The Great Dustbowl
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The Great American Dust Bowl

1931 couldn't have been a worse year for farmers living in the Great Plains states; that is unless you count the years 1933, 1934, and 1935. In the middle of the Great Depression, a natural disaster arose so strange and devastating that, at first, the National Weather Service had a hard time explaining it. Of course, nobody had a name for something that had never occurred before. Soon, the words 'Dusters' and 'Dust Bowl' were applied to the 60 MPH storms of dirt that would sweep in without warning, blackening the skies and burying everything in its path in a thick layer of soil. 

 

Between 1931 and 1936, nearly 75 storms struck  the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, Kansas, and surrounding Great Plains states.  By the time it was done, at least 100 million acres of fertile topsoil had been blown away. 

Americans living outside of the 'Dust Bowl' states read about them with morbid fascination, but nothing short of first-hand experience could prepare you for just how strange this environmental disaster was. That is, until the winter of 1934. Bostonians looked up to the see the sky pouring down red snow. The red clay soil of the Great Plains had become so concentrated in the atmosphere that it was coming back down in the form of weather. 

In that same year, Chicago got dumped with 12 million pounds of dust. Dust even reportedly covered the desk of President Franklin D. Roosevelt-- 1,000 miles away in Washington D.C. 

The Homestead Act of 1862

So, what could cause such a natural disaster of epic proportions, you ask? You might be surprised to learn that the Dust Bowl was a man-made natural disaster- or least people played a big role in bringing it about. To find out the causes, we have to jump into the "Way Back Machine" and set the dial for 1862. It was in that year that the federal government, in an effort to "tame the wild west" began giving away land that had been conquered from the Native American tribes. Tens of thousands of Americans began pouring into a land that only a few decades earlier had been dubbed "the Great American Desert". 

During the days of the Oregon Trail (1830s-50s) the Great Plains, with its lack of trees and reliable rainfall, was seen as an obstacle to cross, not a place to set down roots. The land was only "fit for Indians", that is, until someone discovered that new technology meant that the place wasn't really all that bad for farming after all. 

The government's plan was to entice settlers to leave their crowded east coast homes and move west by offering them free land- 160 acres to be exact. All you had to do in return was to promise to farm the land. For thousands of Americans, the Homestead Act of 1862 was a bargain that you just couldn't refuse.

The Great American Dust Bowl



1931 couldn't have been a worse year for farmers living in the Great Plains states; that is unless you count the years 1933, 1934, and 1935. In the middle of the Great Depression, a natural disaster arose so strange and devastating that, at first, the National Weather Service had a hard time explaining it. Of course, nobody had a name for something that had never occurred before. Soon, the words 'Dusters' and 'Dust Bowl' were applied to the 60 MPH storms of dirt that would sweep in without warning, blackening the skies and burying everything in its path in a thick layer of soil.



Between 1931 and 1936, nearly 75 storms struck  the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, Kansas, and surrounding Great Plains states.  By the time it was done, at least 100 million acres of fertile topsoil had been blown away.

 

Americans living outside of the 'Dust Bowl' states read about them with morbid fascination, but nothing short of first-hand experience could prepare you for just how strange this environmental disaster was. That is, until the winter of 1934. Bostononians looked up to the see the sky pouring down red snow. The red clay soil of the Great Plains had become so concrentated in the atmosphere that it was coming back down in the form of weather.

 

In that same year, Chicago got dumped with 12 million pounds of dust. Dust even reportedly covered the desk of President Franklin D. Roosevelt-- 1,000 miles away in Washington D.C.



Ecological Mistakes



In the early 1900s modern technology mixed with agricultural stupidity. Farmers were trading in their horses and plows for modern tractors that could dig deeper and plow faster than any animal. The result was that even more acres of the the native short grasses that held the topsoil down could be easily torn from their roots. No one at the time saw this is as problem. In fact, many scientists of the day taught farmers that allowing native plants to grow in the fields after the harvest was harmful. (We know today that these plants prevent things like soil erosion.) And so, farmers continued to till the earth until it was ground into a fine dusty layer. This, they were told, was the sign of a healthy field.



