Family Memories from the 1930s Dust Bowl

In 1994, I was one college class short of having a minor in history. The professor allowed me to do an independent study and write a thesis about Oklahoma during the Great Depression.

After some research, I decided to do oral interviews of people who remembered living through the 1930s. I set up a group interview at Tealridge Manor, a retirement center hosted by Oklahoma Christian University. I also talked to both my grandmas, Edna Eades and Myrtle Davidson, and they shared some wonderful stories. I’m so glad to have their words preserved. My mom, Phyllis, also shared insight and memories as a child born to parents who lived through the depression.  

I’m so thrilled to have this written record—and when I found it buried in a file cabinet recently, I decided it needed to be shared. Although this is different than what I usually post, I’d love it if a descendant of one of these people might find this paper and read the words of their ancestor–maybe stories they’ve never heard before.     ~Amy

“I Never Thought They Were the Good Old Days”

Memories of Life During the Depression in Oklahoma

By Amy Dee Smith, November 1994

My great grandparents holding my grandfather, Garvin Davidson, in 1921.  Just a decade later this family would live through the Great Depression in Oklahoma.

My great grandparents holding my grandfather, Garvin Davidson, in 1921. Just a decade later this family would live through the Great Depression in Oklahoma.

Table of Contents:

  1. What We Take for Granted
    1. Living Without Luxuries
    2. Living Without Food
    3. Living With Sickness
    4. Living With and Without Animals
  2. Dust Bowl Dilemma
    1. Why the Storms Came
    2. Keeping Dirt Out
    3. Dust Bowl Doozies, The Big Storms
  3. The Migration Situation
    1. In Oklahoma I Busted, In California I Trusted
  4. Relief Programs
    1. Governmental Assistance
  5. Enjoying “Depression”
    1. A Guide to Inexpensive Entertaining
    2. Dust Bowl Funnies
  6. Ending
  7. Bibliography and Sources

 

I Never Thought They Were the Good Old Days

“I never thought they were the good old days.”

Most Oklahoman’s who lived through the nineteen thirties agree with the sentiments of Myrtle Davidson (my paternal grandmother) from Cement, Oklahoma. Economic challenges, compounded by environmental changes, caused double hardship for a majority of Oklahoma families. The label of “lower class, middle class and upper class” disappeared; everyone was in the “poor class.” Although the Oklahoma panhandle faced the most difficult challenges with the dust storms, every family felt the impact of the depression.

  • What We Take for Granted

 

Living Without Luxuries

Oklahoma people from the twenties and thirties learned to live with a lower standard of living. Today’s society is often accused for not appreciating what we do have. These people did without many things that we take for granted today.

Maurietta J. Patterson lived in a shanty in Cleveland, Oklahoma and shared it with animals. They had a borrowed divan which made into a bed, no table, chair, hardly any dishes or silverware, scarcely anything to cook in, no towels, clothes, money or anything else. “After getting an emergency government wheat loan on the crop, a government permit to get building material, and a gift from friends, we planned a house on a paper napkin as we drove to purchase materials. The time living in that makeshift place was pure horror so moving into our unfinished house was delightful.”

In 1933, Roosevelt appoint young men as "soil soldiers" to begin to repair the damaged landscape.  Workers also built many community structures at parks.  This photo from the OKC Zoo Historical Archive, 1935.

In 1933, Roosevelt appoint young men as “soil soldiers” to begin to repair the damaged landscape. Workers also built many community structures at parks. This photo used with permission from the OKC Zoo Historical Archive, 1935.

Phyllis Davidson (my mother), native of Blue, OK and daughter of Edna Eades recalls that her grandmother, Nanny Duncan, reused her dishwater in Chandler, OK. She would put it under the sink until the next washing. “I don’t know how we kept from getting more sick back then. We didn’t have no soap, and after we washed dishes, we could just wring the great out of the dish rags,” said Edna Eades.

What are considered necessities today were considered luxuries back in the thirties.

“We had no Chapstick back then. Kids used to go around with a red ring around their mouths where they had licked their lips. Daddy would tell us to put ear wax on our lips. I’m not sure if it was to help our lips, or because it tasted so bad that we wouldn’t lick them,” said Phyllis Davidson. “We didn’t have hand lotion or Kleenexes; things we take for granted today. I remember one time we found a bottle of hand lotion real cheap, so we got it. It sat around until it turned sour. We felt like it was the only lotion we had and it had to last for the rest of our lives, or that we had to save it for company.”

“I think people from our generation are awful pack rats. We didn’t have much, so we were very careful with what we did have,” said Myrtle Davidson.

“That may be the reason it is hard to spent money. I think your raising had an effect on how you are through the rest of your life,” continued Edna Eades. It is hard for her to get rid of old clothes because, “They’re perfectly good clothes, they just don’t fit anymore.”

Phyllis Davidson remembers cleaning through her mother’s closet a few years ago. “We found several electric blankets in there that she’d received for Christmas; all of them were unopened. She said that she was afraid of those new electric things, plus she was saving them in case someone came over.”

Lois Marshall of Sayre, Oklahoma feels like rough times made better people. “Now when we get something, we appreciate it and make a dollar go a long ways. Some people may call us stingy but the thirties made us that way.”

Living Without Food

Food shortage was a common problem for Oklahoma families. Ida Stevens, a school teacher in Cromwell, Oklahoma remembers going home and crying because she knew her children were hungry. “I told the children to bring a bowl and spoon to school. My mother and I cooked a pot of stew for them. We went to the school board and asked for apples and oranges, apples one day, oranges the next, every other day. The principal went to the President of the board to ask if they would, and they did. From them on we did it until the children could bring their own.”

A teacher from Elmore City, Fan Joe Potts, had similar experiences. Her children like cornbread, so she told them, “Bring cornbread in your school lunch tomorrow and I’ll bring beans.” She would then cook the beans on a pot-bellied stove in the classroom.

Dr. Richard Lowitt, historian, blames food as the original cause of the depression. According to him, over-production and under-consumption was the problem that ushered in economic failure. Women were largely responsible for this because when the flapper style became popular in the 1920s, women began dieting, lowering food consumption. (9)

Food became short for people and livestock. “The government shipped in hay by the cartloads and the men lined up for their quotas. Then the government started giving out commodities which gave people something to eat. Schools began receiving canned meat, and children would bring a few vegetables, mostly potatoes, and the hot lunches were born. We got an old coal oil stove and someone brought a wash boiler in which we cooked our stew,” said Thelma Bemount Campbell of Woodward, OK.

“There was the lunch the government gave us at school. We had two cups, one for soup and the other for wheat pudding, which sometimes had raisins in it. We were very thankful for the warm food,” said Lois Marshall.

Many kind-hearted families shared what little they had, such as the family of Ernestine Scoggins of Tulsa, OK. Her dad got up early in the morning to get helpers for the farm, people without jobs. “This is the good way mamma and papa carried it out. Negroes stood by the mailbox waiting. Dad would take about ten. The wives of these men loved to help mamma cook. She did not skimp on their food, either, they had the same thing we did, and my mother had seven kids of her own.”

Juanita Kemena recalled her father’s concern for the hungry as well. He was working at a building job. At lunch, he and the other workers noticed that one man ate his sack lunch in the corner by himself. They went to find out why, and all he had was “a boiled or baked potato then he saved the peelings for his lunch for tomorrow.” The men took up a collection for him that day.

