Camera Rolls: 318:26-27
Sound Rolls: 318:13-14
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Elwood Champness , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 10, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Maybe we can start out by, by your talking about when, when you were a young child growing up. You told me, I think, that your father was working on DiGorgio in the '20s?
Yes he was. He started in about 1921.
So what were your earliest memories?
Well, I would say my earliest memories are around 1930, '31, that I can remember around the ranch.
And, and what was it like growing up there? Was it a tough life for a kid or was it a fun life? Or...
Oh, I thought it was very much a fun life. They were in the transition from using mules for farming over to Model T pickups, two-cylinder trucks that were running. And that was an interesting part. And we had different camps around the farm at that time. They probably employed steadily two or three hundred people or families. And in the peak season, they had around two thousand people employed.
In harvest season?
In harvest season. And, you know, our camps, we were kind of different communities at the camp. No, it was a fun and interesting life.
Did, when did you first start noticing as the decade goes on that things are starting to change and things are getting harder? Harder times are coming. I mean, were you aware of that as a child at all?
Well, I think, I started school in the Vineland School, see, that would have been about 1932, and I could tell that there were newcomers into the school, and the clothes were very poor. And probably in '33 and so forth, there were caravans that would go back and forth in front of the house. And those people were looking for jobs. And there weren't really a lot of jobs. I was just aware of it, and that was about it.
Of course, of course, your father being the superintendent on a big successful ranch, it wasn't like there was any strain on the DiGorgio during that period, was there?
Well, as I recall, there was a financial strain on DiGorgio. I think that...I remember my dad in talking with Mr. Joe DiGorgio. They had just made a loan from some feed mill or grain company out of Los Angeles, or out of San Francisco, that kind of saved the ranch at the time. And it was a struggle for him.
And, and, and certainly they had a special position in agriculture here, right?
They sure did. They were raising all kinds of fruits. And grapes, of course, was their main item.
Were they about the biggest around here? Was anyone bigger than them during that period?
In that type of farming, I think that DiGorgio probably was the biggest.
At a certain point your, your father made a big change, and that changed your life as a child, too. It's that he decided to become a sheriff and move to town. Talk a little bit about how that changed your life.
Well, it changed completely coming from a ranch like that or a farm to moving into the Kern County Jail. And we had, we moved into an apartment that was on the second floor, basically above the entrance to the county jail. And adjacent to my bedroom was the booking room, so I got to hear a lot of things going on in there. But it was pleasant there. It was a nice apartment.
But it wasn't like living out in the country?
No, it wasn't like living in the country. I probably would have liked if he had stayed, liked it better had he stayed on the ranch rather than become a sheriff.
Living life over the jail sort really give you a sense of whether there were problems or not, 'cause you be aware of them [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
You were saying that, that at a certain point, there'd be a lot of strikes and people would be arrested out in the fields and stuff like that?
Well, the, pertaining to strikes, there, I heard rumor of the strikers in large caravans going around to the farmers' farms, and to the point where they would run the farmer off of the farm. And at that point, the Sheriff's Department would send the sheriffs out and would get the people off of the land. And where they were carrying guns or knives or concealed weapons, at that point they would arrest those people, you know, bring them into jail. And there was just one time that was significant where they put, they placed eighty people in jail. And there were pickets around the jail for about three days. And that impressed me because I played on the lawn outside of the jail and communicated with the strikers. The strikers were fairly well organized and carried picket signs and were organized with evidently political organized labor entities.
But I mean, it must have been sort of interesting, 'cause they were put in jail, but you lived in the jail, so essentially they were picketing where you lived.
They sure were picketing where I lived. I got a kick. The slang names at that time, they called me "sunshiners,"and I, of course, as a kid would them back "Okies," you know, which helped agitate it. But there was no problems there and from the strikers, and it was soon resolved.
How old would you have been during that period, '36, '37?
I believe I was eleven, eleven, twelve years old.
You know when you read, when you read accounts of that period, it sounds, it's described as being a very tense period in agricultural community. Did it, were you, as a child, did you feel any of that tension? Or did it just feel pretty normal?
I didn't have any personal fear or feeling or from the pressure. I could observe the poor people in their cars, or caravans of cars. Or I could observe where they were in camps and, and had poor housing and poor facilities to take care of themselves. And at that point in time, we're going back a lot of years, there was only twenty-five total officers in, in, women that worked in the office. And we're living in a county now that has 1,000 people employed doing the same thing. So those sheriffs had their hands full to take care of these large groups of people that were caravaning around and that were destitute.
