While you don’t run across it too often anymore I remember when I was a kid that you’d meet people in your neighborhood with that Southern drawl that was heavy and thick and not what you’d expect to hear in San Francisco. There was a reason for this and it started with the Dust Bowl of the 30’s.
While we hear about corporate farms today things weren’t like that back in the 30’s and before. People grabbed some land through the homestead act of 1862 and planted crops or raised cattle to feed their families and what they didn’t eat they’d sell off. When the Dust Bowl hit in the 30’s it started a chain reaction. Many of the farmers were either landowners who owed lots of money to the banks hoping things would pay off or they were simply tenants working farm land for landlords who got a cut of what they brought in. This caused a lot of poor farmers on the panhandle of Oklahoma to become even poorer quicker. Without land or money they had no reason to stay in a place that had no land or money to give them so they headed out west. Records show that 15% of the population of Oklahoma left to come to California during the dust bowl and quite a few made it here to San Francisco.
When the 40’s came and the industrial boom that backed the war brought even more money to California we started to see even more people from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Colorado and Texas moving west to California and even more ended up in San Francisco because we had the shipyard at Hunter’s Point. It didn’t matter that most of these people weren’t from Oklahoma, the name Okie was still applied to them because of the drawl. While San Franciscans may think they’re highly intelligent they cannot tell the difference between an Texas and a Georgia accent [having family in both places I can].
While I can say for sure, it did seem to me like a lot of those who came here chose the Sunset District to call home. It was cheap here [you could buy a house in the mid 50’s for $6,000 so imagine how cheap they would have been in the 30’s and 40’s]. I had lots of friends as a kid who’s parents had thick Okie accents. These were the people I learned about pickled pigs feet and chittlins from though I never saw any. For years I thought that was a joke and that nobody ever ate them, but just made jokes about them until I saw them start to show up in grocery stores.
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was about the movement of the Okies to California. While he didn’t focus on San Francisco he was hired by a San Francisco Newspaper, probably the Call to write about the Okies that came to San Francisco and what to expect. They weren’t the most accepted people at first, but after awhile you learned that they were the first people to help you out if you had a busted door or window because they had to build what they had themselves when they were back in the midwest. Most of them were of Scotch-Irish decent which probably explains a bit as to why the Sunset District had such a large Irish population. They just stopped along the way for a few years.
It’s an interesting time period to look at since we don’t have very many people left here from that time to tell us about it. Which reminds me. I think I should go see my Mom’s friend Thelma and she how she’s doing.
One Reply to “When The Okies Came To San Francisco”
Nice piece — I remember growing up in the ’50 in the Sunset District, I thought people who worked in factories talked like that. It wasn’t until second or third grade that my parents told me about the Depression (and what brought my grandpa to SF from Canada).
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