Route 66: Ghost Road Of Okies

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People who have been turned out of their homes make keen historians. Forced from the land of their ancestors and onto the open road without a destination, they have a way of remembering—often to the minute of the day—the trauma of departure. Etched indelibly in their memories are the details: a frenetic packing; a final, hurried look around an abandoned house; a wistful, wishful fondling of familiar possessions that couldn’t be taken with them; then, if they were lucky and had wheels instead of just shoe leather and shoulders beneath their possessions, there was the wrenching moment of the last, silent, no-looks-back drive out to the nearest highway.

Five hundred thousand such refugees fled the Great Plains and rural South in the dust and depression years of the 1930’s. Funneled down the farm roads of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Texas, New Mexico, and Arkansas, many of them could only say that their destination was “West.” They knew, or so it seemed in the choking dust, with the hungry eyes of undernourished children watching them, that things just couldn’t be worse than they already were on the failing farms. All they knew of home—the earth itself—was being slowly destroyed by what seemed to be a monstrous conspiracy between the malevolent forces of nature and the bewildering economics of depression.

The worst of it—the Dust Bowl itself—lay in parts of five states: Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. It included ninety counties of these five states: ninety-seven million acres, of which thirty-two million were under cultivation. Whole families and old clans who had settled the land in these places, often before statehood, were pushed from their homesteads as though they were just nuisance hillocks in a field that had never known any more horsepower than one mule. When they piled and strapped their things on the old patched-together flivvers, all that they had was the hope they knew as California—that, and sometimes enough money to buy the gas to get them there. They were “Okies,” “Arkies,” and “Texies” (in time all would be lumped together in California under the name “Okies”) and the highway they traveled West was U.S. Route 66, the road of desperation described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath as “the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness there is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

The route, if not the “mother road” itself, had a respectable history even before it witnessed the flight of the Okies. Parts of its northern leg from Chicago to the mouth of the Missouri River followed the 1673 portage route of Père Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in their exploration of the upper Mississippi River. That portion that crossed Missouri in a southwesterly direction to Fort Smith, Arkansas, went along the route of the ancient Osage Indian trail—and also paralleled the line of the first telegraph to penetrate the southwest territories, giving it for a long time the name of the “Wire Road.” In 1849, during the height of the Gold Rush to California, Captain Randolph B. Marcy and Lieutenant James H. Simpson were ordered to “make, and report, a reconnaissance” of a route from Fort Smith to Santa Fe, New Mexico, “in direct reference to the future location of a national road.…” The Marcy-Simpson expedition proceeded southwest across the Indian territories of Oklahoma, through the panhandle of Texas, crossed the Pecos River at Anton Chico, and rolled into Santa Fe on June 28, 1849.

It was another eight years before the remaining section of the route was officially marked and laid out by the government. In 1857, Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale was authorized to survey a wagon route along the 35th parallel from Fort Defiance, some 180 miles southwest of Santa Fe, to the Colorado River and California. Beale’s expedition was distinguished from the Marcy-Simpson expedition chiefly by his use of more than seventy Bactrian and dromedary camels imported from Egypt and Arabia in an experiment dear to the heart of Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War. By the time the expedition reached the Colorado in the late summer of 1857, Beale’s admiration of the beasts knew no bounds: “The harder the test they are put to, the more fully they seem to justify all that can be said of them.… I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted … with this economical and noble brute.” He also declared that the route now completely marked and mapped would “inevitably become the great emigrant road to California.”

Beale overestimated the permanence of the camels, but was closer to the mark in his second declaration. Over the next fifty years, the wagon road from Fort Smith to California would be one of the best traveled of all the overland routes. It was only to be expected, then, that when the automobile began to nose its way into the West, this venerable, well-marked road would play yet another role in the history of overland travel.

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.”

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.’”

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.”

At the end of Route 66, at the end of our ride back into the history of the great migrant route, Okie Paul remembered Marcy, Simpson, and Beale. He didn’t know their names, he didn’t know the years of their trip or the purpose of those who came after, but he knew about the road, knew that, like him, they had traveled it and survived. Like all of the Okies we interviewed who followed Route 66 during the Depression, Okie Paul seems to epitomize what California writer Gerald Haslam ( Okies: Selected Stories ) describes as that quality that is “tough, able, complex.” “Perfection,” Haslam says, “is not an Okie characteristic, but a blues-like ability to accept adversity with grace and grit is. And they have not forgotten how to laugh at themselves.”

Nor have they forgotten the travails of forty years ago, these keen historians; and their memories are the final heritage of the road. Today, in place of the old color and life are the familiar plastic and glass and concrete rest stops and off-ramp clusters of service stations and motels and quick-food restaurants. No more homemade apple pies, real milk shakes, real coffee; no more place to skinny-dip in the Colorado on a hot afternoon, farms with fruit stands run by the youngest kid in the family, advertisements reading “Chew Mail Pouch” on the sides of barns; no more Burma Shave rhymes, Giant Snake farms, Teepee motels, and “rooms for rent.” Route 66, the Osage Trail, the Wire Road, the mail route, the emigrant road, the Main Street of America, has vanished almost without a trace. The mother road is a ghost road.