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Depression era photos reflect Modesto history

The towering eight-story steel frame of what will soon become the Stanislaus County Courthouse now dominates an entire city block of downtown Modesto. Residents are celebrating the long overdue replacement of the cramped and outdated 1960 courthouse.

The new courthouse, however, has evicted Modesto history.

The huge building shadows the northeast corner of Ninth and H streets which looks vastly different than in March 1937 when accomplished Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange visited with her Graflex Super D camera. On this corner she captured iconic images of idle men who were among the quarter of Americans who were jobless – and nearly out of hope for a better life.

The San Francisco photographer was in Modesto as part of her assignment by the U.S. Farm Security Administration to document the heartbreaking conditions of a country in the throes of the Great Depression. Between 1935 and 1939, Lange took her camera to migrant camps in states like Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona, but spent much time photographing the poor in California and its Central Valley – the bread basket of the world.

Lange snapped a series of photos on this corner, giving us a historic context of a Modesto of 86 years ago. One can see the Turner Hardware & Implements store building in the background of Lange’s iconic photo, “Men on Skid Row.” The store’s footprint occupied the northwest area of the block where courthouse construction is taking place.

Turner’s began as Wood and Turner in 1874 and was a mainstay in sleepy Modesto, which had grown to about 14,000 residents by 1930. Not far away was J.S. West, which supplied grain to area farmers and ranchers. Turner’s was remodeled over the years and after the business closed, fell to other uses until it was eventually bulldozed around 2017 to clear the block for the courthouse. Up until the end the building was a common place where homeless huddled in its recesses– a reminder that the Valley hadn’t shaken its unfortunate distinction of being home to some of the most impoverished Californians.

Lange’s photos captured a number of down-and-out men – dressed formally by today’s standards – standing around with hands in pocket, idle for a lack of work. In the era of FDR, Ninth Street was a hangout for vagrants and known as Modesto’s skid row.

One man, leaning against the mail box affixed to the stop sign pole at Ninth Street, shoots Lange a look of distrust from beneath the bill of his cap. His hard glare at the camera mirrors the hardness facing Americans.

The Great Depression began shortly after the 1929 stock market crash and wouldn’t end until the late 1930s. At one time, nearly 25 percent of the country’s total workforce of 12.8 million was out of a job. Making matters worse was a series of droughts in the Midwest and the resulting loss of farms from the dust storms of the 1930s. In 1935 many farming families had no choice but to pack up their belonging onto jalopies and made the trek westward on Route 66 to the rich agricultural jobs in the Central Valley. Many weren’t welcome but there was work – paying only paltry wages but they fed families.

In the background of Lange’s photos, one can make out ornate two-story brick buildings to the north of Turner Hardware, long since razed from the Modesto landscape. One was the IOOF Hall and the other once occupied by Majestic Furniture. 

Lange’s “skid row” series was believed taken in March 1937, a month after Lange snapped her most famous work in Nipomo, the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo. Her camera found Florence Hill Thompson, a destitute mother surrounded by her young daughters huddled in a lean-to canvas tent. In short time, the image of the haggard and worn face of Thompson, tugging at the corner of her mouth in worry, would represent the starvation experienced in an economically broken country. In Thompson’s case, a cold snap in San Luis Obispo County had destroyed the peas and claimed any chance for a job.

Lange saw firsthand the suffering in the camp and others like it. For years she crisscrossed the Valley at the same time when John Steinbeck was living among the migrants and collecting stories for his ground-shaking novels, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “In Dubious Battle.” The works of both Lange and Steinbeck stirred public support to help the poor and downtrodden.

A block away, across Ninth Street, Lange had snapped more photos and found two men – dressed in suits and wearing hats – snoozing midday on the concrete slab next to the railroad tracks. The image has been popularly credited as being shot in San Francisco because of the name of a business in the background. It’s an understandable mistake for those who don’t know the context that the San Francisco Fruit Market was operating between Eighth and Ninth Streets in Modesto to the northeast of the tracks. Eventually San Francisco Fruit Market became Angelo’s Market. There is also no disputing the presence of the distinctive Modesto arch in the background as well as the Strand Theater which once stood on 10th Street (later replaced by the Brendan Theater).