Her name was Florence, she was just 32 years old and had come from Oklahoma to California some dozen years before, to a land of promise — a promise which, for her, had not been kept. On New Years eve, 1924 she had arrived, with her husband Cleo Owens and her three children.
Her first house was in Shafter, California. Though it was small and poor, it was as much as she had in Oklahoma. But this place and these times held a promise of something more for her and her family. To own her own home, to raise her kids and give them more than she had had, to live the American dream.
There was work in the mills and factories of California for Cleo. He was a frail man and light of build. A near death fight with pneumonia, at age twenty-one, had left his lungs weak, making them a target for any germ that happened along. His only excesses were a tendency to overwork himself to provide for his family, and his deep, and intense love for Florence.
Cleo had married Florence over the objections of his own family, who all felt that Florence was too headstrong. They all predicted that the marriage would fail, a bad sin in 1920. A wife was there to raise the kids and do as she was told by her husband. Florence, in contrast, was only 17 when she informed Cleo’s family that they would never rule her or her kids. She loved Cleo, but she was who she was and that was that! (Cleo’s people knew that Florence was at least half Cherokee, but they did not know that she was Full blood Cherokee and the grand-daughter of the renegade outlaw Ned Christie, who had died in a shootout with a whole posse rather then be subdued by any man.)
In 1925 Florence and Cleo moved to Porterville, some fifty miles north of Shafter, where he and his brothers had found good work at good wages in the sawmill. Then they moved again, this time to Oroville, to work in the mill there. In 1927 there fourth child, a son was born. Later the same year the mill burnt and they had to move to a small town in Merced County.
Merced Falls was then the county seat of Merced County; it sat on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin valley, just barely in the foothills, and consisted only of five or six streets, one store and one school. The people were kind and caring, but it was also a company town: anyone who worked, worked for the mill, even the store keeper, for that too was owned by the mill. Life was good, full and happy. In September of 1929, Florence gave birth to the fifth of her ten children, a girl, Ruby. Soon after that happy event, however, another event 3,000 miles away sealed the fate of the town, and a family.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was little noticed in Merced Falls; it’s doubtful if anyone understood what it would mean to their town. As the Great Depression moved across the land, little would remain as it had been. Though the mill tried to hold on with small orders through 1938, for most of its workers the end came in ’31. Cleo was one of many to lose his job. There was no other work; all they could do was move on, to join that army of people working the fields and orchards of California, the migrants.
Cleo and Florence’s first “migration” was back to Oroville in Northern California, where he joined his sisters and brothers, who had left Merced Falls earlier to work in the fields.
After picking peaches all day, Cleo and his brothers came home covered in peach fuzz, tiny hair-like fuzz that itches and demands to be washed off. The little cabin they all shared had no “indoor” plumbing, so off to the Feather River they went to clean the day’s dirt from their bodies. Besides, the days were hot, and a dip in the river would feel good.
That night Cleo began to feel ill; it was hard for him to breathe in the house so he moved outside to a cot on the porch. Early the next morning they found him with a high fever. They nursed him as best they could — there was no money for doctors or medicine — and on the fourth night he asked to talk to Florence alone. His sister later recalled that they spoke softly, Florence sitting, holding Cleo’s head in her lap, leaning over to hear him. They talked for hours into the night, then she kissed him and rose and went in to the house and told his sister that he would like her company. She sat with him throughout the night. He never spoke. In the cool hours before sunrise he left, his breath so light that his sister never knew the moment. He was just 32 years old.
Cleo was buried in Oroville, in an unmarked pauper’s grave. That same afternoon, his family met to discuss what to do about Cleo’s kids! Cleo and Florence had five kids, and another due in less than six months.
The meeting took less than an hour: all they had to do was decide who would take what kid to raise, while Florence waited outside with the kids. The family made their choices, then went outside to “tell” Florence.
But Florence spoke first: “I know what you want to do, but it’s not right and I’m not going to let you, any of you take Cleo’s kids. I made a promise to Cleo to see his kids raised, and by God I’m going to keep that promise.” Cleo’s sister spoke up, saying, “But, Florence, we only want to help. To relieve you of the burden of trying to raise these kids alone. ” Florence looked her in the eyes, and said, “Then help me; be my sisters and my brothers. Be the uncles and the aunts they need. But I’m their mother and they’ll stay with me.” And they stayed with her, for a promise made was a promise kept.