Some families found themselves so hard up that they turned to stealing food. Ida Stevens relayed one story of a man going into her father’s general store. The man was poor, but he filled a sack full of groceries. “It come to almost twenty dollars. The man said, ‘I can’t pay you, but if you try to take it from me, I’ll fight you.’ The man left with the groceries, but later he sent a check for thirty dollars after he got a job somewhere.”

Some Oklahomans didn’t have such trouble finding food. Farmers with land in the southern parts of the state, away from the dust bowl, were able to provide good food for their families. According to Edna Eades and Myrtle Davidson, they weren’t effected much by the depression (add locations).

My grandmother, Myrtle Roberson Davidson was born in 1930, so the Great Depression effected her entire childhood.

My grandmother, Myrtle Roberson Davidson was born in 1930, so the Great Depression effected her entire childhood.

“We were basically self-supporting and we grew our own food. We saved our own corn seeds. Nowadays, they use this hybrid seed that you can only use one year. We’d gather our crop, then get out and help other people for money to buy our clothes,” said Edna Eades. “Often we read in the paper about how other people were in soup lines, but it’s not much different than today with the Jesus House and all those places.”

“Except everyone did it back then, except farmers,” added Myrtle Davidson.

However, farmers in the panhandle had problems with growing crops. According to Allen A. Aaron of Woodward, Oklahoma it rained less than five inches during a three year period. “Pastures were ruined. The wind had blown the soil away from the grass roots and finally the plants themselves were blown out of the ground. The fields were just mounds of blowing dirt without a plant of any kind alive as far as we could see in any direction.”

“In the last of March 1935 we had a duster which destroyed most of the wheat crop in Nebraska, half of it in Kansas and a fourth of it in Oklahoma,” said Maurietta Patterson. “It had so much static electricity it burned the wheat to a crisp brown before it continued all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.” She remembers that the food they did eat had to be consumed carefully. Paper towels were laid on the plates at dinner time. When a bite was eaten, the paper cloth was lifted quickly, then put back down before the dust could get on the food.

Canned food was a staple diet for many families. Troubled farmers relied on the food saved from past crops. Canned food even posed difficulty. Ernestine Scoggins remembers canning peaches that weren’t fit to can. “They were more like dried peaches, grown after only one rain on them, but nobody ever complained about eating them.”

For the most part, people in need were assisted by friends and neighbors, although Myrtle Davidson does remember one case otherwise. One of the richer farmers was trying to sell a crop of potatoes, but he had them priced so high no one could afford them. “He got made, and instead of helping all the hungry people, he dumped the whole bunch in the river and ruined them all.”

The government did develop a system to help out the hungry. Food stamps, or rations books were born on March 13, 1939. For some people, this and the soup lines was the only hope for being fed.

Living With Sickness

Disease was a large problem and a great fear of early Oklahoma people. Medical technology was limited and costly. Lack of food, poor sanitation and exposure to the elements all contributed to the problem of illness. Infancy death rate was high, and dust suffocation was prevalent. Lola Moor Long felt lucky to have even made it. “I started life in a dust storm. When it was time to make my arrival, it came up a dust storm. Mom was scared to death. My dad took her down into a half dugout, half a house and half a dugout, and that’s where I was born.”

Children braved the element when walking to school. Stories of getting lost because the dust was so thick, and walking backward so that the sand would not sting their faces were common. Winter time posed other hazards. Fan Joe Potts remembers her students coming to school frozen. “Kids who rode horseback to school would be frozen when they got there. It took the first half of the day to thaw their feet out.”

“I remember putting cardboard in my shoes to keep out the cold snow, and making sure I kept my feet on the floor in school so the others couldn’t see the holes in my shoes,” said Lois Marshall

Edna Eades made her children’s shoes with a heavy khaki lined with unbleached muslin. She cut out the shape, put little lace-up holes and run a string through them. “Houses were so cold. Mom took legs of pants to make comforters and heavy quilts.”

She also remembers cold rides in the wagon. “It’s what caused my sick spelling. When we got a cold, we were scared that we might die—today we just figure we’ll go to the doctor. That’s when I developed the habit of worrying.”

Dust storms in the panhandle caused numerous health problems.

“Instead of viral pneumonia, dust pneumonia was a problem. Coughing and blowing the nose brought forth mud. Hospitals were full and many older people and babies were dying,” said Maurietta Patterson. In some areas, the Red Cross distributed gas masks to dust bowl families. The mask had been made during World War 1 to protect soldiers, but they took on the duty of covering children’s faces during the night to protect them from suffocation. Tents made of sheets were hung over the beds at night to keep dust out.

Homemade cures and traditions often dictated the medical procedures for preventing sickness. Maurietta Patterson remembers the cure her dad prescribed to her husband, Frank. “He cooked a big iron skillet full of onions and put them in a sugar sack. He told Frank to remove his shirt and lay down. Dad put that very hot sack of onions across Frank’s chest. After the first complaints of being burned alive, Frank endures the treatment and got over the pneumonia. To this day, however, he cannot stand the taste or smell of onions.”

Women, during “that time of the month,” were taught not to take a bath or wash their hair. It was believed they would be more susceptible to illness.

Living conditions partly contributed to sanitary problems. Squatter camps, or ditch camps, were breeding grounds of disease. Epidemics grew and spread. Ida Stevens, who lived in Cromwell, remembered a time when the town was little more than a squatter camp. “The judge of Seminole county in 1926 cleaned up Cromwell. The place was full of wild shootings outside saloons. There was a lot of fighting and drinking.” They were compared to living like animals. Those lucky enough to have shelter often had little more than a roof over their heads. Ida Steven’s visited on such place. “They had a dirt floor in their house—I called it a shack. They cooked on top of the heater. It was pitiful.”

Living With and Without Animals

Animals served as help and hindrance during the depression. An article in the Daily Oklahoman reported, “A Tahala farmer offered to give away 100 hogs to anyone who would take them, so he wouldn’t have to watch them starve to death.” (8)

Edna Eades remembers pouring used dishwater into buckets and giving it to the hogs. “It couldn’t hurt them, we didn’t use no soap back then.” Farmers were known to haul water up to 20 miles in an attempt to save their stock while others drove their cattle as far as 10 miles to water.

According to Thelma Bemount, “The government sent crews to kill the cattle and hogs because there was no feed for them. They paid a small fee for each one killed. People followed crews and butchered the better cattle, taking the meat home to can. It wasn’t prime beef by any means, but we were grateful to have it.”

Lois Marshall remembers similar circumstances. “President Roosevelt gave the farmers five dollars a head for their cattle, then shot them. They let people have what they wanted of the mean. I remember my mother and aunt set up all night canning beef…men killed rabbits which were eating up the crops. I never could eat wild mean, so I ate greens.”

Controlling animals was another problem all together, whether it was keeping them in or out.

Fern Pounds of Elmwood, Oklahoma recalls trouble keeping the cows in. “The fences had blown full of weeds and then the blown dirt drifted in to cover the posts and wire. Cattle could walk over the fences and go any place they wanted, looking for food.”

