BY CRAIG MANSON
A Monthly - Weekend With Shades - Column
February on California's Central Coast can be bitterly cold. And for Florence Owens Thompson, a particular day in February of 1936, would be especially bitter and especially cold. It was the day her soul was stolen.
Desperate times had descended upon America and the rest of the world. By 1936, Oklahoma-born Florence Owens had been in California for more than a decade as she and her husband, Leroy Cleo Owens struggled to keep their family subsisting. They had traveled the length of the great Central Valley, enduring misfortune after misfortune. A sawmill in the town of Shafter burned down while Cleo was employed there. Later, he lost his job at a sawmill in Merced County. Then while doing agricultural work in Butte County, Cleo Owens became ill and died. Florence was expecting her sixth child at the time. She remained in Butte County with the rest of her husband's siblings.
But when she became pregnant again the year after her husband's death, Florence Owens fled with her children back to her family's home in Oklahoma. Eventually, circumstances drew her to California again and she left her youngest child with her mother, driving the other six back to Merced County.