|The hills are low, often beclouded with dust that floats from cultivated fields that are “over there” and extend for miles around Shafter, Wasco, Delano and Arvin. Here, nestled into the lower reaches of the first rolling mounds of 25 Hill, is the little oil town of Taft. Nondescript in its architecture; drab in its contrasts; hazy in view from a distance and yet, the birthplace and cradle of so many life plans.
Cast a glance here 75 years ago, when 2500 wooden oil derricks dotted the sagebrush and faded into the horizon, when black lagoons of oil spotted the hills from Maricopa to Midway, out to Tupman and Buttonwillow all the way to Buena Vista Lake. Here was a surface pock-marked with wooden drilling frames that sheltered lances reaching to the strata below…1,000 feet, 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet, from there to vent oil and gasses that had been lodged for a millennium. A Giant Oil Field was defined as one that held a billion barrels of oil. Around Taft there were three such fields.
Oil ran an industrial nation; black gold created a river of currency from corporation to company to worker to business and banks; crude dark liquid, lured workers and their families from Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania and some from Louisiana. It brought many of them to stick houses, tent cities and dirt roads. And out of this came a way of life.
From the rising viewpoints of Taft, looking northeast one can see yet more dust, more fields, more sagebrush and little that relieves the eye. But beyond the eye, placed helter-skelter it seems, are the tightly cultivated rows of agriculture that have made this valley a cornucopia for the nation, indeed the world.
Somewhere at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, there needed to be a city that could do more than serve as a crossroads for the oil business. Companies needed banks; travelers need a freshening spot; freight needed a railroad depot; and agriculture needed its oasis, the Kern River and Lake Buena Vista, from which to water crops.
Bakersfield: cotton, crops, canals; rails, roads, ruts; refugees, rogues and rascals. All found their niche. Here, nicely placed and centered within the agriculture of the southern San Joaquin, Bakersfield grew, complete with its own style, music and culture.
In the 1930s, it became one of many havens to migrants looking for work, looking for help, looking for a place to rest and to grow. At a minimum they sought to escape the devastation of the Dust Storms of the Plains, and in “last gasp” trucks, wheezing autos and friendly “thumbs” they fled west to California…and regardless of their home state, they were called “Okies.”
It was a hard time.
“Look a fella tol’ me ‘bout a gov’ment camp near here. Where’s it at? …
“Go south on 99 ‘bout twelve-fourteen miles ‘n turn east to Weedpatch. It’s right near there.” (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath)
Today, “near there” is Arvin, visible now in the fields still tilled and daily worked by field laborers. Steinbeck captured the lives of an untidy wave of migration in a language so true and so powerful that it lives today to strengthen the ties between his characters and the camps that serve a different generation of workers.
Near Weedpatch this fine day, the camps are open for remembering. They still serve the migrants, but on this special weekend, in early October, 2002, the lower San Joaquin hosts the children and grandchildren, the friends and relatives, the visitors and observers of a time when Okies, Texans, Missourians and just plain folks came west looking for that which brought all people west, another start, another chance, another hope.
|From the Hills of Taft to the Streets of Bakersfield|
|From Bakersfield and the lands around it, out of the migrant labor camps and the people within them came progeny and opportunity and ultimately a place in a restless, competitive community. The faces of the crowd became clear; indistinct groups became families; children became adults and from the state of Texas, in the farmland of Arvin, two people meet, and a new couple emerged: Henry (Mutt) Hannon and Ila Mae Helms.
Mutt’s father, George, arrived from Texas in 1923 with his wife, Sally, and seven of his nine children and took up farming acreage near Arvin. They learned the lessons of hard work and the fruitfulness of land, and one of his sons, Jack, became foreman in a cotton field, weighing the bags of cotton picked by the workers on a daily basis and seeing to it that the harvesting of the crop went well.
In 1929, another family arrived from Texas. Hettie Helms brought her daughters Ila Mae and Augusta (Gussie) to San Bernardino, and then within in a year, to Arvin.
Ila Mae’s placement was less secure than that of Mutt, but she went to work in the fields, as did everyone who could, to pick cotton and earn money. She also took advantage of those fanciful images that appealed to a young girl smitten with Hollywood. She loved the movies, loved movie actresses, and both collected their images and emulated some of their “worldliness.” For a time, as a “DiGiorgio Girl” packing fruit to be shipped all around the world, she would place in the barrels little notes with her name and her address, inviting “someone” to write.
They did and notes showed up from Sioux City, Iowa; London; New York City; and Bellevue, Pennsylvania. Those from a 17 year old farm boy in Iowa were so carefully written that one can still see the light in his eyes.
But Iowa was a long way away. Jack Hannon was intrigued by Hettie Helms and her daughters who were picking cotton in his field and began visiting them at their home. One day in 1931, he took his brother, Mutt, with him. Jack introduced Mutt to Ila, and they began courting, marrying in 1932.