Maurietta J. Patterson had trouble keeping animals out. She was living in an unused garage shortly after her house burned down. “One day while getting dinner, I hear a slithering noise and looked around to see three big bull snakes enjoying my living quarters. I cautiously moved toward the door, grabbed a hoe, and chopped down on all three, each trying to get into the same hole. Fearful that one would get away, I was afraid to life the hoe for another whack, so I held it down with all my strength and cried, screamed and called for help. No one showed up until about 45 minutes after I had killed them.”

Rattlers, bull snakes and diamondbacks were a common sight to Frank and Maurietta Patterson, but not one snake ever got away. “One morning…less than a quarter of a mile from the house they saw a rattler. Frank drove back to the house for a shovel and gun. Instead of one snakes, he killed 448 in that one den.” Shortly after that they moved into a new chicken house. “The two of three chickens we had were a lot better company than snakes.”

“Chickens helped keep the bugs down. We never had problems with cockroaches because they ate them up before they go to the house,” said Myrtle Davidson. “It’s amazing how nature can take care of itself. I always thought the cats and dogs were just around for pets, but now I know that the cats kept the mice away, and the dogs scared off the coons and other predators. Even the snakes helped keep the mice down. I just wish I knew how nature takes care of flies. There was never anything we could do about that.”

  • Dust Bowl Dilemma

 

Why the Storms Came

Often, the dust bowl is mistakenly taken as the cause for the depression. Actually, the dust bowl caught the tail end of a chain of events during the depression era and extended hardship for those in its path. A troublesome economic crisis was the first blow to farmers. The stock market crash of 1929 was the fateful day when the bottom fell out of the market in New York City. Farmers suffered from surpluses, low prices, excessive debts and high costs throughout the 1920s. Despite Herbert Hoover’s Federal Farm Board, wheat and cotton prices fell to disastrous levels.

A severe drought was the next step. Intense hot, dry weather hit first in the northern plains and spread gradually to the south and west. As summer came to Oklahoma in 1934, the state set new records almost daily for high temperatures and the longest period without any rainfall. There were 83 days of temperatures over 100 degrees, with the high being 116. It rained less than five inches during a three year period. (8)

Problems of drought were compounded by the practice of unsound farming techniques.  Erosion and over cropping had damaged the soil. Farmers had not given the land a chance to rejuvenate.

The frequency and severity of the dust storms during the 1930s became major news items. Following the April 14, 1935 Black Blizzard, Robert E. Geiger of the Associated Press released a series of articles, the first from Guymon, Oklahoma for the Washington (D.C.) Evening Star. In his story, Geiger inadvertently, but appropriately used the term “dust bowl.” Geiger ignored this term in his next two articles and in his last story from the area, he referred to the region as the “dust belt.” The public and the Soil Conservation Service, however, adopted the term Dust Bowl almost immediately and used it when referring to this windblown, drought-stricken area. (4)

Keeping the Dirt Out

Dust storms were nothing new to farmers on the Great Plains, they had just never reached such magnitude. Geologist worked out a method of determining the origins of each storm: “If the dust was black, it was from northeast New Mexico; when the dust was golden, from Colorado and western Kansas, and when white, from the alkali beds of northern Nebraska and the Dakotas.” (5)

Those in the path of these storms, particularly Oklahomans from the western  panhandle, had to readjust their living conditions. There are many stories to draw upon that depict life during the dust bowl. A common problem was keeping the dust out of the house. Maurietta Patterson explained that, “No matter how well the house was built, trim was needed. Masking tape was a common trim around windows and seldom-used doors. For wider cracks, we tor rags in to strips and tightly packed them into cracks. Even wet towels or blankets wouldn’t keep the dust out during the high winds.”

Thelma Bemount Campbell dipped gunny sacks into old tractor oil and tacked over the windows to keep out as much dirt as possible. She covered the furniture and bed with sheets and shook them out before going to bed. She remembers scooping the sand out of the attic because it go so full it was causing the plaster to fall.

Allen A. Aaron learned his dust lesson the hard way. He had been warned to go to the lumber yard and buy a roll of brown, sticky tape to tape around cracks in the house. He did not buy the tape, and sure enough, after the next storm, they came home to a house covered with dust inside. “On closer inspection, we noticed small mounds of dirt on the floor near the baseboards. Soon we observed that there were several small nail holes in the walls, through which dust was coming and piling up on the floor below, much like water from a sprinkling can.” The next day he purchased the sticky tape and puttied the holes in the walls.

The dust caused destruction to more than just houses. Cars also experienced damage. Sand filtered into the air filters and carburetors, down cylinder walls, past the rings and into pans. The rings were sometimes completely eaten away by the sand particles, or the cylinder was so scarred that it needed reboring. Motors were often replaced. (17) Farm machinery also faced similar repairs. Overall, the dust filtered into every nook and cranny of peoples’ lives.

Dust Bowl Doozies

Getting caught outside during a storm was even worse. Thelmas Bemount Campbell remembers Black Sunday, April 14, 1935. “We could see it rolling toward us at a terrific speed like a prairie fire—except there was no fire. Ten it became still and black; it was rolling and boiling and the air was full of static electricity. And since we lived on a high hill, we could see if coming three miles away. My father was changing clothes to do chores before the storm reached us. I remember telling Dad it was coming fast and asked if I should put the car away. He said he would do it as soon as he could get his shoes on. I looked again and said, ‘You don’t have time. It’s here right now!’ And it was upon us. The wind was so strong that we heard later it had broken the wind gauges…When it hit, everything because very still and we were enveloped in this terrible blackness. We couldn’t see our hand in front of our face. Some people thought they had been struck blind. …I wanted to light a lamp but father said, ‘No, better not even strike a match.’” Some of her neighbors had been caught in their cars for over an hour, saying that the car lights couldn’t penetrate the darkness, so they had to stop at the side of the road.

Allen A. Aaron had a similar experience. One time he got caught in a duster during church. It was so severe that no one could leave, so they went to the basement to fellowship. “By three o’clock the wind had subsided sufficiently to give ten-foot visibly so, within thirty minutes, we all left the church. We had to drive no more than ten miles an hour with the headlights on.” Several weeks later he experienced the worst storm of his life. “Within two minutes it was so completely dark I couldn’t see my hand when I placed it before my eyes. It was total darkness. It raged for seventeen days during which time we never saw a trace of the sun. It was light enough most of the time so we could see to walk and we continued having school, but no one could drive a car. Once inside a building with the lights on, business could be carried on as usual. People became accustomed to this pattern and learned to live with it.”

  • The Migration Situation

 

In Oklahoma I Busted, In California I Trusted

“The Arkies and Okie in nineteen thirty six,

Cranked up their flivers and came west Sixty-six…” (6)

Most experts agree that Oklahoma migration was due to a variety of reasons, although a common myth is that the dust bowl was the primary reason. In 1940, Oklahoma Governor Leo. C Phillips appointed a committee to study the problem of migration. The reasons ranged from excessive freight rates to drought. The committee also noted that Oklahoma was the youngest state at the time, thirty years old, and settlers of Oklahoma tended to be migratory anyway. I was typical for Oklahoma farmers to pull up stakes every year or two. Incidentally, the Depression was never noted as a cause of migration by the committee.

Farm laborers were needed less with the increase of tractors and machinery. “We didn’t hire our work done, but did it with old machinery and every penny saved went for interest,” said Thelma Bemount Campbell.

