Saturday, June 27, 2015

Following the Joads: Sallisaw to Amarillo

The Joads are unarguably one of the most famous families in classic American literature. Author John Steinbeck chronicled their plight as they crossed the country via Route 66 in his classic novel The Grapes of WrathWhen making the 1940 movie version, director John Ford dispatched a second unit to film locations along the Mother Road.  On our recent road trip west, we attempted to document many of these literary and cinematic locations as our journey took us through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.  In this first installment, we are following the Joads from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Amarillo, Texas.
"The ancient overloaded Hudson creaked and grunted to the highway at Sallisaw, and turned west, and the sun was blinding."
The Joad farms were near Sallisaw, Oklahoma.  Depression-era Sallisaw was known for being a boyhood home of notorious bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd.  Several times in the book, Ma Joad mentions that she knew Floyd's mother.  Floyd was killed by law officers on October 22, 1934 in a Ohio cornfield.  His body was returned to Sallisaw for public display and funeral and he was buried in a cemetery in the nearby town of Akin.
Similar to many other small towns, downtown Sallisaw is a shadow of what it was seven decades ago when the event of The Grapes of Wrath took place.
Renowned photographer Dorothea Lange photographed farmers in downtown Sallisaw in 1936.  It is not hard to imagine Pa Joad and his brother John among these desperate men who were worrying through the drought that was ruining their crops.
"From Sallisaw to Gore is twenty-one miles and the Hudson was doing thirty-five miles an hour. From Gore to Warner thirteen miles; Warner to Checotah fourteen miles; Checotah a long jump to Henrietta-thirty-four miles, but a real town at the end of it.  Henrietta to Castle nineteen miles, and the sun was overhead, and the red fields, heated by the high sun, vibrated the air . . . Castle to Paden twenty-five miles and the sun passed the zenith and started down . . . Near Paden there was a shack beside the road and two gas pumps in front of it; and beside a fence, a water faucet and a hose.
In Paden, they stop to buy gas and their dog is struck and killed by a passing motorist.  They would have been traveling old Route 62 through Paden.  Today, I-40 cuts through the Oklahoma countryside five miles south of the town. The station they stop at in Paden is "a shack beside the road with two gas pumps in front of it."  At one point in the narrative, the owner contemptuously refers to the "yella-painted company stations in town."
Left: "a shack beside the road with two gas pumps in front of it."  Right: What was likely a "company station" in downtown Paden

"Paden to Meeker is thirteen miles, Meeker to Harrah is fourteen miles; and then Oklahoma City--the big city.  Tom drove straight on.  Ma waked up and looked at the streets as they went through the city.  And the family, on top of the truck, stared about at the stores, at the big houses, at the office buildings.  And then the buildings grew smaller.  the wrecking yards and the hot dog stands, the out-city dance halls." 
Oklahoma City 1942
"Oklahoma City to Bethany is fourteen miles."
It is in Bethany where the Joad family ends their first day of travel.  They meet Ivy and Sairy Wilson and it is there where Grampa Joad suffers a stroke and dies.  Bethany has essentially evolved into a suburb of Oklahoma City.

In the movie The Grapes of Wrath, director John Ford presented a montage of second unit footage that represented the family's first day of travel.  One mistake the film made was showing the Hudson pull onto Route 66 just after leaving the farm.  In reality, 66 did not pass anywhere near Sallisaw, and the Joads would not have begun traveling the Mother Road until Oklahoma City.
A sequence then reflects their travels via shots of city limits signs from Sallisaw to Chicotah to Oklahoma City.

Footage from Albuquerque, New Mexico was used to represent Oklahoma City.  The actual shooting location was Route 66 at 104th Street SW in Albuquerque.
Footage filmed in Sayre, Oklahoma prominently featured the Beckham County Courthouse. But again, it seems it was intended to correspond with Oklahoma City.

As in the book, the Joad's first day of travel in the film ends with Grampa's death.  They pull the truck to a deserted roadside where they bury the family patriarch in an unmarked grave. The movie did not indicate the Bethany location, and also did not include the Wilsons, in whose tent Grampa passed away.

The second unit footage shows the truck pulling off the road just west of the 38-Span Camelback Bridge (or Pony Bridge) over the Canadian River on old Route 66 near Bridgeport, Oklahoma.  The location is fairly accurate to the Joad's travels, as it was just forty miles west of the book's Bethany setting.

The location today remains nearly every bit as isolated as it appeared in the film, The Pony Bridge however is a popular spot for Route 66 aficionados.

Following the death of Grampa, the film uses second unit footage to show the Joad's traveling across desert landscapes that should correspond to Oklahoma and Texas.  But they pass a sign advertising Camp Keyton, a hotel in Winslow, Arizona.  The Winslow Inn motel now occupies that space at the corner of North 2nd Street and North Prairie Avenue in Winslow.

"Joads and Wilsons crawled westward as a unit; El Reno and Bridgeport, Clinton, Elk City, Sayre, and Texola.  There's the border, and Oklahoma was behind.  And this day the cars crawled on and on, through the Panhandle of Texas.  Shamrock and Alanreed, Groom and Yarnell.  Then went through Amarillo in the evening, drove too long, and camped when it was dusk."
Amarillo, Texas 1943
To be continued in Following the Joads: Amarillo to Barstow.

Screenshots copyright 20th Century Fox.