Camera Rolls: 318:22-25
Sound Rolls: 318:11-13
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Joe Garone , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 10, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
This is Garone, take one. Tell me when you're set.
Let's, let's start up talking about your experiences and your memories, let's start out early in the decade, really- tell me a little bit about what was it like growing up on a farm here, in the early '30s.
Times were very difficult. We were a large family, we did not have the media-
Excuse me for a second, Mr., forget the camera's there, just look at me, talk to me. So let's start over, tell me about what times were like then.
Well, again, they were tough. The markets were limited. My folks had a dairy, things were very lean particularly in '28, with the crash of '28. My folks didn't have a lot of stocks, fortunately they didn't get hurt that way, but there was no market, nobody had any money. We ate fairly good [sic] because we grew almost everything we consumed, outside of flour and sugar, but it was just all work and no play.
I mean, did it look like they were going to lose the place? How tough did it get?
It got so tough that my father went to the banker and persuaded him-
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
I'm sorry, do we have a problem?
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
Oh, I'm sorry. OK, let's start again, how bad was it?
Well, I remember my father went to the banker and asked him if they would delay the interest, the principal payment, and he was able to make the interest payment, so we didn't lose the farm, but it was very difficult. It was a struggle.
Do you, do you, I'm not sure- when were you born?
I was born 1920.
Do you remember, I mean, do you remember things getting significantly worse near the end of the decade, or had they always been pretty hard?
Well, of course, in those days, we're talking horse and buggy here, so it was a hard life. People refer to the good old days, but I tell you what, you can have 'em. I'll take my air-conditioning and all the modern conveniences. At best, life was tough. It was long hours, I know I'd get up in the morning, here I was, ten or twelve year old kid, before I went to school, and I'd have to go out and milk the cows, and wash the barn before I went to school. Then come home and milk the cows again, by the time my mother got through clearing the dinner table in the evening I would try to do my homework, but I would fall asleep on the table by the kerosene lamp. It just, three hundred sixty five days a year, hard work.
Let's, let's move ahead a couple years, times were rough near the end of the decade. At what point, going into the '30s, do you notice that things are really changing? That there are new people here, and that there are new problems? Is it immediately after the crash, or is it later?
No- when you talk about the new people, we're talking about the migration? All that, that was in the early '30s, and I was, let's see, at that point in the upper grades of grammar school, and yeah, things started changing quite drastically. It was almost unbelievable to see the migration of people into the county. Of course, we lived out in the country, on old 99 highway, which is now South Union, and we had the opportunity to see the caravans, literally caravans. The people, I guess, would put all their possessions, apparently, strapped onto the back of the car, the top of the car. Some were fortunate and might have had a trailer, but most of them did not have trailers. It was very pathetic to see, particularly the large families, they would come in with four or five kids, six kids, a lot of them, and wondering where they were going to sleep the next night. Yeah, it was, well, unbelievable, you might say.
When they'd get here, they'd need help, and of course they'd want to work, they weren't looking for a hand out or anything...
No, that's one thing I can unequivocally say, they didn't come looking for hand outs. They, they were dealt a bad hand, and they were seeking opportunities, as my folks migrated here seeking opportunity. They were looking for opportunity to work, and they weren't particular what they did, they would do, dig potatoes, pick cotton, whatever. If, if it was work that the children could help, earn money, then the whole family worked as a family. But my impression was one of desperate people.
But basically good people, no?
Basically, yes. They had, they brought with them their cultures. We have a lot of the churches around here today that spawned during that era. They all seemed to have a, appeared at least to have a religious background, they were believers. You sometimes wonder, after what happened to them, but they seemed to have their faith, and given an opportunity, they performed.
Now when, when they came, part of, part of, I don't know if it's appropriate to call it a crisis, but part of this large problem was, was how to help them, because people here were hurting anyway, weren't they?