“The ‘Dust Bowl,’ as popularly perceived, affected a relatively small portion of Oklahomans…without question, drought and dust storms caused many people to leave the farms, but many other reasons can be cited.” (2)

Allen A. Aaron explains his reason for moving on. “We liked the people and were happy with our jobs, but at the end of the school year, we’d seen enough of the dust storms in the panhandle and decided to leave. Those were hard years.”

The California migration is the best-known, largely because of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, although migration often occurred within the state as people began to gravitate to cities. “By 1935, a network of “squatter camps” began to emerge around the city (Oklahoma City). One of the worst of these was the May Avenue Camp.” Camps such as these were the breeding ground of disease and poverty. (2)

As Oklahoman’s flocked to California, the state experienced the same problem as squatter camps cropped up around major cities. California residents highly resented “Okies.” This term also grew to include migrants from Kansas, Texas and Arkansas, but Oklahomans comprised the largest group of these people by far. The term “Okies” was an insult meaning lazy vagrant. In 2939, a sign appeared in the foyer of a local theater that read, “Negroes and Okies upstairs.” One letter written to President Roosevelt said:

“Knowing the character of migrants from my experience in dealing with them, I object to these hordes of degenerates being located at my very door.

These ‘share croppers’ are not a noble people looking for a home and seeking an education for their children. They are unprincipled degenerates looking for something for nothing.

The fact that they are leaving their native land unfit for human habitation is not surprising. Their ignorance and maliciousness in caring for trees, crops, vines and the land is such that California will be ruined if farming is left to them…” (2)

Overall, the migration of Oklahomans was viewed as a very negative experience. Oklahomans who stayed felt like they made the correct choice. Thelma Bemount Campbell may express it best. “Those that stayed and hung on to their land were far better off than those who gave up…It wasn’t easy trying to pay mortgages and interest. My folks were among the stayers and saved their land—and passed it down to me…It took several years to get the land back into production…and we can grow almost anything.”

  • Relief Programs

 

Governmental Assistance

The government started several programs to help struggling Oklahomans to feed their families during the depression. In September of 1930, 500 farmers in Latimer County passed a resolution requesting aid, and reported that six out of seven families needed assistance.

Programs of federal relief, crop rotation, and soil conservation mandates were instituted to prevent future problems. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to provide work for unemployed single men, and to work on project restoring farm lands. The Shelterbelt Project, planting hundreds of miles of trees, was instituted to slow high winds. According to Myrtle Davidson, some areas of the Shelterbelt remain, and rows of trees can be seen by airplane.

In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act. U.S. Rep. Henry Ellenbogen, D-Pa., explained that, “The idea will be security of the individual from birth to death.”

One highly-beneficial program was the Works Progress Administration, which was begun in the mid-1930s by Roosevelt. WPA, known as “wuppa,” provided public service jobs to men who needed a job to provide for their families. Community improvements were the main service that the WPA workers provided. Many of these are still evident today. Parks were created, the North Canadian River was straightened, 1,010 states (statutes) were built, bridges and roadways were improved, and libraries, jails, city halls, armories and swimming pools were built. WPA was also responsible for converting an abandoned railroad yard in the center of Oklahoma City into the Civic Center Music Hall, as well as starting the first Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra. (7)

Will Rogers, Oklahoma entertainer and columnist, volunteered his service to raise money for drought stricken families. During a twenty-day tour, his traveling appearances and newspaper articles raised a total of $193,382 in relief aid. (1)

  • Enjoying “Depression”

 

A Guide to Inexpensive Entertaining

Most of the memories from the thirties are of hardships and trials, but a few good things could be found. Oklahoman’s relied on each other to make the times more bearable.

“There was no money to go to shows,” said Thelma Bemount Campbell, “So we had parties, programs, and the church held everyone together.”

Edna Eades recalled the parties they had in Chandler, Oklahoma. “One of my brothers played the guitar, one sister play the mandolin, and one played the piano. People would come to hear music and play that Carom game. (Carom is similar to pool, but chips are hand-flocked into side pockets). When we all got to be young folks, old enough to go out and date, we’d go to each other’s houses and play music.”

Some farmers did not have neighbors close enough to associate with often. Family members then had to rely on each other for entertainment and companionship.

“All of the children had certain chores to do,” said Myrtle Davidson. “When those were finished, we had free time. Often, several family members would get together and make up games. We had a few fights, but for the most part we got along.”

“That’s what an American-style family is all about—sticking together through good times and bad times,” said Lois Marshall of Sayre, Oklahoma.

There was more time to relax in the early nineteenth century.

“The only good thing about it (the thirties) was the leisure time. We weren’t so busy all the time like things are now,” said Myrtle Davidson. Once the sun went down, kerosene lamps were the only source of light. When it got dark, farming stopped. “People think it sounds terrible for us to have gotten up at the crack of dawn, but we went to bed a lot earlier back then. When it got dark, there wasn’t much else to do.”

Dust Bowl Funnies

The term “Depression” says a lot for the mood of the twenties and thirties. Oklahomans caught in the dust bowl had even less to be cheerful about, however. Those who remained to face the storms developed a bitter and ironic sense of humor to cope with their individual tragedies.

Women, who learned to turn their plates upside down to keep out the dust when they set their tables, told about the woman who cleaned her dishes, pots, and pans by putting them out the window to be blasted clean by the blowing sand.

“Farmers laughed about the rancher who went to the bank to secure a loan and looked up to see his farm blowing past the window.” (2)

According to Woody Guthrie, Oklahoma entertainer, “Every time you sneeze out the wrong window a bank fails.”

There were stories of frogs who drowned when they were thrown into a pond because they had never learned to swim.

The story was also told about the man who fainted when he was hit by a drop of rain and had to be revived by throwing a bucket of dirt in his face.

Farmers insisted that they gauged the intensity of the great storms by tying a log chain to a tree: if the chain blew straight, the wind was calm; if it popped like a whip, there was a breeze; if it uprooted the tree, there was a blizzard.

In Kansas, a newspaper reported that the blowing dust was so thick that Lady Godiva could ride through the streets without even the horse seeing her. (5)

It is rumored that one woman gave her children teaspoons and let them play in the dirt on the dining room table.

Fan Joe Potts told the old joke that cow ranchers had an awful time during the dust bowl. When the cowboys went to round up the herds, they couldn’t find them because they were buried in the sand.

Others told the story of a rancher who bought a bucket of gravel to throw on his rooftop at night so that his children would know the sound of falling rain.

This joke leads perfectly into a true story of a similar case. Allen A. Aaron was teaching one March morning when it began to rain. “Several boys and girls in my room would look occasionally at the water running of the window panes. There was a knock on my classroom door. I answered it and saw Miss Bull, our first and second grade teacher. She said, ‘Mr. Arron, I need some help. Don you have time to come to my room?’ I asked if she were having trouble and she replied, ‘I surely am. My kids are all crying and I can’t get them to quiet down. I’ve tried everything I know.’ I asked why they were crying and she replied, ‘my pupils can’t remember ever having seen it rain before. The rain hitting the window panes is scaring them to death.’”

We returned to her room and it was a serious problem. Everyone was crying and some were screaming for their mothers. I go to the middle-grade teacher and the three of us worked for thirty minutes to quiet them and make them feel at ease.”

