Eighteen-year-old mother from Oklahoma, now a California migrant.
Credit: Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of Library of Congress.
On the fourteenth day of April of nineteen thirty five, There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky: You could see that dust storm coming, the cloud looked deathlike black, And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track... This storm took place at sundown and lasted through the night, When we looked out this morning we saw a terrible sight: We saw outside our windows where wheat fields they had grown Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown. It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns, It covered up our tractors in this wild and windy storm. We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in, We rattled down the highway to never come back again.
— Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) From "Dust Storm Disaster"
The ballads of Woody Guthrie, the novels of John Steinbeck and the WPA photographs of artists such as Dorothea Lange have embedded images of the Dust Bowl in the American consciousness. Introduce this dramatic era in our nation's history to today's students through photographs, songs and interviews with people who lived through the Dust Bowl. Help your students understand the problems Americans were facing during the Great Depression.
The Dust Bowl, or the Dirty Thirties, was a period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to American and Canadianprairie lands in the 1930s, particularly in 1934 and 1936. The phenomenon was caused by severe drought combined with farming methods that did not include crop rotation, fallow fields, cover crops, soil terracing and wind-breaking trees to prevent wind erosion. Extensive deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains in the preceding decade had displaced the natural deep-rooted grasses that normally kept the soil in place and trapped moisture even during periods of drought and high winds. Rapid mechanization of farm implements, especially small gasoline tractors and widespread use of the harvester-combine were significant in the decisions to convert grassland (much of which received no more than 10 inches (250 mm) of precipitation per year) to cultivated cropland.
During the drought of the 1930s, without natural anchors to keep the soil in place, it dried, turned to dust, and blew away with the prevailing winds. At times, the clouds blackened the sky, reaching all the way to East Coast cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. Much of the soil ended up deposited in the Atlantic Ocean, carried by prevailing winds. These immense dust storms—given names such as "black blizzards" and "black rollers"—often reduced visibility to a few feet (a meter) or less. The Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres (400,000 km2), centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.
Millions of acres of farmland were damaged, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes; many of these families (often known as "Okies", since so many came from Oklahoma) migrated to California and other states, where they found economic conditions little better during the Great Depression than those they had left. Owning no land, many became migrant workers who traveled from farm to farm to pick fruit and other crops at starvation wages. Author John Steinbeck later wrote The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Of Mice and Men, about such people.
The role of The Dust Bowl in the history of the United States of America.
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.
— John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath, 1939
A promised land
When pioneers began to migrate across the country in the middle of the 19th century, they were in search of ideal farmland. What they saw, in the vast expanse of prairie in the Midwest, was a promised land. The grass that covered the plains stood six feet high and stretched all the way from Canada south to Texas. Homesteaders flocked to the grasslands, certain that they had found the richest soil in the world and the ideal place to settle down. Men began to clear the land — using the endless prairie to grow wheat, and the trees to build houses, barns and outbuildings.
What was unknown to these early pioneers was that the grass and trees of the plains essentially nourished and held the soil in place with their tough roots. When they were gone, the moisture that would have gone to the roots ran off into creeks, streams and rivers — basically carrying the land with it. The scene was set for the Dust Bowl.
In 1930, there was no better place to be a farmer than in the Southern Plains, where men and women had turned untamed prairie into one of the most prosperous regions in the whole country. The rest of the nation was struggling with the initial effects of the Great Depression, but in wheat country, farmers were reaping a record-breaking crop.
With the onset of World War I, the demand for wheat had been astonishing. Farmers were paid record prices. Thus, to the farmer, it made sense to turn every inch of the Southern Plains into profit. During the war, the land produced millions and millions of bushels of wheat and corn, which helped to feed America as well as numerous nations overseas.
The farming practices that made the plains so productive were beginning to take a toll on the land. The grasslands had been deeply plowed and planted. During the years when there was adequate rainfall, the land produced bountiful crops. However, as a drought that started in the early 1930s persisted, the farmers kept plowing and planting with increasingly dismal results.
In 1930 and early 1931, the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles were known as the most prosperous regions in the nation. For plains farmers, the decade opened with prosperity and growth. But in the summer of 1931, those farmers would face the most difficult eight years of their lives.... The rain simply stopped.
Cause and effect
It had taken a thousand years for Nature to build an inch of topsoil on the Southern Plains, but it took only minutes for one good blow to sweep it all away. The water level of lakes dropped by five feet or more. The wind picked up the dry soil that had nothing to hold it down. Great black clouds of dust began to blot out the sun. In some places, the dust drifted like snow, darkening the sky for days, covering even well-sealed homes with a thick layer of dust on everything. Dust storms engulfed entire towns.
