Route 66: Ghost Road Of Okies

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Edgerton say s he used to give a lot of gas away, but he also used to trade for it. “I’d take a gun, spare tire, maybe, watches, rings—‘come on, honey, give me that ring’—and I’d hold these things. Then those folks would get out to California, make a little money, and send me some money and I’d mail their things back to them. They even offered to leave the dog, the cat, and the canary for gas. I learned a lot of different things about human nature in those times,” says Edgerton, who admits to being closer to ninety than to eighty. When asked to characterize the hundreds of Dust Bowl refugees he saw pass his place on Route 66, one word comes immediately to his lips: “Frightened they were, those people were frightened, and they came through here thinking they were headed for the promised land where they’d say ‘everything’s going to be all right.’ I warned them about those ideas, but they went on and, well, they didn’t find the promised land.”

Paul Taylor, who with his photographer wife Dorothea Lange did the field research that led to the publication of American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion , in 1939, described the economic forces behind the Dust Bowl migration in a 1938 speech: “At the close of the [First World] War, prices of cotton and of wheat collapsed, and with them, many thousands of rural families were shaken from their positions on the agricultural ladder. Farm owners lost the equities in their farms and became tenants; tenants were reduced to laborers, and farm laborers did what they could. This process, begun in the depression of the early twenties, was accelerated by the Depression of the early thirties. Then came drought and grasshoppers, and whole sections of the rural population already loosened by the accumulating forces of successive depressions were finally dislodged by a catastrophe of Nature.” They were “scattered like the dust of their farms, literally blown out. And they trekked into California, these American whites, at the end of a long immigrant line of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Negroes, Hindustanis, Mexicans, Filipinos, to serve the crops and farmers of our state.”

From the status of independent farmers, they had fallen to that of cheap labor, and Sacramento’s Paul Westmoreland—or “Okie Paul,” as he is known to radio listeners throughout central Californiawas one of them. He was a teen-ager when he made the first run out of Oklahoma with his family. “We was starved out in 1929,” he recalls, “ahead of the Grapes of Wrath bunch. We went to Shamrock, Texas, to pick cotton for fifty cents a hundred. Got a few dollars, had an old Model T truck. Then we went to Gallup, New Mexico, to find cotton but it wasn’t there, or else it wasn’t ready yet. Then we went to Coolidge, Arizona, living all the time on ‘Hoover Hogs’ [jack rabbits] and black-eyed peas, maybe some pork for side meat. We made twenty-five miles an hour, maybe a hundred miles a day going down Route 66, and every other road too, looking for work. We went back to Oklahoma—every good Okie left more than once—and tried again and failed again. Did that more than once until finally we left for good, right down 66, splitting it wide open for six or seven days to Arizona. The wind was blowing, it was dry, the cotton wouldn’t come up, everything went wrong. In the fall of ’331 went into the CCC camp, worked in the Grand Canyon on the Kaibab Trail. My dad was in a vet CCC camp. We made a buck a day and our board. It was some working for a dollar a day, but we were working and that was something.

“But the roughest of all the tough times was in Shafter, California, in the potato fields, boys. My God, how they worked you! Men were falling over like flies and two hundred other men were lined up at the fence waiting to take the fallen man’s place when he dropped. But don’t say it was all bad, boys, because it wasn’t. Some of the finest evenings a man ever spent were in those cotton camps outside Coolidge. Under those mesquite trees, beside the tents, the Okies here, the Mexicans—everyone getting along. And the music of Mexico in the starlight. The strum of the guitars in those camps. It was beautiful.” Today Okie Paul operates a country-music tavern—one of those places Glen Campbell calls “fightin’ and dancin’ clubs”—in North Sacramento. He also is the voice behind innumerable radio commercials in central California which always end: “Tell ‘em Okie Paul sent ya.” His tavern is called Detour Inn after the song he lived as well as composed: “Detour, There’s a Muddy Road Ahead.”

Like Mrs. Scott and other Okies we talked to, Okie Paul is proud of his survival and rich in his experience. He also senses the spiritual connection he has with the earliest pioneers who traveled the 35th parallel route West. As a parting word, he told us: “I’m one jump ahead of you fellows. I’ve been there, I know I can do it. You boys don’t know if you can. And you know, the truth is it wasn’t so bad, boys, it wasn’t so bad. Think of those fellows who came first, crossed that desert, ate lizards, fought the Indians. Think of that, boys, think of that. Those boys had it hard. I used to think of them and that was hard times.”