arts and culturefeatured-art-and-cultureIssue 21

A Picture of the West Side

“But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me – why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us.
This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us.”

—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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By Noel Daniel

Out on the West Side of Stanislaus County sit an assembly of small cities rife with history. Ansel Adams stopped by to photograph El Solyo Ranch, and John Steinbeck spent some time there while researching The Grapes of Wrath. And, 80 years ago, Dorothea Lange captured snapshots of Depression-era history there, detailing the plight of migrant farm workers closer to home than many realize.

“Her first trip to Stanislaus County, as I understand it, was in 1936,” said Philip Alfano, Superintendent of Patterson Joint Unified School District. “Most of her local photographs were taken between 1938 and 1940 and are available with unrestricted use through the National Archives.”

In recognition of this 80-year-anniversary, Contentment Health has decided to follow in Lange’s footsteps, recreating some of her iconic pictures from Stanislaus County.

If you’ve ever opened a history book, you know Dorothea Lange. Lange’s 1936 picture of Florence Owens Thompson, titled “Migrant Mother,” became a symbol for Depression-era suffering. But what you might be surprised to know is that Dorothea Lange also visited Stanislaus County, taking a fair amount of pictures on the West Side—i.e., Patterson, Westley, and Highway 33. After working for the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, Lange collected a telling storyboard of migrant hardship.

A 1960 Popular Photography article quotes Lange as saying of Thompson, “I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.”

And Thompson was far from Lange’s only photographed migrant worker. One of her photographs shows a group of migrant workers standing on a truck in front of the El Solyo Ranch packing shed. In fact, that very same packing shed in the photograph is still standing today.

Similarly, Grayson Charter School—known simply as Grayson School back in the 1930s—is still technically around today, although the building in the picture was razed and then rebuilt in the early 1950s. Lange also snapped a photo of an “Arkansas Refugee Caravan” on Highway 33. That same water tank in the picture can still be seen from the highway.

Students at Grayson Charter School raise their hands in reference to the picture at right.
Students at Grayson Charter School raise their hands in reference to the picture at right.
Grayson School kids raise their hands when asked whose parents had come to California since 1930.
Grayson School kids raise their hands when asked whose parents had come to California
since 1930.

Ansel Adams himself came out in 1940-41 to take pictures for Forbes magazine, according to El Solyo Ranch historian Shane Donlon.

“He was the greatest photographer in the state of California,” Donlon said. “He was at El Solyo Ranch taking photographs. I recognize those places, I know right where he was. He was on River Road.”

The ranch’s history dovetails with the Farm Security Administration’s migrant camp in Westley. The British Newsreel “Acres of Plenty” details the status of the workers in Westley in an optimistic way that’s emblematic of that time. After droves of migrant workers struck out West for the farm jobs that were too sparse elsewhere, government camps were set up in California to offer shelter and work.

Bearing in mind the current status of the Central Valley—our modern situation involving migrant workers (namely the California labor shortage), drought, and all number of trials—what will our pictures tell photographers 80 years in the future? Hopefully the faces in future pictures continue to brighten. And however grim the history may be, may we continue to see the relevance in studying it.

“How can we live without our lives?  How will we know it’s us without our past?” — John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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