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

A doctor would come by every morning to write prescriptions and see patients with more serious problems. The health care workers paid special attention to the children to make sure they were getting enough food. But the campers were relatively healthy and the mood of the camp was surprisingly light, Warren said.

“The kids got the schooling and the men were in the field and the wife did what she had to do,” she said. “They lived a pretty normal life, all told.”

That doesn't mean they weren't painfully aware of their situations. She remembers seeing one mother scolding her young son over something.

“She took a hold of him and shook him and said, ‘Even though we live like pigs doesn't mean you can act like one.'”

Some of the campers were unhappy, she said. They slept on mattresses on the floors of their tents. Most relied on government assistance to buy food for their families.

“We used to be able to tell how many were in the family by how many mattresses were on the car,” she said.

Workers lived transient lives. They would start with the harvest in her part of California and work their way north through Washington.

The Depression and the camps gave way to war. Migrants found better-paying work in the shipyards, which were increasing production for World War II and losing their regular employees to the military.

“I know what they went through. I saw a lot of them in tears,” Warren said. “But when they moved up to the shipyards it just turned their whole lives around.”

After the Depression

Warren went briefly to Mexico to vaccinate agricultural workers before they returned to the United States to take over the work in the California fields.

Her nursing career took her to northern California. She raised her son, Al Warren, as a single mother, and moved to Oklahoma at the age of 92 because that's where he ended up.

After she retired from nursing she started writing novels, having already written articles for magazines and newspapers, primarily the San Jose Mercury News. Most of her novels are romances framed around a nurse protagonist.

Her experiences in the camps never made it into her books, but she said she will never forget those times. It did help fuel her love of reading, she said, because she spent a lot of time waiting on doctors and learned to carry a book wherever she went.