Wednesday, Aug 21 2013 02:44 PM

Is there a future for the past at Sunset Labor Camp?

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Alexsis Sanchez is a lifelong Lamont resident and is very knowledgeable about the Dust Bowl Camp in Lamont and the "hall" that she is walking through that was used as a gathering place for the residents years ago.

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    By Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

    The Sunset Labor Camp, when it first was built in 1936.

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BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor jself@bakersfield.com

Most of what volunteers require in the years-long effort to restore three buildings at the historic Sunset Labor Camp can be achieved with money, except for the one thing they need most: young people to care -- about the great westward migration that ended in valley migrant camps, about the heritage and customs so many local families share, about a culture and way of life that is disappearing over the generations.

Local schoolchildren used to learn about the Dust Bowl and the 25-year migration it spawned, said Faye Holbert, a longtime supporter of the preservation project at the Lamont camp made famous by John Steinbeck and the sweat of thousands of Okies. But she's heard that the lessons no longer are required, and that concerns her.

Related Info

Dust Bowl Fundraising Dinner

What: Dinner, entertainment event to raise funds for the Dust Bowl Days Festival in October

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Where: David Head Center, 10300 San Diego St. in Lamont.

Admission: $25; tickets are available at Joronco Rentals and Bear Mountain Sports

Information: 854-3620 or 664-3933

"We're all getting older now," she said of the core group of 10 or so volunteers dedicated to preserving the buildings.

"I don't know if we're going to finish this in our lifetime without help."

And that's why the annual Dust Bowl Days Festival is so important, said Holbert, 75, whose committee is hosting a dinner Saturday to raise funds for the October celebration of history and culture.

"The festival has picked up the last couple of years," Holbert said. "It's just amazing that something this huge can be going on here, and there's people who have lived here all their lives and say, 'I didn't know anything about that.'"

Late to the party or not, new faces represent hope to Holbert, who gets more offers of assistance every year. What she and her committee would really love is a corporate sponsorship or offer of labor and materials from a local contractor.

"Right now it's just the hardworking people helping the hardworking people, and it's not moving fast enough for us."

The buildings -- a post office, library and community hall -- were constructed in the 1930s, and time has not been kind.

"The library building is pretty much secured," Holbert said. "The rest of it needs roofing and general love and care. Like a home."

The three buildings are all that are left of the original camp, a New Deal project established in 1935. The labor camp -- known today as the Arvin Farm Labor Center -- sits on land owned by the Kern County Housing Authority and is home to a new generation of farmworkers, so the old buildings were moved to an out-of-the-way corner years ago.

Tours are offered to the public by arrangement, and visitors come from all over the world. Just last week a couple from England stopped by.

"Our person to take them through is Earl Shelton. Our leader, Doris Weddell, she was the person who really got everything rolling with this when she was librarian in Lamont. Since she's not here anymore, Earl takes people around, like the schoolchildren who come on the bus."

Weddell, a respected Dust Bowl historian, died in 2011. So profoundly was her loss felt by the volunteers she inspired and led that only now are they regaining their stride, Holbert said.

"We miss her tremendously. Her death was a huge blow to us."

But Holbert, Shelton and other volunteers soldier on, plugging away with the restoration, trying to get others interested and -- most of all -- continuing the tradition of Dust Bowl Days. Saturday's dinner is the main fundraiser for the event, which costs in the neighborhood of $2,500 to host.

For $25 a ticket, attendees will be served a catered deep-pit dinner, with desserts provided by volunteers. Gene Thome -- billed by Holbert as a "second Merle" -- will perform. The dinner is at 6 p.m. in Lamont at the David Head Center, named for a former judge who lived in the Sunset camp.

"So many people who grew up there did go on and did good things with their lives," said Holbert.

"You talk to some people, and they say that was just a terrible time, but I don't think there's a person I've talked to who lived at that camp who doesn't say that that was the best time of their life."

Holbert, whose family migrated to California from Oklahoma in 1948, never lived in the camp herself. She became involved in restoration efforts while working at Sunset School and has become something of an amateur historian herself, learning stories from former residents of everyday life in the camp.

"You look at pictures from the camp back in those days, there was no trash," she said. "You had to keep your space clean, or they'd call your name over the loudspeaker. ... People would say, 'Mom used to sweep the dirt.'"

Though she realizes the expense of moving buildings is "exorbitant," Holbert said she thinks the structures ultimately belong at the Kern County Museum, where they'd get the visitors they deserve. In the meantime, she and the other volunteers are doing their best to keep a unique part of the valley's history alive.

"More people keep coming to the festival, and it gives you encouragement. You talk to people and they say, 'If you're going to be working out there, I've got time.'"

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