During the next two years, Florence stayed around Oroville while her husband’s family followed the crops around the state, returning to winter at Oroville. In 1933, Florence informed them that she was expecting. The whole family was in a uproar, but Florence refused to reveal to them who the father was. Proud as she was, she took her kids and returned to her mother in Oklahoma to have the baby.
Florence returned to California the following year, driving herself and the six kids. She left the sickly baby with her mother in Oklahoma. Florence joined the army of migrant workers in the San Joaquin valley. From one town and field to another, from one camp to the next. They stayed and worked in every town from the Imperial Valley to Redding far in the north of the state. She and her children remember well the government camp at Lamont (near weed patch). But such nice camps were rare. Florence counted herself luckily whenever she had a real wood floor under the tent.
The year was 1936, the place a few miles south of San Luis Obispo on U.S. 101, the time was early morning. The car, overheated, it’s water pump gone bad, died and coasted to a stop just inside the camp. They had been forced to rush north, from the town of Calipatia in the Imperial Valley, where it had snowed and killed the pea crop there, they needed to get work in the pea crop around Nipomo. The car’s water pump had given out and they had barely made it. They hoped now to make enough money to fix the car and move on to the next field, the next crop on the Harvest Trail.
As fate would have it, a freak cold snap had killed the peas here the night before. There would be no work in this place, not this year. Those that could had already left; the others (some two thousand persons) had nowhere to go and no way to get there if they did. The look of hunger was already in the camp; within a week death would be there too. First, the very young, and the very old. Soon the locals would descend on the camp, arresting some, beating others, but scattering all to the four winds. Florence had seen it all before. The need to move on quickly was upper most in everyone’s mind.
Jim Hill had joined the family a year before, and acted as husband and father to Florence and her children. Florence was grateful. The camp they had stopped in was ankle deep in mud from the rains. As Jim and nine year old Troy took the car apart, an unforeseen problem occurred. Troy accidentally put a screwdriver through the radiator. Now there was even more problems, and much more money was needed. Money the family just didn’t have.
The following morning, Jim and Troy walked down the road, hoping to find a place to get car parts with what little money they had. Soon after they left, Florence was moved to a different camp only a mile or so away. This camp was on sandy soil rather than the adobe soil of the first camp. The car could not be moved, Florence left a message with the other people who remained in the first camp that when the men returned, tell them where she was.
Florence sat up the tent at the entrance to the new camp; she didn’t want Jim to miss her when he came walking down the road. Camping here would mean a long walk to get water and it was the most dangerous if the camp was attacked, but where she would wait for Jim and her son, Troy. Florence sat down under the tent. How long she sat she didn’t know, her mind perhaps on the past, of promises lost and promises kept. Perhaps she was thinking of the new infant in her arms, or the young girls around her. Perhaps her thoughts were on Cleo, and the world, as the world had seemed a dozen years ago.
Then a shiny new car (it was only two years old) pulled into the entrance, stopped some twenty yards in front of Florence and a well-dressed woman got out with a large camera. She started taking Florence’s picture. With each picture the woman would step closer. Florence thought to herself, “Pay her no mind. The woman thinks I’m quaint, and wants to take my picture.” The woman took the last picture not four feet away then spoke to Florence: “Hello, I’m Dorthea Lange, I work for the Farm Security Administration documenting the plight of the migrant worker. The photos will never be published, I promise.” Florence said, “Okay, if you think it will help.” The woman turned, walked away, got in her car, and was gone.
The next day the promise was broken: Florence’s picture taken by the well-dressed lady was on the front page of all the newspapers. The story told of the hunger and the needs of the people of the camps. By the third day cars and trucks began to arrive at the camps with food and supplies for the people in need. All were fed, many given clothes and help with car repairs. It was a miracle of love and giving. Doctors came to help the sick and the weak. Many jobs were offered and the people were grateful. But Florence wasn’t there to see it.
Back in Shafter, Florence’s oldest boy, LeRoy twelve, was working as a paperboy and staying with his Uncle Bill. He picked up the day’s papers to sell and his mother’s picture hit him in the face. He ran all the way to his uncle’s place to tell them his mother was dead. Why else would a poor person’s picture be in the newspaper? His uncle quickly read the newspaper, got into his car and headed off to rescue Florence: that’s what families were for.