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 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.
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.