By: Mike McCoy
Kern County Museum
Providing housing for seasonal agricultural workers has been a traditional obligation of the employer or at least an expectation by the work force. Historically, the United States has managed worker housing from something as simple as providing an outbuilding or camping space all the way to developed company towns. Some of these communities went on to grow into cities like Hershey, Pennsylvania or Pullman, Illinois. Other communities faded away after the precious metal was mined out or the economy changed.
In the 1930s when America was reeling from the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Southwestern states hit by the Dust Bowl, flocked to the West Coast. Some estimates put this number at three million displaced workers during a seven-year time span. California’s rich central valley with its long growing season and ongoing need for hand pickers bore the brunt of this migration. Known by the epithet of “Okies,” these workers lived in cars, tents, and hastily erected shacks along ditch bank settlements often called “Hoovervilles.” Life in these camps was difficult. There was no access to clean running water, no provision for food, sanitation or medical treatment
In 1935, the Federal Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration began to establish organized migratory labor camps to house the destitute migrants. Of the three federal camps built in the valley by the Works Progress Administration, two were located in Kern County. One of the first camps was at Shafter, and the second was the Sunset Labor Camp built in the small community of Weedpatch south of Bakersfield in 1936.
The federal camps were a great improvement over the ditch bank settlements and Hoovervilles. The new camps had permanent buildings with running water, medical clinics, libraries and even schools. The FSA also provided help locating work and coordinating relief services for food and medical care. The first administrator of the Sunset Camp was Tom Collins, to whom the book The Grapes of Wrath was dedicated. It was often said that Collins set a high standard for worker housing and family support. The Sunset Camp originally consisted of canvas tents on plywood platforms for the residents and permanent buildings to house the community functions such as administration, community hall, post office, library, and a barber shop. Later, the residents’ tents were replaced by more permanent housing units, including pre-fabricated metal structures and wood frame single room cottages. Noting the importance these labor camps had on American history, the Sunset Camp was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. The Sunset Camp still assists and houses farm workers under the auspices of the Kern County Housing Authority.
Interestingly enough, the need for farm worker housing has not gone away after the crisis of the 1930s. The Housing Authority of the County of Kern manages Farm Worker Housing and Migrant Farm Labor Centers. The eight farm worker housing developments are available year-round and the Migrant Farm Labor Centers are open six months a year and restricted to seasonal farm workers. There are still enormous challenges to providing safe, sanitary and affordable housing for farm workers.
The Kern County Museum is very pleased to announce that a metal worker housing unit from the Sunset Camp, and a wooden housing unit from the Shafter Camp will be moved to historic Pioneer Village this summer. The museum’s Ellen Baker Tracy Guild has provided the funding for the restoration of the two small houses and historical interpretation. The two houses will provide museum visitors with a glimpse of life in a farm labor camp in the 1930s and how American families lived as itinerant farm laborers. Most visitors will be surprised at how small these family dwellings were and how basic life was for the workers. For the 80,000 museum visitors each year and the dozens of schools who tour the grounds each year, this exhibit will be an important lesson showcasing life as it was in our county 80 years ago and how our federal government, state, county agencies, and local farmers all worked together to resolve a national crisis.