The primary impact area of the Dust Bowl, as it came to be known, was on the Southern Plains. The Northern Plains weren`t so badly affected, but the drought, dust, and agricultural decline were felt there as well. The agricultural devastation helped to lengthen the Great Depression, whose effects were felt worldwide.
One hundred million acres of the Southern Plains were turning into a wasteland of the Dust Bowl. Large sections of five states were affected — Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
In 1932, the national weather bureau reported 14 dust storms. The next year, they were up to 38. The dust was so thick that people scooped up bucketsful while cleaning house. Dust blocked exterior doors; to get outside, people had to climb out their windows and shovel the dust away. Dust coated everything.
Nevertheless, farmers kept on plowing, hopeful that the rains would return in a matter of days, or perhaps months. In the spring of 1934, the massive drought impacted 27 states severely and affected more than 75 percent of the country. The Dust Bowl was result of the worst drought in U.S. history.
A meager existence
Families survived on cornbread, beans, and milk. People were beginning to give up hope, and a mass exodus — the largest migration in American history — ensued from the plains. Many families packed their belongings, piled them on their cars and moved westward, fleeing the dust and desert of the Midwest for Washington, Oregon and California. They were willing to work for any wage at all, planting and harvesting other people`s lands.
When those families reached the borders of those western states, they were not well received — too many people already there were out of work. Many California farms were corporate owned, meaning they were larger and more modernized than what the farmers were used to. Families often lived in tar-paper shacks with no floor or plumbing. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Dust Bowl states toward thePacific states.
In the fall of 1934, with cattle feed depleted, the government began to buy and destroy thousands of starving livestock. Of all the government programs during that time, the cattle slaughter was the most wrenching for farmers. Although it was difficult for farmers to give up their herds, the cattle slaughter helped many of them avoid bankruptcy.
In the spring of 1935, the wind blew 27 days and nights without stopping. People and animals began to die of suffocation and "dust pneumonia."
The government began to offer relief to farmers through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt believed it was the federal government`s duty to help the American people get through the bad times like the Dust Bowl. During the first three months of his presidency, a steady stream of bills were passed to relieve poverty, reduce unemployment and speed economic recovery. While these experimental programs did not end the Depression, the New Deal helped the American people immeasurably by taking care of their basic needs and giving them the dignity of work, and hope during trying times.
Hugh Hammond Bennett, who came to be known as "the father of soil conservation," had been leading a campaign to reform farming practices well before Roosevelt became president. Bennett called for "...a tremendous national awakening to the need for action in bettering our agricultural practices." He urged a new approach to farming in order to avoid similar catastrophes.
In April 1935, Bennett was on his way to testify before a Congressional committee about his soil conservation campaign when he learned of a dust storm blowing into the capitol from the western plains. At last, he believed that he would have tangible evidence of the results of bad farming practices. As the dust settled over Washington and blotted out the midday sun, Bennett exclaimed, "This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about." Congress responded by passing the Soil Conservation Act of 1935. In addition, the Roosevelt administration put its full weight and authority behind the improvement of farming techniques to prevent a recurrence of the Dust Bowl.
President Roosevelt ordered that the Civilian Conservation Corps plant a huge belt of more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene, Texas, to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place. The administration also began to educate farmers on soil conservation and anti-erosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing and other beneficial farming practices.
In 1937, the federal government began an aggressive campaign to encourage Dust Bowlers to adopt planting and plowing methods that conserve the soil. The government paid the reluctant farmers a dollar an acre to practice one of the new methods. By 1938, the massive conservation effort had reduced the amount of blowing soil by 65 percent. Nevertheless, the land failed to yield a decent living.
In the fall of 1939, after nearly a decade of dirt and dust, the skies finally opened. With the rain`s return, dry fields soon yielded their golden wheat once more, and just as quickly as it had begun, the Dust Bowl was, thankfully, over.
How have you been? I miss you guys. Tell everyone I said hello and love you all. Living down here in the Great Plains, have been struggle for a while now down. We have been suffering from these major dust storms. No one would have thought about those storms occurring. Especially farmers they were using poor farming methods that caused the dust storms. Drought conditions also stirred up dust storms. The storms blocked out the sun so it caused a drought. These dust storms killed many livestock, covered homes and crops full of dust. I have been trying to sweep out all the dust out of my house for the last week know.
It got ever where my windows were busted my shoes were filled with dust and my clothes and pots and pans was covered full of dust. I am scared to send my children off to school because no one knows when a dust storm may hit. I definitely don’t want them trying to beat the storm on there way home. If someone get caught in a dust storm they are lucky if they survive. Women around the area started coming up with ways to block out the dust from the home. One way we tried to stop the dust was by putting wet cloth on the windows. We knew where the dust was coming from by the color of the dust. If it was yellowish brown haze color then it came from the South. If it was black then it came from the North.
