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Dust in the Wind: Dorothea Lange in the Imperial Valley
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Dust in the Wind: Dorothea Lange in the Imperial Valley

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  • 1. Dust in the wind: Dorothea Lange and the human erosion of the Dust Bowl refugees in the Imperial Valley Presentation by Chris Austin
  • 2. This is a segment in a larger project that will document the history of the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea, which is why this particular slideshow focuses only on the Imperial Valley. It is important to note that during this period of time, conditions were bad in all the agricultural areas of California, not just the Imperial Valley.
  • 3. It was one of the largest migrations of people across the United States.
  • 4. Like dust in the wind, and not unlike the dust that covered and devastated their homes, the migrants of the Dust Bowl were blown westward, most ending up in California.
  • 5. During the “Dirty Thirties”, severe dust storms caused major damage to agricultural lands in the Midwest. Cimarron County, Oklahoma Photo by Arthur Rothstein, FSA
  • 6. A severe drought coupled with deep plowing and a lack of modern-day soil conservation techniques caused massive crop failures, and left the exposed dirt vulnerable to the strong continental winds. Photo: NOAA Historical Collection
  • 7. One of the worst days, dubbed “Black Sunday”, occurred on April 14, 1935, when 20 of these “Black Blizzards” swept through the plains, turning day into night. Photo: NOAA Historical Collection
  • 8. 100 million acres of farmland in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas were rendered useless.
  • 9. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes in the face of the devastation. Photo from USDA, WikiMedia Commons
  • 10. Entire families uprooted themselves, leaving their devastated farms and heading to California in search of jobs.
  • 11. On average, 6000 people a month were counted crossing the border into California between 1935 and 1939.
  • 12. Dorothy Lange was perhaps the migrant’s greatest story-teller, using her camera to document the ‘human erosion’ that was occurring, as well as to show the industrial side of agriculture and its human cost.
  • 13. Working for the Farm Security Administration, she was given a mandate to document the conditions of the rural poor, plus any inroads the government might be making to improve their situation. She would visit the Imperial four times between 1935 and 1939.
  • 14. To the refugees who had only known farming all their lives, California had seemed like an ideal place to go.
  • 15. Popular songs and stories of the time depicted the state as a veritable promised land, farm labor contractors advertised jobs, and with its mild climate and long growing season, it sounded like a farmer’s dream.
  • 16. And Route 66 would take them there.
  • 17. However, the promised land was definitely not what they found when they arrived.
  • 18. They had to compete for work with Mexicans and other immigrants who had already been working the fields for some time.
  • 19. And statewide, things weren’t any better. During the Depression, California suffered with its own share of unemployment, and the influx of migrants greatly stressed the state’s already over-burdened relief and health agencies.
  • 20. The Imperial Valley was something of an Eden to the drought refugees, many of whom headed there after Boulder Dam was built, guaranteeing a secure supply of water for the Imperial Valley. “I heard tell of this here irrigation, plenty of water and plenty to eat,” said one of Dorothy’s interviewees.
  • 21. The technology of irrigated agriculture baffled the displaced migrants.
  • 22. Here in California, agriculture developed differently than it had in the rest of the country. The small acreage family-farm ideal embodied within the Homestead Act was never predominant here. This was the case especially in the Imperial Valley, which from the start was an entrepreneurial enterprise with the end result being large landholdings by relatively few landowners.
  • 23. This made farming more of an “open air food factory” which was distinctly and fundamentally different from the kind of farming the Midwest refugees knew.
  • 24. Cutting edge irrigation and farming technologies had turned agriculture into an industrial enterprise …
  • 25. … requiring large numbers of workers employed for short periods of time and only during certain times of the year.
  • 26. In order to maintain a steady income, field laborers had to move with the harvest.
  • 27. With too many workers and too little work, wages were very low, and conditions poor.
  • 28. Migrants set up “ditch bank” camps alongside irrigation canals and ponds.
  • 29. They made their homes out of whatever they could scrap together.
  • 30. These camps lacked basic facilities such as clean water and toilets, which resulted in poor sanitary conditions and created a public health problem.
  • 31. The mission of the Farm Services Administration was to combat rural poverty, and it went about this in many ways and in many areas of the country, with mixed results. By 1939, the FSA was operating a dozen camps for migrant farm workers throughout California.
  • 32. These camps had platforms for tents, showers, toilets, laundry facilities, a nursery and medical care.
  • 33. The migrants misery came to an end with the start of World War II. Many migrants left to join the armed services, and those that remained eventually moved to the city to take jobs in the West Coast shipyards and defense plants. They eventually put down their roots, settling permanently in the state where many of their descendants still live today.
  • 34. Dorothea wrote of her photo subjects in the book, An American Exodus:
  • 35. “ … the migrants are the most ragged, half- starved, forgotten element in our population …
  • 36. but with a surprising morale in the midst of misery, and a will to work. …
  • 37. … These people are not hand- picked failures. …
  • 38. … They are the human materials cruelly dislocated by the process of human erosion. …
  • 39. … They have been scattered like the shavings from a clean cutting plane, or like the dust of their farms, literally blown out”.
  • 40. ONLINE RESOURCES For more information on Dorothea Lange: • The Library of Congress page on Dorothea Lange: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fachap03.html#5 • Artist Hero: Dorothea Lange, a biography by Susannah Abbey: http://myhero.com/go/hero.asp?hero=d_lange For more information on the Dust Bowl: • Wikipedia entry : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_bowl • Voices from the Dust Bowl: Trampling out the vintage, newspaper article regarding the Imperial Valley: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fachap03.html#5
  • 41. OTHER SOURCES FOR THIS PRESENTATION • Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange, by Elizabeth Partridge • The Impossible Land: Story and place in California’s Imperial Valley, by Phillip H. Round • An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor Pictures used for this presentation are in the public domain, sourced from the Library of Congress website and WikiMedia Commons. All pictures are from Dorothea Lange unless otherwise noted.
  • 42. Map of Labor Camps from USDA History Collection, Special Collections, National Agricultural Library.
  • 43. Thank you for looking! www.aquafornia.com