Times Past

Dan Krieger: Plight of migrants left a lasting impression

This 1937 photo by Dorthea Lange shows a rainy day at a migrant pea-picker's farm in Nipomo.
This 1937 photo by Dorthea Lange shows a rainy day at a migrant pea-picker's farm in Nipomo.

They were called “dust bowlers.”

“We see them along the roads in their wheezy cars, the father or the older boy driving, the mother and the younger children sitting in the back.

“Around them, crammed inside, and overflowing on the running boards is everything that they own. They have worry on their faces; they are people afraid of hunger, completely dispossessed, and harried along the highways when their immediate usefulness is over.”

Harold Miossi was writing for Gladys Rex Sollers’ English class at San Luis Obispo High School about 1936. He picked a topic that he knew well.

Harold’s family owned La Cuesta Ranch in Cuesta Canyon immediately north of San Luis Obispo. He watched the traffic move down the newly opened Highway 101 on the east side of Cuesta Canyon.

There were lots of migrant families trying to find work along “the circuit” of agricultural labor that stretched from Imperial County in the south to the Salinas Valley and points north and east.

Miossi’s grandparents emigrated from Switzerland in the 1860s, settling in San Luis Obispo County as dairy farmers. They worked hard, but had found prosperity in America.

That same American dream seemed to have eluded these families.

“They have children … who must tighten their belts in a land of abundance … who must coop themselves in musty, improvised classrooms or face the alternative of field labor.

“All these children will someday be American voters. They through their ballots, will help guide our country to what they think is the greatest good. But will their conception of America be the same as ours?”

Harold, along with county schools Superintendent Robert Bird, visited the migratory school in Nipomo. “On approaching … the school building, all we could see was a patched-up Pacific Coast Railway warehouse. That … was the school house.

“We entered by scraping along a muddy trail, (climbing) shaky, termite infested steps, and pulling aside a barn door. Then … we beheld (what appeared) more closely related to an emergency Red Cross hospital than a permanent migrant school.

“The lighting was insufficient with half of the windows boarded, and the air was foul with the odor of stored grain in an overheated atmosphere. The floors were rough boards.

“The teacher attempted to have her class exemplify good behavior; she scampered from table to table, carrying a willow bough, which I suspected might have been used as a whip when we were not in her presence.

“Benches and tables, constructed from knotty wood, were used for desks, each with five or six students crowded around. In the center of each table was a bowl of stubby crayons.

“The textbooks were worn and dilapidated, some even coverless. Behind the wood burning furnace was a pile of chopped wood spread with spider webs. In the niches of the wall there were fruit jars ... jammed with flowers.

“The teacher explained that she had five different grades. Because attendance was so sporadic, she found it impossible to plan a teaching schedule. She said that she tried to brighten the room with flowers and pictures for ‘all of these children come from families where there is so little beauty and joy of living.’ ”

In a note to me accompanying his essay, Harold sadly recalled that “some ranchers complained about the waste of taxpayer dollars to educate these kids when they should be out picking peas.”

Harold noted that the essay was typed on a reconditioned Royal typewriter that his father had purchased from Sears for $25.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.