so it was inspiring and illuminating to walk around the grounds and stand on the fine old stage, there. I had an idea of recording a music video there, and I had my guitar with me, but it was just too doggone hot at this time of year. Maybe in the Fall... Erin did get some video of Mr. Shelton telling his great old stories, though, and maybe she'll share some of that with us. It represents an important page from our local history and is well worth a visit. Check out a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath before you go to put your visit in the proper context.
For more information about Dust Bowl Days, and to book a private tour, check out the Dust Bowl Days Website.

Here's a link to a slideshow of our trip:

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