TURLOCK — Jim Stevens of Turlock plans to tune in Sunday night to a Ken Burns film that speaks to his experiences.
"The Dust Bowl" on PBS recounts how drought and the Depression forced people from the Plains to the San Joaquin Valley and other points west.
Burns, the nation's premier documentarian, has turned his attention to a story that many valley residents know well.
"We all came out here just looking for work," said Stevens, who left north Texas at age 3 and toiled with his family on valley farms as a boy. "My dad was always looking for the end of the rainbow, moving here and moving there."
Part 1, airing Sunday on Channel 18, tells of the drought that gripped the Plains, from Texas to the Dakotas, and the dust storms that mostly happened in and near Oklahoma.
Part 2 on Monday night follows people who headed west, mainly on Route 66, with the hope of finding work.
The Modesto Bee told the tale in a four-day series of articles and videos in 2008. Soon afterward, a researcher for Burns contacted the paper in search of Dust Bowl survivors to interview.
None of them were included in the film, but there's still a local angle. Four relatives of Modesto physician Bob Forester are among the 26 people whose interviews made the final cut.
They include his father, Bob Forester Sr. of Napa, who was 8 when his family left Oklahoma for Oakland in 1936.
He recalled Thursday how the wind scraped up the parched soil on farms that had produced grain for decades, including one especially bad storm known as Black Sunday.
"The breathing is the hardest thing," he said. "When we had the dust storms, my mom would have us cover our faces with wet cloths so we could breathe through them and keep some of the dust from going in our lungs."
Burns' team also interviewed two aunts and an uncle of Dr. Forester, who live in Nevada and Oregon. Members of the extended family traveled to Oklahoma in April for the first screening of clips from "The Dust Bowl."
Burns has spent more than 25 years making films about iconic topics in U.S. history -- the Civil War, World War II, baseball, jazz, Prohibition and more. Some of the films touched on places close to the north valley, such as the Mother Lode in a series called "The West" and Yosemite in a series on the national parks.
"The Dust Bowl" hits home. An estimated 70,000 people in the 1930s came from the Plains to the valley, which had started the decade with a population of about 540,000.
It was one of the major forces shaping the region, along with the migrations from Mexico, Europe, Asia and other parts of the United States.
The people from the Plains ran into hostility from some valley residents, who were struggling themselves in the Depression.
"There were a lot of people who looked down on us," said Stevens, who went on to own Latif's Restaurant in Turlock. "We were the Okies. It didn't bother me too much, but it certainly bothered my parents and grandparents."
Other residents offered a welcome, including the sizable number of people who had moved here from the Plains in the more prosperous 1910s and 1920s.
The newcomers gained a footing through work and the help of friends, family and New Deal programs. World War II brought new opportunities in the military and at defense plants.
Stevens was a boy when he set up a shoeshine stand in San Francisco, where his father had gone for the war effort. The values forged in the Dust Bowl had stayed strong.
"It sure made us determined to be hard workers and to try to succeed and have something for our immediate families," Stevens said. "It was a very different time. We didn't have anything, and we appreciated everything."
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.
How to watch
"The Dust Bowl" will air on KVPT, Channel 18:
PART 1: 8-10 p.m. Sunday, repeated at
PART 2: 8-10 p.m. Monday, repeated at
ON THE WEB
PBS: The site for "The Dust Bowl" features lesson plans for teachers, a place where survivors can tell their stories, and more information on this 1930s cataclysm: www.pbs.org/kenburns/ dustbowl.