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The Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl

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The First World War severely disrupted agriculture in Europe. This worked to the advantage of farmers in America who were able to use new machines such as the combine harvester to dramatically increase production. During the war American farmers were able to export the food that was surplus to requirements of the home market.

By the 1920s, European agriculture had recovered and American farmers found it more difficult to find export markets for their goods. Farmers continued to produce more food than could be consumed and consequently prices began to fall. The decline in agricultural profits meant that many farmers had difficulty paying the heavy mortgages on their farms. By the 1930s many American farmers were in serious financial difficulties.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected as president, he asked Congress to pass the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933). The AAA paid farmers not to grow crops and not to produce dairy produce such as milk and butter. It also paid them not to raise pigs and lambs. The money to pay the farmers for cutting back production of about 30% was raised by a tax on companies that bought the farm products and processed them into food and clothing.

Farmers in the Mid-West faced another serious problem. During the First World War, farmers grew wheat on land normally used for grazing animals. This intensive farming destroyed the protective cover of vegetation and the hot dry summers began to turn the soil into dust. High winds in 1934 turned an area of some 50 million acres into a giant dust bowl.

Milo Reno, the head of Farmers' Holiday Association and Floyd Olson, the Governor of Minnesota, insisted on compulsory production control and price-fixing, with a guaranteed cost of production. Henry Wallace argued this was against the idea as it would mean licensing every ploughed field in the country. Reno responded by calling a strike. According to William E. Leuchtenburg: "Strikers dumped kerosene in cream, broke churns, and dynamited dairies and cheese factories."

As a result of conferences of the last few days, which embrace the Cabinet, members of the Farm Board, together with Presidents Thompson, Tabor and Huff of the farm organizations, I have decided to ask the governors of the states most acutely affected by the drought to meet with us in Washington next Thursday in order to consider definite plans for organization of relief. Such organization will need first to be undertaken by the states, and through them the counties, with whom the various Federal agencies can cooperate.

I now have the preliminary survey of the Department of Agriculture of the situation as of August 1st. It shows that the shortage of animal feed crops is most acute in southeastern Missouri, northern Arkansas, southern Illinois, southern Indiana, southern Ohio, Kentucky, northern West Virginia, and northern Virginia with spots of less dimensions in Montana, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska - the latter three states being the less acutely affected. I shall ask the governors of those states to attend. The feed crops in some other states are also reduced, the amount of ultimate reduction depending upon rain during the next two weeks. It may develop that we shall need to ask the governors of one or two other states also to attend. In any event, in the most acute areas we should now lay the foundation for effective local and state organization, the object of which is to prevent suffering amongst farm families deprived of support, and to prevent the sacrifice of livestock more than is necessary.

In the acutely affected area which I have mentioned there are approximately one million farm families who possess approximately 2¼ million horses and mules, 6 million cattle, and 12 million hogs and sheep. This represents approximately 12% of the animals in the country. Obviously the individual farmers in the the acute area are differently affected. Their losses run all the way from a few percent up to their entire animal feed crops. The actual numbers who are in distress will, therefore, be less than those gross figures.

Secretary Hyde has instructed the county agents to make a further more searching and definite report on the later progress of the drought and the nature of the relief that will be necessary in the different counties. We are in hopes that we shall have this information in hand ready for the meeting of the governors.

The situation is one to cause a great deal of concern, but it must be borne in mind that the drought has many affected animal feed, the bulk of the direct human food production of the country being abundantly in hand. Nevertheless, there will be a great deal of privation among families in the drought areas due to the loss of income and the financial difficulties imposed on them to carry their animals over the winter. The American people will proudly take care of the necessities of their countrymen in time of stress or difficulty. Our first duty is to assure our suffering countrymen that this will be done, that their courage and spirit shall be maintained, and our second duty is to assure an effective organization for its consummation.

We have canvassed the information secured by state and national surveys as to drought conditions. While the extent of the damage cannot yet be determined, it is certain that there are at least 250 counties most acutely affected where some degree of relief must be provided. It was the view of the conference that the burden of effective organization to meet the situation over the winter in the acutely affected counties rests primarily upon the counties and the states themselves, supplemented by such cooperation and assistance as may be found necessary on the part of the Federal Government.

The objective of such relief is: To assist families over the winter who are deprived of means of support for failure of their crops. To prevent unnecessary sacrifice of livestock. Protection to public health.

This is to be accomplished by: Placing of loans privately or where necessary with assistance of State or national agencies. Red Cross assistance. Employment. Reduced railway rates for food, feed and livestock to the distressed districts. This relief can be achieved justly and effectively only upon first determination of the counties where such assistance is required, and second, upon an accurate determination of the needs of each family. In order that such determinations may be made and assistant supplied as each case may require, the following organization is agreed upon:

1. Each governor who considers that a situation requiring emergency relief exists within the state shall create a Drought Relief Committee under the chairmanship of a leading citizen, and embracing in its membership a state agricultural official, a leading banker, a Red Cross representative, a railway representative, and such farmers and others as the situation may require. This committee to take general charge of relief measures within the state.

