A Dust Bowl storm approaches Stratford, Texas in 1935 Courtesy Wikipedia
In 1931 it hit. In what had been a flourishing business, farming went sour. The drought had killed the farmers crops and with it their livelihood. The ‘breadbasket of America’ was a Dust Bowl. Compounding the problems was that in 1929 the Depression had hit the US, driving many into poverty. Before the drought, farmers had been bringing in more crops than was in demand. Because of this, prices dropped. The farmers either had to live with those prices or do like some and store those crops until prices went back up. The profits generally went to paying off debts. The machinery (e.g. tractors) had been bought on credit. Many of the houses had mortgages that still needed paying.
As if the those things were not bad enough a drought and heat wave (1936) also took over. Due to the excessive farming and poor practices, topsoil had accumulated with nothing to hold it down. With the crops dead, the exposed dirt was being blown up into huge clouds that raced across the Great Plains. The fertile soil was being blown away by the tons. Dust storms, ‘rollers’, ‘dusters’ and ‘black blizzards’ were becoming common place, although no one would actually get used to them. And who could? Dirt was impossible to keep out of the house, despite the best efforts. Food had a gritty texture to it and tasted of dirt. ‘Dust pneumonia’ was causing more and more people to come down respiratory problems. Dusts drifts piled up making travel difficult if not nearly impossible. Wet rags were put around doors and windows to keep the dirt out. Adults and children alike covered their faces with wet rags. Later the American Red Cross would begin sending the sufferers dust masks.In the mornings after rising from bed, layers of dirt would be on everything.Ann Marie Low of North Dakota best illustrated the situation in her diary:
Mama couldn’t make bread until I carried water to wash the bread mixer. I couldn’t churn until the churn was washed and scalded. We just couldn’t do anything until something was washed first Every room had to have dirt almost shoveled out of it before we could wash floors and furniture. We had no time to wash clothes, but it was necessary. I had to wash out the boiler, wash tubs, and the washing machine before we could use them. Then every towel, curtain, piece of bedding, and garment had to be taken outdoors to have as much dust as possible shaken out before washing. The cistern is dry, so I had to carry all the water we needed from the well.
It was a never ending battle. The dirt always won. Attics would collapse as dirt continued to pile up in them. In the Atlantic, crews were finding layers of dirt on the ship. Animals were also being affected. Cattle were suffocating, chickens and other farm animals would be buried in the dirt.And with nothing growing, they were starving. Water had become ‘scarce as hen’s teeth’.
Dust storm approaching Spearman April 14, 1935 Courtesy Wikipedia
On April 14, 1935, a black blizzard wreaked havoc throughout much of the western states. This time the storm caused the bright afternoon to turn into an artificial night. A person would be lucky to see their hand in front of their face. Aviator Laura Ingalls, who had set out to break Amelia Earhart’s transcontinental flying record, was caught in the storm.
It was the most appalling thing I ever saw in all my years of flying…I was 22, 000 feet and it still was above me. I must have flown as far as Wichita, Kansas, in that haze. I had fears it was ruining my motor. Then I headed back. My radio went out and I just was out of touch with everything, isolated in a blanket of dust that spread in every direction.
This storm caused the skies of many East Coast cities to darken as dust blocked out the sun. For those witnessing the storm firsthand, it seemed as if the end of the world had come. In Salina, Kansas, a man was caught outside in the storm when the storm came through. It killed him. Parents, never knowing when a storm would blow up, feared sending their children to school. In Hays, Kansas, a child was leaving school and headed home when a storm took his life. These storm also created static electricity. The electricity interfered with radios, burnt up what little crops there were, shorted cars out or stalled them.
Another problem was jackrabbits. They were rapidly multiplying and causing farmers headaches. Rabbit drives were invented to battle the culprits. Instead of using firearms, which resulted with injuries to many of the ‘drivers’, rabbits were clubbed to death. Many of these rabbits could be used to feed hungry families. Despite all this the sufferers kept a good outlook on things, as evidenced in their humor.
A pilot flying over Amarillo got caught in a sand storm. His motor clogged; he took to his parachute. It took him six hours to shovel his way back to earth.
