My Okie past … and present


I’ve written a novel that follows a young woman’s struggle to find her place in life. It takes place after the Roaring Twenties blinkers into the long twilight of the Great Depression. An alliteration of that period could be debt, drought, disappointment, desperation, and despair.

I grew up in the region where most of my story takes place, the Oklahoma Panhandle. A severe drought, lasting several years, withered the Great Plains at that time. Reckless farming practices of previous years had stripped the region of the grasslands which once protected the soil. Without moisture or cover crops, never-ending windstorms whipped across the prairie to create the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. Hundreds of thousands of people, desperate to escape the poverty and joblessness of the plains and southeastern states, migrated west. A great number of those identified as being from Oklahoma were actually from states to the east. Vehicle registration enforcement in many of those states was lax but Oklahoma cops stopped vehicles without a tag, subsidizing the state treasury. For the privilege of crossing Oklahoma en route to the golden west, many travelers from the Carolinas, Tennessee, etc., were tagged as Okies.

Most were poor whites, hoping to find a better life. Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, made the term “Okie” familiar nationwide. Some of those who stayed and lived through the Dust Bowl saw the Okie migrants as quitters; but few native Oklahomans, me included, do not have a relative who made the trip down Route 66. Most Oklahomans are proud of their Okie kin who made good in California. In fact, my half-brother was a tool pusher on a drilling rig off the Santa Barbara coast.

When I made my own exodus in 1968, some of the local Oregon folks referred to ramshackle settlements as Okie towns. Coincidentally, Oklahoma Governor Dewey Bartlett had just created a program to develop Okie pride. Thinking back, it seems a bit ridiculous but group identity partly defines who we are. If I can’t own my roots, I can’t be completely honest with people.

I was proud of my Okie label. The name represented grit and perseverance; being a real survivor. I got some strange looks and a few comments when people saw my little brass Okie pin but I wore it as a badge of honor. For those who kept it up, I’d give them Will Rogers’ assessment: “When the Okies left Oklahoma to go to California, it raised the average IQ of both states.” Then we’d both laugh. Usually.

I’d like to hear from those of you who remember family stories or who have your own memories of that corroded time. What lessons could we learn from those folk to apply to our world, to the struggles and challenges that wait outside our front doors–and inside, where we relate to those closest to us?

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About samuelehall

A follower of Jesus, husband, father of 3 adult children, writer and learner.
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21 Responses to My Okie past … and present

  1. anthonyD says:

    Hello. I came to your site in my search for an image of an original okie pin. Is it at all possible to send me an image of the pin please. My father had one become lost and talks about it and in my search to find a replacement it would be very helpful to have a visual to know what I’m looking for. Thank you

    • samuelehall says:

      Hey, Anthony! Mine is apparently lost, too. Gov. Dewey Bartlett had OKIE (all caps) tie clasps or tie tacks made, in order to generate pride in our state. I’ll keep my eyes open over the next few days and if I find mine, I’ll send a photo to you.
      Some people out here used to give me gas about being an Okie. I would ask them if they had heard the famous quote by Will Rogers: “When the Okies left Oklahoma to go to California, it raised the average IQ of both states.” That usually shut them up.
      I grew up in Beaver County. Tell your dad Hi.

      • anthonyD says:

        Thank you for the quick response! I hope you do find the pin. I think it would just be awesome!

  2. Julia Pascoe Sumrall says:

    Your site brings back a lot of memories of an active childhood in the Panhandle of Oklahoma. My heritage is not ‘Okie’ but I feel I qualified to speak as a Okie. I, too, am proud of that tag. Your writings are inspirational!

    • samuelehall says:

      The experience of having lived during that time, at that place, is a treasure in and of itself. It probably didn’t seem that way at the time, Julia Faye, but now that we have the luxury of perspective, hey, those were mostly good times. Not everything, for sure, but that heritage you speak of was hammered out on the anvil of hardship, enabled by the people who believed in us, and sustained by a faith we stumbled to understand and apply.
      One thing we can do–and I think you’d agree we should do–is pass the torch (of values and moral character) to succeeding generations. I can’t speak for others, but for me, the torch is faith in Christ that works itself out in the everyday world.
      We have to get their attention somehow (I decided not to wear a nose ring or get a tattoo tho.) so that when they reach the end of themselves (as we all do), we can show them how our failures, challenges, and fears–which are very similar to what they face now–worked out in our lives.
      I’ll bet very few of them even use the word “inspirational.” But you and I know they’d like to be inspired. We help them overcome cynicism and despair by admitting mistakes, asking forgiveness, and accepting them where they are (a biggie for me–ask my kids) … and reminding them that good experience comes from an assortment of bad experience; i.e., they don’t have to stay where they are.