When Mutt got a better paying job with Belridge Oil Company, they moved to Taft, with their baby daughter, Linda. Then two more children were born, Melvin and Judy, and in a few years they found themselves buying a home at 531 Olive Avenue. Life was good; monthly bills were paid, and the family survived World War II without losses.
|FROM DUSTSTORMS TO WEEDPATCH|
Then, in the early evening, March, 1947, Linda remembers a car pulling up in front of their house on Olive Avenue. As she recounts it:
March 26, 1947 about 6:00 p.m. While my Mother and I were sitting on the front steps a car pulled up in front of our house. Out stepped three men and a woman – I only recognized the woman who was a friend of my parents. (The men were the manager and supervisors from Belridge.) Very strange group to be arriving unannounced. I can still remember to this day the sense of fear that came over me. They asked me to go to the backyard to play, but instead I hid at the side of the house where I could peek around to watch and hear what was going on. The first thing Mom said was “What’s wrong”? and someone replied, “Mutt has been killed.” (My Dad’s nickname was Mutt – Mutt Hannon, I love that name!) Mom collapsed on the porch, and they helped her into the house.
The Hannon family suffered a terrible loss, and their grief over the loss of husband and father was one experienced by another Taft family a year later, in March, 1948 when Richard Snyder died of cancer at Sawtelle Hospital in Los Angeles.
He and his wife, Claire (Dugas) found one another in Taft in the 1930s, as a consequence of yet more restless migration. Hubert Snyder had come from Pennsylvania seeking work in the oilfields, and found it, bringing his wife, Elizabeth and soon producing a family of six. Their second son, Dick, after a highly successful athletic career at Taft High School married a young woman from Ventura whom he met in the summer of 1934, when she was visiting her sister Eloise (Dugas) Richard.
Claire was the youngest of the Dugas family. Her parents too, had migrated, from Louisiana. Her father Evrard, tried to make money speculating in oil, but soon found himself running a sewing machine shop and selling Singers to local housewives. He had quite a temper, and one incident in his life was recounted in a 1957 article by Edith Dane which Pete Gianopulos recently shared with his readers in the Daily Midway Driller.
Edith, who lived and worked for many decades in Taft, remembered the story of the school bus driver who had an argument with a man uptown. When the bus driver came down to school to work, he saw the man, waiting to pick up his daughter from school. In the Dugas family, the story now goes like this: The argument continued; the bus driver reached into his car to hit his antagonist, at which point the man pulled out his pistol and shot the bus driver in the buttocks. The shooter was Claire’s father, Evrard Dugas. He was indicted for attempted murder, tried and found innocent by reason of self-defense.
Claire’s mother, Bertha, cooked for a time in Maricopa feeding the hordes of oil workers who followed the flow of oil, but by the time Claire met Dick her parents had established a grocery store in Ventura and lived a comfortable middle class life in that quiet community.
Young, in love, fanciful and set on raising a family, the couple chose to reject a college athletic scholarship offered by USC and to marry in 1935. They produced four children: Dick, Jr., Joseph, Rosalie and Joyce. They too escaped World War II unscathed, although Dick had a skin cancer removed before mustering out in November 1945.
In early 1947, Dick became seriously ill with lung cancer which was undiagnosed for a number of months. After a lingering fight with it in Sawtelle Veterans Hospital, he developed leukemia and died March 17, 1948.
|TAFT, VIEWED FROM '25 HILL|
|TAFT, CENTER STREET, MORE BUSY THEN THAN TODAY|
|LAKEVIEW GUSHER, SPEWING OIL REFLECTED IN ITS OWN POOLS|
|QUIETER TIMES, STILL POOLS|
|LAST REMAINING STANDING WOODEN OIL DRRRICK, WEST KERN OIL MUSEUM, TAFT|
|IRRIGATION: WATER, THE MOTHER OF ALL CROPS|
|NOT A FIRE: A DUST STORM, GOODWELL, OKLAHOMA|
|THE FACE THAT LAUNCHED AN INDELIBLE MEMORY.
FLORENCE OWENS DESCRIBES HOW SHE LET DOROTHEA LANGE TAKE HER PICTURE
|FLORENCE OWENS AND CHILDREN|
|DiGIORGIO FARM GIRLS, WHERE ILA HELMS WORKED AND SENT MESSAGES OUT IN THE CRATES|
|LETTER FROM IOWA|
|HAROLD SCOTT, SIOUX CITY, IOWA|
|MUTT, STRUCK BY THE DROPPING "TRAVELLING BLOCK" FREED BY A BROKEN CABLE, FELL 90 FEET FROM THE FIRST PLATFORM|
|EVRARD AND BERTHA DUGAS|
|MUTT AND ILA HANNON|
|SNYDER FAMILY, 1943: DICK, CLAIRE, (L-R), ROSALIE, JOSEPH AND DICK, JR..|
|LANCES IN THE GROUND BY THE THOUSANDS|