Davis Camp – a piece of East County history

Photo by Tony Kukulich

Frank Davis, seen here with his wife Hiwanah, shared his memories of growing up in Brentwood’s Davis Camp. Frank’s uncle, O.R. “Cal” Davis, opened Davis Camp in the late 1920s.

Sitting largely unnoticed alongside Brentwood Boulevard is a nondescript building, boarded up and falling into disrepair, with little left to indicate the central role it played in the lives of many families who moved to Brentwood during the early part of the last century.

Descendants of families who passed through those now-shuttered doors and shopped in what was once a grocery store and gas station are still common in East County. One man, Frank Davis, is the nephew of O.R. “Cal” Davis, who built that general store and camp that grew up around it: Davis Camp.

“Cal Davis came on out to California because we were all starving to death in Oklahoma,” said Frank Davis. “The Depression hit. They were losing their farms left and right. So, Cal and his brothers and two sisters came to California ... They could find work in the fruit fields. That’s what brought us out here.“

Davis Camp was situated along Marsh Creek, on the southeast corner of Brentwood Boulevard and Sunset Road. In the days before the Highway 4 bypass was built, Brentwood Boulevard was Highway 4, and the paths of it and Sunset Road have been moved in the years since the camp got its start. When Cal Davis arrived in the late 1920s, the property was used as a dump. Frank Davis explained that Cal Davis cut a deal with Contra Costa County to take over the property in exchange for cleaning the area.

Using scrap materials, Cal Davis began building the Davis Log Cabin Grocery, small cabins and other facilities at the camp. The population quickly grew as farmers from the Midwest — primarily Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas — fled the Dust Bowl in search of the promise of work in California. A story published by The Press in 2009 said by 1934, more than 1,000 people were living at Davis Camp.

Many people — like Brentwood resident Sharon Ellingson’s family who also arrived from Oklahoma — lived in canvas tents with wooden floors when they arrived at Davis Camp.

“If you read ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ that’s it,” said Ellingson. “The camp (Frank’s) uncle founded was just like the camp in that book. He had a little store, a bath house, a place to do your laundry. Everything was right there.”

As Cal got established in Brentwood, he urged family still in Oklahoma to move west. Frank’s parents answered that call, and with their 13 children in tow, they began their migration to California. Frank was just days old when the family’s trek got underway.

“My mother and I got to go on this flatbed truck with a canvas over that back section and a bed up in there,” he explained. “Me and my mother traveled in that bed from Oklahoma to California on the plank roads over the sandy soil. That’s the way we traveled out here. We arrived in this place right down here, near the creek, in 1936. I was nine days old. My story begins right there.”

Work is what drew families to Brentwood, and work is what they found.

“The farmers around town would come to Davis Camp and say, ‘I need 20 workers,’ or whatever, to pick or plow for that farmer,” said Ellingson. “That’s how they got their work. Everybody worked. We worked in apricot orchards. Even when I was born, I got my scars in the apricot orchards. They didn’t have daycare; you took your kids with you.”

Farmers often sent workers home with a share of the bounty they picked. While money was never plentiful, Frank said he couldn’t recall anyone ever going hungry.

“I didn’t know anything but being poor,” he said. “To me, I was happy. I was loved and I was cared for. I was showed a good work ethic and good behavior ethic.”

Without electricity, there was no radio for entertainment, so children found ways to entertain themselves when they weren’t working in the fields. A boxing ring was erected in camp, and mile-long foot races along the sycamore-lined road from the camp to downtown Brentwood were common. Children cared for pets and played along the banks of Marsh Creek, which, in the days before flood control tamed it, flooded annually.

Floods could put Davis Camp under five feet of water, Frank added. Residents erected wooden platforms above the high-water line to have a place to sleep until the water receded.

Dorothea Lange — the famed Farm Security Administration photographer who gave face to the Great Depression with her iconic photo “Migrant Mother” — visited and photographed Davis Camp on at least one occasion. Her photos of Davis Camp can still be found in the Lange archives, and the grocery store served as the platform for her photos.

“Somebody got her a ladder, and she got up on the back of the store,” said Hiwanah. “She took pictures of down in the camp.”

Davis Camp served as an intermediary step for many families. Factories in the area provided steady work and a good paycheck, allowing former camp residents to purchase homes. The outbreak of World War II broadened those opportunities even further.

“As that story progresses, you’ll find that these guys improved themselves,” said Frank, who lived at the camp for seven years. “They would move out of Davis Camp, get a home somewhere around here and live in it. They would live their whole life, raise their families here and prosper here.”

Davis Camp remained occupied, at least in part, until 2007, when the city purchased the property. Residents were given relocation assistance because the homes had become unsafe, and they were demolished. The same fate awaits the Davis Log Cabin Grocery.

“The city owns the store now,” said Hiwanah. “Pretty soon they’ll tear it down. We don’t know what they’re going to put up there eventually, but we would like to have a historical marker on that site. The people that come after our generation is gone will have no idea what went on there.”