Yeah, I think you could call it a crisis, if that were to happen today, it would make all the headlines. It was a crisis, you had, talk about homeless people, we had homeless families, what we had. And not by choice, so yes, it was a crisis, and the people here were mostly, I think, by and large, I know my folks certainly were very sympathetic, and you might say empathetic. The people here were pioneers, and these migrants, you could refer to them as pioneers too. When they moved into Oklahoma, Texas, and that area, they were pioneering, so they were people of pioneering spirit, so they had courage, and they were just seeking a better life for themselves and their family. So, it's not unlike the people that were here.
So, so people related and wanted to help, but in a way, the problem was too big?
Well, what, money was tight. There was no prosperity, we were coming out of that terrific depression, we didn't have the government agencies that we have today that can help out in these crises.
Now, now part of that was, was actually, there were some small attempts, maybe not enough, by the government, and things like the FS—
Yes, they did set up labor camps, some of them are still in existence, by the way. They did try to make, make work projects, but this was a new experience, and nobody really knew the depth of the problem, they just kept coming and kept coming, I don't know how many moved into Kern County. 'Course, other counties also, but I think Kern County received the bulk of them because of Route 166.
So, I know you were young at the time, so you weren't a tax-payer, but, I mean, did you have a feeling that even though people wanted to help here, that this was something the government should help out with 'cause they had more resources, or—
Or, how was it going to be solved?
Well, very decidedly it had to be an agency of the government, I mean, individuals just did not have the resources of... the community was not affluent, the farmers were not making a lot of money, it was just tough times. I think the government, perhaps, might have been lethargic in their actions, but I don't know that it was intentional, I don't think anybody really grasped the concept or the magnitude of the disaster, that's what it was.
And the problem with the disaster, with the crisis, had many different aspects, because it put a strain on the schools and hospitals and everything.
Oh, absolutely, I don't remember what percentage of the population was reflected by the migration, but this was just a small town. You know, at that time, I think we, Bakersfield must have been around maybe around twenty-eight, thirty thousand people, so it was not a wealthy community, so, we did not have the infrastructure to accomodate these people.
So there's just, you know, you can only put so many kids in a school, right?
Right, and for housing accomodations, we didn't have the motels. We were just seeing the appearance, in those days they called them motor, auto rests, and they were just single bungalows strung out along the road. The first real motel was the Bakersfield Inn, I don't know if you're familiar with that, but before that they had what they called these auto-rests, and there were never many of those, but they kept springing up at the side of the road as the people kept coming in. We see some remnants of some of the better ones still standing today.
But most people would still wind up camped by the river.
They were camped out on the river, or wherever they could find space that was permissible. I know they would come by the farm and ask my folks if they could camp overnight, so they'd be off the road, and get off of the streets. My folks would accomodate them as, as much as possible, we would work them, whenever possible, we would give 'em employment, but, you know, as I pointed out earlier, money was tight. So, if one wanted to be a benefactor, you didn't have the means.
Or, or you just couldn't help enough people?
Well, individuals, you know, couldn't do it. It had to be a body, like a government body, and as I recall, I think the county did take some action, limited actions, but our local government agencies were not all that affluent either. We're talking tough times.
How are we doing [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ?
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] minute and a half.
OK. Now, you were still in school, right? In 1936 or '37?
OK, so would you meet kids who, from migrants families that were coming in?
Oh, sure, I went to school a lot of them [sic]. I've maintained a friendship even to this day with a lot of the kids that I've gone to school with. In fact, my wife's folks migrated here from Arkansas, so my wife's a little Arkie, although she was born in San Diego, but she, her parents were from Arkansas.
But, but even though you were friendly and a lot of people were friendly, other people were not so nice to them, I mean, they called them Okies, and—
There was that segment of the population that was not too happy to see them coming in. I don't know how to account for that, I guess it, it was that way then and it's that way today, and we're still fighting wars over that, aren't we?
Yeah, I mean, they probably saw them as a threat, or something.
OK, let's stop for a second.
This is Garone, take three. Last time we talked, you told me something that really, sort of, gave me an insight into it, I don't know if you remember it. We were talking about the fact that in the summers you were working on your ranch, and you saw the teenage migrants [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] the cotton, and you felt some real particular empathy for them, being a teenager yourself.
