During my childhood, I learned there was actually no such time as the good ol’ days. The earliest and most repetitive stories and reminiscences about the past were recounted by my maternal grandfather. He often waxed nostalgic about the struggles the family suffered during the “Dirty Thirties” in South Dakota. The severe, persistant drought caused harsh difficulties in their efforts to make a living off the land. The Dust Bowl years were the epic times of grandpa’s prime years.
It might seem strange that I believe grandpa was waxing nostalgic about the bad ol’ days. But I had the distinct feeling that he somehow enjoyed knowing that grandma and himself managed to survive, against great odds. I had the impression that he considered the Dirty Thirties as a rite of passage, or an heroic journey. Indeed, the times were very hard. Only the most persistant folks were able to survive and not leave for greener pastures out West. There was a stoic, germanic mindset about the times.
Meantime, my paternal grandparents rarely talked about the Dust Bowl years. It’s not that they didn’t have some rough times. Grandpa and grandma J along with my aunt, uncles, and dad eked out a living in Nebraska. The family was able to work out a subsistance on rented farms. Also, grandma J was a school teacher during much of that time. I don’t remember either of them talking about the drought, only that they worked very hard on the small farms. They had to “make do” with little or nothing. However, their family had a more accepting, Swedish attitude about hard times.
There was no escape for anybody but the very wealthy. The worldwide Great Depression was underway. Most people were impoverished because of the monetary deflation that was caused by unregulated banking practices and the uncontrolled stock trading bubble that finally burst. As a result, the prices that farmers were able to charge for their crops dropped to unsustainable levels.
Just prior to the Great Depression, there was no better land for farming than in the Southern Great Plains. The prairie had been turned into one of the most prosperous regions in the nation. Then, while the rest of the United States began to struggle with the first effects of the economic crash, Midwestern wheat farmers were harvesting record-breaking crops.
The bonanza economy of the Great Plains had been set in motion by demand for wheat and grain due to the onset and aftermath of the Great War (WWI). The high demand caused record high market prices, so farmers wanted to turn every acre of soil into profit.
Despite warnings by experts and agronomists, farmers had displaced nearly all of the virgin, native prairie grasses. It was the deep rooted native vegetation that held the soil and moisture in place. When the grasses were ripped out, the moisture that would have been absorbed by the grasses’ roots had nowhere to go, but to run off into streams and rivers. The richest topsoil was carried away by this erosion.
During wet years, the generous crop cover masked the erosion problem. However, the first of the droughts of the early 1930s became chronic. Farmers plowed and planted in vain. The results were poor or nonexistant. In the summer of 1931, the rain suddenly and completely stopped. The beginnings of the first major man-made geological disaster had been set in place.
Where there were no crops, there was no ground cover at all. The lakes, ponds, and cropland were dried to powder consistency. The famous Great Plains winds that rarely subside carried away whatever moisture that exists. From time to time, very strong winds arrive on the plains. And that’s all that it took.
The topsoil that had taken several thousands of years to build up was lifted away in just a short time. The gusty winds simply whisked the powdery soil into the air. Gigantic black clouds of dust blotted out the sky for days at a time. As the winds subsided, the dust blizzards created drifts. Harmful, blinding dust storms engulfed entire towns and cities. Even the best sealed buildings and houses had thick layers of dust on everything inside.
The hardest hit area of the “Dust Bowl” was the Southern Plains. Initially, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas suffered the brunt of the effects. Over 100,000,000 acres had become a wasteland. The agricultural demise was felt everywhere in the United States and abroad. The massive crop failures served to worsen and lengthen the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, the Northern Plains didn’t escape the disaster. Nebraska, much of South Dakota, along with parts of North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana endured nearly impossible situations, too. The National Weather Bureau, in 1932, officially reported 14 major dust events. In 1933, the number had climbed to 38. Regardless, the farmers still plowed in hopes that rains would shortly return.
All the while, people subsisted on beans, cornbread, and milk. It was impossible to make a living in the Great Plains. This gave rise to the largest American migration in modern history. Families packed what they could onto their cars and moved to the West Coast. They had dreams of planting and harvesting other people’s farms. But when they arrived at the borders of California, Oregon, and Washington, they were not welcomed. Already, California’s farms were largely corporatized and modernized. There was no labor market for the new refugees to be absorbed into.
On May 11, 1934, A massive dust storm, 1,500 miles long and two miles high, swept 900 miles across North America. The weather event sent millions of tons of topsoil aloft from the Midwest into the areas around Atlanta, Boston, and New York City.
In the spring of 1935, winds gusted nonstop for 27 days and nights. People and animals suffocated in the dry dust. Some came down from “dust pneumonia” as a result of breathing in so much dust into their lungs. Another massive dust storm took place on April 15, 1935. The event was named “Black Sunday”.
Around this time, the “father of soil conservation”, Hugh Hammond Bennett, rallied the Franklin Roosevelt administration to advocate for a national awakening to better the country’s agricultural practices. In April, Bennett was scheduled for a congressional hearing on the topic. On the day of his testimony, he found out about a dust storm blowing into the Washington D.C. area from the Midwest. He used the event as evidence for the necessity of his plans.
Congress soon passed the Soil Conservation Act of 1935. FDR signed the bill and implemented the improvement of farming techniques. Federal regulations included crop rotation, grass -seeding, contour plowing and terracing. The government paid the struggling farmers a dollar an acre to practice the techniques. The new rules reduced dust storms by around 65-percent.
FDR ordered the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant a barrier of 200,000,000 trees from Abilene, Texas up to the Canadian border as wind and water breaks. Even though erosion rates had been rolled back, the lack of rain still held the farmers back from making a living.
Finally, storm clouds yielded their first rains, in the Autumn of 1939. After most of the decade’s disasterous drought, the Dust Bowl was finally coming to an end. Amazingly, there are still parts of the Southern and Northern Plains that have not yet fully recovered from the massive droughts of the 1930s.
The Blue Jay of Happiness credits the book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s by Donald Worster for inspiring and informing much of today’s post.