Place

Weedpatch Camp

Black and white photo of white tents and dirt roads.
View of Kern migrant camp, aka "Weedpatch Camp," showing one of three sanitary units, 1936.

Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy Library of Congress.

Quick Facts

Imagine your environment changed, and you needed to leave your home. Where would you go? What would you need to build a new life?


Weedpatch Camp, officially the Arvin Farm Labor Supply Center, was a federal relief camp for migrants who had fled the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to seek work in California. The documentary photographer Dorothea Lange chronicled conditions in the camp. Visits inspired the novelists Sanora Babb and John Steinbeck.

The Dust Bowl & Migration

The Dust Bowl was an environmental disaster that devastated the Great Plains region of the United States in the 1930s. Poor farming practices and drought conditions caused the area’s topsoil to dry up and blow away in the form of gigantic dust storms that blanketed farms and towns. Crops failed. Banks foreclosed on small farms. The crisis, combined with the hardships of the Great Depression, forced millions of people to move out of the Great Plains states to survive. Often called “Okies” though they came from a range of states, they participated in one of the largest migrations in US history.

Hundreds of thousands of Okies traveled west along Route 66 to California’s Central Valley, where they had heard there was work picking crops. But they found themselves facing stiff competition for jobs and discrimination from many Californians who viewed them as undesirable and a threat to social stability. With few resources or choices, many migrants lived as squatters in camps along roads and stream banks. They had no running water and only tents, cars, or lean-tos for shelter. Tuberculosis spread through these camps, and child mortality was high.

Weedpatch Camp

Concerned about the squalid conditions in the squatters’ camps, the federal government intervened to assist the migrants. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency, constructed Arvin Federal Camp, near the town of Weedpatch, California, in 1935. With running water for showers, bathrooms, and laundry rooms, and wood platforms designated for tents, the facility was a step up from squatters’ camps.

Three original structures remain from the camp: the post office, the community hall, and the library.[1] The post office doubled as a medical clinic and hospital. The community hall hosted religious services and social activities, like dances and community meetings. Adults looked for work in the nearby fields of Central Valley.

Female staff and residents of Weedpatch Camp played a particularly important role in creating community there. Members of the “Mothers’ Club” organized themselves to take care of practical needs, like how to equally distribute resources like kerosene to all residents at the camp. They worked with staff to organize a nursery and a school for migrant children so that mothers could work for pay.

Legacy

Some Okies returned to the Great Plains as the crisis passed, but many remained in California. The state’s defense industry expanded rapidly during World War II, with job opportunities that pulled many migrants into the middle class. As the Okies’ economic fortunes improved, Californians’ discrimination against them began to ease. Nevertheless, their experience is memorialized in classic cultural works like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which features the Joad family’s stay at Weedpatch Camp and is dedicated to the facility’s administrator, Tom Collins.[2] The Okies also left a permanent cultural imprint on California, particularly through country music and evangelical Christian religion.

The area around the historic buildings at Weedpatch Camp remains in use as housing for migrant laborers.
 

Notes

[1] Weedpatch Camp was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 22, 1996.
[2] Two of John Steinbeck’s residences are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The John Steinbeck House in Monte Sereno, California, where he wrote The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, was listed on December 29, 1989. The John Steinbeck House in Salinas, California, the author’s boyhood home, was listed on August 8, 2000.

Bibliography

Babb, Sonora. Whose Names Are Unknown. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
Gregory, James. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Lutz, Margaret P. Weedpatch Camp, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1995. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/963e813a-55ee-433d-b48d-74968d095417
Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. New York: Penguin Random House, 1993.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939.
Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Article by Ella Wagner, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Last updated: July 6, 2021