The Dust Bowl, or the term the “dirty thirties,” was used to describe the environmental catastrophe that struck a wide swath of landscape in the southern and midwestern Plains during the Great Depression, extending from southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas to the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. Though the storms associated with the Dust Bowl may have originated in this region, their effects could be felt across the country and, indeed, around the world. The Great Depression witnessed the convergence of several unfortunate circumstances in a fairly short amount of time—from the Wall Street crash of 1929 and resulting bank failures to a general decline in economic prosperity—but the effects of the Dust Bowl storms may have had a more profound effect on the lives of ordinary people than any other aspect of the Depression. On a given day in the mid-1930s, people were inundated by clouds of dust large enough to block out the sun. In 1934, one of the worst such storms removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil and blew it all the way to Chicago, then continued east, blowing through Buffalo, Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
The devastation of farmland that had helped create the dust clouds resulted in the migration of millions of people from their homes to new places around the country in search of work. The causes of the Dust Bowl conditions are easy enough to diagnose, and in some ways extraordinarily simple: crops failed when the soil did not receive enough water, and in the early part of the 1930s many of the states of the Midwest and Great Plains suffered through a prolonged drought that seriously limited agricultural production. The most obvious effect of the lack of rainfall was that production of staple crops like corn and wheat dropped off precipitously, but the problems certainly did not end there. Livestock and other animals that depended on various forms of vegetation for their own sustenance suffered as well, in turn the production of goods such as eggs, milk, and meat declined. Still, the drought alone was not enough to lead to the Dust Bowl conditions. Many agricultural areas had suffered through prolonged droughts before and since the 1930s. What was it that made this drought so particularly severe?
The Dust Bowl phenomenon was largely a man-made disaster. It is true enough that the drought caused many crops to fail, but what ultimately led to the creation of enormous dust clouds was the adaptation of inappropriate vegetation to the Great Plains coupled with farming practices which caused severe soil erosion to occur. In the first place, farmers brought a number of crops with them that were accustomed to receiving more moisture. Many states in the eastern United States average between 40 and 50 inches of rainfall per year, including Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia. But the states of the Midwest and Great Plains are accustomed to receiving much less annual rainfall—in Texas and Oklahoma, for example, only around 30 inches per year, and Kansas and Nebraska receive even less rain than that. In Colorado, where some of the dust storms originated, average annual rainfall barely exceeds 14 inches. Certainly some natural vegetation can thrive in these conditions, and so too could some crops transplanted from other places. But when conditions became even more dry than usual in the early 1930s the stage was set for disaster. Annual rainfall hit an all-time low in Nebraska in 1934, for example, with only a bit more than 14 inches falling across the state. Crops accustomed to receiving much more water than that simply could not grow. As they dried up they literally blew away, along with layers of topsoil stripped away by farmers’ plows.
As such, overeager farmers also bore some of the blame for the disaster. When they moved to the Plains, many farmers established government-granted homesteads and immediately went to work plowing up the natural vegetation that already existed on the land they occupied, including tall grasses that had helped prevent erosion. One of the directives of the Homestead Act of 1862 stated that homesteaders could not occupy more than 160 acres of land and that a portion of each homestead must be plowed; as a result, farmers unwittingly over-plowed and over-cultivated the land they inhabited. This was one conclusion of the Report of the Great Plains Area Drought Committee in 1936, which was written by a panel of experts from various New Deal agencies and other government entities commissioned by Congress to determine the cause of the dust storms. Most farmers were unaware of the potential consequences of the farming techniques they used, but they discovered them quickly enough when rain stopped falling and the ensuing dry conditions—buffeted by typical cross-continental winds that carry weather fronts from west to east—created the ominous dust clouds.
Besides the use of unproductive farming techniques, the Drought Committee also pointed to overproduction that had been encouraged during World War I and the onset of the drought itself; the committee concluded that the great migration to the Plains, occasioned by the passage of the Homestead Act, had occurred during an unusually wet period, which left farmers with the mistaken impression that the crops they brought from the east would thrive in the Midwest. Most of all, the committee pointed to the adaptation of crops and farming techniques from more humid climes to the semi-arid climate of the Great Plains as the most significant cause of the storms, and they encouraged Congress to take bold steps to prevent such problems from occurring again in the future.
