Great Depression icon meets the great recession

A modern visit to the nonfictional Sallisaw, Okla. – home of the fictional ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Joads

Dorothea Lange Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection
Iconic town: Idled by drought in 1936, farmers line the shady side of the main street of Sallisaw, Okla., while their crops wither in the fields. Sallisaw was the setting for John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ – and the town has been trying to change its image as a Depression icon ever since.

Here by the border with Arkansas is where the Great Depression hit the Joad family – fabled farming icons of the Dust Bowl – head on.

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.

“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.”

Last week, Mr. Baker got back from Washington, where he lobbied Oklahoma legislators to steer federal money – including Obama stimulus funds – to Sallisaw for water projects.

“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.”

• • •

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.

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.

“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.”

• • •

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.”

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