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Oklahoma City woman remembers life in Dust Bowl migrant camps

Oklahoma City resident Beatrice Warren was a nurse in California during the Dust Bowl era.
BY PETER WRIGHT, For The Oklahoman Published: December 17, 2012

As the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression devastated much of Oklahoma, Beatrice Warren was about 1,000 miles away, learning to be a nurse.

Within a year Oklahoma came to her, and 70 years after that she would come to live in Oklahoma.

Warren was a nurse in the Farm Security Administration migrant camps, which provided space for thousands of impoverished people who went west in search of work. She now lives in Oklahoma City's Baptist Retirement Village, where she celebrated her 100th birthday Nov. 7.

A lot happens in a century-long lifetime. Warren has moved around and written a few novels, but giving aid to migrant workers when she was in her 20s may be the most well-known historical moment she had a hand in.

Warren lived in St. George, Utah, until her family moved to Fresno, Calif., when she was 10. When she was young, one of her brothers fell ill and soon she did too, though she wasn't quite as sick. That's how she first learned some nursing skills.

“My youngest brother got scarlet fever, and he had to go to the pest house,” she said. “The nurses put a gown on me and put me to work.”

“Pest house” was the common term for a building where infectious patients were quarantined, especially in the days before antibiotics were commonly used.

After finishing school and spending a year providing first aid in Yosemite National Park, Warren signed up for some hospital training and then became a nurse in the federal camps.

The migration

The camps were part of an attempt to pull the new migrant workers out of their ruts. Since arriving in California with nothing and watching the wages for fieldwork decrease with the extra labor, some were literally living on the side of the road.

“Just in droves all of these people went out there,” said Larry O'Dell, director of special projects for the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Many of the workers initially lived in loosely organized, unsanitary camps. California gave them a cold reception. Even in the late 1930s the state passed a bill, which was later struck down, designed to keep the migrants from settling there, O'Dell said.

“I know that they were harassed when going to establishments outside of the camps,” O'Dell said.

The Farm Security Administration began opening camps in 1935.

Life in camp

Brawley, Calif., in the far southern part of the state, was where Warren spent most of her time. She also visited smaller camps that had no full-time nurse.

Her camp was composed of tents and semi-permanent buildings with wooden foundations and tent coverings. The nurse's office had a relatively well-stocked clinic. It was equipped to handle minor illnesses and injuries, and they administered smallpox vaccinations.

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