Well, yeah, I was a young teenager, and I'd see these, what impressed me most, to this day, I would see these very attractive young ladies, and they were modest, you know, and still, they didn't have the means to dress up or to make up or, you know. They'd be out in the fields working and sweating, and I know they were embarassed, you know, to be there and under those circumstances. Yeah, that, that touched my heart, and I still can remember those scenes.
Yeah, 'cause it's difficult being a teenager anyway, right?
You see, 'cause I'd work with these people, I was on the farm, for instance when they were picking the cotton, I'd be weighing the cotton. Sure it was hard on everybody, but, I don't know if it's the Italian blood in me or what, but I'd see these beautiful young ladies come up, sweating, you know, toting cotton sack over their shoulder... yeah, it, that memory stays with me. But I'm glad to say that I've watched a lot of those young ladies grow up and marry, and become very beautiful women in the neighborhood. You got a lot of grandmothers out there today that came from that period.
They survived. Tell me something, in your family, around the dinner table, would, would people talk a lot about whether Roosevelt was going to end the Depression, or, what did they think about what was happening?
Well, of course, everybody looking forward to, to the great savior. He came out, you know, with the alphabet soup. Let's give the devil his due, and I say that tongue in cheek, because a lot of people did not approve of the things he did, a lot of them were outlawed, but he recognized the problem and tried to do something about it. He did try to put people to work, even if it was only leaning on a shovel, but I still think that's preferable to the welfare system we have today, where you pay people to become demoralized and, and no incentive whatever. At least they went out and they helped build schools, and they did do projects, they did something constructive for the money they received, even though they didn't work as they might have under a capitalistic [sic] system, but after all, circumstances were not the same. So yes, I can vividly remember when Roosevelt took office. People were very bitter because of the stock crash and then the Depression, people had lost fortunes. Then we put this migration on top of it, well, there wasn't much we could do, and everybody felt, a lot of people felt threatened by it.
But, um, when you look at specifically whatever, whatever Roosevelt or the New Deal was doing for the farmers, did it seem like he had any answers for the farmers?
Well, they, the government programs we have today had their origins with the New Deal, although they are quite different, but we're still living with them, so I think we have to give him credit for that, don't we? We didn't necessarily agree with everything he did, but he did shut down the banks, and at least averted that disaster. One of the good things he did was the CCC camps, those were very popular, very productive, very good. But you know, when you're in a crisis, and you're trying to put people to work, mainly put food on their table, what do you do? I mean, you're going to make mistakes. It's inevitable, isn't it?
But you gotta try something.
That's right, you try. 'Course, I don't know whether it was the right thing to do, but he did it, and some of the things he did were unconstitutional, but, in the meantime, he put bread on somebody's table.
I'm trying to get a sense, though, in general, do you think people were, out here in Kern County, out in rural districts, were they happy with him or were they unhappy with him?
Well, I think everyone was happy with him when he came into office, I mean, they were looking for a savior, you know. They were just looking to him to turn things around, so, he won by quite a landslide, if you remember.
Let's, let's move on towards more the end of the decade, I'm talking about, like, 1938 and 1939. Did, did you get a sense at that point that things were getting better?
I did, yes, very definitely. Things were picking up, we begin [sic] to see prosperity turn about that time. I think, '36, '37, and towards the end of the decade, things definitely were better.
Again, a lot of people wonder what would have happened if the War hadn't come along. Would we have solved it, or did the War do it?
Well, of course, it cured a lot of problems. I don't know how to respond to that, but of course, over night, you saw the unemployment problem, and people working and getting checks. Sure, it cured a lot of ills, I don't want to get involved too deeply in that, I have feelings about the other side too, and wonder, just how much human sacrifice does it take, and is it worth it, but I think that's another issue.
Well, yeah, the War was definitely at least as bad as it was good. There were some horrible things...
Let's stop for a second, how much [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
OK, you had, you had some, some thoughts about [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , right?
