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.
Crippling 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
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