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LeBARON: 'Dust Bowl' sheds more light on Sonoma County history

"All history is local history," the pundits tell us. Which is exactly why local historians love it when filmmaker Ken Burns presents another PBS epic.

Oh, I know. Burns can get long and even repetitive. I know people who say that his monumental Civil War series took longer to watch than it took to happen.

But if you can stay alert, every new Burns topic provides the framework for an added chapter, a close-to-home addendum, to the subject at hand.

Sonoma County is well positioned for closer looks at Burns' big pictures. Well, maybe not Lewis & Clark, but certainly the Civil War, with all those generals — Halleck and Sherman and the immortal Joe Hooker — stationed on the Sonoma Plaza in the 1840s, keeping the peace in this new U.S. territory.

In the series on the West, we find a photograph of Santa Rosa House, the stage stop and gathering place of the 1850s that was central to the new town's business and social life. Never mind that the narrative misplaced it in early San Francisco. For people on the East Coast, that was close enough.

And now, this past week, it was Burns' two-part film about the Dust Bowl that brought another chapter of Sonoma County's history to life.

These are not untold stories, although I'm sure there are plenty of those still out there in families that just don't want to talk about those bad, old days. There have been various triggers to memory in recent years — the obituary for a man born in Quanah, a Texas town on the Oklahoma border, south east of Amarillo, that sent so many families West to get out of the drought and dust that, as one migrant told me years ago, "When we got to Camp Windsor there were more people from Quanah there than were left in Quanah."

Sometimes it's a literary landmark, like the centennial of California writer John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath told the story of the migrants to the world and called up memories for the extended Crownover family of Santa Rosa, who started off in eastern Colorado and thought they'd found heaven when they reached the government camp in Sonoma County.

Let's face it, any old excuse to tell the old stories will do.


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