Dust from over-plowed land first began to blow over drought-stricken areas in 1931 and the effects were almost immediate. By the time President Franklin Roosevelt took office in March of 1933 the country was already besieged by several different crises; the dust storms were among them. The government took controversial steps to address the drought as well. In May of 1933, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, or AAA. By May of 1934 the crisis deepened. Dust storms spread outside of the Great Plains region and by that summer, three-quarters of the country was affected by the drought. In June, Congress passed the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act in an effort to prevent banks from evicting farmers from their land in times of distress. The law was meant to serve as a temporary stop-gap in the effort to protect farmers during the drought and carried an original expiration date of 1938, but it was eventually renewed several times through 1947. President Roosevelt also signed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, which authorized him to remove federal land from the public domain and turn it into federally protected—and federally monitored—grazing land, with the goal of reversing some of the years of soil mismanagement that had contributed to the drought conditions. By the end of the year, the federal government estimated that over 200 million acres of farmland on the Plains had either already lost all topsoil or were losing it rapidly. Furthermore, they estimated that approximately 35 million acres of farmland had already been irrevocably destroyed.
In 1935, the federal government formed a Drought Relief Service to coordinate relief activities and resumed a program of purchasing livestock from farmers in designated emergency areas at above-market prices. Many farm families benefited from the help provided by the Drought Relief Service, as did families throughout the United States. But despite the federal government’s proactive efforts to remove the country from the grip of the crisis, recovery would be a long and slow process.
On April 14, 1935, the plains of Kansas and Colorado were struck by the worst dust storm to date; a storm that became known as the “Black Blizzard.” Residents of these areas were greeted by beautiful blue skies on that Sunday morning and many decided to take advantage of the weather to work or play outdoors. Before long, however, conditions began to change as the temperature dropped as much as 50 degrees in some areas. People noticed an ominous black cloud on the horizon, which descended on various small towns throughout the Plains region, literally turning day to night. People driving in their cars were forced to pull over and wait out the storms rather than attempt to drive with zero visibility. It was estimated that previous dust storms sweeping the Plains had already picked up and moved more earth than had been dug to build the Panama Canal, and it was this black dirt that settled along the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean, and as far north as Canada, even before “Black Sunday” hit. But even residents accustomed to occasional dusters were not prepared for what hit them on Black Sunday. People described being stuck on picnics and being inundated by black dust, in situations where they could not even see their hands held out in front of their faces. Others described walking, or even crawling home in the blackness caused by the storm, fearful that they would never make it. In the aftermath of the storm families were forced to wet bed sheets and hang them over windows in an effort to keep as much dust out of their homes as possible, and people routinely held wet cloths over their faces just so they could breathe. Classes were cancelled in schools, much as they might be for snowstorms, and in fact the dust piled up like snowdrifts in many places. Chickens were known to roost in the middle of the day because the dust clouds made them think night had fallen. Residents reported cases of “dust pneumonia” long after storms had passed and suffered major health problems as a result. Many were convinced that the world was coming to an end.
In the wake of the huge Black Blizzard, Congress declared soil erosion a “national menace,” spurred by the arrival of the great cloud that had originated across the Great Plains on April 14 and swept into Washington, D.C. toward the end of the month. The depth and breadth of the environmental catastrophe known as the “Dust Bowl” by now was firmly established in the minds of many Americans—but the human toll was still untold.
Despite the best efforts of the federal government to mitigate the effects of the disaster, many people found themselves left with almost nothing as a result of the drought. Some had suffered foreclosure as banks attempted to limit their financial losses and simply evicted farmers from their land. Others recognized that everything they possessed had blown away: gone with the wind. With no land left to cultivate, many farm families simply gathered what they had and started walking west. These were descendents of the great pioneer families who had helped turn the Great Plains into the nation’s “breadbasket,” but there was simply no way they could remain on the land their own parents and grandparents had inhabited. In the end, almost one quarter of the population of the nation’s midsection participated in the mass exodus—estimated by some to be the largest migration of people in the nation’s history—and many of them had only one destination in mind: sunny California.