Ending

In retrospect, the Depression was a difficult time for Oklahoman dwellers. Financial constraints, poor living conditions, and extreme weather situations caused many hardships. Statements given by people who lived during this era demonstrate every-day routines that were quite different from what we face today. Although we hope to never face problems of such magnitude, the courage and tenacity that these Oklahomans showed gives us hope that we, too, can confront any situation that life throws our way.

It would be improper to say that the Depression brought nothing but disaster. Past mistakes in economy and soil conservation practices now give us better insight on how to prevent a recurrence in either of these areas.

Bibliography

  1. Collines, Reba Neighbors. Will Rogers: Centennial Year Celebration, 1979.
  2. Hendrickson, K. Hard Times in Oklahoma: The Depression Years, Oklahoma Historical Society, 1983.
  3. Hull, W. H. The Dirty Thirties, Stanton, 1989
  4. Hurt, R. Douglas. The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History, Nelson-Hall Chicago, 1981.
  5. Schuyler, Michael. The Dread of Plenty: Agriculture Relief Act of the Federal Government in the Middle West 1933-39, Sunflower, 1989.
  6. Stein, W. California and the Dust Bowl Migration, Greenwood, 1973.

Other Sources

  1. Jones, Charles T. State Response to Great Depression with Resourcefulness, Sunday Oklahoman Centennial Edition III, April 24, 1994.
  2. Jones, Chris. Dust Bowl Defined Worst of Times, Sunday Oklahoman Centennial Edition III, April 24, 1994.
  3. Oklahoma Passage Telecourse: The Great Depression.

Personal Testimonies

Personal testimonies were taken from current Oklahoma City residents, November, 1994. Former residence, referring to the time period of the 1930s, is stated.

  1. Phyllis Davidson, Blue, OK
  2. Edna Eades, Chandler, Ok
  3. Myrtle Davidson, Cement, OK
  4. Lola Moor Long, Ok
  5. Fan Joe Potts, Elmore City, OK
  6. Ernestine Scoggins, Tulsa, OK
  7. Ida Stevens, Cromwell, OK

Other Testimonies

The following testimonies were personal letters written for publication in The Dirty Thirties.

  1. Allen A. Aaron, Woodward, OK
  2. Thelma Bemount Campbell, Woodward, OK
  3. Juanita Kemena, OK
  4. Lois Marshall, Sayre, Ok
  5. Maurietta J. Patterson, Cleveland, OK
  6. Fern Pounds, Elmwood, OK

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The Big Story About Saving Tiny Lives

I was so proud to interview these dear friends and share the story of how this important juvenile non-fiction book about “the man who saved blue babies” came to life.

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the June 2016 Issue

If you haven’t heard the name Vivien Thomas yet—you will soon. Oklahoma City author, Gwendolyn Hooks, is celebrating the release of her 20th children’s book, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. It’s already earning rave reviews.

Gwendolyn Hooks with Anna MyersBack in the 1940s, Vivien developed a technique that is still saving thousands of babies born with low oxygen, sometimes called “blue baby syndrome.” But decades passed before he received any credit for his discovery. After all, he was only a research assistant.

Fast forward to 2010. Gwendolyn Hooks was up late A text came through. “Are you awake? Call me.” It was from Gwendolyn’s friend and fellow author, Anna Myers. It was after 11 o’clock, it must be trouble. “Gwen, Gwen,” Anna shouted into the phone. “I just saw a movie about the man who saved my little Will’s life. His name is Vivien Thomas. You have to write his story.”

Little Will, Anna’s grandson, was born a perfect angel—but a few hours later, he developed signs of serious heart defects. Will’s tiny lips and fingers started to turn blue. His oxygen levels were too low. Will needed a delicate surgery to open valves in his heart and increase blood flow. He required the surgery developed by Vivien Thomas.

Now, Will is ten years old and doing fine, but the fear Anna’s family experienced can never be forgotten. So when Anna’s brother saw a movie about the little-known Vivien Thomas, he called Anna in tears, insisting she watch the movie. Anna was equally moved. She could now put a name to the man who saved her grandson’s life.

“Anna, I’ve never heard of Vivien Thomas.” Gwendolyn said. “He means something to you, you should write it,” Gwendolyn said.

“Gwen,” Anna said, “this story has to be told, and the author has to be African American. God told me you’re the one to write this.”

When Anna speaks emphatically to her author friends, they pay attention. After all, Anna is in the Oklahoma Writer’s Hall of Fame. So, Gwendolyn watched the movie and started to research Vivien Thomas. What she discovered was the remarkable fortitude of a man who cared more about saving lives than taking credit. Vivien was unable to afford medical school, so he took a job as a research assistant.

It took Vivien a while to realize that because he was a black man working in an all-white university, he was treated differently. Vivien wasn’t paid as a lab technician, his official job title was janitor. He couldn’t walk in the front door. He wasn’t allowed to wear a lab coat, which indicated doctor status.

In 1943, Dr. Alfred Blalock was asked to develop a surgery to save blue babies, but since he was busy with other projects, he asked Vivien to do the research. Working with Dr. Blalock, Vivien’s natural aptitude led to the creation of a procedure for shunting arteries and sewing the vessels together. Vivien developed miniature tools and experimented on animal hearts, sewing arteries together with tiny stitches. It worked, and it was ground breaking!

When Dr. Blalock was asked to try the technique on a dying baby, Vivien stood behind him on a stool and coached Dr. Blalock through the surgery he’d developed. The baby survived.

Anna Myers with Gwendolyn Hooks

Vivien then stood over Dr. Blalock’s shoulder and talked him through 150 additional surgeries. However, the procedure was named after Dr. Blalock and another colleague, who wrote a scientific paper about the procedure. Vivien was never mentioned. Nor was he invited to the celebration in which Dr. Blalock was nominated for a Nobel Prize for the surgical technique.

As Gwendolyn dug further into Vivien Thomas’ life, she was amazed by his humbleness. Despite being ignored professionally, he and Dr. Blalock maintained a congenial working relationship. Vivien continued his work and generously trained hundreds of doctors on his technique. It wasn’t until 26 years later when Vivien was acknowledged by students for his medical contributions, and his portrait was placed at Johns Hopkins University.

With Anna’s encouragement, Gwendolyn spent three years writing and rewriting Vivien’s story. She contacted Oklahoma doctors who had trained under Vivien or who perform the blue baby surgery, such as Dr. Harold Burkhart.

Since Gwendolyn was writing a children’s book, she didn’t want the emphasis to be the racism issue. Vivien’s treatment might have been “the norm” in the 1940s, but his ability to see past himself was not. Gwendolyn wanted readers to know that Vivien could have been bitter and walked away, but he focused on his goals instead of his feelings.

Gwendolyn also pushed aside her own doubts that her book would ever be good enough. Her husband kept saying, “You can do this! But maybe you should come to bed now—it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.” Despite having already published 20 books herself, writing about such an important topic didn’t come quickly or easily—but Gwendolyn forged through dozens of “clunky drafts” until she had written a story that honored Vivien. “The words didn’t come magically—but the final manuscript gave my agent chills,” Gwendolyn said.

Gwendolyn spent two more years revising the book. Another year passed while illustrator Colin Bootman finished the watercolor illustrations. Bootman is a previous winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for outstanding books by African Americans.

