Dust Bowl

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"If you would like to have your heart broken, just come out here, this is the dust-storm country. It is the saddest land I have ever seen." -Ernie Pyle, reporter in Kansas

The Dust Bowl consisted of many dust storms in the prairie lands, particularly Oklahoma, in the United States during the Great Depression. The drought hit first in the eastern part of the country in 1930. By 1934, it had turned the Great Plains into a desert. It reduced farm output by 23% in the early part of 1933.

The Dust Bowl got its name in April 1935, when reporter Robert Geiger wrote, "Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer's tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent - if it rains." The term stuck, spreading to radio broadcasts, publications, private letters, and public speeches.

The Soil Conservation Service used the term on their maps to describe "the western third of Kansas, Southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, and northeastern New Mexico." The SCS Dust Bowl region included some surrounding area which covered one-third of the Great Plains—close to 100 million acres. It is thought that Geiger was referring to an earlier image of the plains coined by William Gilpin, who had compared the Great Plains to a fertile bowl, the rim being the mountains. Residents hated the label, which was thought to play a part in diminishing property values and business prospects in the region.

The Drought alone did not cause the black blizzards. Although dry spells are unavoidable in the region—they occurred roughly every 25 years— it was the combination of drought and misuse of the land that led to the incredible devastation of the Dust Bowl. Originally covered with grasses that held the fine soil in place, the land of the southern plains was plowed by settlers who brought their farming techniques with them when they homesteaded the area. Wheat crops, in high demand during World War I, exhausted the topsoil. Overgrazing by cattle and sheep herds stripped the western plains of their cover. When the drought hit, the land just blew away in the wind.

An Oklahoma woman recalled June 1935:

"In the dust-covered desolation of our No Man's Land here, wearing our shade hats, with handkerchiefs tied over our faces and vaseline in our nostrils, we have been trying to rescue our home from the wind-blown dust which penetrates wherever air can go. It is almost a hopeless task, for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over. 'Visibility' approaches zero and everything is covered again with a silt-like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on the kitchen floor."
Beginning in 1933, federal conservation programs were created to rehabilitate the Dust Bowl, changing the basic farming methods of the region: seeding areas with grass, rotating crops, using contour and strip, and planting "shelter belts" of trees to break the wind. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted tens of millions of trees. Farmers were defensive when outsiders criticized their farming methods. Only when they were paid did they begin to put the new farming techniques into practice. The dollar per acre they earned often meant the difference between being able to stay a bit longer or having to abandon their land. As historian Robert Worster (2004) wrote,
"The ultimate meaning of the dust storms of the 1930s was that America as a whole, not just the plains, was badly out of balance with its natural environment. Unbounded optimism about the future, careless disregard of nature's limits and uncertainties, devotion to self-aggrandizement - all these were national as well as regional characteristics."

Further reading

  • Cooper, Michael L. Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in the 1930s (2004) [1]
  • Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2006) [2]
  • Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (2004), standard scholarly history [3]