Well, yeah, because at that time, Kern County was starting to grow a lot of vegetables, and it required a lot of hand labor, so, in reflecting, it probably was a god-send because, these people would take and do these menial tasks, digging potatoes or chopping cotton, or tomatoes, the hand labor that was required. Then, as the economy progressed, mechanization got better, in later years, then, as these migrants moved into positions of farming themselves or got better jobs, then we had the wave of Mexican people coming across the border to fill in the gap. So they filled a need there, that, I don't know, I guess God's plan, they served a purpose, though it was very difficult for those people, but in retrospect as I think about it, it's ironic how history developed. They came in, they handled this segment, and now we look at the immigrant, the Mexican immigrants, are doing the same thing.
In fact, that was the start of the, the "Impressero[?] Program" started when the Okies left to take jobs in factories.
Did your family use any of the pressero labor?
I don't think we did... I don't know if we did or not, there were a lot of Mexican laborers, of course, my folks- there were always a lot of Mexican laborers here, and my folks employed them from early on, Mexicans and even some Indians, at that time there were still Indians here, and we would work some Indians. So, but to formally request the presseros[?] that way, I don't think my folks ever did that. We were always able to get enough labor to accomplish our, our ends.
Tell me, when you look back at the whole period, the whole difficult decade, what lessons do you think America learned from it? Did you learn anything from that experience?
Are we talking, in the '30s, in the—
Yeah, the '30s. Forget about the War, just—
Well gee, I hope so. I think this is a good time for America to reflect on that. Conditions today are not unlike the beginnings of those times. America became affluent and lazy, Americans don't know what it is to tighten their belt. We need to learn to conserve, and to...I guess I'm failing here for words, but I guess the message is, that, not to be wasteful today, because you may be hungry tomorrow, and I think we have become a spendthrift society.
Well, in a way it sounds like you think we've forgotten that message and we have to relearn it.
Well, I think a lot of us are relearning it, and I think it's going to be very difficult to relearn it. I remember it because I lived it, I was on the farm, times were tough, and so we had to make do. I wore, you know, cardboard on the bottom of my shoes to keep my feet off the cold, frosty ground, I tied my shoes with twine. So I came up the hard way.
We're running, take five.
Would you say, tell me again what you were just telling Susan, about what happened to labor here once the War started?
Well, it just appeared that, overnight, the labor pool disappeared.
Would you start once more, and say, 'once the War started, it appeared'?
Once, yeah, War broke out,
they just all took off, either they went into the military, to the shipyard, or to the aircraft factories,
** and the labor source dried up. So, the farmers were forced to recruit women and children, and the schools cooperated, they would let classes out early or close certain days to help to harvest the crops. You can imagine the fun we had using that kind of labor, lot of the kids never been on a farm, but this was what we had to resort to. So, oh yeah, it changed, you might say, overnight.
And that shortage kept up for the whole War? How long was it?
Yes, for the duration of the War, as long as they were building ships and planes and fighting, labor was in very short supply.
Tell me something, let's go back a few years, to '36, '37. During that period, about the same time when all the Okies were coming in, there was, here and there, there would be a lot of labor conflict, people would come in and start organizing, did you witness any of that, or hear of any of it?
Oh yes, oh yes, I was right in the middle of it, that is to say, my farm is out there south of town, right in the middle of the agricultural scene, right on the highway. Oh, I saw plenty of it, I'd see these strike caravans go out and, actually go out and physically pull people out of the fields. It was rough, there was, there was even some shooting going on, it was... some pretty rough times, there.
I mean, it was desperate on both sides, right? People wanted more money, farmers were hurting, it was all sort of, there was no way to resolve it...
It, yeah, it was a no-win situation. I mean, commodities weren't worth anything, and, of course I can't blame people for wanting to get more money, but the problem was not necessarily that we didn't want labor to receive more money, where the problem came in was the opportunists that were heading these labor unions, that, I think, used the people. History will show that that was the case, because, they weren't successful. Even the laborers turned upon their own unions, because the, most, a lot of the, a lot of the officials were self-serving and using the people. That's why you don't see a strong farm labor union, because the original organizers didn't have the best intentions.
Frequently the charge would be leveled that, in fact, the migrants didn't really care about organizing, and that Communists were involved. Did you hear much of that?