2. The State Committee to determine the drought counties where there is need for organized relief and to organize a committee in each county, likewise under the chairmanship of a leading citizen, and embracing the county agricultural agent, a leading banker, county Red Cross leader, farmers and others.

3. The county committees will receive individual applications for relief and recommend the method of treatment, and coordinate the various agencies in service thereto by way of loans, Red Cross assistance, employment, etc. The state committees, in cooperation with the county committees, to determine which counties are in need beyond the resources of the people of the county and in what direction, i. e. whether loans are required beyond the ability of the local banks, or Red Cross assistance beyond the resources of the county chapter; what quantities of imports of feed or food are required, etc. The State Committee to cooperate with national agencies if these requirements are beyond the state resources.

4. The President will set up a committee comprising representatives of the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Farm Board, the Federal Farm Loan Board, the Red Cross, the American Railway Association, the Public Health Service. This committee, through its chairman, will coordinate national activities and national support to the state and county committee.

5. The methods for provision of credit beyond local or state resources for the purchase of feed, seed, movement of livestock, or support of families over the winter will be developed by state committees in cooperation with the Federal Farm Board, the Federal Farm Loan Board, the Intermediate Credit System, and other Federal agencies.

6. The Red Cross will organize its own committees in each drought county, the chairman of which will be a member of the County Drought Relief Committee. The National Red Cross has made a preliminary allocation of $5,000,000 pending determination of the aggregate need.

7. The railways have already generously reduced rates by 50% on food and feed inward to the drought counties and livestock movement outward, to dealers and persons who are entitled to relief and so designated by the county agents or the committees created above.

8. The Department of Agriculture will secure and disseminate information as to sources of feed supply and localities to which livestock may be shipped. It will examine the possibilities of advancing state road allotments to drought areas in order to increase employment.

9. In the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and others having a surplus of feed, it is recommended that a state committee be set up to cooperate with the committees in the states of surplus livestock.

Beginning in the Carolinas and extending clear into New Mexico are fields of unpicked cotton that tell a mute story of more cotton than could be sold for enough, even to pay the cost of picking. Vineyards with grapes still unpicked, orchards of olive trees hanging full of rotting fruits and oranges being sold at less than the cost of production.

Grain was being burned. It was cheaper than coal. In South Dakota, the county elevator listed corn as minus three cents a bushel. If you wanted to sell them a bushel of corn, you had to bring in three cents. We had lots of trouble on the highway, people were determined to withhold produce from the market - livestock, cream, butter, eggs, what not. If they would dump the produce, they would force the market to a higher level. The farmers would man the highways and cream cans were emptied in ditches and eggs dumped out. They burned the Trestie Bridge, so the trains wouln't be able to haul grain.

The New Deal was an ineasy coalition. Fights developed very early between two factions: one, representing the big farmers, and the other, the little farmers. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) came into being shortly after I got to Washington. Its purpose was to increase farm prices, which were pitifully low. All the farmers were in trouble, even the big ones.

Hog prices had just gone to hell. They were four, five cents a pound? The farmers were starving to death. It was decided to slaughter piggy sows (a pregnant pig). The AAA decided to pay the farmers to kill them and the little pigs. Lot of them went into fertilizer. Then a great cry went up from the press, particularly the Chicago Tribune, about Henry Wallace slaughtering these little pigs. You'd think they were precious babies.

You had a similar situation on cotton. Prices were down to four cents a pound and the cost of producing was probably ten. So a program was initiated to plow up cotton. A third of the crop, if I remember. Cotton prices went up to ten cents, maybe eleven.

I have been on a journey of husbandry. I went primarily to see at first hand conditions in the drought states; to see how effectively Federal and local authorities are taking care of pressing problems of relief and also how they are to work together to defend the people of this country against the effects of future droughts.

I saw drought devastation in nine states.

I talked with families who had lost their wheat crop, lost their corn crop, lost their livestock, lost the water in their well, lost their garden and come through to the end of the summer without one dollar of cash resources, facing a winter without feed or food -- facing a planting season without seed to put in the ground.

That was the extreme case, but there are thousands and thousands of families on western farms who share the same difficulties.

I saw cattlemen who because of lack of grass or lack of winter feed have been compelled to sell all but their breeding stock and will need help to carry even these through the coming winter. I saw livestock kept alive only because water had been brought to them long distances in tank cars. I saw other farm families who have not lost everything but who, because they have made only partial crops, must have some form of help if they are to continue farming next spring.

I shall never forget the fields of wheat so blasted by heat that they cannot be harvested. I shall never forget field after field of corn stunted, earless and stripped of leaves, for what the sun left the grasshoppers took. I saw brown pastures which would not keep a cow on fifty acres.

Yet I would not have you think for a single minute that there is permanent disaster in these drought regions, or that the picture I saw meant depopulating these areas. No cracked earth, no blistering sun, no burning wind, no grasshoppers, are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen and their wives and children who have carried on through desperate days, and inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity and their courage. It was their fathers' task to make homes; it is their task to keep those homes; it is our task to help them with their fight.