According to Kirkus Review, Gwendolyn’s story is told with a “gently insistent message of perseverance.” It’s exactly what she hoped would come across. “Vivien couldn’t afford medical school, so he grabbed at the detour that came his way. By focusing on his goal, his dream was fulfilled,” Gwendolyn said. And Anna stood over Gwendolyn’s shoulder and encouraged her to trust in her talent.

“Gwen worried that she couldn’t do this story justice,” Anna said. “But I knew she could—and she did it beautifully.”

To learn more, visit www.gwendolynhooks.com.

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So You Want to Write or Illustrate a Children’s Book?

      You can!  But you will have much more luck getting it published if you add some preparation to that natural talent.
      Technology has made it easier than ever for folks to try their hand at writing words or creating illustrations—so the sheer volume of competition is overwhelming.  You may get tons of “likes” if you share your work on Facebook, but your fame may fizzle in a matter of days. Maybe that’s enough for you.  I, however, seem drawn to write something with…longevity.  I dream that my books will continue to have meaning and usefulness long after I’m gone.  
       The people who do their homework, play the waiting game, and pursue more traditional courses of publishing are most likely to have staying power.  It’s seriously worth the time investment to learn about the publishing industry before you waste a lot of time making mistakes, annoying editors, and burning book bridges.  

IMG_4763

Myself with Leonard Marcus, children’s book historian and author.  

      Getting published is a lot like creating a resume and interviewing for a job—you will get farther if you’ve had training that makes your resume worth considering.  Unless you have an arts degree, one of the few educational opportunities for writers and illustrators is to join a reputable organization that offers workshops, trade journals, online trainings and networking opportunities.  
       Attending “author talks” is my personal favorite form of learning, as I enjoy listening to other writers about their journey.  I always take away a nugget that helps me move forward.  But truly, editors and agents are at the pulse of the ever-evolving book industry.  Hearing what they say is like sitting at the feet of a master—because they hold the most industry power.  Professional organizations provide great opportunities for meeting these people first hand.  
      I have personally selected the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators as my professional organization of choice, although others exist.  For several years, I’ve attended SCBWI conferences in my state, where editors, agents, and art directors from publishing houses give presentations, answer questions, and will even review writing and illustration samples.
      For me, networking with other writers is also invaluable—as writing can be a lonely business.  I am greatly encouraged by talking to folks who understand what it’s like to spend a ridiculous hour rewriting one sentence or to have a fiction character put words into my mouth.
       Sometimes writing is like having homework every day of my adult life, even when I’m doing it “for fun.”  Other writers and illustrators understand my indescribable need to create….and yet, my strange tendency to procrastinate finishing a book or article for fear it won’t live up to my own personal standard. 
       Creating the masterpiece is just the first step in the process for anyone who is serious about seeing their name on a book cover.  Next, a publisher has to see your genius and commit to it—which will never happen if your precious art remains on a computer drive or buried in a drawer.  For this reason, I reiterate that if you want to write or illustrate a children’s book, it’s worth the time to get involved with a professional organization that can guide your path toward publication. 
       The following Richard Bach quote has been taped to my bathroom mirror for many years, “The professional writer is the amateur who didn’t quit.” 
       Before I started getting paid for my work, this quote inspired me to keep going.  Now that I really am a professional writer (a fact which still sometimes surprises me), I’m reminded that the journey is never-ending. After writing several books and hundreds of articles, you’d think I’d feel satisfied, but I’m not.  Everything I write and everything I continue to learn takes me one step closer to the professional level for which I strive.  
       I still have stories to tell, and I still have to conform to the publishing industry’s ever-changing standards. Staying current with the publishing industry is for veterans and beginners alike.  So don’t quit!  Join a professional organization and learn how you can share (or continue to share) your natural talent with the world.
*********************************
I’ll be at this conference on April 16, 2016.  Non-Oklahomans welcome, too!
OKLAHOMA SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS
 
Sara Sargent, Editor 
is an Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, where she focuses on fiction and nonfiction in the picture book, middle grade, and young adult categories.
Sara Sargent
Carter Hasegawa, Editor
Associate editor at Candlewick Press, came to children’s publishing in a roundabout way. Basically anything that has a great voice, is a good story, and is “unputdownable.”
Carter Hasegawa
Karl Jones, Editor 
Associate Editor, Grosset & Dunlap/Price Stern Sloan/Cartoon Network Books, Penguin Young Readers. Karl works on a variety of licensed and original middle grade and activity books, as well as some early YA projects.
Karl Jones
Jodell Sadler, Agent
hosts workshops and presents on pacing, which includes Picture Book Pacing, Editing, and Avoiding Burnout tutorials and Webinars with Writer’s Digest.
Jodell Sadler
Vicki Selvaggio, Agent 
With her most recent publication in the 2015 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, Vicki’s passion for honing the craft carried over into reading manuscripts for the agency.   
Vicki Selvaggio
Jason Henry, Art Director
has over 15 years professional experience designing books for young readers. He has won awards for his designs from the Book Industry Guild of New York, designed numerous New York Times best selling books, such as Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change The World series.
Jason Henry

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Children’s Books About Famous Oklahomans

It was a pleasure to write about five dear friends who worked together to write a series of books which includes Will Rogers, Dr. Jordan Tang, Te Ata, Bill Wallace, and Leona Mitchell.  One author, Jane McKellips, opened up the world of writing for me when I was a kid.  At the time, she was my piano teacher, and now she’s a lifelong friend.  ~Amy 
ICONIC OKIES January 2016 Issue of Outlook Magazine

When five friends came together to write about famous Oklahomans—it was out of desperation. Not for themselves, but for teachers around the state who lacked biographies about important Oklahomans.

Gwendolyn Hooks, Pati Hailey, Darleen Bailey Beard, Cheryl Schuermann and Jane McKellips, authors of the I Am Oklahoma series

Photo by Marshall Hawkins

Darleen Bailey Beard became aware of the issue six years ago while doing a local author visit. The elementary school librarian expressed her frustration that although it was required for her third and fourth graders to write reports about significant Oklahomans, she didn’t have any biographies at their reading level.

As Beard continued to visit schools, she took an informal poll to see if other teachers experienced the same struggle—and had more than 50 affirmative responses. So, Beard shared her findings with her closest writer friends: Jane McKellips, Gwendolyn Hooks, Pati Hailey, and Cheryl Schuermann. Many of them had been writing together for more than 20 years.

Collectively, the authors decided to create the series. Not only would they write at a third and fourth grade reading level, but would represent a diversity of ethnicities and talents, genders and represent different regions of the state. They would write books that gave students hope for the future and provided proof that some of the greatest Oklahomans came from the most humble beginnings.

“People in our state have made significant contributions worldwide,” Schuermann said. “We have astronauts, scientists, inventors, ballerinas. Most children don’t even know the names of our most influential Oklahomans, so we wanted to introduce children to these important people.”

Each of the five authors chose to write about an individual to whom they felt a personal connection. For Cheryl Schuermann, the choice was easy. She chose the medical researcher, Jordan Tang, who discovered the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Every day, I live with the reality and ugliness of this disease because of my mother,” Schuermann said. “Dr. Tang has spent the last 15 years searching for a cure, methodically learning what doesn’t work, so that he can find what does work.”

Schuermann was honored to meet Dr. Tang in his laboratory. “He’s diligently, tirelessly working on a cure for my mom every day, even though he’s in his eighties.”

