Volumes have been written about the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s but with the possible exception of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," nothing tells the story quite as well as the photographs taken during that era -- many of which were taken right here in Kern County.
Fortunately, the Walter Stiern Library at Cal State Bakersfield has a large collection -- approximately 140 prints -- which will be on display starting Sunday at a reception that is open to the public.
The display is expected to be the focal point of a broader event to welcome the National Steinbeck Center's "Onward" team upon its arrival in Bakersfield after retracing the journey from Sallisaw, Okla., of the novel's fictional Joad family.
In addition to photos of migrants, the display includes artifacts tied directly to local history.
For instance, there is a photo of W.B. "Bill" Camp, a prominent local farmer of that era, standing by as one of his employees burns a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath," which had been banned by the Kern County Board of Supervisors with only one dissenting vote.
Integrated into the display is a large free-standing glass-topped case that contains a copy of the book's original dust jacket, a burned page, a potato sack labeled "W.B. Camp," and letters written by then-county librarian Gretchen Knief, asking other libraries in California to accept copies of the banned books, which by then had become a best-seller. A few years later, after the ban was lifted, all of those libraries returned their "borrowed" copies to Kern County.
The reception also serves as the kick-off for CSUB's yearlong celebration of the 75th anniversary of "The Grapes of Wrath," which Richard Collins, dean of arts and humanities, described as a community-centered project designed to raise the public's awareness of the cultural legacy of Steinbeck's book.
In addition to Collins and other CSUB administrators and faculty, the planning committee includes about 15 local residents as well as the Public History Institute, headed by history professor Miriam Vivian.
The photo display is a visual introduction to the celebration that continues through November of next year. Docents will be available to explain the library exhibit to visitors.
The observance is an opportunity for the library to showcase its extensive collection of resources that are held in the "California Odyssey: Dust Bowl Migration Archive," said Christy Gavin, librarian and director of the archive. (Editor's note: Christy Gavin is Camille Gavin's daughter.)
Most of the photos were taken in the 1930s by the renowned photographer Dorothea Lange, who took the iconic "Migrant Mother" shot on a site near Nipomo on the Central Coast, and was one of several photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration to document migrant life.
"The images in this exhibit document the deplorable living and working conditions of those desperate Dust Bowl migrants who were driven from their homeland by drought, debt, and dust storms to seek a better life in California's fertile Central Valley," Gavin said.
Actually, the photographic collection represents only a portion of the Stiern Library archive, which was initiated in 1981 with the California Odyssey project.
"The core of the archive is a series of oral history interviews that focus on residents who migrated to the San Joaquin Valley from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas between 1924 and 1939," Gavin said. "In addition to the interviews and photographs, the archive includes an extensive research collection of scholarly and historical documents."
Particularly in the last decade or so, the archive has attracted the attention of filmmakers, journalists and writers, said the librarian. Actors Donald Sutherland and Aidan Quinn used the migrant interviews to prepare for movie roles, and Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Warztman consulted material for his 2008 book, "Obscene in the Extreme," which chronicled the 1939 banning of "Grapes of Wrath" in Bakersfield.
"Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, PBS and the BBC have used archive material for their respective projects on the Great Depression," she said.
In addition to local students and residents, teachers and scholars from all over the world use the archive extensively to explore such issues as life during the Depression, racial prejudice and adversity, the clash of cultures in California, and the struggle to survive.
"They survived the hard times and eventually they and their descendants established roots in California's Central Valley," Gavin said. "And their legacy lives on. Their distinct accent is still heard and their evangelical Christianity thrives.
"But," she continued, "as historian James Gregory asserts, 'the most profound contribution of the Okies is their country music, which was essential to reconstructing the Okie identity into a more socially acceptable one,' and he credits many musicians, particularly Bob Wills during the 1940s and Merle Haggard in the 1960s."
Much of the material in the Stiern Library archive is digital and can be accessed though the library's website at csub.edu/library. It includes migrant interviews (e-text and audio versions), photographs and research material.
The photographs were purchased in 1999 from the Library of Congress through a grant from the Ben H. and Gladys Arkelian Foundation. When funding is available, the library hopes to acquire additional images to enhance the collection. 'Wrath' anniversary: From dust they came and here they stayed