Great Depression icon meets the great recession
A modern visit to the nonfictional Sallisaw, Okla. – home of the fictional ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Joads
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In John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” a tractor in the employ of a faceless “company¨ knocks the Joads’ house off its foundation once the sharecroppers abandon it and the fields they can no longer afford to work.
The Joads were fictional, a composite of fact and fancy. But Sallisaw is real, the seat of Sequoyah County in southeastern Oklahoma. Largely a bedroom community for the nearby city of Fort Smith, Ark., Sallisaw is a town of 8,000 off of Interstate 40 with a junior college, a German-owned, state-of-the-art chicken breeding plant, and a Cherokee casino.
It has endured and prospered since the Depression. Yet seven decades after the release of Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-winning book and subsequent movie with Henry Fonda as prodigal son Tom Joad, the town carries the burden of stereotype.
The “Grapes of Wrath” is the nation’s touchstone for the hardships of the Great Depression, when 400,000 Americans – mostly “Okies” along with others from Arkansas and West Texas – packed it up for points west, primarily California.
As the US sinks deeper into its worst economic times since then, the question that haunts Americans – particularly here – is: Might it get that bad again?
Even in February, the slowdown, was still not completely tangible here. Sallisaw city manger Bill Baker was saying sales tax revenue had not dipped dramatically, and “so far, we’ve only seen the recession on TV and in the papers.”
A month later, though, he notes that hotel and motel tax revenue is down, housing sales are all but dead, and developers have turned away from planned subdivisions.
“We were seeing two or three foreclosures a week – but last week we didn’t see a single one,” said F.L. Holton earlier this month. He owns the Central National Bank – “no sub-prime loans with us” – in nearby Poteau, Okla.
“They’ve slowed up at the rock quarries because construction has fallen off, but chicken and cattle [farming] is holding,” said Mr. Holton, who, aside from World War II service and college, has lived his entire 89 years in southeastern Oklahoma. He notes, too, that the Therma-Tru door factory near here plans to shut its operations – with a loss of 220 jobs.