“Black Sunday" Dust Bowl storm strikes

In what came to be known as 𠇋lack Sunday,” one of the most devastating storms of the 1930s Dust Bowl era sweeps across the region on April 14, 1935. High winds kicked up clouds of millions of tons of dirt and dust so dense and dark that some eyewitnesses believed the world was coming to an end.

The term 𠇍ust bowl” was reportedly coined by a reporter in the mid-1930s and referred to the plains of western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and northeastern New Mexico. By the early 1930s, the grassy plains of this region had been over-plowed by farmers and overgrazed by cattle and sheep. The resulting soil erosion, combined with an eight-year drought which began in 1931, created a dire situation for farmers and ranchers. Crops and businesses failed and an increasing number of dust storms made people and animals sick. Many residents fled the region in search of work in other states such as California (as chronicled in books including John Steinbeck s The Grapes of Wrath), and those who remained behind struggled to support themselves.

By the mid-1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt s administration introduced programs to help alleviate the farming crisis. Among these initiatives was the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in the Department of Agriculture. The SCS promoted improved farming and land management techniques and farmers were paid to utilize these safer practices. For many Dust Bowl farmers, this federal aid was their only source of income at the time.

The Dust Bowl era finally came to a close when the rains arrived and the drought ended in 1939. Although drought would continue to be an inevitable part of life in the region, improved farming techniques significantly reduced the problem of soil erosion and prevented a repeat of the 1930s Dust Bowl devastation.

The Dust Bowl - History

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Experience the conservation efforts to bring farms back to life

Reaping the Whirlwind | Preview

The Dust Bowl was the worst man made ecological disaster in American History.

First Look | A Storm is Coming

Sanora Babb returns to her childhood home during the depression.

Sanora's Return

Tex Pace left the panhandle for CA and worked as a orange picker near Visalia, CA

Tex Pace

The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history. More More

The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the Great Plow-Up, followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.

The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the Great Plow-Up, followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.

Experience the conservation efforts to bring farms back to life

Reaping the Whirlwind | Preview

The Dust Bowl was the worst man made ecological disaster in American History.

First Look | A Storm is Coming

Sanora Babb returns to her childhood home during the depression.

Sanora's Return

Funding is provided by Bank of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, National Endowment for the Humanities, The Rockefeller Foundation, Wallace Genetic Foundation and members of … More

Funding is provided by Bank of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, National Endowment for the Humanities, The Rockefeller Foundation, Wallace Genetic Foundation and members of The Better Angels Society, including the Dana A. Hamel Family Charitable Trust and Robert and Beverly Grappone.

The Dust Bowl - History

The Dust Bowl got its name after Black Sunday, April 14, 1935. More and more dust storms had been blowing up in the years leading up to that day. In 1932, 14 dust storms were recorded on the Plains. In 1933, there were 38 storms. By 1934, it was estimated that 100 million acres of farmland had lost all or most of the topsoil to the winds. By April 1935, there had been weeks of dust storms, but the cloud that appeared on the horizon that Sunday was the worst. Winds were clocked at 60 mph. Then it hit.

"The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face," Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. "People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk. We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real."

The day after Black Sunday, an Associated Press reporter used the term "Dust Bowl" for the first time. "Three little words achingly familiar on the Western farmer's tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – if it rains." The term stuck and was used by radio reporters and writers, in private letters and public speeches.

In the central and northern plains, dust was everywhere.

Herman Goertzen remembers chickens going to roost in the middle of the day because the dust storm made it so dark the chickens thought it was night.
LeRoy Hankel remembers a wind blowing so hard that a truck was blown 30 to 40 feet down a street.
Elroy Hoffman remembers winds blowing seeds out of the ground.
Stan Jensen remembers how it was impossible to keep houses clean.
Walter Schmitt remembers how the winds blew tumbleweeds into fences. Then the dust drifted up behind the tumbleweeds, covering the fencerows.
Harvey Pickrel tried to buy a tractor – the only trick was he would have to dig it out of the dust before he could take it home.

The impact of the Dust Bowl was felt all over the U.S. During the same April as Black Sunday, 1935, one of FDR's advisors, Hugh Hammond Bennett, was in Washington D.C. on his way to testify before Congress about the need for soil conservation legislation. A dust storm arrived in Washington all the way from the Great Plains. As a dusty gloom spread over the nation's capital and blotted out the sun, Bennett explained, "This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about." Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act that same year.

Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.

Black Sunday

On April 14, 1935, a “black duster” overtook Robert E. Geiger, a reporter for the Washington (DC) Evening Star, and photographer Harry G. Eisenhard six miles from Boise City, Oklahoma. Geiger coined the term Dust Bowl when he used it in a subsequent article for the Lubbock (TX) Evening Journal. The Dust Bowl encompassed the entire Great Plains, stretching from southwestern Kansas into southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. Although Baca County experienced the brunt of the Dust Bowl, dust storms occurred as far north as Burlington in Kit Carson County and Julesburg in Sedgwick County. Las Animas and Prowers counties were especially hard hit. Dust covered roads and made them impassable, suffocated livestock, destroyed crops, and laid ruin to the livelihoods of thousands of eastern Coloradans.