Some 2-½ million people had moved out of the Great Plains and Midwestern states by 1940, with about 1/10th settling in California. But many of those who attempted to go to the Golden State were not welcome. Derisively referred to as “Okies” and “Arkies,” or worse, they were literally met at the border of California by state troopers in many cases, and told in no uncertain terms to simply turn around and go someplace else. California had advertised itself as a land-of-plenty before the Depression began and even encouraged migrant workers to settle there, but times had changed. In 1936 the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, James Davis, sent a posse of deputies to patrol California’s border with neighboring states and turn back any and all migrants. As other states complained that California was trying to dump undesirables on them, Davis was vilified in the national press for attempting to prevent the free movement of American citizens across state lines and eventually had to remove his officers from the border when it was discovered that the city of Los Angeles was paying for them to be there.
When they did arrive in California, those who were lucky enough to find work discovered that many farms in the state were incorporated—instead of being owned by individuals, they were run as large businesses and workers were expected to simply fill in as interchangeable parts in a larger business scheme. Much of the work done on these factory farms had been given to immigrants from Mexico and other places before the Depression and much of it would return to their hands after the Depression passed, but in the meantime the plight of white American workers captured the attention of the nation, particularly in the east. The songwriter Woody Guthrie penned famous songs such as “The Great Dust Storm,” while Pare Lorentz’s landmark documentary film The Plow That Broke the Plains was filmed for the government.
Novelist John Steinbeck, a native of California’s Salinas Valley, spent some time in the labor camps inhabited by migrant Okies in the early 1930s and published his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, to widespread commercial and critical acclaim in 1939, though it also stirred a great deal of controversy as well. The novel told the story of the itinerant Joad family and their decision to leave the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma behind in search of a better life in the farms and orchards of California, led by the protagonist Tom Joad. But in the novel the Joads quickly discover that no such good life exists; along their way to California, they encounter countless other families in pursuit of the same dream. When they arrive, the Joads find that their only hope for sustenance lies in camps created by the federal government and operated by the Resettlement Agency, but these camps are overcrowded and underfunded and the Joads, like many other families, are left at the mercy of corporate farmers. Discouraged by their plight, farm workers begin to band together into labor unions, with violent consequences. The novel ends with a controversial and extraordinarily powerful scene in which Tom Joad’s sister, Rose of Sharon, delivers a stillborn baby but breastfeeds a man to save him from starvation. Steinbeck’s novel was immediately denounced as communist propaganda by corporate farming interests in California and other parts of the country but it was also wildly popular, stirring visceral reaction around the United States and throughout the world. The novel was made into a major motion picture in 1940 and Steinbeck eventually received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, with The Grapes of Wrath cited as one of the great works of modern literature.
The stories of migrant workers, captured and retold by the likes of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, reflect the larger collective experience of people displaced by the Dust Bowl, but the stories of individual Americans affected by the catastrophe could be told practically without end. Many who survived the long journey to California clung doggedly to the only thing they had to trade in exchange for food and shelter—their own ability to work—but many recall being exploited by landowners who took advantage of the large population of migrant workers to drive down the cost of labor.
While a distant memory that some wanted to forget, in many respects the Dust Bowl catastrophe also brought about advances in soil conservation, the invention of the chisel plow, and a plethora of scientific knowledge about wind erosion and containment. Although there would be more dust storms in the 1950s and 1970s, nothing compared to the calamitous dirty thirties. Because the Dust Bowl experience happened in the 20th century, many people who survived that era are still telling their stories.
See also Federal Emergency Relief Administration; The Grapes of Wrath; Guthrie, Woodrow Wilson; Hobos; Homelessness; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Okies; Steinbeck, John.
Dust Bowl Migration Digital Archives at California State University, Bakersfield. http://www.csub.edu/library/special/dustbowl/dust bowl.shtml. Accessed September 14, 2009
The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. http://www.feri.org. Accessed September 14, 2009
U.S. Department of Agriculture Wind Erosion Research Unit at Kansas State University. http://www.weru.ksu.edu/new_weru/. Accessed September 14, 2009
Wessel’s Living History Farm in York, Nebraska. http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/index.html. Accessed September 14, 2009
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