Gwendolyn Hooks chose to write about Leona Mitchell, the international opera singer. At first, Mitchell was refused roles because she was African American—but her talent eventually allowed her to break through the racial barriers. “So few books feature strong African Americans,” Hooks said. “In Leona’s case, she had to accept the faith and training to go beyond the gospel music she was used to singing.”

Jane McKellips was inspired by author Bill Wallace, who hated to read as a child! And yet, he went on to write 38 children’s books, including A Dog Called Kitty.

“I assumed everyone who grew up to be a writer loved to read,” McKellips said. “It took Bill Wallace a while to find books that kept his interest—there weren’t many animal adventure stories back then.” When Wallace became an elementary teacher, his students convinced him to write down his own stories—tales much like Old Yeller. His books became an instant hit and inspired many reluctant readers.

Darleen Bailey Beard decided to write about the most popular entertainer of the early 1900s. Will Rogers was a trick roper, writer, radio host, comedian and movie star. Most importantly, he had a heart of gold. He generously helped friends, raised money for the Red Cross and made people laugh during the Great Depression. “Throughout his life, he cared about people,” Beard said. “Will Rogers makes me want to be a better person, and I hope my readers feel the same way.”

Pati Hailey wrote about the Chickasaw actress, Te Ata. In her one-woman show, Te Ata shared the beauty, wisdom and folklore of Native American cultures. She incorporated clothing, instruments and artifacts in order to defy the portrayal of Indians as savages. “She did a powerful service in helping Native Americans retain their cultural identity and traditions at a time when being Indian, like I am, was something to keep hidden,” Hailey said.

After completing the manuscripts, the authors sought a publisher for the series. After many rejections, the non-profit Oklahoma Heritage Association Publishing, an arm of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, expressed an interest, but it took five years to find a funder. When the books debuted in October, a free set was given to every public elementary in the state.

Because of the books’ mature-looking design, many junior high and high schools are purchasing the books for their students with low reading skills. The impact of the books is already becoming evident as praise pours in from teachers and students. The titles are also beginning to appear on the local non-fiction bestsellers list for the public. The authors are anxious to find additional funding so they can begin working on new titles for their I Am Oklahoma series.

“We are thrilled that children can read about other Oklahomans who struggled and overcame—whether they come from a big city or a small town, or a low income area,” Hailey said.

“It’s important for kids to see themselves in books, and see that they can beat their circumstances by having dreams, setting goals and staying focused,” Hooks said.

“Oklahoma deserves to be known for what our people have done to advance society, through science or art,” McKellips said.

“Or by changing the world with humor,” Beard said.

“Because some child out there is going to read these books and solve future problems, or change the world with music, or write a book that changes lives,” Hailey said.

The biography books are available at many local bookstores or can be found online at http://www.oklahomahof.com or http://www.amazon.com. 

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Interview with Amy about “OKC ZOO: 1960-2013”

Thank you to fellow-writer, Regina Garvie, for posting this interview about my book.  Please visit her site to view the full interview—this is just her introduction.

A cool look at the OKC Zoo

Today I have the pleasure of featuring a different type of book on my blog!SCBWI Oklahoma member Amy Dee Stephens writes fiction, but is also the author of two books on the Oklahoma City Zoo. I got a chance to look at her book recently, and it’s a must-see for anyone who has interest in animals, Oklahoma history, or a first-class zoo’s transformation through the years.

From the book’s description: What started as a small menagerie in 1902 officially became Oklahoma City Zoo in 1903. Journey through the second half century of its illustrious history in Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960–2013. Meet the staff and animals and explore the exhibits that propelled it from a third-class animal facility to one of the best zoos in the United States. In the 1960s, its animal population exploded as knowledge of animal care improved. The zoo soon assembled the largest-known collection of hoofed animals. Later, a rare mountain gorilla named M’Kubwa stole newspaper headlines, a third leopard escaped, and the zoo met its first cheetah babies. The opening of Aquaticus in the 1980s “brought the ocean to the prairie” in the form of a dolphin and sea lion show. Elephants, however, remain the queen attraction at the Oklahoma City Zoo. In 2011, the birth of the zoo’s first baby elephant baby, Malee, was a crowning achievement in its 110-year history.

Personally, I remember a lot of the changes that took place at the zoo, like when they built the Great EscApe when I was a kid, and the transformation of the big cat areas and new habitat for the elephants. It’s pretty dang great. If you’re in the area, you owe it to yourself to check out our zoo – and maybe pick up a copy of Amy’s books while you’re at it!

Amy was nice enough to share a press release with me about her newest book, including an informative Q&A that I enjoyed reading. Hope you do too!

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Cute Baby Zoo Animals

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    Written by Amy Dee Stephens, January 2015 issue of Outlook Magazine

    “Awww!” It’s something you can’t help but squeal when you see baby animals, especially when at the zoo. Fuzzy chicks, playful elephants, even tiny turtles soften people’s hearts. Every birth that occurs at the Oklahoma City Zoo is extra cause for celebration, because many of the animals are so rare.

    “Every zoo birth is exciting,” said Candice Rennels, public relations manager. “It’s such a happy occasion when an endangered species is born because our animals are great ambassadors for their relatives in the wild.”

    Celebrity Babies

    Malee - photo by Andrea WrightThe most famous zoo baby is Malee the elephant. Her birth in 2011 was historic—the first elephant baby for Oklahoma City! The community fell in love with her, and visitor traffic increased by 150,000 people during her first few months. In December, she was joined by a sibling.

    This elephant cuteness has generated excitement since 2009 when their mother Asha, one of the Zoo’s adult female Asian elephants, began breeding. The public was apprised every step along the way, following Asha through her two-year pregnancy with Malee and her second calf due before the New Year.

    “An elephant birth is a significant event for our community. There is a strong connection between Oklahomans and our elephants,” Rennels said.

    Surrogate Successes

    Kamina - photo by Dr. Jennifer D'Agostino

    Zoo babies have a large following, and people will follow their life stories for generations. The recent birth of a baby gorilla, Kamina, made international news when she went to the Cincinnati Zoo to be raised by a surrogate mother. Oklahoma City staff knew that Kamina would not do well with her birth mother, so a different gorilla troop was a better option.

    Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has earned the reputation as a surrogate zoo for chimpanzees. Recently, two different baby chimps were “adopted” and are now successfully living with their new troop.

    The zoo added another surrogate success to its list in November when an African Wild Dog had three puppies. The inexperienced mother showed lack of maternal care, so the staff removed the pups and arranged for a lactating domestic dog to feed and care for these genetically important pups. Lilly, a golden retriever from Kansas raised the three pups right along with one of her own until they all were weaned.

    Flocks of Babies

    Flamingo chick - photo by OKC ZooBeyond the famous babies, the zoo is host to all sorts of animal younglings. Raising a flock of flamingo chicks is a bi-annual project for the zoo’s bird keepers. Flamingo eggs are gathered up and incubated, and then the fluffy hatchlings are cared for until spring, when they are integrated into the flock. In this case, because of our native rat snake population our best option for our flamingos is to pull their eggs and hand-raise chicks.

    “We take the flamingo chicks on daily walks for exercise,” said curator Darcy Henthorn. “It’s intense work, but one of the coolest avian programs we participate in.”