Fast forward to the winter of 1931, which came in like a kitten-- warm & cuddly but with sharp hidden claws. In many places the December temperature hit record highs. The winter was so mild that year became known as the 'year without a winter'.  Then summer came around and everything went to hell.  Months without rain and temperatures reached 118 degrees in many parts of the country created crisis drought conditions throughout the Great Plains.

Despite what everyone predicted, the drought didn't pass the next year, or the year after that, or the next five years for that matter. For seven long years the Great Plains faced the worst drought in American history. To make matters worse, as a double-whammy the nation was in the middle of the worst economic disaster it had ever faced- The Great Depression was in full swing and jobs were scarce.

 

In 1932, there were fourteen more dusters or black blizzards. When a 'duster' came raging through, the sky would turn dark as night. Peoplewere forced to light  their oil lamps in the middle of the day. Many folks began carrying around masks and goggles to protect them from the flying sand. People covered their windows with wet sheets to trap the dust-- but it rarely did much good. Dust seemed to find its way into your home no matter what you did. Grit got into your clothes, your nose, your teeth and every other that people began calling dust pneumonia.

Prairies are made up of mostly grasses, sedges (grasslike plants), and other flowering plants called forbs

“...With the gales came the dust. Sometimes it was so thick that it completely hid the sun. Visibility ranged from nothing to fifty feet, the former when the eyes were filled with dirt which could not be avoided, even with goggles.”
Eyewitness to the Dust Bowl

The Big One Hits

 

But all of those dusters were just babies compared to the storm that hit on April 14, 1935 when a duster so massive hit, that it would go down in history as Black Sunday. That spring morning started off warm and bright. People headed home from church or to picnics when suddenly the temperature dropped by as much as fifty degrees.

 

Some reported seeing thousands of birds take to the sky as an omen of something bad to come. Then, out of nowhere, a huge cloud appeared on the horizon- a 1,000 foot high wall of dust. The sun was blotted out of the sky and people ran for cover. Some could not outrun the 70 MPH winds and tried to cover themselves as best they could, struggling to breathe the whole time. Entire houses were buried by sand and later were so damaged that they had to be demolished. Millions of acres of newly planted wheat were destroyed. When it was over, rabbits, birds, cattle, and people lay dead.



 

 

 

The Dust Bowl Makes for Great Literature

 

The dusters affected everyone living in Oklahoma and it's surrounding states (Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, and the Texas Panhandle). One group in particular was hardest hit: the farmers. Eighty-Nine million acres of farmland were wiped out during the Dust Bowl days. Thousands of farmers, who had borrowed heavily from the banks to plant their crops, lost everything. Their land was covered in a thick layer of worthless sand. Hundreds of people had to abandon their homes as the sand came pouring in. With no money to repay their loans they were forced into foreclosure.



 

Now, thousands of people were forced to abandon their homes and look for work elsewhere. By the time it was over 500,000 families would be left homeless. Many families packed up their stuff and decided to head to California.There was just one minor problem with this plan. The country was in the middle of its worst economic depression and there were no jobs in California (or anywhere else)

 

The effect of the Dust Bowl on American history was a story of hardship and misery. People had hard choices to make. Do you sell your farm, which was now worth less than you bought it for, or do you wait the storm out? The Great Depression saw land prices collapse across the nation. Some were too poor or too hopeful to leave their farms and waited it out. Many who stayed lost everything. One woman sold her car just to buy food. Others decided to hightail it out of the Dust Bowl and head to California, Montana, or the East Coast. These okies (named because most the migrants came from Oklahoma) found life just as hard in their new homes. Too poor to buy food, thousands of people lived in government refugee camps.

Have you ever heard of the novel Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck? That classic novel tells the tale of the struggle of one Dust Bowl family and their escape to California. Until that time, the government did little to help these okies find places to live or work. After the novel came out, programs were established to give aid to those displaced by the terrible dust storms that just didn't seem to quit.

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In many regions, over 75% of the topsoil was blown away by the end of the 1930s, but there was wide variation in the degree to which the land was degraded. Aside from the short-term economic consequences caused by erosion, there were severe long-term economic consequences of the Dust Bowl.
What's a Picture Worth?

The photo shows 32 year old widow Florence Thomson and her three children. The photo immediately raised awareness of the plight of the Okie migrants and forced Congress to act to provide relief for these displaced persons.

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