Click photo to enlarge
Trixie Travis Brown was a child in Texas when the Dust Bowl began. She appears in the Ken Burns documentary on the Dust Bowl.

Celebrity status is an over-exaggeration by the standards of Monterey resident Trixie Travis Brown. But she's been drawing attention since she shared her story as a Dust Bowl survivor with documentary producer Ken Burns 3½ years ago.

Brown is one of the survivors interviewed during "Dust Bowl," Burns' four-hour film that recently aired on KQED. The documentary details the years of drought, wind storms and devastation that hit the Great Plains — and drove dirt all the way to the Atlantic Ocean — in the 1930s.

"I was 6 years old when the Dust Bowl was in full swing, and I was a teenager when we got out of that era," said the 85-year-old Brown, who grew up in the northeast corner of Texas, close to the swath of Oklahoma territory at the center of the Dust Bowl called "No Man's Land." She grew up in a town of 437 people.

Her film adventure began when a good friend from Amarillo, Texas, called to say Burns was in town looking for Dust Bowl survivors. Brown had written memoirs about her early years, so she sent a letter to the production company. After interviews by telephone, and then in person, she was asked to share her story on film.

The experience of filming was surprising, said Brown. The interviews took place at an old estate home, with writer Dayton Duncan. She hadn't expected to spend hours in a chair, surrounded by a soundproofing curtain, she said.

Nervousness made her mouth so dry, she had to keep asking for water, said Brown. But by the time she talked to Duncan, she'd already shared her story with several people on the production team.


Advertisement

In the years since, Brown has been in constant contact with everyone involved with the film. She has kept all her communications from the film crew, editors and a "wonderful note" from Burns.

The most fun she had was doing a Q&A with Burns at an assembly in November 2011 for San Francisco-area students studying the Dust Bowl for history class, Brown said. She was nervous before meeting the students, until her son reminded her that they weren't going to ask anything she didn't know the answer to, she said.

The most heartfelt question came from a student who Brown remembered as shy and worried, and who waited until the end of the presentation to ask: How did you live?

The Q&A was a special side trip during a San Francisco excursion for the West Coast film preview at the Castro Theatre. Brown said a "family entourage" accompanied her.

"I think the kids are more excited about this whole thing than I am," she said.

In April, the film company hosted the crew and Dust Bowl survivors in Goodwell, Okla., only 90 miles from her hometown of Follett, for another preview. They were served a dinner of fried chicken, bread pudding and corn — plain foods they would have eaten back then, said Brown.

"They treated us with such appreciation, because they wanted this film to have a lot of testimony from people who lived through it — not just facts, but the human stories," said Brown.

After that preview, Brown said her daughter had "tears flowing down her face" because she now understood how bad the Dust Bowl had been for her grandparents.

Brown laments that Burns and Duncan didn't make the film 10 years ago, when survivors who would have been adults during that era would still be alive to share their stories.

"We never talked about it at the time," said Brown. "Everyone was going through the same thing. What was the point of complaining?"

But plenty of people remembered. Brown appreciated getting "a number of calls" after the film aired, she said. One message came from the daughter of a 102-year-old Midwest woman who recognized Brown in the documentary, and had once helped care for Brown's children.

On a recent afternoon, Brown greeted visitors who turned out to be former neighbors, wanting to say hello and tell her they'd seen the documentary.

Brown may not be a celebrity, but she's certainly a well-known neighbor.

Elizabeth Devitt can be reached at 648-1188 or ldevitt@montereyherald.com.