These dust storms lasted for days. I send my kids to school with dust mask on their face because the dust storms were so random. I wish it would just blow over so we can go back living our lives, not in fear but freedom to go outside and see the sun, free to be out all day without trying to beat the storm. Sometimes we don’t even eat because the dust got all over the food, and the farmers can’t produce any more crops because of these storms. These storms are not the only thing happening around here. Have you heard about the stock market? All those people investing in it, borrowing money from the bank they know they don’t have to pay back. Next thing you know it crashes. People started to try to sell their stock because they didn’t have enough confidence in the market. A major drop in prices caused investors to sell. These selling’s caused panics and wiped out fortunes. Commercial banks began to fail, the banking system collapse, business fail, causing unemployment to rise, causing the public to be unable to buy goods.
Those things lead too more business failing and more unemployment. Businesses had to start cutting the production in order to maintain price levels. Unemployment is so high down here mom there is this place called the Hoovervilles. Hoovervilles were made up with shift shantytowns made from tents or shacks. The unemployment rose from a 3.7% to a 24.9%. Were still lucky that my husband still have his job. Even though we faced wage cuts we still figured out a way to eat and keep our home. Most people down here have to wait to in breadlines to avoid starvation. People started jumping trains and “riding the rails” to search for jobs, food, and hope. Children that were old enough to take care of themselves were forced to do so. They had to go find their own food and jobs. Farmer’s income got worse because the slowing of food sales. People could no longer afford food. In four years almost 1 million farmers lost their farms due to failure to pay their mortgage. Most of their houses, tractors, and other equipment were repossessed to pay off debt. Farmers didn’t know the way they were farming could cause those horrible storms. They thought all is well, but they didn’t know they were damaging the soil in the ground. We moved west because the storms and the depression.
People called us Okies. Several families moved to the west packing all their belongings in cars and trucks. Most people lived out their cars for years. We went into competition with Mexican Americans for jobs. Even thought they faced discrimination in the hunt for jobs it was still hard seeking jobs. Many people pushed for repatriation of Mexican Americans, those involved government organizations. I kind of feel sorry for those people because what if we needed to go to their country you would want them to treat us like that. I would try to help them out, as long as they return the favor. I am happy that we got to move away from them dust storms. Now we can live and stay healthy. Well mom I have to go now. I miss and love you guys, see you soon.
In the 1930s, drought covered virtually the entire Plains for almost a decade (Warrick, 1980). The drought’s direct effect is most often remembered as agricultural. Many crops were damaged by deficient rainfall, high temperatures, and high winds, as well as insect infestations and dust storms that accompanied these conditions. The resulting agricultural depression contributed to the Great Depression’s bank closures, business losses, increased unemployment, and other physical and emotional hardships. Although records focus on other problems, the lack of precipitation would also have affected wildlife and plant life, and would have created water shortages for domestic needs.
A dust storm approaching Rolla, Kansas, May 6, 1935. (Image: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Digital Archives)
Although the 1930s drought is often referred to as if it were one episode, there were at least 4 distinct drought events: 1930–31, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40 (Riebsame et al., 1991). These events occurred in such rapid succession that affected regions were not able to recover adequately before another drought began. Historical maps of U.S. climate divisions and graphs of U.S. river basinsreflect this situation.
Effects of the Plains drought sent economic and social ripples throughout the country. For example, millions of people migrated from the drought areas, often heading west, in search of work. These newcomers were often in direct competition for jobs with longer-established residents, which created conflict between the groups. In addition, because of poverty and high unemployment, migrants added to local relief efforts, sometimes overburdening relief and health agencies.
Many circumstances exacerbated the effects of the drought, among them the Great Depression and economic overexpansion before the drought, poor land management practices, and the areal extent and duration of the drought. (Warrick et al., 1975, and Hurt, 1981, discuss these issues in greater detail; see the reference section for the full citations.) The peculiar combination of these circumstances and the severity and areal coverage of the event played a part in making the 1930s drought the widely accepted drought of record for the United States. To cope with and recover from the drought, people relied on ingenuity and resilience, as well as relief programs from state and federal governments. Despite all efforts, many people were not able to make a living in drought-stricken regions and were forced to migrate to other areas in search of a new livelihood. It is not possible to count all the costs associated with the 1930s drought, but one estimate by Warrick et al. (1980) claims that financial assistance from the government may have been as high as $1 billion (in 1930s dollars) by the end of the drought. Fortunately, the lessons learned from this drought were used to reduce the vulnerability of the regions to future droughts.
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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