I’m an Okie. A Cowboy. An Oklahoman, and proud of it. I grew up in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Reckless farming practices in the early decades of the 20th century had stripped the region of the grasslands which once protected the soil. Without moisture or cover crops, never-ending windstorms whipped across the prairie to create the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl.
John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, made the term a nationwide epithet. Set in the Great Depression of the 1930s, the story focuses on a family migrating from Oklahoma to California to escape the hardships of the severe drought that withered the Great Plains during the Depression. A celebrated Hollywood film version, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, was made in 1940. Both the novel and the film have become iconic portrayals of the challenges endured by Oklahomans during the Great Depression.
Out of that time of debt, desperation, and despair, hundreds of thousands of impoverished people of not only the plains states but also the eastern seaboard migrated west as the Great Depression deepened. And many of them came to be tagged as Okies. Literally.
It happened this way … Newly elected Governor “Alfalfa Bill” Murray mandated the creation of the Oklahoma Tax Commission in 1931, with a vehicle registration division. Other states hadn’t enforced their vehicle registration laws, so thousands of travelers arrived at the OK state line tagless.
OK cops began stopping any vehicle without a tag, regardless of residency. For the privilege of crossing Oklahoma en route to the Golden West, pay a fee—get your tag. No tag, no go. And that, my beloved, is how many Tarheels, Tennesseans, Mudcats, Georgians, and the like, came to be labeled alike.
When I made my exodus to Oregon in 1968, I was surprised that some of the locals referred to ramshackle settlements as Okie towns, "Okieville," for example. Really, they didn’t know who they were talking about.
Most of those who moved west were indeed poor whites, hoping to find a better life. Some saw the migrants as quitters; but many native Oklahomans have relatives who made the trip down Route 66, and most are proud of their kin who made good out west. My half-brother was a toolpusher on a drilling rig off the Santa Barbara coast.
Okies became known by their Oklahoma twang, their pride in being different, and their perseverance and grit in the face of obstacles that would stop others. That toughness formed the backbone of what later became known as The Greatest Generation.