Monday, March 23, 2015


Probably you’re all familiar with the novels John Steinbeck wrote OF MICE AND MEN (1937) and THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1939) about migrant workers and farm families displaced by the Dust Bowl. Those novels were also made into movies. Steinbeck borrowed from the field notes taken from Farm Security Administration worker and author Sandor Babb. Babb's own novel about the lives of the migrant workers, WHOSE NAMES ARE UNKNOWN, was eclipsed and shelved in response to the success of Steinbeck's works but was finally published in 2004.

Migrants leaving the Plains states took their music with them. Oklahoma migrants, in particular, were rural Southwesterners who carried their traditional country music to California. Today in the area in which many of my relatives settled, the "Bakersfield Sound" describes this blend which developed after the migrants brought country music to the city. In addition to folk singer Woody Guthrie, those artists include Merle Haggard and Buck Owens as well as many others. Their sound inspired a nation. Even one of my favorite composers, Aaron Copeland, wrote an opera called "The Tenderland" about the Dust Bowl.

Oklahoman Woody Guthrie in 1943
Perhaps you’ve seen Ken Burns’ movie about the Dust Bowl. This crisis was documented by photographers, musicians, and authors, many hired during the Great Depression by the federal government. For instance, the Farm Security Administration hired numerous photographers to document the crisis.  

Artists such as Dorothea Lange were aided by having salaried work during the Depression. She captured what have become classic images of the dust storms and migrant families. Among her most well-known photographs is Destitute Pea Pickers in California. Mother of Seven Children, which depicted a gaunt-looking woman, Florence Owens Thompson, holding three of her children.

Francis Owens Thompson and three of
her seven children as photographed in 1935
by Dorothea Lange
This iconic photo above expressed the struggles of people caught by the Dust Bowl and raised awareness in other parts of the country of its reach and human cost. Decades later, Thompson supposedly disliked circulation of the photo and resented the fact she did not receive any money from its broadcast. Thompson felt it gave her the perception as a Dust Bowl "Okie."

As mentioned above, my family was touched by the Dust Bowl. Relatives packed up and headed for California—many settling in or near Bakersfield. And these were not just farmers. A third of those displaced were white collar workers. My mom’s uncle owned grocery stores and another uncle a car dealership. The uncle who sold groceries extended credit to down-on-their-luck farmers and others. When the destitute left town, they left their bills unpaid. The formerly well-to-do grocer became the church janitor for a period before he left for California. Somehow, the car dealership owner managed to hold on and remained in Oklahoma. 

My husband’s father met with a similar fate in Texas. He owned a gas station and extended credit. When his customers couldn’t pay, he went bankrupt. He went from business owner to digging ditches and harvesting peanuts by hand until he could find better work. He moved only forty miles to Lubbock to find a better life, but others were not so lucky.

The Dust Bowl, also known as the Dirty Thirties, was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the US and Canadian prairies during the 1930s; severe drought and a failure to apply dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion (the Aeolian processes) caused the phenomenon. The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40, but some regions of the high plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years.

Dust Bowl farm inundated by sand
This spawned the saying I heard as a child that, “The only thing a dryland farmer grows is dirt.” 

This was not true for my mother’s immediate family. My grandparents Oklahoma farm on the Salt Fork of the Red River was subirrigated and on a small creek. Though by no means wealthy, they always had enough to eat and their animals didn’t suffer for feed.

With insufficient understanding of the ecology of the plains, farmers had conducted extensive deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains during the previous decade; this had displaced the native, deep-rooted grasses that normally trapped soil and moisture even during periods of drought and high winds. The rapid mechanization of farm equipment, especially small gasoline tractors, and widespread use of the combine harvester contributed to farmers' decisions to convert arid grassland (much of which received no more than 10 inches of precipitation per year) to cultivated cropland.

During the drought of the 1930s, the unanchored soil turned to dust, which the prevailing winds blew away in huge clouds that sometimes blackened the sky. These choking billows of dust – named "black blizzards" or "black rollers" – traveled cross country, reaching as far as such East Coast cities as New York City and Washington, D.C. On the Plains, they often reduced visibility to 1 meter or less.

