Wednesday, Oct 16 2013 01:39 PM

The Dust Bowl breakfast club

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    This group of old friends from Arvin who grew up together at Sunset Labor Camp come together every Thursday at Westchester Bowl to reminisce and share breakfast.

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  2. 2 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Reford Hutson came to California from Oklahoma in the fall of 1939 and has been a local barber for more than 55 years. Every Thursday he meets a group of old friends from Arvin who grew up together at Sunset Labor Camp at Westchester Bowl to reminisce and share breakfast.

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  3. 3 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    “We were so poor we didn’t even have dirt!” said Wayne Slusser, recalling his childhood during the Dust Bowl era. Every Thursday he meets with Reford Hutson and other old friends from Arvin who grew up together at Sunset Labor Camp for breakfast at Westchester Bowl.

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  4. 4 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Bob Taylor, left, has a few laughs with old friend Bob Gibson during their weekly breakfast at Westchester Lanes in Bakersfield.

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  5. 5 of 5

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    During their weekly breakfast meeting at Westchester Lanes Earl Shelton, shakes hands with Bob Taylor, right. Shelton is from Oklahoma and Taylor is from New Mexico. This group of men grew up together at the Sunset Labor Camp and have a lot in common. Dale Gibson, left, is from California, but his brother Bob Gibson is frrom Oklahoma and they both attend the weekly meeting of old friends.

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BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer

Reford Hutson was only 5 years old in the fall of 1939 when his family moved to California from their farm near Dibble, Okla.

"We lived in five different places in Arvin for the first year," Hutson said. "One of them was a tent with a dirt floor -- that's before we moved up to the camp."

"We were so poor we didn't even have dirt!" Wayne Slusser yelled out.

That's the kind of exchange you'll hear from these children of the Dust Bowl -- in this case, a group of men in their 60s to 80s, who, as children, came to southern Kern County during the Great Depression.

Sharing a bond that started at what is now known as Sunset Labor Camp, Hutson, Slusser and several of their friends have been meeting every Thursday for breakfast at Westchester Lanes for more than 15 years. They talk about their lives, about current events and the old days, when their families traveled to California, leaving the devastation of Oklahoma behind them.

"What was bad was the drought," said Earl Shelton. "It didn't rain for seven years."

Shelton said his father lost the family's 40-acre farm near Scipio, Okla., because he couldn't pay the taxes.

"He was trying to raise cotton," Shelton said. "It would die after only growing a few inches."

But it wasn't just the drought that had to be endured by Shelton and his family. Shelton's mother died of cancer when he was only 4. His father struggled with odd jobs, such as cutting wood, to keep Shelton and his three older brothers together. Then they joined the migration to California, and ended up at what all of the friends call "the government camp."

"I couldn't have lived in a better place," Shelton said. "Without a mother, I had more mothers than any kid in the place."

"We never did go hungry," said W. C. Stampes, who came to the camp at age 5. "You might not have everything you wanted to eat, but you never went hungry."

Officially known as the Arvin Farm Labor Supply Center, the camp was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt by executive order in 1933. The Arvin camp, the second established in California, opened in 1936. Really emergency shelter at first, the camp consisted of several different types of housing -- first tent houses and tin cabins and, later, adobe houses and two-story apartments. There was a clinic, library, post office and recreation hall that also served as a church and a meeting hall. The camp was immortalized in John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," and was even used for filming several scenes in the 1940 movie version of the book.

Many historians have researched and published work on the Dust Bowl migration -- some in scholarly publications, others in commercial books. But nobody knows, or tells, the story as well as these men can. They were there, and they say some popular accounts take liberties with what they experienced.

"That union activity -- those were violent times," Stampes said. "(The union organizers) threatened to kill us when we went to work.

"The people there were hungry; they just wanted to work. We were not going to strike anybody."

Eventually workers had to be trucked to the fields for their protection, Stampes said.

"You've just got to remember, that's a novel, that's fiction," he said, referring to Steinbeck's novel.

There is no sugar-coating here; these fellows will tell you: Life was hard in the camp and in the fields. Everyone worked, including the children, who were able to get work permits as young as age 12, if they bothered to get them at all. Helping pick cotton and harvest potatoes, they experienced the heat and primitive conditions in the fields. More than that, they knew they were not welcome in California.

"We were actually refugees," Stampes said. "Local people didn't want our kids to go to school with theirs."

Many migrants were turned away from entering California, especially in the mid-1930s.

"They would ask if you had a job or a promise of a job, how much money you had," Stampes said.

But there were no such distinctions made in the camp, Hutson said. "We kids didn't know we were poor; we were all in the same boat."

Stampes said conditions at the camp were quite primitive in its earliest years -- there was no power, and there was one water faucet for every four cabins. Ice was delivered to the camp, and people stored their food in makeshift iceboxes. Improvements were made over time with electricity being introduced in the form of a single light bulb in the tent houses.

"People in California eat outside and go to the toilet inside," Slusser recalled. "People in Oklahoma eat inside and go to the toilet outside -- at least in those days."

Whether they arrived in the early, primitive years, or later as improvements were made, "the government camp" was home to these families, as many as 500 at a time, and many families lived in the camp for as long as 15 years. Sunset School was opened for the children, most of whom also went to Arvin High School. Eventually, every one of the Westchester breakfast gang moved out of the camp, started their own families, worked, and most of those who are still living have retired.

But they are proud of those years in the camp, and they want their story told and remembered, as they experienced it. Worried that younger generations aren't learning anything about the Dust Bowl era, many children of the Dust Bowl have worked over the last several years to preserve their history through an annual Dust Bowl Festival, and archiving and displaying photos, documents, artifacts and other items from the camp. They are also trying to raise money to restore the library, post office and recreation hall, the three remaining original buildings from the 1930s.

And while they still can, they continue to meet for breakfast and look back at those hard times, and even smile about them.

"It's rare to stay this close with so many guys for this many years, coming down here every Thursday morning and listening to their lives," Slusser said.

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