A Southern California professor believes he has solved the 75-year-old mystery of where in Nipomo a famous photographer captured an iconic image of a Depression-era mother and her children.
With the help of dozens of people, including longtime Nipomo residents, Paul Martin Lester thinks he has resolved apparent contradictions regarding a site he pinpointed last spring.
Now he hopes to find a landowner willing to let him place a marker to commemorate Dorothea Lange’s photograph titled “Migrant Mother.”
“The good news is that the location for the famous photograph is fairly certain to be off of North Oakglen” Avenue, Lester said.
“However, that site is not a great place for a marker — it is a bit isolated,” he said. “I would think just about any location in the downtown area — near Oakglen and Tefft (Street) is best — would be a fine place for the marker.”
A professor in the Department of Communications at Cal State Fullerton, Lester launched his quest to find the site after driving along Highway 101 through Nipomo.
That’s when he realized there was no marker for what he called “one of the most famous photographs in the history of the medium.”
“Migrant Mother” is one of six photos Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson and her children at a Nipomo migrant workers camp in 1936.
The image became such a symbol of the “forgotten people” — fugitives from the Oklahoma dust bowl and other migrant laborers living in poverty — it’s even used in foreign history books to illustrate the Great Depression.
But Lange was notorious for not keeping accurate notes about her photographs, which made it difficult to pinpoint the site.
According to Thompson’s children, the family was driving northward along old Highway 101 — now Thompson Avenue — in search of work when the timing chain on their Hudson snapped and damaged the radiator.
They pulled into a pea-pickers camp, where Thompson waited with her four girls while her partner, Jim Hill, and her two boys took the radiator into Nipomo for repair.
Lange took the photos of Thompson and her children as they waited for Hill and the boys to return.
But Lester found some things didn’t add up.
The background in Lange’s photos didn’t match any obvious location on Thompson Avenue, and the broken-down car wasn’t visible in the pictures.
In addition, various people — including Thompson’s children — placed the migrant camp at a number of locations around the Nipomo area.
Doug Jenzen, program director for the Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos, said Nipomo had 11 migrant labor camps, which would account for confusion over the location.
Jenzen was able to find where the camps were situated, and at the Dana Adobe, he found a lease agreement between Maria Dana and a labor contractor for a camp on North Oakglen Avenue.
At that time, Dana lived in a house later occupied by the Marsalek family.
Comparing a 1930s U.S. Geological Survey map with the background in Lange’s photos and a description of the camp’s line of eucalyptus trees alongside a creek, Jenzen concluded the North Oakglen site was the only one that fit.
Nipomo residents helping with the search agreed, but it left the question of where the car broke down.
Through continuing research, Lester discovered the car was left in one camp while Thompson and her daughters were moved to another, where the photos were taken.
“The camp with the car was muddy from rain,” Lester noted. “Lange took pictures of that camp around the same time she took the famous portraits.
“After Florence’s partner, Jim Hill, and two of her sons walked to find a garage, camp leaders moved many to a drier, sandy camp,” he continued. “Before she left, Florence told those in the camp to tell Hill she was in the other location.
“Once there, she set up the lean-to, waited for their return, and made history when Lange showed up.”
Lester said the original camp was probably near South Thompson Road — old Highway 101 — where pea fields stretched up toward the hillsides.
His conclusion is based on Lange’s photo of the rain-soaked camp as well as another picture she took when the camp was dry.
In the “dry” photo, Temettate Ridge is visible in the background. Lester noted when that image is superimposed on a Google image from South Thompson Avenue, the ridgelines match.
Lester said he is now trying to secure a site for a historical marker, which he hopes will include landscaping and benches where people can sit and reflect.
One possible location is the Dana Adobe on South Oakglen, where DANA plans to create a natural and cultural history center and historical park.
But Lester is open to all options and noted the marker won’t cost the landowner anything or place any obligations on the property.
“There are also tax benefits and, I would think, business opportunities as the place becomes a tourist attraction,” he said.
Lester said once a site is secured, he plans to begin fundraising on a national level to pay for the marker.
Anyone with a potential site can contact Lester at email@example.com.