The winds howled as dark clouds of dust and dirt churned and boiled across the wide open plains.  A layer of grit seemed to cover everything in site, both indoors and out. It was the “Dust Bowl” and Ernest Ganus and his family were smack in the middle of it.

Dust Bowl from Wikimedia Commons, Public DomainCrippling drought combined with over-farmed and over-grazed land resulted in dust storms throughout Oklahoma, as well as other neighboring states.  At times the dust and dirt were so thick, the sky was completely black.

In 1930, Ernest, Goldie and daughter, Louise, were living in Okmulgee, Oklahoma and according to the census, Ernest was working as a laborer on the highways.  Between the dust storms and the crippling effects of the Great Depression, I suspect his work dwindled away to little if anything at all.

Whether the mounting financial and emotional stresses played a part in their marital discord, or there were simply differences that could not be resolved, some time during the next few years, Ernest and Goldie divorced and for a time, Ernest was alone again.

Several years later, Ernest met and married Laura Etta Henson, daughter of Jeff Henson and Lucy Ann Sharp.  Then, much like the characters of John Steinbeck’s novel,  The Grapes of Wrath, which depicted the plight of those fleeing the dust bowl,  Ernest and Laura joined the hundreds of thousands of dust bowl refugees and headed for California.

In 1940, forty-two year old Ernest and forty year old Laura appear on the US Federal Census living in Los Angeles, California.  Employers successfully lured desperate job seekers to come to work in the fields of California while Hollywood portrayed a land where everyone prospered and thrived in a near tropical climate.  Consequently, the impoverished headed to California with great hope for a better life.

As if he had not already endured his share of heartache, once again Ernest would be hit hard by loss. On the eighth of December, 1942,  Laura died of cancer, leaving Ernest once again, all alone.

By April of that year, Ernest had followed the migrant trail to Tehachapi as is evidence by his registration form for the “Old Man Draft.”  On the form he indicated that his place of residence was “Kirschenmaan Camp- Tehachapi, California.”

Housing for Oklahoma Refugees, California, Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress
Housing for Oklahoma Refugees, California
Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress 

Approximately 122 miles from his last known residence in Los Angeles and almost 1,500 miles from Okmulgee, Ernest “fit the mold” of the “Okie” on a quest to find employment.

Some  Oklahomans flocked to the areas near Tehachapi to look for work. The sheer number of migrant workers living in makeshift camps created growing concern among many locals. Crowding, inadequate supplies and lack of sanitation often made the camps a dangerous and unhealthy place to live and many communities took steps to close the camps.  In addition, many that had come for work became disillusioned as it became evident that those seeking work greatly exceeded the number of available jobs and that in many cases the pay could not cover even their most basic needs.  For whatever reason, Ernest did not remain in California for long, but once again, returned home to Oklahoma.

At this point the trail goes cold and I know little about the years that follow. I do know that in the early 1950’s, when my grandfather, Heber Ganus,  Ernest’s younger brother, was suffering from poor health and was advised to go to a lower climate,  he too returned to Oklahoma.  Although Ernest did not have much, he shared what he had and Grandpa lived with him for a short time until Grandma finished the school year as a teacher in Colorado and could join him in Oklahoma.

Ernest lived alone for the remainder of his life.  At the age of 62, suffering from emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis, he was admitted to the VA Hospital in Bonham, Texas.  According to his death certificate he died on March 3, 1956, at 5:40 in the morning of an acute heart attack.  Ernest’s body was returned to Oklahoma and he was buried in the Okmulgee County Cemetery near Laura.

Ernest’s final resting place was Oklahoma, the place where he had last been with his parents, the place where he had married Goldie and had been with his children, the place where he had met and married Laura, the place where brother Orson had lived for a time and a place where brother Heber had returned as his health failed…..Oklahoma was “home” and Ernest too had returned one last time.

Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2014,  All rights reserved

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10 thoughts on “Ernest’s Final Return to Oklahoma – Part 5

  1. When people learn of my interest in genealogy, they often ask what time period I'd like to visit if I could go back in time. THIS period — the Dust Bowl — is NOT on my list. How could people not be filled with dread and hopelessness then? In previous years, "going west" seemed exciting and people were filled with anticipation of finding gold or farming new land. While moving west was certainly a choice for Ernest and Laura, it doesn't seem like much of one — it was like their only choice. I hope their days were happier than those dismal pictures suggest.

  2. Can you just imagine how awful it was? I just don't know how those people got up in the morning. We can look back and see that eventually things did settle down and they did get better, but when you are in the middle of something like that, there is no way to know how and when it will all end.

    I've talked to two people that met Ernest, although obviously it was long ago. Both knew very little about him, but one told me that he was a good man that seemed to be a victim of very hard circumstances and there was a sadness about him. I too hope that among all of the hard things he experienced that there were some happy days.

  3. I would love to have a descendant of Louise's stumble on this post somehow and contact me, but despite efforts to find her or her descendants, I have not (yet) been able. After Goldie remarried I don't know if they didn't remain in touch or what, but most current family members were not even aware that Ernest had a daughter.

    Oh and I actually have a sticky tab with the words "Find Louise" on my computer desk. I hope that I can.

  4. Ernest certainly had a difficult life. Here he is with his wife Laura trying to make a new life in California and then she passes away. And then he's left alone again. So sad.

    I didn't know Tehachapi was a destination for many people from Oklahoma who were trying to find work. We've passed Tehachapi in our travels before. And I have a friend who used to live there. It can snow in Tehachapi as it sits at an elevation of 3,970 feet. If those Oklahoma migrants weren't prepared for that kind of weather, that must have been so challenging for them.

  5. Yes, we use to live not too far from Tehachapi. I think most of the migrants actually traveled through Tehachapi to get to the farms below, but I did read that there were camps in the area and wondered if perhaps some of the migrants did work other than working on the farms ? I thought it was odd tthat Ernest listed a Tehachapi Camp as a place of residence as Ernest did. I expected a more permanent address.

    Oklahoma and the northern plains of TX does get snow at times, but somehow I picture these folks in thin, well worn clothing, but maybe those images are influenced by Hollywood.

    Something I did not share on the blog is that on the Draft registration, Ernest listed Laura's mother (Lucy Henson) in Okmulgee as the person that would always know his address. When I first discovered the registration form, I didn't know Laura's maiden name. Laura had died by the time he filled out that form and so he listed her mother (his own mother had died many years prior), which was a great clue that helped me in finding Laura's maiden name. It really taught me the value of mining every record.

  6. During the last year or so I watched a PBS program about the Dust Bowl. (I'm sorry don't remember either it's title or creator.) It included film footage, interviews, and still photos. It was heartrending to watch. I honestly don't know how people survived the experience, either physically or emotionally. And your Ernest had the added difficulties or divorce and death.

    I hope you're able to find Louise. I had a similar situation among my ancestors (great-uncle died leaving a wife and baby) and eventually someone left a comment on a post that led me to them.

  7. I have had a couple of people talk to me since this post about their experiences during the Dust Bowl and I think it is truly hard for us to image just how hard and devastating it was. I will have to watch for that show to see if they aire it again.

    I am glad you were able to find your family member and I will keep my fingers crossed I have the same luck!

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