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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“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.Skip to next paragraph
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“I feel like we’re going to see slower times this summer,” says Holton, noting that the local hardware store he also owns has adjusted to the dead housing industry by pitching repair items to the “do-it-yourself-boys.”
“Every time I go to Washington I get the feeling that everybody is there to see the Wizard of Oz ... that if they can just get an audience with the Mighty Wizard, all their problems will go away.”
For Oklahomans like Holton, who can remember the way it was in the Great Depression, the wizard was real and his name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His Works Progress Administration projects built bridges, culverts, and schools – including Sallisaw High School – while putting food on the table of families where children were hungry.
“The WPA was a terrific relief for people who were walking six miles to work 10 hours for a dollar and happy to get it,” says Holton. “Our young people today would never suffer through what folks back then did. They’d change the government first.”
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Oklahoma’s 331-mile stretch of Interstate 40 is dotted with signs for such sites as the Route 66 museum in Clinton, country singer Garth Brooks’s boyhood home in Yukon, and spots of frontier and Native American history.
But it’s strangely empty of references to the great migration of Sooners for the promised land of California farms and orchards.
The highway marker for Sallisaw notes the brutal “Trail of Tears” – the forced march of the defeated Cherokee nation from Georgia to pre-statehood Oklahoma – but the white man’s misfortune largely goes unmentioned beyond stories about Route 66, described by Steinbeck as the “mother road” that carried hundreds of thousands of migrants west.
Scholars are unsure why Steinbeck chose Sallisaw for the book. Some think it is no more profound that the poetic alliteration of the name of this spot on the border with Arkansas.
“There are no people named Joad here, he must have made that up,” says Dick Mayo, a descendent of one of Sallisaw’s founding families, who as a boy watched director John Ford film the opening scenes of “The Grapes of Wrath” outside of the Wheeler Street home he since has inherited from his grandparents.