Saturday, December 26, 2015

THE AMERICAN DUST BOWL -- A DECADE OF DISASTER


Not an annual football game, but an economic crisis affecting the American heartland from Texas to Canada. The states most severely hit were Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico. The crisis was documented by photographers, musicians, and authors, many of whom were 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 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 gaunt-looking Florence Owens Thompson. I’ve read that later Mrs. Thompson hated that photo, especially since she received no money from its distribution, but it has become iconic.

Florence Owens Thompson, photographed by
Dorothea Lange
In addition to photographers such as Dorothea Lange mentioned above, the work of independent artists was also influenced by the crises of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Author 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. Many of the songs of folk singer Woody Guthrie are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression when he traveled with displaced farmers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs, earning him the nickname the "Dust Bowl Troubadour". 

Migrants also influenced musical culture wherever they went. Oklahoma migrants, in particular, were rural Southwesterners who carried their traditional country music to California. Today, the "Bakersfield Sound" describes this blend, which developed after the migrants brought country music to the city. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are counted in with this group. Their new music inspired a proliferation of country dance halls as far south as Los Angeles.

As familiar as I was with the term, I wondered what caused the Dust Bowl. What I learned was that we did. Not you and I, of course, but mankind and circumstances he created. 

When I was growing up in West Texas, sandstorms were still a part of life we took for granted. So much a part of life for me, I included a sandstorm in a contemporary romance, HOME SWEET TEXAS HOME, and in a historical romance, THE MOST UNSUITABLE COURTSHIP. Until I was grown and married and heard my husband, Hero, talking about how the deep plows ruined the land, I had no idea the sandstorms weren’t always as frequent as in the past century. 

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.

Amazing to learn that events in Europe helped create a Dust Bowl in the United States.

Disaster accelerated with the Russian Revolution and World War I and the shortage of wheat and other commodity crops they created. United States farmers were enticed to plow their grassland to meet the demand. 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. The widespread conversion of the land by deep plowing and other soil preparation methods to enable agriculture eliminated the native grasses which had held the soil in place and helped retain moisture during dry periods. Increasing the poor conditions, cotton farmers left fields bare during winter months, 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.



Dust storm approaching a town

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 at 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. 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 that 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.

If you have never experienced a “black blizzard”, consider yourself fortunate. Even now the area has them. The last one I was in was about fifteen years ago on a visit to Lubbock. Black clouds rolled in, looking like a bad thunderstorm approaching—but instead of rain, they carried choking dust that infiltrated every window and vent. As an asthmatic, I was especially affected and could not get my breath. We had to cut short our visit to Hero’s mom and hurry east toward our home, trying to outdistance the storm.

California or Bust
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 fomented 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. Many Americans migrated west looking for work. Parents packed up vehicles 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 one year, more than 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. Many of these Okies and Texies were my relatives who went to California to find work and a better life.

But did we learn from those times?

Farm land after Dust Bowl

The federal government had mobilized several New Deal agencies, principally the Soil Conservation Service formed in 1935, to promote farm rehabilitation. Working on the local level, the government instructed farmers to plant trees and grass to anchor the soil, to plow and terrace in contour patterns to hold rainwater, and to allow portions of farmland to lie fallow each year so the soil could regenerate. The government also purchased 11.3 million acres of sub-marginal land to keep it out of production. By 1941 much of the land was rehabilitated. But—you guessed, didn’t you?—the region repeated its mistakes during World War II as farmers again plowed up grassland to plant wheat when grain prices rose. Drought threatened another disaster in the 1950s, prompting Congress to subsidize farmers in restoring millions of acres of wheat back to grassland.

Let’s hope we’re better stewards of the land in the future.



Caroline Clemmons writes western historical and contemporary romances. Her latest release is PATIENCE, BRIDE OF WASHINGTON, #42 of the American Mail-Order Brides Series, on Wednesday, December 30th. Preorder now at Amazon http://amzn.com/B017HLR6CE.







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5 comments:

  1. This was such a sad era. Mankind's footsteps DO affect the planet. It's too easy for people to forget or rationalize events like the Dust Bowl and go merrily on their way without regard for the next disaster that's just waiting to happen.

    Thanks for the history, Caroline. Now I'm going to have to wash THE GRAPES OF WRATH out of my head again. GAH!

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  2. Caroline, this was a great blog. Although I had seen Florence Thompson's photo many times, I did not know her name or that she even saw the picture. I wrote my term paper in the 12th grade on Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. My theme was on migrant workers and if conditions had changed for them because of the book. It didn't. Much like the farmer's who over plant one crop and cause problems, people just don't seem to catch on to Mother Nature vs Money. Mother Nature always wins.
    My parents talked about the Great Depression many times. It altered their lives--my grandparents, too. They were all about practicality and frugality. But I have to say, the skills they taught my sister and me about how to make do with what you have, were some good lessons.
    An interesting subject for post Christmas reading. In the midst of all our excess d/t the holidays, it's good to think about how lucky we all are to have had courageous, stalwart parents and grandparents who made it through a very difficult time in American history.
    BTW, I have Christmas hangover. Too much sugar and late hours.
    I hope you had a very warm and wonderful holiday.

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  3. Once I'd seen Florence Thompson's photo, I just couldn't get the image out of mind. Even though I've heard stories of the devastation, I can't imagine losing everything and having to move away from home toward the unknown with no money to do so.
    Thanks for your comments.

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  4. Florence Thompson was the face of the Dust Bowl. You and I, Caroline, lived and grew up on the South Plains of Texas, that Western part just below the Panhandle. I was a teen during th ose horrific dust storms of the Fifties--we were right there in the middle of them. Yes, the Dust Bowl of the 30s started it all, but it continued for generations. I believe the invention of the harrow plow, or something like that, destroyed the root systems of the grasses...which held the soil. Sad indeed, and it began in Colorado. But Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas were the ones who suffered the most.
    I thank you so much for this wonderfully researched and written post. Sure, the holidays overwhelmed us, but now, yes, we need to return to historical pieces for our posts. Thanks so much.

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  5. Thoughtful, well written post, Caroline, about a terrible period in our history. Why is it that mankind always must learn the hard way? Remember that old saying: It's not nice to fool Mother Nature? We can't fool her for long. She always teaches us painful lessons.

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