More than 80 years ago, people driven west by the Great Depression and the Dustbowl began to settle in Brentwood, setting up camps wherever they found stable ground. O.R. Davis was one of them, arriving with his wife Ruth and establishing what would become known as Davis Camp near a dump site at what is now the corner of Brentwood Boulevard and Sunset Road.
The land the Davises squatted on was actually owned by the county, but according to local historian Kathy Leighton, the county sold the land to Davis for a minimal fee in exchange for his pledge to keep the area clean. Davis used materials from the dump such as wood and cardboard to create temporary shelters.
After a few years, Davis, known as “Cal” to his friends, sent word to his family in Oklahoma that there was work in Brentwood and urged his relatives to join him in California, where they could make a living picking fruit.
During the height of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, thousands of people began to move west to escape the poverty of the Dustbowl. People often asked to stay on Davis’ property, and he’d let families stay as long as they needed to. Some families paid rent, but Davis didn’t pressure those who couldn’t afford it.
People came and went with the changing of the seasons, but many made Davis Camp their permanent California residence. By 1934, nearly 1,000 people resided at Davis Camp. The huge population forced Davis to quit his work in the fields. He built a shed to store food and supplies for the families to share, and eventually the shed became the Davis Log Cabin Grocery, which is now present-day Los Mexicanos Market.
Despite running the market, Davis wasn’t a wealthy man. He invested all his earnings to build more shelters and gather supplies to help the families living on his property.
“Cal Davis didn’t do it for the money,” Leighton said. “He did it out of the goodness of his heart. He left a wonderful legacy of generosity. Of all the people I’ve interviewed about Davis Camp, I haven’t heard a bad thing about him. Everyone speaks so highly of him. He left footprints on the hearts of all those families he helped.”
Jack Harrison agrees. The 75-year-old Brentwood resident arrived in town with his parents and seven brothers and sisters in 1939 when he was 6. He lived there briefly before moving on but returned to the camp as a teenager in the 1940s. Harrison said he knew Davis and remembers him for his kindness.
“He was a big ol’ kindly gentleman,” Harrison said. “He helped a lot of people get by when they first came to this area. He was a hardworking man. No one had a lot of money in those days, but he gave people a place to stay.”
Like most folks at Davis Camp in 1939, Harrison lived in a tent. He said it wasn’t a fun way to live, and the cold of winter was the hardest part of the experience. It was worse when it rained. There was no flood control in those days and neighboring Marsh Creek often overflowed onto the Davis Camp property, displacing residents until the water subsided.
“It’d rain and flood us out, but we’d just mop it up and move back in,” Harrison recalled. “Half the town was flooded, so there wasn’t anywhere else to go.”
When Harrison returned years later, his family moved into one of the houses that Davis built. Harrison said the structure, featuring indoor plumbing and an icebox, was an immense improvement on the previous shelter.
He said there was never time to be bored during that time. When people weren’t working in the fields, there were plenty of people to interact with on the camp. One of his neighbors was the late Bill Bristow.
“I had a lot of friends there,” Harrison said. “You build your life around your relationships with people, so we made a home there. Those houses were just as nice as anything else around, but some people looked down on us because we were poor. But we held our heads high.
“No one had money in those days, so it didn’t matter if we lived at the camp. Everyone was broke. We were hardworking people, making an honest living – nothing to be ashamed about that.”
Harrison said his time at Davis Camp instilled the desire to give back to the community later in life. Today, Harrison owns Hair Encounter on Oak Street and still shows up for work two days a week.
As the former residents of Davis Camp grow old, the memory of the Davis legacy begins to fade and eventually the remnants of the camp will be gone, too.
According to Redevelopment and Housing Manager Gina Rozenski, families continued to live in 12 of the 18 houses on the Davis Camp property until 2007, when the city purchased the property. The city offered relocation services to the families living there because the houses were unsafe and not up to code.
“The housing was substandard and deteriorating,” Rozenski said. “We were concerned about the living conditions, not to mention the physical and economical blight caused by the state of the buildings, so we offered services to the residents living there to help them relocate, and we boarded up the properties.”
The City of Brentwood plans to demolish what’s left of the camp this summer to make way for the expansion of Highway 4. Los Mexicanos Market will remain open for a few years while preparations are made for the expansion.
Rozenski said the Davis Camp property is zoned for residential use, so people will live in that area again someday.
While there are no plans to erect a memorial to Davis Camp, Rozenski said a plaque might be placed on the site to recognize the land’s historical significance.