    Baby lorikeets are also hand-raised, but for a different reason—they live in an exhibit that people walk through. “We’ve learned over time, that by hand-raising lorikeet chicks they become more friendly birds for our guests to feed and interact with,” said Holly Ray, zookeeper.

    Mating Matters

    Because of the zoo’s commitment to conservation, most births are well orchestrated. Breeding decisions for endangered species are made by specialized committees worldwide. Mating partners are determined by the individual’s DNA, current offspring in the gene pool, and whether zoos have room for a future baby.

    Rupert - photo by Gillian Lang

    A half-century ago, zoos had a different philosophy about breeding—have as many babies as possible! Why? First, the genuine fear of extinction resulted in a “baby factory” mentality. Second, selling surplus animals, often as pets, was a viable way of making money. Over time, those practices shifted to focus on better care for fewer animals.

    “We don’t have indiscriminate breeding anymore,” said Don Whitton, animal records technician. “You’d be surprised how few babies we actually do have during a year.”

    Last year, only a handful of reptiles and birds hatched babies, and only a dozen mammals were born. High-profile mammals, like Rupert the baby rhinoceros, generate the most interest. Occasionally a non-mammal baby makes headlines, such as the two Komodo dragon hatchlings who came to the zoo a few years ago. Although they aren’t huge yet—they will be, and visitors enjoy watching them grow.

    For the most part, pregnancy is a managed process, and staff members are prepared when a baby arrives. In extreme cases, such as the baby elephant births, fully-trained teams spend the night at the zoo, ready to help with delivery.

    Where’s The Nursery?

    African Wild Dog pups - photo by Dr. Jennifer D'AgostinoAnother change in practice was the elimination of the zoo nursery. Visitors really enjoyed looking through glass windows at rooms full of baby animals, but zoo professionals now advocate that offspring stay with their parents whenever possible. Every endangered species born into a zoo is part of a viable effort to conserve the species for the future.

    Technology and social media, such as cameras showing footage online, allows visitors to have the up-close experience they previously had at the nursery window, and news media keep the public informed of animal births. More exciting babies are on the horizon at the Oklahoma City Zoo—and zoo fans will have a front-row seat to view fluffy, hairy, scaly cuteness.

    “Zoo babies melt our hearts,” Rennels said. “More importantly, they are the future for endangered species.”

    Learn more about the Oklahoma City Zoo at www.okczoo.com

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My “Wild” Amazon River Adventure

Here we are fishing on the Amazon!  Photo by Val.

Here we are fishing on the Amazon! Photo by Val.

Too close to caiman!Photo by Amy Stephens.

Too close to caiman!Photo by Amy Stephens.

My “Wild” Amazon River Adventure

I was fortunate to join my husband, Mike on his 10-day peacock bass fishing trip in Brazil—and it was a wild adventure! Mike hosted a group of 15 friends and clients, and I tacked on at the last minute as photographer/historian for the trip.

Going to the Amazonian rainforest is not for the faint of heart. You will see from the pictures that we had to wear very fashionable, full-cover gear to protect us from the bugs, hot UV rays, and occasional deluges of rain. We rose at 5:00am and fished until 5:00pm. We headquartered out of a main boat, but spent daylight in smaller 2-person fishing boats. Our Portuguese guides sat in the back to drive the boat and offer fishing advice (mostly in sign-language or broken English).

Mike caught many fish, including a 16-pound paca bass, and some of the people on the trip caught up to 23-pound fish! We saw caiman (alligators) swim past us and pink dolphins occasionally rose to the surface to try and snatch our fish from the line.

Mike's big fish!  A 16 pound paca.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

Mike’s big fish! A 16 pound paca. Photo by Amy Stephens.

We were surrounded by jungle wildlife and I saw many birds fly by, including parrots and macaws, as well as the large blue morpho butterfly. Oddly, all sounds ceased during the day. From 9:30am to 3:30pm, we saw little wildlife and heard none. Then, as if an alarm clock went off, the birds would start squawking at 3:30. We even heard howler monkeys in the distance, although I never saw one.

Along the Rio Negro are unexpected islands of solid white sand. One night, our boat moored up to one of these large sand banks and the staff set up tables and chairs so that we could enjoy a dinner party. It was the only time during the week we were on land. The staff dug a deep pit in the sand and smoked all kinds of meats. They chopped down four palm trees from the jungle and dug deep holes in the sand to drop them into so that party lights could be strung around the area. As the evening ended, Mike walked down to the water and made a cast. A staff person started yelling, “No, no!” He shone his flashlight down the bank where Mike stood to reveal huge glowing eyes, a 10-foot caiman alligator lay less than 10 feet away. We suspect the staff knew he was there all along—and that’s the reason for the boundary of lit palm trees.

My favorite part of the trip was when our boats left the main lake and struck off down a narrow trail hidden in the trees. We had to move vines out of the way and duck branches—but once the boat made it down these “secret” trails, the trees would open back up again to reveal another lagoon full of fish. As we disturbed birds and bats along the way, they would swoop across our path.

Our boat, docked at the white sand bank.  Photo by Mike Stephens.

Our boat, docked at the white sand bank. Photo by Mike Stephens.

My least favorite part of the trip was the rain. Yes, it is the rainforest, so water was expected—but we experienced more rain than typical for the November “dry season.” My rain gear was quickly saturated, making for a long, cold trip back to the main boat. We didn’t have hot showers or clothes dryers, either.

Every time I’ve traveled outside the United States, I’m reminded that I’m both blessed and spoiled. Although this was a luxury trip, we lived in a room/bathroom that was 5x10ft, with river water for the toilet, sink and bath (we used bottled water to brush our teeth!). We carried more in our suitcases than most of the boat staff owned. But the hospitality was wonderful and I loved our daily fish entrées, from fresh piranha soup to smoked bass–and I don’t usually like fish.

One amazing event occurred that still seems impossible. I was fishing with a gentleman in our group named Chip one day. About 3:30pm, a large fish broke off his line, taking the lure with him. Being such an expensive lure, we waited awhile to see if the fish would spit it up. He didn’t. We motored a half-mile up the river to a new location. A rainstorm struck and Chip was catching fish left and right for almost an hour. As we packed up to leave, that same fish exploded out of the water and spit Chip’s lure out right in front of us!

Beach party on the white sand bank. Photo by Amy Stephens

Beach party on the white sand bank. Photo by Amy Stephens

I’m thankful to have experienced the Amazon. As Theodore Roosevelt described when he traveled the Amazon—an invisible world surrounds you in the jungle. Invisibility renders the animals more able to survive its harsh conditions–which explains why hours sometimes went by without an animal sighting or sound. It also gives me greater respect for the people survive life on the Amazon.

After one large rainstorm, an amazing rainbow appeared above the river. Unlike those we see in the city, it was extremely bright, we could see the entire rainbow, and it lasted for a half hour. Sitting on the 2nd largest river in the world, surrounded by water that will raise 12 feet higher in the rainy season, I was reminded of God’s promise to never flood the earth with rain again. I was also reminded that God governs the whole earth and its many intricacies, habitats, and people. It’s an amazing world, and I’m glad to have seen a different part of it!

The Amazon Rainbow. The Promise.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

The Amazon Rainbow. The Promise. Photo by Amy Stephens.

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