During the Dust Bowl, Colorado’s plains also suffered from grasshopper infestations. Grasshoppers thrived in the desiccated prairie soils and first descended upon Colorado in 1934. In 1937 and 1938, swarms of the insects almost blacked out the sun as they consumed entire fields of barley, wheat, and alfalfa. The federal government sent employees from the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) to eradicate the pests by poisoning them. Although some families endured, many residents found it impossible to support themselves and ended up migrating to places like California and Oregon. Baca County, for example, lost 4,363 residents during the 1930s.

Lessons from the Dust Bowl

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is "An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces" (2008), which devotes a chapter to the environment.

Machinery buried in dust near Dallas, North Dakota, in 1935. Credit: USDA.

Early in the twentieth century American philosopher George Santayana wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Another quote, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, offers this correction: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." These two quotes came to mind as I watched Ken Burns’s The Dust Bowl last week -- this four-hour PBS documentary by America’s most famous film documentarian remains available on some PBS stations or for viewing online until at least December 4. The destruction, personal suffering, and tragedies caused by our recent Hurricane Sandy were not a repeat of the 1930s’ Dust Bowl, but they were close enough to remind us that we have ignored at our peril a basic historical lesson: Screw up the environment badly enough and it’ll come back to blow you away with a vengeance.

Soon after the beginning of The Dust Bowl, narrator Peter Coyote mentions the severe drought of the 1890s that occurred in the Great Plains, west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains. The drought serves as a foreshadowing of what was to come four decades later, but was catastrophic enough in its own way. After unscrupulous developers and a decade of sufficient rain had encouraged settlers to pour in to areas like the western third of Kansas, where population more than tripled between 1885 and 1887, drought struck in 1887 and continued into the 1890s. Many of the newcomers had planted wheat, replacing the short grasses that had nurtured enough animal life to sustain earlier Native Americans. But the settlers ignored that periodic drought was “one of the defining characteristics” of the Great Plains. When drought returned starting in 1887, wheat yields plummeted, hunger increased, and many people left the plains.

But this history lesson of the late nineteenth century was insufficiently learned. In 1909 Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act. It made public land available that was less fit for farming than that which had been opened up by the Homestead Act of 1862. One of these new areas, which the documentary emphasizes, was “a narrow-strip of Oklahoma that bordered four other states— Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.” This region is part of the “Southern plains,” which one of the program’s expert voices calls “one of the riskiest areas of the world for agricultural production.” He, Kansas historian Donald Worster, should know because he has written Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize -- more recently he has also written another excellent book, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (2008).

A combination of good weather, better farming techniques, global wheat demand sparked by World War I, and improved agricultural technology brought many good years to the Great Plains farmers from 1909 through 1929. But in the process farmers destroyed millions of acres more of the native grasses, leaving the area more prone to wind erosion when drought returned, as it did with ferociousness in the 1930s.

In late 1929 the Great Depression began and by 1931 was seriously depressing wheat prices. Then the winter of 1931-32 and spring of 1932 were very dry and dust storms increased, but worse was yet to come in the middle of the decade. The most catastrophic storm was on Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, when the worst dust storm in history occurred. Across Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas this storm raged at times moving at 65 miles per hour and some two hundred miles wide. The blackness got so bad that people could not see a few feet in front of themselves. Several people who experienced this storm as children recall their elders saying “the end of the world is coming.”

These witnesses of Black Sunday and much of the other suffering of the Dust-Bowl years are now old men and women, and Burns, as he has in other documentaries, makes good use of these ordinary folk. He is a sort of Studs Terkel of documentarians. His mix of them briefly telling us their stories, along with photographs, video clips, music (e.g. that of Woody Guthrie), and the words of experts seems just about right. In addition to historian Worster, two others who have written on the Dust Bowl are especially good: journalist Timothy Egan, whose The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2006) won a National Book Award, and historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, author of Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas (1994).

The total effect of this mixing of media and sources helps us not only to understand the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl but to feel the sufferings of those who went through it. Like Carl Sandburg’s great long poem of 1936, The People, Yes, where he mentioned “deserts marching east with dust deserts out of howling dust-bowls," Burns’ documentary stirs populist sentiments in our souls.

But it also helps us to appreciate why so many of the afflicted, as one woman says, looked upon President Franklin Roosevelt as “a savior.” The second two-hour part of the documentary details many of the government agencies set up by Roosevelt to discover and alleviate the Dust Bowl causes and miseries. We hear not only of efforts by well-known New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), but also by lesser known organizations like the Soil Conservation Service, whose head chaired a Report of the Great Plains Drought Area Committee. It concluded that “the basic cause of the present Great Plains situation is an attempt to impose upon the region a system of agriculture to which the Plains are not adapted,” and “it is safe to say that 80 percent [of it] is now in some stage of erosion.”