Helpless travelers watching a black blizzard approach
Associated Press reporter Robert E. Geiger happened to be in Boise City, Oklahoma to witness the "Black Sunday" black blizzards of April 14, 1935; Edward Stanley, Kansas City news editor of the Associated Press coined the term "Dust Bowl" while rewriting Geiger's news story. While the term "the Dust Bowl" was originally a reference to the geographical area affected by the dust, today it is usually used to refer to the event, as in "It was during the Dust Bowl".

The drought and erosion of the Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres that centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and touched adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.

The Dust Bowl forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many of these families, who were often known as "Okies" because so many of them came from Oklahoma, migrated to California and other states to find that the Great Depression had rendered economic conditions there little better than those they had left.

Dust bowl victims moving 
The Dust Bowl area lies principally west of the 100th meridian on the High Plains, characterized by plains which vary from rolling in the north to flat in the Llano Estacado. Elevation ranges from 2,500 feet in the east to 6,000 feet at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The area is semiarid, receiving less than 20 inches of rain annually; this rainfall supports the shortgrass prairie biome originally present in the area. The region is also prone to extended drought, alternating with unusual wetness of equivalent duration.

During wet years, the rich soil provides bountiful agricultural output, but crops fail during dry years. The region is also subject to high winds. During early European and American exploration of the Great Plains, this region was thought unsuitable for European-style agriculture; explorers called it the Great American Desert. The lack of surface water and timber made the region less attractive than other areas for pioneer settlement and agriculture.

Stratford, Texas in 1935
The federal government encouraged settlement and development of the Plains for agriculture via the Homestead Act of 1862, offering settlers 160-acre plots. With the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, waves of new migrants and immigrants reached the Great Plains, and they greatly increased the acreage under cultivation.

An unusually wet period in the Great Plains mistakenly led settlers and the federal government to believe that "rain follows the plow" (a popular phrase among real estate promoters) and that the climate of the region had changed permanently. While initial agricultural endeavors were primarily cattle ranching, the adverse effect of harsh winters on the cattle, beginning in 1886, a short drought in 1890, and general overgrazing, led many landowners to increase the amount of land under cultivation.

Worst hit parts of the U.S.

Recognizing the challenge of cultivating marginal arid land, the United States government expanded on the 160 acres offered under the Homestead Act—granting 640 acres to homesteaders in western Nebraska under the Kinkaid Act (1904) and 320 acres elsewhere in the Great Plains under the Enlarged Homestead Act (1909). Waves of European settlers arrived in the plains at the beginning of the 20th century.

A return of unusually wet weather seemingly confirmed a previously held opinion that the "formerly" semiarid area could support large-scale agriculture. At the same time, technological improvements such as mechanized plowing and mechanized harvesting made it possible to operate larger properties without high labor costs.

The combined effects of the disruption of the Russian Revolution, which decreased the supply of wheat and other commodity crops, and World War I increased agricultural prices; this demand encouraged farmers to dramatically increase cultivation. For example, in the Llano Estacado of eastern New Mexico and northwestern Texas, the area of farmland was doubled between 1900 and 1920, then tripled again between 1925 and 1930. The agricultural methods favored by farmers during this period created the conditions for large-scale erosion under certain environmental conditions.

Dust bowl farmer and sons in Cimarron County. Oklahoma

The widespread conversion of the land by deep plowing and other soil preparation methods to enable agriculture eliminated the native grasses which held the soil in place and helped retain moisture during dry periods. Furthermore, cotton farmers left fields bare over winter months (and many still do), when winds in the High Plains are highest, and burned the stubble as a means to control weeds prior to planting, thus depriving the soil of organic nutrients and surface vegetation.

After fairly favorable climatic conditions in the 1920s with good rainfall and relatively moderate winters, which permitted increased settlement and cultivation in the Great Plains, the region entered an unusually dry era in the summer of 1930. During the next decade, the northern plains suffered four of their seven driest calendar years since 1895, Kansas four of its twelve driest, and the entire region south to West Texas lacked any period of above-normal rainfall until record rains hit in 1941.

