For The Madera Tribune
Bowlin’s Store in Little Okie in the late 1950s. Young Roger Bowlin can be seen “hiding” in the mailbox.
Political correctness has changed many of the maps of California. Place names that once incorporated racial or ethnic references have been changed or eliminated. There is one, however, that has persisted; it is located in Madera County, and it is called “Little Okie.”
“Little Okie” is still the designation given to that area south of Madera not far from Cesar Chavez Elementary School. Its center is near Road 28 1/2 and Avenue 13 1/2.
The origins of Madera’s “Little Okie,” are a bit fuzzy. Local legend has it that the farm worker strike of the late 1930s was the force that gave the community its beginnings. Disgruntled cotton pickers moved onto the site to pitch their tents and hold out against the growers.
By the 1970s “Little Okie” had 300 houses, a few clapboard structures, some mobile homes, and perhaps as many as 2,000 persons, most of them refugees from the Dust Bowl migrations.
As the story goes, Claude Kast is credited with building the first house there, and the second permanent residents were said to have been Lily Attaway and her parents.
The heartbeat of “Little Okie,” however, came when Clarence and Lola Bowlin moved there and opened the community’s first store, Bowlin’s Cash Grocery, in 1941. Their son, Roger, still lives in the original building.
Clarence Bowlin was born in Pontotoc, Oklahoma, the son of a sharecropper. He reportedly came to California by train in 1939 and got off in Madera, a place he had decided on by closing his eyes and sticking a pin on a map. He had about $20 in his pocket.
Knowing that a lot of folks from Oklahoma had already come to California, Clarence went through the phone book and found someone he knew, Charley DeBo, who gave him his first job as an irrigator.
Clarence is quoted as saying he made 15 cents an hour working from midnight to noon with every other Sunday off.
Although he spent most of his waking hours working, Clarence wasn’t so busy that he didn’t find time to meet his future wife, Lola. They were married in 1939 by Justice Court Judge Le Roy E. Bailey. Two years later they opened Bowlin’s Cash Grocery.
At that time, Friant Dam was still under construction, and some of the laborers began patronizing their store. After this initial success, the Bowlin’s were thirsty for more, so Clarence went into farming, buying and selling farming operations near the Bonita Gin, in Dixieland, and in the Berenda district.
On January 31, 1954, the population of Little Okie increased by one when the Bowlin’s son, Roger, was born. He grew up in “Little Okie,” helping his parents in the store while attending Sierra Vista Elementary, Thomas Jefferson Jr. High, and Madera High School. Later, he earned an A.A. degree at Merced College.
There is evidence that in the beginning there might have been some confusion as to what differentiated “Little Okie” from Parksdale. In 1978, noted columnist Woody Laughnan, looking for Parksdale, drove into a small community east of Freeway 99 and south of Madera and asked a young man where he was?
“This is Little Okie,” the lad replied.
“How do I get to Parksdale from here?” Laughnan asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “All I know is that you are in Little Okie.”
An adult resident joined the conversation and informed Laughnan that Little Okie and Parksdale were the same.
By 1978, Clarence had sold his last farm, and he and Lola and Roger concentrated on their store and building Little Okie. The little community was then almost 40 years old.
Reminiscing about the old days in “Little Okie,” the Bowlins recalled there were only a half-dozen houses and four tents there when they arrived, and all the residents had roots the same as theirs — Oklahoma, Arkansas, or West Texas.
When Laughnan visited Little Okie, he wrote that Clarence was a “colorful 72, tall and muscular and with the freedom of expression and movement of a man who has paid his debt to the fields and the sun.”
Clarence Bowlin’s philosophy was straightforward. “As far as I am concerned,” he said, “the word Okie has no stigma attached to it. Being an Okie means if I tell somebody I’ll do something, I’ll do exactly that. And if it is impossible to do it, I’ll go tell him. If I owe a man 10 cents, I want him to have it. If he owes me 10 cents, I want it.”
Clarence Bowlin died in 1998, and Lola Bowlin passed away in 2006. Today Roger Bowlin lives to carry on the Okie creed of his parents, and as long as that creed is in practice, Little Okie will live.