Right after narrator Coyote quotes from the report, we see and hear President Roosevelt addressing a Bismarck, ND crowd from the back of train during a 1936 drought inspection tour. And as he speaks we sense why so many -- and not just in the plains -- regarded him as a savior. As the woman who called him a “savior” said, “he gave us hope where we had none.” In his Bismarck speech he also said that our nation needed to work “out a plan of cooperation with Nature instead of continuing what we have been doing in the past -- trying to buck Nature.”

But 1937 brought no respite to the heart of the Dust Bowl as the destructive dust storms continued. One resident is quoted as then saying “the only difference between the southern plains and the Sahara Desert was that a lot of damned fools weren’t trying to farm the Sahara.” In 1938, however, more rainfall came and offered a little hope. By the end of 1939, thanks in part to better weather and soil practices, the afflicted area had decreased to about 20 percent of its previous size.

With the coming of World War II in Europe in late 1939, the easing of the Great Depression, and better weather on the Great Plains, the demand for and production of the region’s wheat increased. By the early 1950s, when a two-year drought returned to the southern plains and dust storms once again appeared, some lessons learned during the Roosevelt years mitigated the damage. Some farmers were still using Roosevelt-encouraged conservation practices, and nearly 4 million acres of land purchased by the government during the Dust Bowl and restored as national grasslands lessened the amounts of soil blowing away.

But today, more than a half century later, the lessons we have not learned from the Dust Bowl experience cry out for more attention. As historian Worster says toward the end of the documentary, “I think the Dust Bowl can happen again, most emphatically it can happen again. It can become a creeping Sahara.” One big problem, as another of Burns’ characters notes, is the region’s dependence on irrigated water coming from the Ogallala aquifer. About this gigantic water source stretching from South Dakota to northern Texas, he says that it was once about 100 feet deep on average, but that the region’s people have used up over half of it. At present usage rates, the aquifer has only about twenty years of water remaining.

Viewing Burns’ The Dust Bowl so soon after watching coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy calls to mind numerous parallels: the devastation nature can wreak, the tremendous hardship and suffering it can impose, the hope and help the federal government can provide, and, perhaps most importantly, the need to respect our environment. In a recent Time magazine article, “Sandy Ends the Silence,” Michael Grunwald writes “Hurricane Sandy -- like this year’s historic heat waves, droughts and wildfires in the U.S., not to mention an unprecedented ice melt in the Arctic -- is the kind of thing that happens when you broil the planet with fossil fuels.” He hopes that the hurricane may convince more U.S. citizens of the seriousness of climate change and global warming, that these are not just abstract academic debating issues, but ones that can have tragic consequences for millions of real people.

Three decades ago in the first edition of a co-authored book on twentieth-century global history, I first mentioned the dangers of global warming. Three years ago I wrote an essay on global-warming skeptics, indicating the political motivation of many of them. Today, as Grunwald insists and a recent World Bank report indicates, we continue to ignore or downplay human-caused climate change at our peril.

But the lessons of the Dust Bowl and Hurricane Sandy go beyond the misuse of land and climate change. They speak to the broader question of our abuse of our environment and our unsustainable lifestyles. The United States is far from alone in this abuse, but the consumer society we have created is the worst offender. In his 1973 classic, Small Is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher wrote that “the 5.6 percent of the world population which live in the United States require something of the order of forty percent of the world's primary resources to keep going.” By the end of the twentieth century the average U. S. citizen still used twice the energy a European did and more than 26 times as much as someone from India.

By the 1990s the world as a whole was using twice as much cropland, 9 times as much freshwater, and 16 times as much energy as in the 1890s. To solve one problem we often created others. To create more crops, for example, we have irrigated more and used more pesticides. But now, as with the Ogallala aquifer, underground water supplies are diminishing rapidly and pesticides have contributed to pollution.

In his Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (2001), J. R. McNeill wrote that “the human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on the earth. In time, I think, this will appear as the most important aspect of twentieth-century history.” In another work, The Coming Anarchy (2000), Robert Kaplan declared that “it is time to understand ‘the environment’ for what it is: the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century.”

Near the end of Burns’ The Dust Bowl, journalist Egan states that the most basic lesson the Dust Bowl experience should teach us is: “Be humble. Respect the land itself.” Four decades earlier in his Small Is Beautiful Epilogue, Schumacher wrote: “mankind's population and consumption of resources must be steered towards a permanent and sustainable equilibrium. . Unless this is done, sooner or later . the downfall of civilization will not be a matter of science fiction. It will be the experience of our children and grandchildren.” As Pete Seeger once sang, “When will we ever learn?”


The Dust Bowl period that occurred during the drought years of the 1930s represents a remarkable era in the settlement history of the West. From a climatic perspective, the 1930s drought is still considered to be the most severe on record for many parts of the Great Plains. The dry weather began in the early 1930s and persisted through the early 1940s for some areas, with the most intense drought years occurring in 1934 and 1936.