Yes, that was a common argument, they thought it was a Communistic [sic] move, but mainly, labor people, all they wanted to do was be left alone to work, and put bread on the table and feed their families.
But did you think there was any truth to that, I mean, outside agitator analysis of the farm labor problems? That it was caused by outsiders?
Oh, I think so, yes, and even in recent years, and even-
Could you say that, "I think"? See, since my questions aren't on the tape, if you just say, "I agree with you," nobody knows what you're talking about, so—
Oh! Oh, I didn't know you—
Yeah, my questions won't be there, sorry. So tell me about this idea about outside agitators in the '30s.
Well, I think a lot of the resentment towards the attempts to organize farm labor was that, a lot of the organizers were outside agitators who were brought in, professional strike-breakers, not strike-breakers, but professional labor agitators, who would go out and threaten the people, and threaten the workers, physically pull them out of the fields. The labor people, they wanted to work, 'cause they wanted to make an honest living, and there wasn't that much money to be made in the farming industry, it wasn't lucrative like a lot of people thought, but I think if the approach had been more sincere, and the organizers had been, really had labor's cause at heart instead of selfish motives, I think we would have had a strong labor organization. But to this day we don't have that, the labor, the union out there now, the Farm Labor Union, is supported by outside interests, from Hollywood and other places, it's not the farm laborers that are supporting it.
So that's very similar.
It's a very similar pattern to what was there. Let's stop for just a second, I have another question, it's just, it's pretty long.
This is take six.
And, when you read the books about the '30s and farm labor stuff, they describe at as an extremely tense period. Did it really feel...?
Oh yes, those times, those days were very tense. Everybody was very cautious, the farmers, a lot of the farmers carried their shotguns in their pickups. There was a real opportunity for disaster, and I don't know, I think there were several people who were shot to death over it, and a lot of physical "embroyos" [sic] if I may use that word. They, they persisted, but they never were really successful, though, in organizing the farm labor, because the farm laborers are like the farmers, a bunch of independent cusses that want to make their own decisions, you know, and don't want to be told what to do.
When, again, when I read about it, you get this sense that there were two camps. On one side would be someone like John Steinbeck, and on the other side would be the Farm Bureau, right, and it was like they were bitter enemies. I mean, was it really that, or just, did people just disagree about it?
Well, there was a lot of disagreement between, of whether or not the labor unions were going to be good for agriculture. Of course, the problem was that, as I, reflecting back, I think they didn't approach it properly. They weren't organizing for the right reasons and weren't trying to accomplish the right objectives. I think if the organizers had been more compassionate, and understood agricultural [sic] and its problems better, I don't think we would have had the bitterness that there was. But on the other hand, if you're going to get members, you have to get people riled up, so I don't know.
Well, you used, it's interesting, you used that word bitterness, you know, that rather gives a sense of how deep it went.
Oh, it was, it was a lot of bitterness, and it persisted. I—
Again, would people think the same thing about Steinbeck, essentially, that he really didn't understand what was going on, just, came in and wrote stuff, and jumped to conclusions?
I have a feeling that everything was, that he wrote probably wasn't authentic. I'd think that he took a lot of license in what he wrote. After all, he was a novelist, wasn't he? Wouldn't that go with the territory, so to speak? I think there were a lot of exaggerations. Make no mistake about it, times were tough.
Which is OK if it's literature, but...
Times were tough, but if you're trying to sell a book, you know, you embellish it a little bit different, don't you?
Well, but that brings me to another question which has to do with how you look back at the whole period. Do you, do you really, when you look at it overall, do you remember it as good times or bad times? How do you remember it, the '30s?
Tough. The '30s, the '30s was a tough decade. It just, people were struggling, trying to make ends meet, people, a lot of the farmers lost their farms, and of course most of my conversations relate to the agrarian scene because that's where I was, I witnessed that. I don't know how it affected the city dwellers, but commodity prices were low... people were just eking an existence. It, well, I guess, of course when the War came along it turned everything upside down. And then, you know, we've had a war economy ever since.
OK, let's stop.
That might be enough.