  3. Doris Minard says:

    Sam: Grit, determination, and the hope that things would get better, are what people of that era lived on. My family went through those hard times and clung together when overwhelmed with hardships. I remember my folks talking about no money, broken axles, the embarrassment of borrowing money, and using cardboard to cover up the holes in shoes. But, through it all, I had the happiest childhood and wonderful memories. I never heard the word “poor.” Strength comes through adversity.
    I’m looking forward to your book of everyday people surviving extraordinary times.
    D C-M

    • samuelehall says:

      What strikes me in your comments is the way your family bonded–because of the hardships. I want to explore that more in a future discussion. Hardships are vital to our process of becoming complete persons.
      Interesting, tho, is your family’s embarrassment (my family, too) at having to borrow money, as if it diminished them to have to ask someone else for help. Was it the idea that they were beholden to the giver … or that in asking they revealed themselves as deficient or incapable? Asking from the position of need often makes me feel vulnerable, now that I think about it. No one wants to be seen as a supplicant.
      Ah, there it is–pride. No wonder scripture directs us time and again toward humility.
      Thank you, Doris. Remarkable, that in what most would view as “negatives,” you declare it to be the happiest childhood.

  4. Larry Yoder says:

    Your website looks great. I am wondering where a lot of your photos were taken. Do you have photos of Forgan and the surrounding area of Oklahoma. Good luck on your book, I am anxious
    to read it.

    • samuelehall says:

      Thanks, Larry. I’ve got a number of photos from the Greenough and Forgan communities. Many, of course, that I wish I’d taken before houses were torn down or people died.
      A few years ago, I rode out with neighbors, Wayne & Ruby Buffalow, to the area where several chapters of my story takes place. They pointed out locations of farmsteads, now marked only by a solitary windmill or a broken foundation wall. I scribbled notes of their recollections of barn dances and funerals, of families who struggled to keep their farms, and of those who failed. We stopped at a lonely crossroads where someplace among the thistles, a grieving family had buried their child.
      It was an emotional time–for them, and for me, too.

  5. Sam Hall says:

    Thanks for taking a look! I will organize my photos as time and knowledge allow–to make it more coherent. BTW, Alison, I just discovered an excellent blog guru–Derek Halpern at http://www.socialtriggers.com. Take a look, and consider subscribing to my blog, too.

  6. Alison H. says:

    Your blog looks great, Sam!! The photos you have posted tell stories of their own, and your posts are certainly inspirational.

  7. Jerry says:

    I don’t know how the sentence, “Your comment is awaiting moderation” came from. It is not a comment of mine. Your website looks very professional. I’m impressed

  8. Jerry says:

    I wish you the best, Sam, with your novel. I enjoyed the chapter that you allowed me to read. As we have discussed, I was familiar with one or two Dust Bowl stories from my childhood in Oklahoma. It was a tough generation that endured those years.

    • samuelehall says:

      Thanks, Jerry. I’d like to hear one or two of those stories …
      In fact, in knowing you from our days in architecture school, I saw the legacy of those stories working out in your disciplined work. I Cor. 3:13

  9. You’re right to be proud of the grit and determination from which you sprang. The fruit of perseverance is hope because we learn God’s faithfulness and goodness on the journey. I look forward to your book’s publication. It is a labor of love and perseverance in practice. May the God of hope overflow your cup with joy!

    • samuelehall says:

      Sometimes the grit and determination of which you speak comes down to right choices in my priorities. Considerable pressure this week + the always, always unexpected have kept me apart from the best. Someone called it “the tyranny of the urgent.”
      As my real needs (not necessarily the pressure or flurry of activity) rise–I’m more likely to look to Jesus for strength and calm–I’ll make better choices. It strikes me that grit is not usually pretty but it gets the job done that needs to get done.

  10. Eric says:

    It never ceases to amaze me, what motivated people can adapt to and endure.

    • Sam Hall says:

      The motivation displayed by the Okies was generated by their will to survive–to not give in to despair. Of course, some did give in–blown away by the wind. That High Plains wind, constant for days on end, can beat a person down, destroying hope if you let it. The Panhandle has had something like 40+ days of 100 deg. temps. When it comes with 20-30 mph winds, you feel like you’re next to a blast furnace while being sprayed with blowing sand.
      Certainly, that takes a strong will to persevere. Back then, they had no A/C, either. But they either toughed it out or they left for more hopeful conditions elsewhere.

  11. pke says:

    The site has nice organization and certainly points out the journey we are all taking. While someon the trip run out of gas, many, like you Sam, know where to “fill up” again.

    pke

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