From Here to California: What’s Your Family’s Arkansas Labor Migration Story?



One of the core goals of this column is to continually explore the wide variety of stories and voices that articulate what it means to call this place home. For years now I’ve had the opportunity to do a great deal of oral history research, learning more about life in central and northwest Arkansas anywhere from thirty to a hundred years ago. Several themes emerge, including individual families’ responses to the ongoing changes in transportation and technology, the switch from small-scale food production to large agribusiness, the end of the cotton economy and the rise of the poultry industry, and the move away from rural communities to towns and cities.

Perhaps one of the most frequent stories I hear speaks to Arkansans’ time spent in the orchards out west, a recurring theme in this region’s long history of migrant labor. Back in the 1930s and 1940s people in the white communities, and sometimes in the black communities, supplemented their income with money earned from picking grapes and other fruits out west.  It was typically men that traveled for work, but women sometimes went too, taking their children along with them for the picking season. In many instances community members and families would pile into the back of pick-up trucks and travel the then rocky roads out to California to earn a little extra money to see them through the year.

In some cases the travelers never returned, deciding instead to make a go of it out west. You can still see the evidence of this in the community stories of that region. Spend anytime with folks from central California, especially the San Joaquin Valley where migrant labor was, and still is, an entrenched part of the economy, and chances are you’ll soon run across someone with a connection to this region. Likewise folks all around Yell and Pope Counties know of distant relatives in New Mexico and California, cousins born to the parents of migrant laborers who never returned home.

What I’ve discovered in years worth of radio work, and our recent research at the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action, is that most people chose to return to Arkansas after the California picking season. Working out of town actually made it possible for them to stay on their land, at least part of the year. Even though it looks much different today, this theme of moving away for work and then returning (months or even decades later) is still a large part of the cultural climate of the region. Younger generations may not travel to California, but they still leave for work and then return to reconnect with the land, their families, and these histories.  Likewise, families move to the region from other areas, especially places in South America and Mexico, seeking work and safety for their families.

Does your family have a California or similar migration story? Do you recall going out west to earn money? Did you move to the region to find work? I’d love to hear your stories and add them to our growing understanding of this region’s history and our knowledge of how this history influences our lives today. You can visit me online at You can learn more about our oral history at Thanks so much for reading!


Courier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.