"If you would like to have your heart broken, just come
out here. This is the dust-storm country. It is the saddest land I have ever
-- Ernie Pyle, a roving reporter in
Kansas, just north of the Oklahoma
border, June, 1936.
Dust Bowl days near Dalhart,
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The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, sometimes referred to as
the "Dirty Thirties” lasted about a decade. This was a period of
severe dust storms which caused major agricultural damage to American
and Canadian prairie lands, primarily from 1930 to 1936, but in some
areas, until 1940. It was caused by severe drought and decades of
extensive farming without crop rotation.
The primary area of impact was on the southern plains,
though northern areas were also affected, but not nearly with as
much devastation. The drought hit first in the eastern part of the
country in 1930 and by the next year it began to move westward. By
1934, it had turned the Great Plains into a desert and helped to
lengthen the Great Depression.
unknowingly, farmers had not utilized the
concepts of fallow fields and crop rotation, cover crops to manage
soil fertility and quality, or other techniques to prevent erosion.
The deep plowing of the topsoil had killed the natural vegetation that
normally kept the soil in place and trapped moisture even during dry
periods and high winds. Wheat
crops, in high demand during World War I, further exhausted the
topsoil and overgrazing stripped the western plains of virtually all
As a result, during the drought of the 1930s, the soil
dried and turned to dust, soon blowing in large dark clouds. Given
names like "Black Blizzards" and "Black Rollers," these rolling clouds
often reduced visibility to a few feet.
most affected – the Great Plains, included more than 100 million
acres, centered in
Kansas, and parts of
New Mexico. These
millions of acres of farmland became useless and soon, hundreds of
thousands of people were forced to leave their homes.
A resident of Oklahoma would say of the devastation, later
published in Reader's Digest:
dust-covered desolation of our No Man's Land here, wearing our shade hats,
with handkerchiefs tied over our faces and Vaseline in our nostrils, we
have been trying to rescue our home from the wind-blown dust which
penetrates wherever air can go. It is almost a hopeless task, for there is
rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over.
'Visibility' approaches zero and everything is covered again with a
silt-like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on
the kitchen floor."
On May 11, 1934, a severe dust storm blew over 340 million tons of dust
all the way to the East Coast. The New York Times reported dust
"lodged itself in the eyes and throats of weeping and coughing New
Yorkers". Dust flew as far as Boston and Atlanta, and even ships
within a few hundred miles offshore collected dust on their decks.
Another massive dust storm, dubbed "Black
Sunday" struck the nation on April 14, 1935. Famed American
singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie was living in Pampa, Texas at the time,
and when the storm rolled in, many in the Texas Panhandle thought it was
the end of the world. It inspired Guthrie to write the iconic song "So
Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh", considered one of Guthrie's best
and now included in the Library of Congress.
Shortly after the storm, the Dust Bowl got its
name when Robert Geiger, a reporter for the Associated Press, traveled
through the region and wrote the following:
"Three little words achingly familiar on a
Western farmer's tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent - if
The term stuck, spreading across the airwaves
and newspapers, though the people of the region hated the negative term,
which they knew played a part in diminishing property values and business
prospects in the region.
of thousands of people began to abandon their land when the dust storms
showed no signs of letting up. Others were forced out when their land was
taken in bank foreclosures. In all, more than 500,000 people, primarily
from Texas and Oklahoma, were left homeless. One-quarter of the population
left the affected area, packing up everything they owned and heading
westward, where they hoped to find greater opportunities.
Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American
history within a short period of time. By 1940, 2.5 million people had
moved out of the Plains states, headed primarily for the west coast.
200,000 of them moved to
California. Though these families left farms in
Kansas, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, all were generally referred to as "Okies," since so many
came from Oklahoma.
"The land just blew away; we had to go somewhere."
Kansas preacher, June, 1936
many of those that traveled to California,
found economic conditions not much better and were not received
warmly. In fact, in 1936, when they reached the border, they found
border patrols posted there to keep them out. Of those who made it in,
they owned no land and were forced to work, if they could find a job,
mostly on large corporate farms, whose crops of fruit, nuts and
vegetables were unfamiliar.
Paid starvation wages, they were often required to pay as much as 25%
of their wages to rent a tar-paper shack with no floor, electricity or
plumbing, and buy their groceries from a high-priced company store.
gave up farming, setting up shacks and tents near large cities, hoping to
find a job. Their homes, built from scavenged scraps, had no plumbing and
electricity and polluted water, lack of trash and waste facilities often
led to outbreaks of typhoid, malaria, smallpox and tuberculosis.
filled with poverty-stricken migrants, dotted the countryside. But the
native Californians who didn’t like it pressured lawmen to break them up. When
this didn’t work, vigilantes sometimes formed, beating the migrants and
burning their shacks to the ground.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established
governmental programs designed to conserve soil on the Great Plains.
Additionally, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) was created to
stabilize pricing of agricultural commodities and distribute food to
families nationwide. After "Black
Sunday" in 1935 created more national pressure, the government
formed a Drought Relief Service (DRS) to coordinate relief activities and
began enforcement of new regulations on the farm industry.
Roosevelt also ordered the Civilian Conservation Corps to
plant a huge belt of more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene,
Texas to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself
in place. By 1937, education programs were in place to teach farmers about
soil conservation and by the following year, the conservation effort had
reduced the amount of blowing soil by 65 percent. However, it would be two
more years, before the drought was over, and farmers could once again grow
crops on the land.
One of the best literary descriptions of the time was John
Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck, published in 1939. Awarded both the Nobel Prize for
literature and the Pulitzer Prize, the novel focuses on a poor family of
sharecroppers who travel from Oklahoma to
California, during the Dustbowl Days of the 1930s, trying to find a better existence for
One poignant excerpt from the book summarizes those many displaced
farmers of the plains:
"And then the dispossessed were drawn west- from
Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes,
dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry;
twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred
thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless - restless
as ants, scurrying to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pull, to
pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are
hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food,
and most of all for land."
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