Migrant Worker
Putting Oklahoma Back to Work
The success and luxury of the “Roaring Twenties” came to an abrupt halt on October 29, 1929, otherwise known as Black Tuesday.  The collapse of the stock market caused the worst economic crash in United States history, lasting from 1929 to the early 1940s.  As President Herbert Hoover grossly underestimated the collapse and believed America would recover in two months, he did not make plans to pull American citizens out of the depression.  Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election by a landslide and promised the citizens, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”  When FDR was inaugurated as President on March 4, 1933, more than 16 million people were unemployed with many of them having been out of work for over a year. Though the New Deal did not free Oklahoma from the Great Depression, many programs had a tremendous impact on the amount of relief that was afforded to the state’s citizens.  The Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration provided relief for Oklahomans by offering jobs, education, and loans as well as work codes to help regulate long hours and wages. The constant search to find a better life elsewhere caused an almost twenty percent decline in Oklahoma’s population during the Great Depression. 

The often documented dust storms further ravaged the already decimated lands of Oklahoma.  In 1937 alone, Oklahoma saw 72 dust storms increasing from the previous high of 68 which was recorded in 1936.  300 million tons of Oklahoma soil removed by the wind in 1934 was redistributed throughout the eastern United States.  In 1935, an additional 850 million tons of topsoil blew away.  Abandoned farms proved to be a problem for the farmers who stayed on their land because nothing was done to prevent the soil from eroding further. 

Right: Oklahoma farms had no chance against dust storms where the dust nearly covers this barn and wagon.


Americans were forced to leave the only life they knew and try for a better life on the road. The farmland was decimated as dust storms destroyed crops and livestock, no rain fell to water what few crops that survived, and nothing could be planted because most of the topsoil had blown away.  The constant search to find a better life elsewhere caused an almost twenty percent decline in Oklahoma’s population during the Great Depression.  Oklahomans left their homes behind – many bound for California with the promise of jobs and sunshine – only to have their cars break down along the way and no money to travel the rest of the way. 

Left: In 1937, this Oklahoma family made it to California only to have their car stall in the desert near Indio, California.

Developed in 1935, the Resettlement Administration (RA) merged into the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937 as a way to help fight rural poverty.  The FSA began by buying out small farmers who did not have enough money to exist on their own and proceeded to set up homestead communities where farmers worked together in a common area. 

These homestead communities were equipped with government experts to help farmers to practice successful farming techniques.  The FSA provided loans for machinery, trucks and animals.  The FSA program also used education to help improve the lifestyle of the farmers through "rural rehabilitation," teaching farmers to be more efficient and to prevent soil erosion and dust blowing. 

The FSA built camps for migrants with improved sanitary conditions to help Americans move out of the shantytowns or “Hoovervilles” they occupied when they could no longer afford their homes. While many camps employed several FSA camp managers, the majority of the camps were run by the migrants themselves.

Right: FSA camps such as this one helped keep migrants from living in unsanitary conditions.


The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) existed from 1933 to 1945 as a work relief program for unemployed men to assist with the development and conservation of the nation’s natural resources.  In addition, the CCC promoted a state and national park infrastructure. For example, CCC crews planted almost three billion trees.  CCC workers built lodges, cabins, picnic pavilions and other recreational services. 

The CCC employed young men between the ages of 18 to 28 to also help with the development and conservation of the state ’s natural resources.  Oklahoma’s Roman Nose, Beavers Bend, Robbers Cave, Sulphur and Osage Hills are a few of the Oklahoma camps built by the CCC that are still used today. 



The Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division (CCC-ID) brought men from various Oklahoma Indian tribes to build roads, bridges, schools, clinics, shelters and other public works in their areas.  The CCC-ID also trained men to become carpenters, truck drivers, radio operators, mechanics and other specialized tradesmen.

Left: CCC-ID workers from the Pawnee Indian Agency, build a garage under the supervision of an experienced construction worker.

The Works Progress Administration (renamed in 1939 as the Works Projects Administration, WPA) was the largest New Deal agency.  With longtime FDR aide Harry Hopkins as the director, the WPA provided approximately eight million jobs between 1935 and 1943 and helped to construct buildings, highways and roads as well as operate arts, drama, media and literacy projects.  The “Federal Project Number One” was established by the WPA in 1935 to provide work for unemployed artists as well as keep the people’s spirits up through entertainment.

Though the agency offered relief in several different areas, construction was the main force of the WPA.  The improvement and building of roads made up over half of Oklahoma’s expenditures. In its eight years of existence, the WPA built over 650,000 miles of highways, roads, and streets, and constructed, repaired, or improved over 124,000 bridges, 125,000 public buildings, 8,000 parks and 800 airport landing fields.

Right: State Highway 19 in Ada was paved by WPA workers in October 1937.


By the end of the “Dirty Thirties,” FDR’s New Deal helped citizens pull themselves out of the depression, but the impact of the economic crisis would be felt for years to come.

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