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Again the Covered Wagon

by Paul S. Taylor

Associate Professor of Economics, University of California

Photographs by Dorothea Lange

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Participation in more labor conflict doubtless lies ahead of the refugees coming to California, for tension in that state is not abating. The bitter criminal syndicalist trials in Sacramento were hailed by extremists as a test of power; half the defendants were acquitted, half were convicted. Among the latter were the chief leaders of the agricultural strikes of 1933.

Farmers and their spokesmen have exhibited great confidence in repression of agitators and pickets as a means of maintaining peace in agriculture. But still they are uneasy as the successive harvests of 1935 advance. Expending as much as $35 or $50 an acre to bring a crop to maturity, they see their entire year's return staked upon a few days of uninterrupted harvest.

The fifty-odd farm strikes since December 1932 naturally have made them fearful of more interruptions, and they have organized for self-defense. "The Associated Farmers," said their spokesman before the Commonwealth Club, "intend to get laws passed that will protect them against Communists, and to see that these laws are rigidly enforced. We are not trying to beat down wages; we are not advocating illegal force or terrorism. But we will not willingly submit to having twenty or thirty automobile loads of so-called peaceful picketers parading up and down in front of our homes, threatening and intimidating, and even blockading the highways."

Unions under conservative labels are almost equally opposed. "If the American Federation of Labor should form farm unions, the chances are that foreign or native-born radicals would sooner or later get control of them, just as they did with the longshoremen's union." Commenting on this attitude a State Federation official said bitterly, "If we had a strike, the farmers would conveniently find one or two Communists around."

"Travelin' people can't get no place to stay still"

The future of the refugees, then, is hardly likely to be tranquil. They will be caught in whatever rural labor struggles arise. Like their predecessors of recent years some will find a degree of economic and physical stability in California, but others will mill incessantly through the harvests and live in squatters' camps and rural slums, unless a protecting government intervenes. The refugees are conscious of their present destitution and enforced mobility, and grope for help: "Poor folks has poor ways, you know."—"There's more or less humiliation living this way, but we can't help it. Our tent's wore out."—"Can't we have better houses?"—"What bothers us travellin' people most is we can't get no place to stay still." But the struggle against unsanitary conditions, flies, and bad water is too much for many people and they give up. "I hate to boil the water, because then it has so much scum on it," said a pea-picker who drew his water from the irrigating ditch in the usual manner.

The refugees discuss the Townsend plan. They sense demoralization and the futility of continual relief: "This giving people something don't do no good."—"This relief business is all a fake anyway. When they get on it they don't want to work any more." Grasping the idea of rehabilitation, a refugee recipient of relief said, "If they'd a' give it to me in one chunk I could a' gone back and bought me a little piece o' land." But the problem is bewildering to most of them. "We was out here nine years ago; then we could get a steady job. Now it seems we can't stay in one place. We got to follow these little jobs to live."—"I'm not smart enough to know what ought to be done; it sure doesn't suit me."

Across the border at Fort Yuma the refugees are straggling west. They are not newly shod and clad, moved under government direction by train and a trim army transport, nor met by mayors and brass bands, like the drought sufferers from Minnesota bound for the colonization of Alaska. But they constitute already a far greater, if unplanned and almost unnoticed redistribution of the nation's population. To the Alaskan colonists the Matanuska Valley "looks like Heaven." To an Oklahoman who crossed the Tehachapi and viewed the wild flowers of the southern San Joaquin Valley California "looks like Paradise compared to what it was there."

Migrant Families
"The drought came and burned the cotton up. There wasn't anything to go back to"

But questions of the future, both immediate and remote, arise. Will California continue to look like Paradise as the harvests wear on, and the refugees realize that they are definitely a part of the under-employed labor army—white Americans, Mexicans, Negroes, and Filipinos—mobile and restless, which has engaged in strike after strike? Is it conceivable that the grandchildren of the emigrants of 1935 will take pride in placing grandmother's cook-stove and trunk in museums beside the gold-seeker's pan or the table which came 'round the Horn in '51? Or will these children of distress who creep west unheralded have no share in California history and tradition? The lure of gold in the past, and of land, has been superseded by the expelling forces of drought and depression in the present.

What of the future, when mechanical cotton pickers invade the Old South, making human hands unnecessary? What of the Southern tenants and laborers under the ominous cloud of invention? What will they do? Where will they go? Are the refugees of today the last Western emigrants, or are they but forerunners of greater migrations of hope and despair to come.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003