Saturday, January 29, 2011

After the Dust Bowl, Timber Okie's

Back in the late 40s, 50s, and up to the 60s, there was a great influx of people that came here to work in the timber industry. They added a new dimension to who we were. Even though they never fit the true sense of the word “Okie” we called them that anyway. The true Okies were the immigrants that came to California to pick fruit, and work in the agricultural fields during the Dust Bowl period of the 30s. 

The new migrants proudly called themselves “Okies”, from Oklahoma, unless they were “Arkies”, in that case they were quick to point out that the were Arkies, from Arkansas, not from Oklahoma. Even though the average Californian couldn’t readily pick up on the difference in their accent, it was different. Most of the kids in school could tell the difference. Some of the new people were from Missouri, they pronounced it “Mizoruh”.

When a new Okie came to town, he was usually a friend or a relative of one of the Okies that already lived here. The relative that lived here would take the fellow around and introduce him to people that might give him work. Usually they wanted mill work, because logging was just too dangerous for somebody unfamiliar with woods work. Some tried the woods, and did well, but it was usually the more adventurous type.

Most didn't have anything but the car that they drove out to California in. When they went to work in a mill, the owner of the mill was usually not much better off than the average Okie, but the mill owner would give them a couple of cull logs to use for a foundation for a house. The poor grade of lumber that was not fit for sale was allowed to run off the end of the green chain. Anybody that wanted to haul it away could have it. The new mill employees would take the lumber and build themselves a one room cabin with a lean-to roof. Usually they would dig themselves an outhouse next. Then they would scab a few more lean-to rooms on the house for a little privacy.

Most of the mill workers that lived in the mill camp would help the new neighbors build their house. The new workers were usually very humble and very, very grateful. They were glad to be in California, have a job, have their kids back in school, and have a place to live. It was a very moving experience to see how grateful these people were, and how hard that they tried to fit in. I don't think that I appreciated how grateful the new people were. I didn't know how desperate they must have been when they came to this canyon. To my young eyes I guess that I just thought that it was all normal for them to be that way.

The Okies seemed to be very happy people and the liked to party, cook, and play cards on the week-ends. There was usually a beer bar close by that they would spend a little time in, but come Monday morning they knew that they had better be at work, or they were sent down the road. A mill depends upon everybody doing their job. If just one person doesn't show up everybody is out of work until he can be replaced. Most mills had a couple of old experienced hands that could fill in anywhere it somebody didn't make it to work. When they had a full crew, the experienced hands would do the work around a mill that always needs doing, like oiling, moving saws, working in the saw-filing room, or what ever needed doing. The all-around-hands could figure out what needed to be done without even telling them. Their job was to expedite, and keep the mill pumping out lumber as smoothly as possible.

It was well understood that anything that was built belonged to the mill, so if a person quit and went to work somewhere else, they left their home behind, and then he would have to build a new one. Or, if he was lucky he could just move it somebody else's vacated home. Having a home that belonged to the mill built loyalty to the mill. Nobody wanted to leave behind a house that they had built themselves.

Jobs were plentiful, but money wasn't. The mill and woods work didn't pay very good, but is there was a difficulty between a boss and a worker, it was easily settled with a firing or a quitting. Most people that found themselves jobless would go down to the closest bar and wait for somebody to come hire him. Usually they weren't out of work for more than two or three days at the most. Often people walked off of one job and right into another.

The thing that always struck me about the people from the poor states is that they were so darn friendly and happy, and they tried really hard to fit in. Most ended up doing fairly well for themselves and their families.



Anonymous said...

I've stayed in a couple of those cabins Ernie. I remember that they had siding made of the boards you described. No insulation and had tomato can lids nailed over the knot holes to keep the wind out.
To me, thems were the good days.


Ernie Branscomb said...

The roofs had 15 pound felt tar paper. They would use carpet tacks to tack newspaper to the inside of the boards for insulation. The stoves were made out of 55 gallon oil drums.

The Dimmick mill-worker camp just south of the county line was called "Rabbit Camp". It was built on jack Rabbit flat. It has pretty much rotted into oblivion now.

skippy said...

Another good story (and about my ancestors), Ernie. Thanks, liked it as usual and could hear these stories all day. Speaking of which, Teri (and others) from KMUD at the Community Radio Day/Access Humboldt spoke admirably well of you, your knowledge, story-telling, and relating the '64 flood. I was proud to hear that. Both of you are building community.

Also enjoyed hearing your wise take about the Kings Peak 'treasure', the Frolic, and the Brother Jonathon you mentioned the other day, Ernie.

Keep up the good work and community building, I look forward to reading and hearing more.


Ross Sherburn said...

My mom said these people had the cleanest Kids in school!

Joel Mielke said...

Ross Rowley mentioned once that when he was growing up, the kids in Hoopa referred to the kids in Wllow Creek as "Poison Oakies." Hee hee.

We had lots of hard-working Oakies in Southern California, and I grew up with a mixture of their children and Mexicans with (later) people who stayed after their stints in the Navy.

Ekovox said...

Poison Oakies, indeed!

Another Good One, Ernie. You know, you are preachin' to my choir. The Oakies and Arkies in the Klamath-Trinity region were thick as ticks on a buck's neck. They really populated the mills around the region. In Hoopa, there was a road called Oakie Lane. Still known as that, today.

By the time of the Douglas Timber boom in the 1950's and 60's, the Dust Bowl people had twenty years to wander up this direction. And most all were family based groups. Cousins by the dozens. Well, there is a reason McKinleyville was known as Oklahoma-By-The-Sea or Tulsa Del Mar, and the town of Manila was called Little Oklahoma-By-The-Sea.

When my great aunt Elsie Burke used to scold us kids for actin' up, she'd tell us to "Go Piss up A Rope" or "Go Fart Down A Stump" Pure Okie.

Ernie...Who in the Hell is Sam Hill? As in "What in the Sam Hill is going on around here!" Used to hear that phrase a lot.

~Ross Rowley

Anonymous said...

How about"I'll slap the whey out of you?"


Anonymous said...

I'll slap the whey out of you.
That looks better. My Arkie mother-in-law always said that.
I said that in front of Eb Driscoll one time and he said he hadn't heard that since he left Oklahoma.


Ekovox said...

How about: "Put some glass in that pneumonia hole!"

Meaning: Roll up the window in the truck when we're running down the highway.

Anonymous said...

Great read! You guys crack me up. I remember all of these sayings and living around those rustic mill shacks.

I was a mill camp brat because my dad owned a sawmill north of Laytonville. I remember all of the raw wood cabins that everyone lived in. Since I was but a year old when we moved there I'm not certain how the cabins came to be.

My mother always said,"you don't have to have money to be clean". We didn't have a lot of money, but you couldn't tell it by looking. Mom polished our little white oxford shoes every night and she combed our hair into French braids with ribbons. Most amazingly, this was about 1953 and she did the laundry in her ringer washing machine or on a scrub board on the back porch, hung it on the clothes line, and everything that was ironed was starched. I can not imagine.

It was a time of friendship, hardship, and fond memories.


Anonymous said...

Well said cousin.


Ben said...

Hard working... Family oriented... Humble... Church going.. Fun loving...
It describes the modern Mexican immigrant.. and quite a few hippies...