After sticking it out for so long some families pulled up stakes. Some moved the next county over, while others to a different State. The most popular State, it would seem, was California. Okies, as they were referred to regardless of where they came from, abandoned their farms in order to make a living elsewhere. The abandoned farms usually went back to the bank. Those who left for California usually intended to start their own farm there. Instead they found themselves working on greedy company’s farms for little pay. All hopes of owning their own farm were dashed.
The Okies were treated with contempt and disrespectfully. For awhile policemen would turn migrants away at the California border. Okies who refused to comply found themselves in jail. With no job and no money, the Okies were simply not welcomed. Those who did make it into California formed ditch camps. These camps were awful places to live, where sickness ran rampant. However, survivors that they were, they made do.
The government began setting up housing and camps for the Okies. If they were unable to find a job to pay rent on their houses they could do jobs around the camps to make up for it. In Matanuska Valley, Alaska, farmers were in demand, but none were available. In an experiment, some Dust Bowl families were brought to the area. While they did produce bountiful crops, the going was hard. Many abandoned the challenge.
Buried machinery in barn lot in Dallas, South Dakota Courtesy Wikipedia
To combat the Dust Bowl, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was passed. With it came the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. The AAA paid farmers not to plant a certain amount of crops. They also bought up starving cattle. The government then slaughtered the cattle and fed starving families. But the AAA had a serious downfall. If too much was planted, that crop would have to be destroyed. When news of this leaked out Americans were enraged. This was only one of many complaints. In 1936 the Supreme Court declared the AAA unconstitutional.
The government continued to search for a solution to the Dust Bowl. After much research and experiments contour farming was found to be a better alternative than what farmers had been using. Efforts in irrigation were also made, although it proved too expensive for cash-strapped farmers to go through with. To guard against winds and dust storms rows of trees were planted. These were referred to as shelterbelts. Grass was replanted by the government to replenish the soil and hold the moisture in the ground.
It was a long time coming for many, but while the drought continued, the dust storms had largely diminished by ’37. In 1939 the Dust Bowl had official ended. This was indeed trying times to be living in, but those who lived through that era had the grit to stay alive and endure. They did what was needed to be done. They would need that determination and courage to get through the coming storm. World War II.
About The Dust Bowl
For eight years dust blew on the southern plains. It came in a yellowish-brown haze from the South and in rolling walls of black from the North. The simplest acts of life breathing, eating a meal, taking a walk were no longer simple. Children wore dust masks to and from school, women hung wet sheets over windows in a futile attempt to stop the dirt, farmers watched helplessly as their crops blew away. [source]
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s lasted about a decade. Its primary area of impact was on the southern Plains. The northern Plains were not so badly effected, but nonetheless, the drought, windblown dust and agricultural decline were no strangers to the north. In fact the agricultural devastation helped to lengthen the Depression whose effects were felt worldwide. The movement of people on the Plains was also profound.
As John Steinbeck wrote in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath: "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."
Poor agricultural practices and years of sustained drought caused the Dust Bowl. Plains grasslands had been deeply plowed and planted to wheat. During the years when there was adequate rainfall, the land produced bountiful crops. But as the droughts of the early 1930s deepened, the farmers kept plowing and planting and nothing would grow. The ground cover that held the soil in place was gone. The Plains winds whipped across the fields raising billowing clouds of dust to the skys. The skys could darken for days, and even the most well sealed homes could have a thick layer of dust on furniture. In some places the dust would drift like snow, covering farmsteads.
Timeline of The Dust Bowl
Severe drought hits the midwestern and southern plains. As the crops die, the 'black blizzards" begin. Dust from the over-plowed and over-grazed land begins to blow.
The number of dust storms is increasing. Fourteen are reported this year; next year there will be 38.
March: When Franklin Roosevelt takes office, the country is in desperate straits. He took quick steps to declare a four-day bank holiday, during which time Congress came up with the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which stabilized the banking industry and restored people's faith in the banking system by putting the federal government behind it.
May: The Emergency Farm Mortgage Act allots $200 million for refinancing mortgages to help farmers facing foreclosure. The Farm Credit Act of 1933 established a local bank and set up local credit associations.
