Route 66: Ghost Road Of Okies

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Outside Needles, California, the Haggards camped down by the Colorado during the day so they could make the final dash across the Mojave Desert in the cool of the night. Mrs. Haggard was sick, she remembers, and a filling station man warned that she wouldn’t make it if they tried the desert run in the heat. When they got to the lush San Joaquin Valley, she says, “we found many of our friends living in shacks made of cardboard or anything that could make a shelter from the sun, and provide a place to call home. They were working people, they did anything they could find to do, mostly fruit-picking until cotton-picking time. Many lived principally on cull fruits that the growers rejected and which could be gotten without cost. My husband could pick five hundred pounds of cotton a day, but fortunately he never had to. We got a job on a dairy milking forty Holstein cows by hand.”

The Haggards worked at that job for two months, but when the children started school they had to give it up. Jim Haggard found a job then at the Santa Fe Railroad shops and “was lucky again and got on at forty cents an hour.” Next the Haggards succeeded in getting a refrigerator car on a lot to live in. The owner wanted “someone to cut windows and doors in it and make it livable,” Mrs. Haggard recalls. “She offered us nine months rent to do this work. We needed a roof over our heads, so we gladly accepted her offer. We moved in on September 15, 1935. It was a difficult task, cutting through seven inches of steel, wood and insulation, after working a full day’s work at a job. But when we finished it was a comfortable place to live.” Mrs. Haggard “dug a place for a garden and canned the surplus.” She even “went to the garbage dumps and picked up jars.” Her calm, strong face and her still hands, never far from a Bible, show the pride and wisdom of her hard life, and she says she wouldn’t take anything for the experiences she has had—“to see both sides.” Like many Okies we talked to, she wants one to know that the Haggards “were never on welfare.” They worked and they made it. Not without suffering. But they made it.

Another remembrance of Route 66 comes from Ralph Richardson and his wife, who run a general store on a remote section of old Route 66 that was by-passed by the freeway in 1962. They opened the store there, outside Montoya, New Mexico, in 1928 when there were still “trail” markers on the unpaved road. From the looks of the place today, not much has changed since. The Richardson store, with old-fashioned gas pumps out front and a picnic table off to the side, is dominated by the large potbelly stove in the center and the mirror-door ice box toward the back. It is the local post office, the local dry goods store, and the local kerosene lamp and tool supply. It used to be a butcher shop, shoe store, meeting place, and everything else to the ranchers and train crews from miles around. Richardson, who constantly dusts, rearranges, and surveys the stock on his dark wood shelves while he talks, remembers the people who came by his store in the 1930’s as “carrying their own food and having nothing. They were just a bunch of poor people starved out, flooded out, heading to California, trying to find a place to start over. They’d been through hell. If they were broke when they were here they’d work at cleaning up, chopping wood, cutting weeds, digging ditches—any kind of work in order to move on towards California.”

“Times were so bad,” his wife added without looking at her husband, “that it was a kind of nightmare. Sometimes you don’t want to remember. We lost one child and thought we’d lose another in those times. The government had bought out our cattle and started killing them. Paid us almost nothing. And then all the time trying to hang onto this place on the highway. I tell you at times I was near crazy with our problems,” she breathes, the focus of the memory catching her voice, filling her eyes, and putting an abrupt end to the interview.

 

Another long-term, roadside witnessparticipant in the history of Route 66 is mining engineer Ed Edgerton. He has lived beside or near Route 66 since 1915 (long before it was Route 66), and in 1929 started the filling station and camp where he lives today on the Sitgreaves Pass near Oatman, Arizona. In fact, Edgerton surveyed the section of Route 66 that runs past his place. He remembers the Okies and Arkies as folks who would work for one dollar a day. “It made the gold miners in Oatman mad,” he said, “and they told the Okies to work for more or get out. The miners would say to those Okies, ‘Don’t cut our wages or we’ll cut your throat.’ Those , broke Okies used to come here,” Edgerton remembers, “come up to my gas pumps and say to me: ‘Mister, if you could just get us a couple of gallons of gas we’ll coast into Needles where we’ve got friends.’” He recalls the nights in the twenties and thirties when fifty cars or more were parked around his place with families camping out. “Sometimes they’d work around the place, but they were anxious to get to California,” he says, “and a lot of them didn’t know there was a desert between here and the real California. I let them know about what was ahead and what was behind. I had a big sign out there by the water: ‘8½ miles to Oatman, Arizonabiggest car cemetery in the U.S.’ And over there by the edge of 66 I had another sign on a Cholla cactus that said: ‘Carry Water or This is What You’ll Look Like.’”