When severe drought struck the Great Plains region in the 1930s, it resulted in erosion and loss of topsoil because of farming practices of the time. The drought dried the topsoil and over time it became friable, reduced to a powdery consistency in some places. Without the indigenous grasses in place, the high winds that occur on the plains picked up the topsoil and created the massive dust storms that marked the Dust Bowl period. The persistent dry weather caused crops to fail, leaving the plowed fields exposed to wind erosion. The fine soil of the Great Plains was easily eroded and carried east by strong continental winds.

On November 11, 1933, a very strong dust storm stripped topsoil from desiccated South Dakota farmlands in just one of a series of severe dust storms that year. Beginning on May 9, 1934, a strong, two-day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago, where they deposited 12 million pounds of dust. Two days later, the same storm reached cities to the east, such as Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. That winter (1934–1935), red snow fell on New England.

On April 14, 1935, known as "Black Sunday", 20 of the worst "black blizzards" occurred across the entire sweep of the Great Plains, from Canada south to Texas. The dust storms caused extensive damage and turned the day to night; witnesses reported they could not see five feet in front of them at certain points. Denver-based Associated Press reporter Robert E. Geiger happened to be in Boise City, Oklahoma that day. His story about Black Sunday marked the first appearance of the term Dust Bowl; it was coined by Edward Stanley, Kansas City news editor of the Associated Press, while rewriting Geiger's news story.

This catastrophe intensified the economic impact of the Great Depression in the region. In 1935, many families were forced to leave their farms and travel to other areas seeking work because of the drought (which at that time had already lasted four years). Dust Bowl conditions created an exodus of the displaced from Texas, Oklahoma, and the surrounding Great Plains to adjacent regions. More than 500,000 Americans were left homeless. Over 350 houses had to be torn down after one storm alone. The severe drought and dust storms had left many homeless, others had their mortgages foreclosed by banks, and others felt they had no choice but to abandon their farms in search of work.

Think about how devastating this must have been. Although not wealthy, farmers were making what they considered a nice living for their families. In only a few years, all the hard work they and their families had invested amounted to nothing. They were left penniless with nowhere to turn.

Dust Bowl victims living in car

Many Americans migrated west looking for work. Parents packed up "jalopies" with their families and a few personal belongings, and headed west in search of work. Some residents of the Plains, especially in Kansas and Oklahoma, fell ill and died of dust pneumonia or malnutrition.

The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history within a short period of time. Between 1930 and 1940, approximately 3.5 million people moved out of the Plains states; of those, it is unknown how many moved to California. In just over a year, over 86,000 people migrated to California. This number is more than the number of migrants to that area during the 1849 Gold Rush. Migrants abandoned farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, but were often generally referred to as "Okies", "Arkies", or "Texies". Terms such as "Okies" and "Arkies" came to be known in the 1930s as the standard terms for those who had lost everything and were struggling the most during the Great Depression.

Each year, the process of farming begins with preparing the soil to be seeded. But for years, farmers had plowed the soil too fine, and they contributed to the creation of the Dust Bowl.

Deep plow that turned up the grass
and started a terrible process
"In general, the seed bed should be roomy, thoroughly pulverized and compact," according to John Deere's 1935 book, The Operation, Care and Repair of Farm Machinery. The goal, according to the book, was to "break up clods and crusted top soil, leaving a fine surface mulch for planting or for plant growth."

The main tool for this job was the plow, an ancient implement that had evolved by the 1930s into several different varieties designed for different soil types. Each design lifted the soil up, broke it up and turned it over. The process pulverized hard dirt into small clods.

In the early 30s, many farmers would come back into a plowed field with a set of disc harrows that would break the clods into fine soil particles. A harrow mounted a series of concave sharpened steel discs close together. These discs were pulled through the field at a slight angle so the soil was cut and then turned over by each disc. This produced what was thought to be the "ideal seed bed... Large air spaces, bunches of field trash and hard lump or clods are undesirable."

