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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Though Sallisaw was hit hard by drought, over-farming, and falling agricultural prices in the global economic collapse of the 1930s – with as many bankers and butchers leaving the state as archetypical farmers – it was far from the Dust Bowls of the panhandle.Skip to next paragraph
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“Sallisaw is not the end of the Earth. We didn’t dry up and blow away,” says Baker. “We’ve been trying to change the image of Sallisaw for years because of that book.” He notes that a “Grapes of Wrath” festival here – with fiddlers and people dressed as the Joads – ended because it promoted an image of beaten down, dirt poor “Okies.”
“There ought to be a book written about the ones who stayed and toughed it out,” muses Earl Strebeck, curator of the historical society in Sequoyah County. “They had a better time of it in the long run.”
The long run is the path Gladys Masterson – Earl Strebeck’s fourth-grade teacher – has traveled since her birth on the Sallisaw family farm in 1911.
“I’ve had too much to store in my brain to remember everything from 97 years, but I remember the Depression,” says Mrs. Masterson, who turned 18 on Black Tuesday, the day of the Wall Street stock market crash that set disaster upon the world’s economies.
“I milked three cows each morning before daylight,” she recalls. “I bought my high school class ring with a can of cream.”
Masterson lives on what is left of the family farm and still owns a few cows, tends her garden with the seasons and believes her family survived the 1930s because they were “poor in money, but rich in food.”
She doesn’t remember any of her own kin joining the exodus, but she does recall the hard work it took for her and 11 siblings not to go hungry. They wore clothes made from feed sacks, canned just about everything they grew and mashed whippoorwill peas to make “sausage.”
“We’d plant and pick the peas, thrash them with brown sticks, and then we’d eat those dried peas for breakfast after seasoning them with sage.” Masterson smiles at the memory and adds, “It’s been a long time since I had a pea pattie.”
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The outlines of the Great Depression can be seen, literally, in Michael Riley’s 375 acres of ranchland: Flower beds still bloom each spring where Depression-era farmhouses once stood.
The American history professor here at Carl Albert State College estimates he’s lost about a third of his retirement fund in the stock market.
This spring, he is planting a half-acre of corn and beans and squash as a hedge against hard times. But he doesn`t really believe a field of vegetables will save him if the current crisis is simply gathering strength for a bigger wave to come.
“Most of my students are right out of high school; they don’t believe the Great Depression could happen again,” says Mr. Riley. “It’s even hard for me to grasp.”