The Dust Bowl is not necessarily a period of American history that is covered in history classes. It is usually touched upon during a discussion about the Depression but that is usually the extent of it. I honestly don’t think we ever covered it in my classes, but this is a very important event in the discussion of the economic hard times of the Depression. I also tend to focus more on how an event affected the people more so than the political side of things.
The Dust Bowl lasted from 1930 to 1939 (depending on the area of the mid west that you lived in). The hardest hit areas were the Oklahoma panhandle, the northern part of Texas, and areas of New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado. These areas were so hard hit because of the farming methods that had been employed since the great migration west: crops were not rotated, the natural grasses that held the soil were plowed under, and basically just wheat was grown. The soil became very, very dry and there was nothing to hold the once fertile soil in place. As large windstorms swept in, the top layers of soil would be lifted away and travel in huge clouds of dust to fall on cities and towns very far away. Soil from the area described above would sometimes fall in Chicago and even cities on the East Coast! During the winter of 1934-1935 there was red tinted snow in New England because of all of the dust particles in the atmosphere.
When these storms swept in the day would turn to night and visibility would be reduced to a few feet. I have read accounts where chickens would go to roost because they thought it was night time. The worst dust storms occurred on April 14, 1935 – called “Black Sunday”, which caused extensive damage throughout the Dust Bowl area.
Dust would permeate the homes of those living out on the farms – buildings were not as sound and no matter what they did they could not keep out the dust. Food would have dust particles in it and drinks would usually have to be chewed (eww!).
They also had to contend with crops that would not grow. As there was virtually no rain, the wheat that they were still insistent on growing would grow very weak and would frequently be killed off during one of these dust storms, or if it managed to grow, they would have a very small harvest. This left farmers very little to live on – not only to feed themselves but to sell as well. Many lost their farms, houses, farm equipment because of crop failure or decided to up and leave and see what their luck would be like further out west.
There were also the health concerns associated with these dust storms – notably dust pneumonia. The dust fills the lungs and inflames the alveoli preventing the lungs from cleaning themselves out. The results were high fever, chest pain, difficulty breathing, coughing, and almost always death. While there are no statistics as to the prevalence of dust pneumonia throughout the Dust Bowl region – the Kansas State Board of Health reported 17 deaths during 1935 in their region.
The Dust Bowl began to subside around 1937 thanks to some innovations and actions taken by the government. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the CCC to plant over 200 million trees from the Canadian border to Texas to help break the wind and hold soil in place. They provided information to farmers about planting different types of crops and paid farmers $1 per acre if they would try one of these new methods. They also bought cattle that were unfit for human consumption at rates of $14-$20 per head. By 1938 the level of soil blowing was reduced to 65%. And in 1939 rain began to fall again throughout the Dust Bowl area thus ending this awful decade.
To hear some stories of what it was like to live through these dust storms you can watch this interview video:
You can also watch this episode of the American Experience series online about Surviving the Dust Bowl:
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