The economic, social, and environmental impacts associated with the decade-long drought event of the 1930s were staggering, but never fully documented. This event also coincided with a severe economic depression, both in the United States and worldwide, that only served to exacerbate the impacts of drought. From an environmental perspective the combination of drought, economic depression, and poor or inappropriate farming practices in the Great Plains led to one of the most serious environmental catastrophes the United States has ever experienced.

From 1909 to 1929 farmers had broken out thirty-two million acres of sod in the Great Plains. Many of these farmers were recent settlers and had limited experience with the region's climate. Once the protective cover of the native grassland was destroyed, the dry conditions and high winds common to the region resulted in an increased susceptibility of the topsoil to wind erosion. As a result, dust storms raged nearly everywhere, but the most severely affected areas were in the Oklahoma (Cimarron, Texas, and Beaver counties) and Texas panhandles, western Kansas, and eastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico. The most severe dust storms occurred between 1935 (a total of forty in that year) and 1938 (sixty-one), although numerous others were documented between 1932 and 1941. It was estimated that 300 million tons of soil were removed from the region in May 1934 and spread over large portions of the eastern United States. By 1935 an additional 850 million tons of topsoil was blowing in 101 counties of various states. It is estimated that by 1935 wind erosion had damaged 162 million acres over 80 percent of the High Plains. Interestingly, the peak year for wind erosion occurred in 1938, not the most severe drought year, climatically speaking. By this time 5 inches of topsoil had been lost over an area of 10 million acres and 2.5 inches had been lost over another 13.5 million acres.


Elizabeth Brooks and Jacque Emel, "The Llano Estacado of the American Southern High Plains," in Regions at Risk: Comparisons of Threatened Environments, ed. Jeanne X. Kasperson, Roger E. Kasperson, and B. L. Turner II (Tokyo-New York-Paris: United Nations University Press, 1995).

R. Douglas Hurt, The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981).

Vance Johnson, Heaven's Tableland: The Dust Bowl Story (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1947).

Alvin O. Turner, ed., Letters from the Dust Bowl (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001).

Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

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Users agree not to download, copy, modify, sell, lease, rent, reprint, or otherwise distribute these materials, or to link to these materials on another web site, without authorization of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Individual users must determine if their use of the Materials falls under United States copyright law's "Fair Use" guidelines and does not infringe on the proprietary rights of the Oklahoma Historical Society as the legal copyright holder of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and part or in whole.

Photo credits: All photographs presented in the published and online versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture are the property of the Oklahoma Historical Society (unless otherwise stated).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Donald A. Wilhite, &ldquoDust Bowl,&rdquo The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=DU011.

© Oklahoma Historical Society.

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Site Index | Contact Us | Privacy | Press Room | Website Inquiries

National Youth Summit - The Dust Bowl

On October 17, 2012, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) partnered with the National Endowment for the Humanities, WETA television, and Smithsonian Affiliations to present the National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl. The program, related to Ken Burns’ new film The Dust Bowl, connected thousands of high school students and united them in a national dialogue regarding the Dust Bowl’s legacy on both the environment and the culture of the United States. Students discussed the importance of environmental awareness and the effects humans have on the natural world. In recognizing the Dust Bowl as an ecological disaster of primarily human origin, young people worked together to imagine ways a similar catastrophe could be avoided. Together, students across the country generated ideas for how each of us could be a responsible steward of the delicate environment in which we live. Students left the Summit with a better understanding of the Dust Bowl and the role of science and citizens in national policy.

Modeled on the successful Summit presented on the Freedom Rides in 2011, the National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl included a live webcast from Washington allowing young people to engage with a distinguished panel of experts to discuss the history and legacy of the Dust Bowl. In addition to the students in the live audience in Washington, the program brought together students in Regional Town Halls at ten museums around the nation, who participated in the webcast and then discussed local environmental issues with experts at each museum. PBS affiliate television stations around the nation filmed students at each of the Regional Town Halls, providing videotaped questions for the national panel and a short film documenting the program. Hundreds of thousands more students watched the Summit in their schools and homes and engaged electronically over the internet. The "dust bowl," words coined by an Associated Press reporter in 1935 to describe the southern plains that rain had forsaken, was one of the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history – in which the heedless actions of thousands of individual farmers, encouraged by their government and influenced by global markets, resulted in a collective tragedy that nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.

It was a decade-long natural catastrophe of Biblical proportions, encompassing 100 million acres in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico – when the skies withheld their rains, when plagues of grasshoppers descended on parched fields, when bewildered families huddled in dark rooms while angry winds shook their homes and pillars of dust choked out the mid-day sun.

It was an epic of human pain and suffering – young children struck down by "dust pneumonia," self-reliant fathers suddenly unable to provide for their families and mothers unable to feed them, followed by the largest exodus in the nation’s history, as 2.5 million desperate Americans left their homes and faced an unknown and often cruel future.

And it is also the story of heroic perseverance a study of the roles and limits of government and a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us – a lesson we ignore at our peril.

