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Life amid the dust

When William "Bill" Wallace Forester looks at a dime in the palm of his hand, chances are his thoughts go back to late 1935.

"My mother had absolutely nothing in the house to feed her family," said the 82-year-old Ashland resident. "But she had found a dime. She told my 13-year-old brother, Dick, to go buy a box of oatmeal. He got a big box. That kept us going."

Not only was the nation caught in the depths of the Great Depression, but the Foresters — mother Rose and her nine children, with young Bill at the tail end — were in the epicenter of the devastating Dust Bowl. They lived in Texas County on the Oklahoma Panhandle, where the family farm had been turned into a dusty desert by unrelenting winds blowing the topsoil off the land parched by drought.

Family patriarch William Harrison "Harry" Forester had left just before Thanksgiving for the West Coast in a desperate search for work — any work — to save his family from starvation.

Hitching a ride on the back of a neighbor's farm truck, he was the first in the family to join the great migration, made famous by the fictitious Joads in the classic "Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck.

"For Thanksgiving, my dad ate a hot dog while sitting on a curb in Flagstaff, Arizona," Bill Forester said. "He said he was thinking about his kids back in Oklahoma, about his family. He was one miserable puppy. That was the nadir of his existence."

Bill Forester and his surviving siblings were featured in Ken Burns' two-part television series, "The Dust Bowl." The four-hour PBS documentary ran on Nov. 18 and 19.

A retired teacher and an Army veteran of the Korean War, Forester and his wife, Juanita, also a retired teacher, have two grown children.

The Dust Bowl storms scoured the topsoil off some 100 million acres of farmland in the nation's breadbasket. They began in 1932 and reached their worst with a sun-blotting Black Sunday on April 14, 1935. That's the day the Forester family, on their way home from church, found refuge in a neighbor's barn.

In addition to driving thousands of farming families off their land, the Dust Bowl resulted in Congress passing the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 to prevent future environmental disasters caused by poor farming practices.

But Bill Forester will tell you that the Dust Bowl days also demonstrated the resiliency of families to persevere in the face of incredible hardships and survive.

"Traditionally, those with subsistence farms like ours could grow bountiful gardens when the rains came, and you had a windmill," he said. "My mother was a canner and a drier.

"I remember hearing the squeal of a hog being killed," he added. "We butchered animals, and cured bacon and hams."

Before the dust storms, they had ample fresh milk and butter, he said.

"We had some good times," he said. "Family life was more cohesive in those days. We ate our meals together."

But the meals became leaner with the onset of the dust storms. They still could pull water out of the ground with the windmill to water the garden, he said.

"The reason you couldn't grow a summer garden with that water was that during the Dust Bowl, the wind and the dirt and gravel would shred everything," he said. "Nothing would grow."

From 1932 to 1935, the Foresters lived on what they called the "Little Red Farm" in northwest Texas County. He is unsure whether the family owned the small spread or rented. He does know it was close to farmland his parents owned in adjacent Cimarron County.

When the topsoil-collecting winds began to blow, he recalled seeing flint arrow heads seeming to rise up out of the ground in the plowed fields.

"The wind would leave the little arrow points sitting on what would, in effect, be a little mesa of earth," he said. "If the storm was bad enough to remove a quarter-inch of dirt, you would see arrow points and fragments of arrow points sitting on little mounds of dirt."

The Forester children — five boys and four girls — collected bushels of arrow points, he said.

"When the picking was that good, you only picked up the perfect ones," he said, adding the artifacts were left behind when they fled the Dust Bowl.

Before the hard times, his parents would have a few tons of coal hauled in to heat their home and cast iron cooking stove.

"But up on the Little Red Farm after the crops stopped and we had no money, we started burning dry cow chips," he said. "During a cow-chip collecting expedition, I couldn't carry much, but I could drive a team of horses slowly through the pasture while the rest of the family picked them up and put them in the wagon. We built a mountain of cow chips outside the kitchen door.

"They work fine," he added. "We used them to cook good biscuits."

One day in summer 1935, his dad asked him to accompany him outside to give him a hand.

"He asked me to hold on to the calf's halter," he said. "He picked up a single jack sledge hammer and tapped it between the eyes to stun it. He then cut its jugular to bleed it. We ate that calf for the next week or two. It was a trauma for farmers to have to kill their animals."

Desperate to feed their stock, his father and neighboring farmer Earl Tucker harvested wild yucca plants, cut off the sharp spikes and ground the plants up to produce animal feed, he said.

"I was young, but I understood very well that as I grew up that we were sliding into abject rural poverty," he said, noting he was 5 when Black Sunday struck.

"Dad and Earl Tucker knew they had to go somewhere to feed their families," he added. "The Tuckers decided they were going to Oregon. They started loading farming gear on their truck."

His father asked to go along to find work. The rest of the family stayed in Goodwell, Okla., with Forester's widowed grandmother.

Since his father and the Tuckers' oldest son had no place to ride in the truck, the farmers harvested a Model T cab from a junk yard, and sat it on the back of the truck for the two to ride in, Forester said.

"Earl Tucker Jr. and my dad came west on Route 66 sitting in a Model T cab riding on a farm truck loaded with farm equipment," he said.

They left just before Thanksgiving 1935. After the low point of his hot dog holiday meal, his father was able to find a job working a farm for a Mennonite community near Paso Robles, Calif. The pay was $3 a day, minus a buck for room and another dollar for food.

"Dad started earning a buck a day and sent almost all of it to us, keeping us alive," he said.

Meanwhile, the Tuckers, who never made it to Oregon, headed north to Oakland, Calif., where there was more work with higher pay. They sent word for Harry Forester to join them. It was in Oakland where he received an hourly wage.

"We started saving because we knew we had to go to California to be with our dad," Bill Forester recalled.

They saved enough to purchase a 1928 Chevrolet 4-cylinder farm truck.

"My oldest brother was something of a woodworker, and he fabricated a chuck wagon box so we could camp and feed ourselves without going to a restaurant," he said, adding, "We were too damn poor to eat out."

Fortunately for them, a freight train had derailed near Goodwell, spilling two cars full of citrus fruit from California.

"We pigged out on California oranges and lemons, and took a bunch of them with us on our trip," he said.

Just before Independence Day in 1936, mother Rose and her nine children and family dog, Trixie, headed west in the farm truck.

"We came west on Route 66 just like the Joads," he said. "People looked at us. But our jalopy wasn't as bad as some."

When they reached Needles, they waited until nightfall before crossing the Mojave Desert.

"We rode into Bakersfield on the Fourth of July in 1936," he said. "I remember there were firecrackers in the city park. We stopped and rested all afternoon."

They would arrive in the Oakland hills to be reunited with the family patriarch on July 6.

"The Tuckers were up on a steep hill," he said. "Dad scuttled down the trails to intercept us. It was a moving reunion for our family. Every time we think about it, we relive the joy of that moment."

Paul Fattig is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.