I, I know your father, you were telling me why your father took the job as sheriff originally, and he ran for sheriff 'cause he was dissatisfied with the way the sheriffs served DiGorgio, but did, did you ever get a sense from him once he was in it that, that he might have had second thoughts, that it wasn't really a great job, or...? It seems like it must have been quite a challenge, to put it mildly, doing what he was doing.
Well, he was very dissatisfied with the service by the sheriffs department when he was operating the, or the superintendent of the DiGorgio Corporation. He would have to take care of the fights and so forth that had, were done out there, and wait til the next day for the sheriff to show up or the coroner show up in case there was a death. But then when he ran for sheriff and became the sheriff, he seemed to like that life, and really endeavored to do the job right. He had a motto there. He said, "I'm being paid to enforce the law. If there's something wrong with the law, have them change the law." I thought he had a very good attitude. He was a Democrat and really liked Delano Roosevelt's actions at the time. And so there was a lot of sympathy for the poor people that were here.
So, he was, was not a harsh man in dealing with the poor people who had problems?
Not at all. Absolutely. 'Cause he had had problems himself early in life, and he was very sympathetic with those problems. Course he had to be stern, also, to enforce the law. And it was done when large, fairly large groups of people, and so I'm sure a lot of people had their feelings hurt at the time, especially when they were trying to move them from Kern County to Tulare County to Fresno County.
So, what was that? Was that a policy he was given to enforce, or how did that...
No, I, I couldn't answer that questions. I, I just understood that it was better to try to spread the people out so that they could get better care, and could, and the facilities of each county or city could handle the people that was coming in, because we were just too small here to handle that many people.
So, what, how would, how was the process of keeping them moving work?
I believe that the Health Department, if they found they had no toilet facilities, or they were afraid of fever or breakouts in the camps, they were asked to move that camp. And once they got them moving and on the road, they would encourage them to go to the next county or the next town. And I think that's how quite a few people left Arvin for Bakersfield to Shafter to Wasco and so on and so forth and spread out through the, our county, plus Tulare County, Fresno County.
There would be some sort of cooperation of the Health Department who would say, "Look we've got to keep these people moving," and your dad would...
No, I don't believe that's so at all. I believe the Health Department found on their own what was wrong and would encourage this. Had to get help from the Sheriff's Department to move the people because they were living right along these canal banks, and using the water, the canal water, which is unsanitary to begin with, and...
Now what were you saying, he was talking about the hospitals? Go ahead and tell me about that, what he was telling you.
Red Graham? Red was, came to Bakersfield in 1937, and he was an RN, a nurse, and he worked in the Kern General Hospital which is on Flower Street. And I first asked him about his experience and during that time and how busy the hospital was, was it overloaded where they couldn't get any service? And he says, "Oh no," he says, "wasn't nuthin' to it." And then the next week when I saw him, his memory started working. He said, "That's true, that the halls were full of people, and it was difficult to take care of all of them at that time." But I did not experience it personally. I never, fortunately, didn't ever go to the hospital.
But I mean that was one of the things that people talked about is that it strained everything, it strained the hospitals and the schools. There just wasn't enough to go around.
There wasn't enough to go around. That was unfortunate. And I, and I thought, I watched my mother very busily working with the Women's Club and some other clubs, raising food packages or putting together food packages and getting help for the people because there was not government aid like there is today. And so the local churches and the local clubs got in and helped as much as they could. I'm sure there are some people out there that received it, you know.
Yes. But it still wasn't enough, was it?
No, I don't think so. You know they, the people were trying to get a job for fifteen cents an hour, twenty cents an hour. Pretty tough times.
Would you—when we were talking about your dad and the Health Department and keeping people moving, I didn't get you to say it...you said a part of it here and a part of it there. Could you just explain to me one time briefly about how your father felt he had to keep people moving because it was for their own good to, to spread them out?
As I understand the, the plan that they had, if it was a plan, but the idea that they had to move the people that were on the road was to try to move them away from the areas where they were already congested. They wanted to go back into these camps that were already congested. So that once they got them moving, they would try to move them to another town or encourage them to go to another town or encourage them to go to the next county. And I believe the next counties were doing the same thing. They were trying to encourage them to stay on the road and go through, so that these hundreds and thousands of people could, the load could be spread out through the south valley, South San Joaquim Valley. And I believe that plan was effective. It...probably the movement of the camps bothered some people a great deal, but then once they moved, I believe they were better off in the long run. And...
When, when you get on towards the end of the decade, '38 and '39, you're still fairly young then.