Students learned the history of this important episode in American history, but they also looked to the present as they discussed crucial issues that face the nation today. The Summit inspired students to explore the choices we have and the consequences that follow in production of food, fiber, fuel, housing and infrastructure. Agriculture in the Dust Bowl region today relies on irrigation from the Ogallala aquifer, which has transformed the High Plains into one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world. Water use in the region, however, exceeds the rate of recharge to the water supply. As one of the modern legacies of the Dust Bowl, students considered how to balance the need for food for a growing population against the risks of aquifer depletion. Other issues like fertilizer use, soil conservation, herbicide and pesticide use, genetic engineering, and organic farming and the slow food movement were raised during the Summit.

The Dust Bowl - History

Oklahoma was and is identified as "the Dust Bowl State" even though it had less acreage in the area designated by the Soil Conservation Service as the Dust Bowl than did the contiguous states of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. The lore of the Dust Bowl still circulates around the Oklahoma image as fiercely as the dust storms that blew through its Panhandle.

Sunday, April 14, 1935, started as a clear day in Guymon, Oklahoma. The temperature was in the upper eighties, and the citizens, in their fourth year of drought, went to the Methodist Church for a "rain service." The congregation packed the church and lifted prayers seeking divine intervention for moisture the minister said that "good rains within three weeks means a harvest God rules all, and our last resort is prayer." By late afternoon the skies were darkened, but not by rain clouds. Instead, the worst of the black blizzards hit Guymon.

Throughout the southern High Plains temperatures fell more than fifty degrees in only a few hours as winds as high as seventy miles an hour blew black soil from Canada and northern plains states. Total darkness lasted for forty minutes and was followed by three hours of partial darkness. The relative humidity decreased to less than 10 percent. As the nation had become aware of the dust storms, journalists such as Associated Press staff writer Robert Geiger were in Guymon writing a series of articles. In his April 15 release for the Washington, D.C., Evening Star he wrote, "Three little words—achingly familiar on a Western farmer's tongue—rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent. If it rains."

Geiger used the term "dust bowl" for the first time in print. Within three months "dust bowl" was being used throughout the nation. He specifically referred to "the western third of Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, and northeastern New Mexico." That area is almost identical to the Dust Bowl boundary as formally designated in 1939 by the Soil Conservation Service as the geographical extent of the severe wind damage by 1939.

For various reasons, the word "Oklahoma" quickly became synonymous with the term "dust bowl." In truth, Texas and Cimarron counties, in the heart of the Dust Bowl, suffered the worst damage, most severe storms, and most dramatic sand drifts. Coincidentally, when Geiger first placed the term "dust bowl" in print in April 1935, and when other journalists reported the "Black Easter" storm, their datelines stated "Guymon, Oklahoma." This geographical reference firmly planted the Oklahoma–Dust Bowl connection in the public mind.

When the dust storms began, singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie lived in Pampa, Texas. He was an Okemah, Oklahoma, native, but the dust storms occurred far from his Oklahoma hometown. His 1940 recordings, including "The Great Dust Storm," "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "Dust Pneumonia Blues," "Dust Bowl Refugee," and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," released under the title Dust Bowl Ballads, made him known as "Oklahoma's Dust Bowl Balladeer." However, those songs actually drew upon his experiences in the Texas Panhandle in the early 1930s.

Guthrie also wrote songs about the Dust Bowl migrants, and most of them actually were from Oklahoma, but not from its Panhandle–Dust Bowl area. Examples are "Tom Joad" and "Do-Re-Mi." Mostly cotton farmers from eastern and southern Oklahoma, Guthrie's migrant heroes were sharecropper and tenant farmers forced off the land by improved mechanized farm equipment, extremely low prices for cotton, and the Great Depression. Moreover, because the New Deal's crop reduction program paid the farms' owners to plow under their land, the sharecroppers and tenants who had actually worked the land were made homeless and became migrants.

Sayings and stories about Oklahoma weather, as well as Guthrie's songs and John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, helped perpetuate Oklahoma's Dust Bowl image. Some of the more critical statements included "Oklahoma has four seasons, often within the same week." Stories circulated that even with all the doors and windows closed the dust was so thick that a strong light bulb "looked like a cigarette burning and you couldn't see your hand before your face." One story claimed that a man's car was stalled by the sand when he opened the door, he shot ground squirrels overhead tunneling for air. The wind velocity was so wicked that one man said, "You can fasten a logchain to a fence post or tree, and if it isn't blowing straight out, it is a calm day." Some people said that farmers were advised not to rotate their crops, for the wind would do it for them. Folks referred to dust storms as "Oklahoma rain." Women would hold their pans up to a keyhole and let the wind and sand clean them. It was so dry for so long that frogs could not learn to swim and would drown when put in water. Some said, truthfully, that "the wind blew the farm away, but we didn't lose everything—we still got the mortgage."

