In the Time of COVID. Day 56
May 13, 2020.
A View of Ahtanum and Crewport Labor Camps: Part 2
Steve and I returned to our flop in Yakima and grabbed our bedrolls and backpacks and were back at our cabin in Ahtanum before sun down. Our friends migrated into the camp over the next week. Again our digs were crowded with “the fellas”.
Ahtanum was a Migrant Labor Camp. It was built by the Farm Security Administration of The New Deal. The CCC did the construction. Similar camps were built in California. In all cases the local county governments took control of management responsibilities. The most famous was “Weedpatch” , near Bakersfield, memorialized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. The government tried to build more livable accommodations for people following the harvest. Before these camps, people slept in the ditches and brush patches. When the camps reached capacity , people camped rough.
Washington State was a prime destination for migrant laborers. The Grand Coulee Dam Project hired labor gangs and the Columbia River Reclamation Project hired even more. Down the Yakima Valley orchards thrived growing peaches, pears, plums, apricots, cherries and apples. Hops and potatoes, mint fields, hay and alfalfa, and concord Grape vineyards sprung up and the need for manual labor drew the wandering masses. By 1939 Ahtanum was opened. In 1940, Crewport was opened. Each camp had a 600 person capacity.
That first morning, we were awakened in the dark of day by the rumble of trucks, their backs filled with men and women on their way to the fields. We walked to the gang toilets and we showered under cold drizzles of water. There was one knob. No hot. As the day made it’s self plain we wandered the camp having a look. Mostly clapboard row shacks, no shade, high weeds out on the edges. Every 12 cabins there was a cold water facet and three trash cans. None of the cabins had water. Just a bare bulb with pull chain and a single wall plug. Parked around were a ramshackle bunch of jalopies.
About 7 we walked into the activity center. Enid Morse, the project secretary was already at her desk. She was a local gal who’d taken some typing classes and was good at math and was married to the director. She also picked up the food boxes at the project kitchen on her way to work. It was good to know there was an incentive for the kids to come around.
She showed us to the ‘kid’s room’. Told us to bring the food in there every morning and she left us too it. There were some tables and chairs and art supplies and a blackboard and chalk, some sports gear and some balls. We looked at each other and it dawned on us we were going to have to put something together to keep those kids around.
They weren’t long in coming. None of them were younger than 4 and none older than 8. The youngest of the left behinds, had already been taken, for the day, to a sort of daycare away from the camp on a different property.
These kids were dressed in hand-me downs and some were barefoot. There were about 15 or 20 of them any given day. First things first, sit them down and introduce ourselves. They were polite little ragamuffins.
That first day they were mostly white kids, and a group of three black kids who stayed to themselves. Over time those kids joined in the pack and were just as loud and boisterous. Out came the food then, and there was not a peep. Back then there were still those little glass milk bottles. They just chewed and slurped away. We got them to clean up. They did.
We stowed the lunch stuff for later and had a talk with them. What’s your names , were you from, who can write your name, stuff like that. We just sort of fell into a teaching mode. Over the next few weeks, we had a lot of fun. The kids sang songs they knew. They played some hand clap games and we all skipped rope and hop scotch. They were all from the south and they spoke a bunch of words we had never heard so they taught us and we taught them.
it wasn’t many days before those kids were bunching up outside our cabin just after their folks went off to work. Our cabin had a big shade tree and those kids would climb up in it, and throw pebbles on the roof to wake us up. It was a loving thing. It was good natured pranksterism.
Inside the Kids Room the walls got covered with crayon self portraits and we tried to teach every kid to write his or her name. A very fun project was a big map of America we drew. We asked the kids where home was and overtime we made a map. It was their map. It was about them. They described stuff and we wrote it down, put a picture and a word to it.
You might think that would be boring stuff for an 8 year old but these kids hadn’t ever been to school. Their folks followed the crops. That’s what they taught us. They were forever on the move, a few weeks here and month there.
Enid got us some toothbrushes and toothpaste and some combs and we put kids names on that stuff and kept them in the Kids Room. We took her suggestion and got those kids to scrub up a bit, and brush their teeth and comb their hair. We asked her to stop by the library and check out some kids books. She had good taste in kids books and we got a story hour going. Then the kids started telling stories. It was fun. We started to encourage the kids to go to school in the fall.
At night, in another part of the activity center. LOMA (Local Organization For Migrant Affairs) held classes for the adults. There was a room full of typewriters, women were learning to type. There were adult literacy classes. Men and women were trying to learn how to read. The whole purpose of the LOMA program was to encourage migrants to stick, to stay put, to integrate into the Yakima population. There was a simple wood shop class and small engine repair class.
The problem with LOMA was that the locals didn’t want this riffraff to integrate. They wanted the cheap labor and they wanted these folks to hit the road when the crops were in. The War on Poverty had other ideas.
Things were going along pretty good but then, things went sideways.
One evening I was visiting, over at another cabin, listening to a damn good guitar player who was playing bossanova. A friend name John came driving in from Spokane, in his Mom’s Dodge Dart. He and Steve got to drinking and they went out for a drive. Somehow John let Steve drive. Steve didn’t have a license, they were both underage and under the influence and when the cop’s pulled them over, Steve and John were arrested, the car was impounded. And I didn’t hear a word from Steve for about a week when a letter came. Their folks had to come down and haul them back to Spokane. I was lucky I wasn’t in the car.
Enid was helpful, she gave me some suggestions. She opened the first-aid kit and handed me it’s how-to book. I spent some time reading it and pretty soon I was pulling splinters and doctoring cuts. People threw bottles out into the weeds and the kids got cut wandering around, or got snagged on a rusty nail.
I watched the women hand wash clothes, in the evening, and hang them to dry. I actually saw one woman rinsing her clothes in the toilet because it flushed. Those folks were hard-case broke and had been that way for years. Probably most had never lived in a house with a refrigerator or a hot water heater or indoor plumbing for that matter.
I stayed at that camp through the end of July and then Morse, the director, said “grab your gear, Stan, we need you down at Crewport”. It was a nice drive. We stopped at an A+W and I got a burger and a root beer float and we drifted down south to Crewport , riding with the windows down. Once through Union Gap, the land flattened out and pretty soon there was the unmistakable aroma of peppermint. It was so thick in the air you could scrape it off your skin with a fingernail.
Morse, turned to me with a glint in his eye, and a sly smile, “You speak Spanish, Stan?”