September: Over 6 million young pigs are slaughtered to stabilize prices With most of the meat going to waste, public outcry led to the creation, in October, of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. 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 eventually included to clothe the needy as well.
October: In California's San Joaquin Valley, where many farmers fleeing the plains have gone, seeking migrant farm work, the largest agricultural strike in America's history begins. More than 18,000 cotton workers with the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) went on strike for 24 days. During the strike, two men and one woman were killed and hundreds injured. In the settlement, the union was recognized by growers, and workers were given a 25 percent raise.
May: Great dust storms spread from the Dust Bowl area. The drought is the worst ever in U.S. history, covering more than 75 percent of the country and affecting 27 states severely.
June: The Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act is approved. This act restricted the ability of banks to dispossess farmers in times of distress. Originally effective until 1938, the act was renewed four times until 1947, when it expired. Roosevelt signs the Taylor Grazing Act, which allows him to take up to 140 million acres of federally-owned land out of the public domain and establish grazing districts that will be carefully monitored. One of many New Deal efforts to reverse the damage done to the land by overuse, the program was able to arrest the deterioration, but couldn't undo the historical damage.
December: The "Yearbook of Agriculture" for 1934 announces, "Approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land have essentially been destroyed for crop production. . . . 100 million acres now in crops have lost all or most of the topsoil; 125 million acres of land now in crops are rapidly losing topsoil. . . "
January 15: The federal government forms a Drought Relief Service to coordinate relief activities. The DRS bought cattle in counties that were designated emergency areas, for $14 to $20 a head. Those unfit for human consumption - more than 50 percent at the beginning of the program - were destroyed. The remaining cattle were given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation 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 God-send 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."
April 8: FDR approves the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which provides $525 million for drought relief, and authorizes creation of the Works Progress Administration, which would employ 8.5 million people.
April 14: Black Sunday. The worst "black blizzard" of the Dust Bowl occurs, causing extensive damage.
April 27: Congress declares soil erosion "a national menace" in an act establishing the Soil Conservation Service in the Department of Agriculture (formerly the Soil Erosion Service in the U.S. Department of Interior). Under the direction of Hugh H. Bennett, the SCS developed extensive conservation programs that retained topsoil and prevented irreparable damage to the land. Farming techniques such as strip cropping, terracing, crop rotation, contour plowing, and cover crops were advocated. Farmers were paid to practice soil-conserving farming techniques.
December: At a meeting in Pueblo, Colorado, experts estimate that 850,000,000 tons of topsoil has blown off the Southern Plains during the course of the year, and that if the drought continued, the total area affected would increase from 4,350,000 acres to 5,350,000 acres in the spring of 1936. C.H. Wilson of the Resettlement Administration proposes buying up 2,250,000 acres and retiring it from cultivation.
February: Los Angeles Police Chief James E. Davis sends 125 policemen to patrol the borders of Arizona and Oregon to keep "undesirables" out. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union sues the city.
May: The SCS publishes a soil conservation district law, which, if passed by the states, allows farmers to set up their own districts to enforce soil conservation practices for five-year periods. One of the few grassroots organizations set up by the New Deal still in operation, the soil conservation district program recognized that new farming methods needed to be accepted and enforced by the farmers on the land rather than bureaucrats in Washington.
March: Roosevelt addresses the nation in his second inaugural address, stating, "I see one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished . . . the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." FDR's Shelterbelt Project begins. The project called for large-scale planting of trees across the Great Plains, stretching in a 100-mile wide zone from Canada to northern Texas, to protect the land from erosion. Native trees, such as red cedar and green ash, were planted along fence rows separating properties, and farmers were paid to plant and cultivate them. The project was estimated to cost 75 million dollars over a period of 12 years. When disputes arose over funding sources (the project was considered to be a long-term strategy, and therefore ineligible for emergency relief funds), FDR transferred the program to the WPA, where the project had limited success.
The extensive work re-plowing the land into furrows, planting trees in shelterbelts, and other conservation methods has resulted in a 65 percent reduction in the amount of soil blowing. However, the drought continued.
In the fall, the rain comes, finally bringing an end to the drought. During the next few years, with the coming of World War II, the country is pulled out of the Depression and the plains once again become golden with wheat.
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