Route 66: Ghost Road Of Okies

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In the 1920’s a “66 Association” grew up among the communities that had clustered along the route over the years, the idea being to promote a highway that bore a single number all the way from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. In 1926 the road received the official title of U.S. Route 66. Over the years, bits and pieces were gradually connected and paved, a grade lowered here, a pass cut there, a bridge erected somewhere else, and by 1932 the “national road” of Marcy, Simpson, and Beale was a national highway that reached across the land. The road, the mother road, began at the corner of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in Chicago and ran 2,200 miles through three time zones and eight states before it dead-ended at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. They called it the Main Street of America.

The Route 66 of memory is gone now—or most of it. Over the past two decades the freeway called Interstate 40 has taken away its name and its number, as well as obliterating much of the old roadbed, by-passing most of its little towns, and leaving only isolated and poorly maintained stretches of the original highway. Recently, this writer and photographer Terrence Moore drove some four thousand miles of tributary roads and “unimproved” segments of what is left of Route 66. Beginning in eastern Oklahoma we followed, where we could, the old way into the lush valley land of California where the highway ended and the Okies settled. Along the way we stopped and talked to the migrants who actually made the trip in the 1930’s, and to the people who ran the filling stations and little stores that served those in flight when they could afford it. What follows is their history.

 
 

Along the old sections of Route 66 that pass through the Dust Bowl counties of Oklahoma and through the panhandle of Texas, the hills and flats are green with trees and native grass now. The restored land, after forty years of rest and recuperation, has forgotten the spasm of drought and dust accompanied by plagues of bugs and periodic floods that expelled its bewildered tenants. But the old householders from this land—those who survived with their wits and lungs intact, and those who endured pulverizing poverty as “pea pickers” in California—cannot forget.

Mrs. Flossie Scott (formerly Flossie Haggard and mother of country-western singer Merle Haggard) is one of them. And she remembers. The Haggards stuck it out in Oklahoma longer than many of their neighbors and kin, but on Monday, July 15, 1935, “about eleven o’clock in the morning,” they couldn’t hold out any longer against the dust, repeated crop failures, and, finally, a fire. The 74-year-old Mrs. Haggard, who came to the Oklahoma Territory when she was four years old, tells her story and the parallel history of thousands of other Okies, Arkies, and Texies—in these words:

“In 1932 we were farming in Mclntosh County, Oklahoma. We had dairy cows and hogs, and farmed cotton also. The downward trend in prices started in that year. I remember we sold several fat hogs for two cents a pound. They would be one dollar or more per pound today. We grew all our food except for such as sugar, coffee and flour. Sorghum cane provided some of our sweets.

“New clothes were few and far between. 1934 brought a drought, and crops failed almost one-hundred per cent. And on top of that disaster, we had a fire that year that destroyed our barn, car, and feed.

“We moved into the little town of Checotah where Mr. Haggard ran a service station through the winter and spring of 1935. In July, 1935, we loaded some necessary supplies onto a two-wheel trailer and our 1926 model Chevrolet which Jim had overhauled. We headed for California on Route 66, as many friends and relatives had already done. We had our groceries with us—home sugar-cured bacon in a lard can, potatoes, canned vegetables, and fruit. We camped at night and I cooked bread in a Dutch oven. The only place we didn’t sleep out was in Albuquerque where we took a cabin and where I can remember bathing.

“My sister Flora and family had gone to California a year before, so she sent us forty dollars to pay our expenses on the trip. I know now it took a lot of nerve to start so poorly equipped, but the good Lord was with us and we made it in four days, but not without some problems on the highway.”

In the middle of the desert, Mrs. Haggard recalls, the car broke down. “We were out of water, and just when I thought we weren’t going to make it, I saw this boy coming down the highway on a bicycle. He was going all the way from Kentucky to Fresno. He shared a quart of water with us and helped us fix the car. Everybody’d been treating us like trash, and I told this boy, ‘I’m glad to see there’s still some decent folks left in this world.’”

Mrs. Haggard’s memory from her own experience has a remarkable parallel in The Grapes of Wrath when Ma Joad says, “I’m learnin’one thing good. Learnin’it all a time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only one’s that’ll help—the only ones.”