Local News

Tuesday, Apr 26 2011 09:00 AM

Dust Bowl history was her passion

BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Her knowledge and passion for the people and history of the Dust Bowl migration were mined for years by documentarians, journalists, researchers and students.

Doris Weddell, a Lamont librarian who became a leading local Dust Bowl historian and a driving force behind the preservation of the historic Weedpatch labor camp, died Sunday. She was 78.

Weddell had been struggling with post-surgery infections and related problems for months, but her death was unexpected, said Whitney Weddell, one of Doris' four daughters.

"We were all there in the hospital room with her," she said of the family and friends who came to say goodbye. "We were all singing her favorite song ("Sweet Violets") when she took her last breath."

Doris Weddell discovered her passion in life almost by accident. After growing up in tiny Hughson, near Modesto, she earned a two-year degree at a community college, married, raised her four girls and moved to Bakersfield.

When her marriage ended in divorce, Doris began to blossom. She started working at the library in the nearby farming community of Lamont, where patrons often shared their memories of coming to the southern San Joaquin Valley during the Great Depression.

Their stories of deprivation, poverty, pride and courage moved and inspired her.

When she learned the federal labor camp immortalized in John Steinbeck's novel "Grapes of Wrath" was rotting away in disrepair just outside of Lamont, she decided it must be saved. Later she would tell a Newsweek videographer that the camp where thousands of Okies received government help during one of the greatest migrations in U.S. history was comparable to the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.

What's left of the old camp needs to be preserved, she said, "as a monument to the people who made that migration."

Faye Holbert, a member of the Lamont Women's Club and a strong supporter of the years-long preservation effort, said the movement to save and develop the labor camp into a permanent historical monument and museum has been dealt a serious blow by Weddell's passing.

"This is really devastating to all of us," Holbert said. "Doris just lived and breathed the Dust Bowl migration. She did so much for the effort, more than any of us really knew. But there's a lot of work left to do."

The annual Dust Bowl Festival -- an event Weddell helped organize each year -- is held each fall to raise money for the preservation effort, and to raise awareness of the local history. The significance of the massive migration was that it transplanted music, culture and religion right along with the people.

But Earl Shelton isn't sure enough people -- especially young people -- care about that history. The 77-year-old Lamont resident said his dad lost the family's 40-acre farm in 1934 following a devastating Oklahoma drought. When his mother died in 1938, the family's choices dwindled even further. His dad sold most of his possessions, bought a 1929 Ford, and the family headed toward California.

For years, Shelton teamed up with Weddell to talk to thousands of students and visitors about the history of Weedpatch camp.

"She did the research on the camp and I lived it," he said. Together, they covered the book history and the personal history of those times.

Weddell once told The Californian she hoped visitors to the camp would recognize that the economic forces that compelled the Okies to risk everything to come to California are the same forces that have always pushed migrant workers to search for a better life.

Visitors to the camp, she said, should gain "a respect for people that have to leave their homes ... to provide for their families."

Christy Gavin, a librarian at Cal State Bakersfield who oversees the university's digital archiving project on the history of the Dust Bowl, said documentary producers and historians have beaten a path to Weddell's door in hopes of benefitting from her knowledge and her collection of interviews, historical pieces and research.

"She was a really rich researcher," Gavin said. "She is going to be greatly missed."

Calls have come from a wide variety of writers and journalists, including associates of famed documentary producer Ken Burns, PBS personality Huell Howser and the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, Whitney Weddell said.

Her mother left behind a roomful of documents, notes, recordings and even a camera once owned by famed Dust Bowl-era photographer Dorothea Lange.

Yes, the daughters of Doris Weddell are proud of her contribution to the world of historical research, archiving and preservation. They're amazed by her ability to talk to just about anyone and make them feel important and valued. But more than that, they are mourning the loss of a mother, the woman who loved them always, and unconditionally.

Years ago, when two of her daughters told her they are gay, Doris showed her true colors.

"Some parents kick their kids out," Whitney Weddell recalled. "My mother said, 'I love you.'"

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