Yes I was.
From your perspective, did at any point until the war came, did you notice things getting better at all?
I believe that, yes, '38, '39, and '40, things were getting better as far as jobs were concerned. And there wasn't the influx of people that we had had earlier, the earlier four or five years. And that relieved the living conditions around Kern County quite a bit. But I believe the big improvement came when the war, the Lockheed opened a airplane plant here. Later on, people were going to work for the shipyards. And I think that relieved a great deal. And the other thing is there was a movement into the service for the young men so that opened up jobs for others. And there was a little bit of shortage of young men, you know, at the early part of the war.
And so, like, Joe Garone was telling me that once the war broke out, it was a real problem getting people out to work at harvest season. They'd let schools out and stuff like that.
Oh, absolutely, yeah.
Just wasn't enough to go around all the time.
Well, in, in the high school that the kids were turning seventeen years old were joining the service and leaving high school. And so there wasn't any youngsters going up into the labor market at that point. So—
But it was getting a little better even—
I thought it was getting better in... I think '38 was better than '37. And I believe '39 and '40 was a lot better. And I think after that the history of the influx of people was over really, or the bad experiences they were having was over at that point.
But then they were recruiting people to come to California to work in the shipyards, begging them to come in.
Yes, they were.
When you look back at the whole, the whole decade, and the whole period of the 1930s, do you think of it as a good time or a bad time? How do you, how do you see the whole experience?
I look at it as a good time, really. It's unfortunate that some people were so destitute. Family life, I think, was a lot more important, or people stuck by family life a lot more then than they do now, 'cause they needed each other. I think our values were a little better then than they are now because we did need each other. Maybe it's because we didn't have TV on, you know. We spent more time entertaining each other. I'm, I'm not sure. But I enjoyed that decade.
Well, you know people talk about hard times now, and they say, well, you know, this is a generation that didn't live through that, and they're going to have to learn what hard times are like. What, what—it's like something happened in the country. You really didn't learn the lesson or you forgot about it. Do you think this country learned anything from, from living through that?
I think the people that lived through that period of time are not expecting someone else to do something for them, for them, like people are since. They have grown up in an age where there are things available for them, all they have to do is apply themselves or tell a white lie, and they can receive this and this and this. But in the, in the 30s, I don't think that worked at all. And I think thank goodness they had the CCC and the WPAs and all of those things. And, and there people in there that didn't work hard, but they were there. And they did something for what they were getting. And that's a little different than it is today. There's a lot of people not doing anything and receiving quite a bit.
Did, did people give Roosevelt a lot of that credit? Or how did, what did they think of him and what he'd done, starting those programs?
I think Roosevelt got an awful lot of credit for the programs that he started. I believe that was one of them was CCC was started by him. And the other reconstruction financing things that gave people some capital to get started. My father thought he did great. I'm a Republican and I look at things a little bit differently than what Roosevelt did, but I believe at the time he may have done a good job.
Well, those were sort of desperate times, right?
Desperate times, very desperate times.
And nobody knew what would work?
Nobody knew what would work. I'm, I'm trying to recall the end of the WPA, and I, I can't. It must have been towards the end of the war that the—
It was in '43 or '44 when they stopped.
It did stop in '44? Well, I, I remember people, you know, working with shovels, and a lot of them leaned on the shovels. We used to laugh about that, but they were out there working, anyway, or leaning on the shovels. But as I go to the mountains, there are miles and miles of nice trails built by the...different groups that was formed at that time.
So they did contribute something?
Oh, absolutely, did contribute a great deal. I believe our local county firehouses and, and county buildings were built out of adobe brick. And they were made with WPA help. And they're just now tearing down the last of those and replacing them with new buildings. And they built a big fairgrounds for us and a big horse barn, was all out of that.
Have we got anything left on this one?
We got about a minute and a half.
One of the things that, that's real hard that we're just grappling with is, is, is that it's a real experience for people who lived through it, but for example, when you try and tell your children about what it was like, what do you do to, to make it real to them, you know? How do you tell them how serious it was or how rough it was?
Well, I have, have an expression probably a lot of others use: "When I was a boy, this is what happened" or "that is what happened." And I'm not sure they really believed me, you know. They think I'm telling them a story about what it was. But, like I had to clean horse stalls before I went to high school in the morning. And then I'd come back and I got paid for exercising horses. My children have never thought about that, you know. But I've explained to them that we had to work early. And there wasn't the child labor laws that there is now, and so a lot of kids were working. But they don't really believe it.
They don't? I think that's good. Do you—