Children of the Dust Bowl Summary

Children of the Dust Bowl by Jerry Stanley is a historical account about the migrant Oklahomans who moved to California during the Dust Bowl and the founding of the Weedpatch School.

  • During the 1930s, the Dust Bowl forced a number of farmers in Oklahoma and nearby states to leaves their farms. Many went to California for work.
  • After braving the rough road, the migrants faced a harsh welcome from the Californians, who derided them and refused them work.
  • Seeing the potential in the Oklahoman children, Leo Hart started the Weedpatch School, which educated the children and gave the community a sense of purpose.


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Last Updated on June 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1274

Farming in the Panhandle of Oklahoma had always been hard, but it became even more difficult in 1931 when the climate became drier than usual. The Oklahomans—often referred to as Okies—who lived in the Panhandle were dry farmers to begin with (they had no irrigation systems), and they had already borrowed against their farms when the Great Depression hit in 1929.

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Things went from bad to worse in 1936, when winds began blowing up dirt and dust. These powerful dust storms became known as the Dust Bowl, which affected much of the southern region of the Great Plains. The winds howled from 1936 to 1940, and farming was impossible. These winds made the sky “boil red, blood red.” Families tried to stuff cracks in the walls of their homes with wet towels, but the dust still managed to get in. Too often, people died from “dust pneumonia,” which occurred when the dust caused severe damage to the lungs.

By 1937, the unemployment rate in Oklahoma had hit 30%. Many Oklahomans began to look at California as a mythical place where no one was sick or hungry. The growers in California fueled this belief with the handbills they sent to the Dust Bowl states. These handbills exaggerated the number of workers needed and led to the largest migration of people in US history: “Between 1935 and 1940 over one million people left their homes in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri and moved to California.”

To bankroll their trips, many Oklahomans sold everything they had to get an old jalopy or a flatbed truck. Some Oklahomans who didn’t have anything left to sell would ride the rails (sneak aboard railroad cars). Very often, Oklahomans sang songs about the beauty they hoped to find in California.

Route 66 to California was full of obstacles. Many of the Oklahoman families would stop to work along the way, and they would count themselves lucky if they had boiled potatoes and carrots to eat. Two of their greatest geographical obstacles were the Black Mountains and the Mojave Desert. To make the trip less stressful, they wrote and sang songs.

When the families finally descended into the San Joaquin Valley, they thought it was paradise, but then they started seeing signs that told them to keep out. Since the growers had advertised so heavily for farmworkers, wages were depressed, and many Oklahomans could not get work at all. Steinbeck, in a pamphlet he wrote before The Grapes of Wrath was published, called this time in California the “dead time.” Many Oklahoman children died, and California farmers burned their surplus crops rather than allow Oklahoman families to eat. Disease raged through the Oklahomans’ encampments, including dysentery, tuberculosis, and pneumonia.

Soon, a rumor circulated that the federal government was building farm labor camps for Oklahomans until they could get on their feet again. In 1936 the Farm Security Administration started 12 camps in the San Joaquin Valley. One of these camps was Arvin Federal Camp located near the towns of Arvin and Weedpatch, California. It cost one dollar to stay in the camp, but families could work off the cost of rent if need be. Life became marginally better. Always through the hardship was the music the Oklahomans wrote to maintain their resilience and sense of identity.

The struggle continued. Oklahomans were further ostracized because of their accents and were often called “stupid.” Some thought they were too dumb to learn the alphabet. The truth was that many of the children had been traveling so long that they had not had a chance to learn to read and write.

One man knew the potential of these Oklahoman children. He knew that the children had just as much potential as any others; they only needed a chance. His name was Leo Hart, and he began by trying to integrate the local children into the outlying rural schools, but the parents of Kern County demanded that the Oklahoman children leave their classrooms. Leo Hart then realized what he had to do. These children would be given a second chance in the form of their own school, Arvin Federal Emergency School—soon to be known as Weedpatch School. It started with ten acres of land leased for $10 and very little else other than two old, condemned buildings.

Next, Leo Hart traveled to recruit his most important resources: the teachers. These stellar teachers agreed to teach the standard subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic but also practical subjects like animal husbandry and electrical wiring. Now that Leo had the best teachers, he set out to beg for and borrow all the supplies he could. All during the spring and summer of 1940, he collected used farm equipment, an assortment of farm animals, and numerous plants from nurseries. Many people were happy to help the school get up and running, but Leo Hart and his wife Edna encountered trouble as well. One time they found five dead cats on the school grounds, and another time the tires on Leo’s flatbed truck were slashed. Yet another time, the Oklahoman children had to extinguish a fire that had been set to the two extant buildings on the property.

Slowly, Leo, the teachers, and fifty children from Weedpatch Camp built their school. The children also plowed and planted crops and raised livestock. The school became self-sufficient in providing vegetables, dairy, and meat. The teachers went out of their way to teach the kids extra subjects they happened to be expert in, such as sewing, shoe cobbling, and even aircraft mechanics (Principal Pete Bancroft bought a military surplus C-46 for $200). Some teachers spent weekends with sick students, because they were better off in the school nurse’s room than in Weedpatch Camp. Even the music teacher donated his time. Perhaps the crowning glory of Weedpatch School was its swimming pool, which was the first built in the county.

Approximately 200 students studied at Weedpatch School during the first year of its operation (September 1940–May 1941). They learned subjects like math, geography, and history, but they also learned very practical skills such as canning fruits and vegetables. The school day was divided into two three-hour blocks: “Half the children went to classes in the morning, normally from nine a.m. until noon, while the other half worked on building the school and tending the crops. After lunch, the groups switched places.” There were “little victories” as the children worked their way through the curriculum, and on non-school days, Leo Hart and the teachers took the kids on “outings” such as fishing trips. The Weedpatch School brought pride and dignity to its students. For the parents of Weedpatch Camp, it also brought hope.

In time, parents all over Kern County were calling Leo to see if their children could get into Weedpatch School, with its “richer and broader curriculum.” The emergency charter of the school was up after five years, and the Weedpatch School “was absorbed by Vineland School District” and finally became known as Sunset School.

The students who built and attended Weedpatch School went on to make their mark on the world as business owners, teachers, college professors, and judges. Leo Hart, in looking at a picture of Oklahoman children, concluded: “You know,” he said, “history is always full of choices. It’s possible to achieve anything. Look at these kids, and look at what they have become.”

In the years after his tenure at Weedpatch School, Hart continued to educate. He created a mobile school program and the first school for handicapped children in Kern County. At 91 years old, he was able to attend the dedication ceremony for Leo B. Hart Elementary School in Bakersfield on November 18, 1988. Leo Hart died on May 30, 1989.

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