The Great Depression that lasted a decade beginning in 1929 was a terrible chapter in the history of the United States. Across the country farm income fell 64%, cities were ravaged with unemployment and, until the government eventually reacted, supplying jobs through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, citizens in rural areas were also destitute. Oklahoma farmers were not only affected by the depression, an extended drought also created the infamous Dust Bowl. The combination resulted in an atmosphere of hopelessness and anger towards a government unresponsive to the needs of its citizens. When a few turned to crime, defying authority and committing robberies of banks, many that had foreclosed on the mortgages of hapless citizens, they became folk heroes. Newspapers and radio chronicled their escapades and some citizens believed they should be supported and protected.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1939 award winning novel about The Great Depression and its effect on Oklahomans begins around Sallisaw and so did a “real life” family story. However, instead of the principle character of Steinbeck’s novel, Tom Joad, this account involves Charles Floyd, better known in his home town of Akin as “Choc” for his love of local beer. Akin is located in Sequoyah County near Fort Smith and, although Steinbeck doesn’t mention it, Fort Smith is on U.S. High 71 that extends from Louisiana to Minnesota, apparently a favorite route of the Clyde Barrow Gang.
The story was revealed in 1970 when the obituary of E.W. Floyd appeared in a local Sequoyah County newspaper. Apparently, Floyd had been a popular county official who served nine consecutive terms as sheriff after the Great Depression and was the younger brother of “Choc” who soon traded that nickname for another, “Pretty Boy.” Charles, Choc, AKA Pretty Boy Floyd began his life of crime by stealing $3.50 from the local post office in 1922, progressed to banks and payrolls, then became America’s most wanted criminal, eventually killed in Ohio in 1934. According to the article, during that abbreviated career he would occasionally return home to Sequoyah County and, in the course of conversation, admonish his relatives in what seemed to be somewhat of a contradiction, to “not become involved with criminals, because they give us a bad name.”
During April, 1933 the nation became aware of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, a pair of young outlaws who attracted the attention of law enforcement officials after a series of crimes in Texas. Parker and Barrow teamed up in 1932 following his release from prison and participated in numerous small robberies involving stores and gas stations. Expanding to five members that included Clyde’s brother Buck, his wife Blanche and E.C. Jones they became known as “the Barrow Gang,” and were involved in a “shoot-out” in Joplin, Missouri. Among other items confiscated afterwards were snapshots, poses including one with Bonnie, a cigar in her mouth, holding a pistol. The photo, along with the gang, became an overnight national sensation. To add to the intrigue, the gang successfully escaped. During their forays up and down Highway 71, apparently they frequently stopped at Fort Smith. Now back in Texas after the Joplin “caper,” and following another robbery and escape on June 10th, Clyde lost control and wrecked their car. He successfully commandeered another, but Bonnie suffered burns from her hip to ankle after being doused with battery acid. In fact, the burns were so severe she never did fully recover. On June 15th 1933 they returned to Fort Smith and checked into a motel. Seeking medical attention for Bonnie’s injuries but not wanting to contact a doctor, Clyde was informed that E.W. Floyd’s wife Beulah frequently assisted others with medical issues. After he obtained bandages and medicine, Clyde contacted Beulah and, with a friend, Oma Howe, attended to Bonnie’s injured leg.
While Bonnie was recovering, the gang was running low on money. So, in order not to draw attention to themselves locally, Buck Barrow and W.D. Jones drove to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and robbed a grocery store obtaining only a paltry $20.35. But while returning on Highway 71, north of Alma near Fort Smith, the pair became involved in a minor car accident that caught the attention of Alma Marshal Henry Humphrey. Recognizing the pair, in an exchange of gunfire, Humphrey was killed. The gang was forced to leave Fort Smith and escaped back to Texas. Still, within days they again traveled north on highway 71, encountering police near Kansas City on July 18, then six days later, Buck Barrow was wounded and died in a confrontation in Iowa.
Apparently, the family continued to ignore Choc’s admonition to “not get involved with criminals.” When both Bonnie and Clyde were wounded in an ambush by a posse in Sowers, Texas, during November of 1933, the Floyd family assisted them again. But the following year the saga ended. Bonnie and Clyde were killed in May, Choc in October. The Floyd family continued to struggle eking out a living for the next 15 years, like most others victims of the Great Depression.
Author's note: Four books relating to the history of Northeastern Oklahoma are available on Amazon.com and BARNES AND NOBLE.com
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.