Other weather lore proclaimed that "dust had to be thrown in a man's face to revive him after he fainted when a drop of rain hit his face," and "the wind blew away so much soil that postholes were left standing above the ground one farmer hitched up his team and wagon, gathered the postholes, and stored them in his barn for future use." These are just a few of the many wry sayings and descriptive exaggerations that emerged from the Dust Bowl era. Woody Guthrie summarized the problems and life in the Dust Bowl with "dust sometimes gets so thick you can run your tractor and plows upside down. So dark you can't see a dime in your pocket, a shirt on your back, a meal on your table, or a dadgum thing. Only thing that is higher than that dust is your debts. Dust settles, but debts don't."

The word that became synonymous with the migrants who traveled west to work was "Okie." Reportedly, Ben Reddick, a journalist with the Paso Robles Press in California, saw in migrant camps numerous "old cars with Oklahoma license plates reading 'OK'." On the back of a photo depicting the camps and the autos he wrote the word "Okies," which was published as the caption. Thereafter, the term spread, applied to migratory workers. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Will Rogers and others sometimes said facetiously that the migration of Okies to California raised the intellectual level of both states. In many western states Okie continues to be used as a derogatory term, despite Oklahomans' numerous attempts to turn it into a complimentary term. However, those who live here generally consider themselves to be "Oklahomans," not "Okies." While "Okie" had been used before the dust storms hit, it became one of the traditional elements associated with the Dust Bowl era. Unfortunately, no matter how much research and no matter how many books and articles are written about the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma remains in the minds of many as "the Dust Bowl State."


James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (1989 reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1943).

Caroline Henderson, Letters From the Dust Bowl, ed. Alvin O. Turner (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001).

Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr., ed., Hard Times in Oklahoma: The Depression Years (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1983).

Guy Logsdon, The Dust Bowl and the Migrant (Tulsa, Okla.: Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, 1971).

Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

No part of this site may be construed as in the public domain.

Copyright to all articles and other content in the online and print versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History is held by the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS). This includes individual articles (copyright to OHS by author assignment) and corporately (as a complete body of work), including web design, graphics, searching functions, and listing/browsing methods. Copyright to all of these materials is protected under United States and International law.

Users agree not to download, copy, modify, sell, lease, rent, reprint, or otherwise distribute these materials, or to link to these materials on another web site, without authorization of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Individual users must determine if their use of the Materials falls under United States copyright law's "Fair Use" guidelines and does not infringe on the proprietary rights of the Oklahoma Historical Society as the legal copyright holder of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and part or in whole.

Photo credits: All photographs presented in the published and online versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture are the property of the Oklahoma Historical Society (unless otherwise stated).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Guy Logsdon, &ldquoDust Bowl Lore,&rdquo The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=DU012.

© Oklahoma Historical Society.

Oklahoma Historical Society | 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive, Oklahoma City, OK 73105 | 405-521-2491
Site Index | Contact Us | Privacy | Press Room | Website Inquiries

20 Tragic Photos from America’s Dust Bowl in the 1930s

The Dust Bowl was a series severe dust storms that affected 100,000,000 acres of the American prairie caused by drought and poor farming techniques. Drought plagued the Mid-West from 1934 to 1940. In order to plant crops, farmers removed the deep-rooted grasses which kept the soil moist during periods of little rain and high wind. The dehydration of the soil was exacerbated by more astringent farming techniques from newly developed mechanized farming machinery such as the tractor and combine.

The Federal Government encouraged settlement and development of the Mid-West. The Homestead Act of 1862, the Kinkaid Act of 1904, and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 offered large tracts of land to settlers willing to move to the Great Plains. After an unusually wet and fertile season in the 1920s the government and climate scientists propagated the theory that ‘rain follows the plow&rsquo in order to speed migration west. This theory states that human habitation and agricultural development permanently changes the climate in arid regions, making them more humid.

During the drought, the exposed, plowed soil blew away in huge dust clouds called ‘black blizzards&rsquo or ‘black rollers&rsquo. On May 9, 1934 there was a storm so severe that 12 million pounds of dust was deposited in Chicago. The black blizzards would reduce visibility to less than 3 feet and storms could sometimes send dust clouds as far east as Washington DC and New York City. In the winter of 1934-1935, the snow in New England was red.

Families across the prairie were displaced by the drought and storms. Between 1930 and 1940 3.5 million people moved out of the Plains states, most of whom went to California.

Dust Bowl. Dallas, South Dakota 1936. Wikimedia 3 Dust clouds recede, Dodge City, 1933, SC. Pinterest Black Roller approaching small farm houses. PBS Weary migrant family on the road to California. ebaumsworld Title: Dust bowl farmer driving tractor with young son near Cland, New Mexico. Dorothea Lange Photo of a dust storm in Tyrone, Okla., taken on April 14, 1935. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s sent more than a million residents of the area to California. Pinterest Car buried by a dust storm. Gilmore Car Museum Circa 1935: Three girls modeling various dustbowl masks to be worn in areas where the amount of dust in the air causes breathing difficulties. Getty Images 1940 migrant family escaping the Dust Bowl. History.com Migrant family walking towards California. Pinterest

Watch the video: The Dust Bowl - 02 - Reaping the Whirlwind (June 2022).


  1. Jaeden

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  2. Akikora

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