The problem with this method was that it left fields vulnerable to wind erosion and dust storms. In the 1920s and early 30s, most farmers on the plains plowed their fields right after the previous harvest, leaving the soil open for months until it was time to plant again. And economic pressures in the late 1920s pushed farmers on the Great Plains to plow under more and more native grassland. Farmers had to have more acres of corn and wheat to make ends meet.

During wet years, this didn't cause problems. But when the drought hit, fields that had been covered for centuries by grass had been plowed and disced into fine particles. The soil dried out and began to blow. Dry and light grains of soil were picked up by the incessant winds on the plains.

All that was left after the dust settled

During President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days in office in 1933, his administration quickly initiated programs to conserve soil and restore the ecological balance of the nation. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes established the Soil Erosion Service in August 1933 under Hugh Hammond Bennett. In 1935, it was transferred and reorganized under the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Soil Conservation Service. It is now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

President Franklin D. Roosevelt
"Let me make one other point clear for the benefit of the millions in cities who have to buy meats. Last year the Nation suffered a drought of unparalleled intensity. If there had been no Government program, if the old order had obtained in 1933 and 1934, that drought on the cattle ranges of America and in the corn belt would have resulted in the marketing of thin cattle, immature hogs and the death of these animals on the range and on the farm, and if the old order had been in effect those years, we would have had a vastly greater shortage than we face today. Our program – we can prove it – saved the lives of millions of head of livestock. They are still on the range, and other millions of heads are today canned and ready for this country to eat."

The FSRC diverted agricultural commodities to relief organizations. Apples, beans, canned beef, flour and pork products were distributed through local relief channels. Cotton goods were later included to clothe the needy.

Life in a lean-to

In 1935, the federal government formed a Drought Relief Service (DRS) to coordinate relief activities. The DRS bought cattle in counties which were designated emergency areas, for $14 to $20 a head. Animals determined unfit for human consumption were killed; at the beginning of the program, more than 50 percent were so designated in emergency areas. The DRS assigned the remaining cattle to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) to be used in food distribution to families nationwide. Although it was difficult for farmers to give up their herds, the cattle slaughter program helped many of them avoid bankruptcy. "The government cattle buying program was a blessing to many farmers, as they could not afford to keep their cattle, and the government paid a better price than they could obtain in local markets."

President Roosevelt 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. The administration also began to educate farmers on soil conservation and anti-erosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing, and other improved farming practices. In 1937, the federal government began an aggressive campaign to encourage farmers in the Dust Bowl to adopt planting and plowing methods that conserved the soil. The government paid reluctant farmers a dollar an acre to practice the new methods. By 1938, the massive conservation effort had reduced the amount of blowing soil by 65%. The land still failed to yield a decent living.

Sad result of poor soil conservation

In many regions, more than 75% of the topsoil was blown away by the end of the 1930s. Land degradation varied widely. Aside from the short-term economic consequences caused by erosion, there were severe long-term economic consequences of the Dust Bowl.

In the fall of 1939, after nearly a decade of dirt and dust, the drought ended when regular rainfall finally returned to the region. The government still encouraged continuing the use of conservation methods to protect the soil and ecology of the Plains.

Historian Mathew Bonnifield argued that the long-term significance of the Dust Bowl was "the triumph of the human spirit in its capacity to endure and overcome hardships and reverses."


Photos: Wikipedia and Google Commons


Shanna Hatfield said...

Wonderful post, Caroline! My dad was a dust bowl baby, born in the Oklahoma Panhandle in 1930. He's shared many stories about what it was like living there during that time.

GiniRifkin said...

What an amazing indepth accounting of the Dust Bowl era. So heartbreaking. How they must have suffered with dirt EVERYWHERE. And for it to go on year after year. They were made of sterner stuff then I.

Samuel said...

Great post.I'm glad to see people are still interested of Article.Thank you for an interesting read.

fill dirt near me