American Dust Bowl (1930s)

dust bowl
Figure 1.-- Here a farmner in Lonoke County, Arkansas is preparing his ground for another crop. He is plowing a field with his two boys during 1930 with two mules. He is probably a share croper. The photographer reports that he was undismayed by the 1929 drought. Notice the almost total lack of trees on his farm near Damascus, Arkansas.

The Dust Bowl was the worst manpmade ecological disater in American history. The term 'Dust Bowl' was a term coined by the people who lived in the drought-stricken siuthern Great Plains during the Great Depression. The Great Plains were opened to farming by new devices such as the steel plow. The advent of tractors enabled even more intense farming. World War I in particulsr incouraged farmers to increase production. Afer the War there was a depression in rural areas even duyring the Roaring 20s. Farmers did not, however employ needed soil conservation measures. Vast areas of land had been converted to farm land on the Great Plains. This had removed the natural vegetsation which held the top soil in place. A range of farming practives thus made farms on the plains vulnerable. This and adverse weather conditions, extended drought, resulted in the catasrophy of the Dust Bowl. The already declining markets were exacebated by the Dust Bowl. Farmers literaly watched their farms, the precious top soil blow away. Robert Geiger, an AP correspondent in Guymon, Oaklahoma first used the term in a dispatch. It was quickly picked up by other journalists and became part of the American vernacular. The Dust Bowl was felt all over the Great Plains, but was most severe in the southern area. The most severely affected area was southeastern Colorado, southwest Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. It was the culmination of decades of abuse of the land and a drought. Tons of topsoil were swept off barren fields and and into storm clouds for hundreds of miles. The affects of the dust storms eventually affected the entire country. There were small storms earlier in the early 1930s: 1932 (14 dust storms) and 1933 (38 storms). One source estimated that by 1934 that 100 million acres of farmland had been stripped of their top soil. There were weeks of dust storms when Spring reached the southern plains. It was Black Sunday (April 14, 1935) that caught the nation's attention.

The Great Plains

The Great Plains is a vast expanse of grasslands shared by the United States and Canada. It is an area larger than most countries. It extends about 500 miles east-west from Missouri River west to the Rocky Mountains. North-south it extends about 1,800 miles from the Canadian coniferous forests south to the Rio Grande border with Mexico. It includes a substantial part of the American West, including parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The Plains have been inhabited for more than 12,000 years. Paleo-Indians hunted mammoth, bison, and other game. This activity was at first limited because the Native Americans did not have horses. This changed with the arrival of the Spaish (16th century). Escaped horses developed into wild stocks that Natove Americans began to capture and use to develop an entirely new life style. The Plains Tribes developed a cultured centered on the horse and bufalo (bison). At the same time, the English and than Americans began pushing Native American tribes West, ending in the Indian Removal Act (1830) and the Trail of Tears. The area in the early-19th century, especially after the Mexican War began to be called 'the Great American Desert' because it could not be farmed with existing farming methods ans rainfall could be very limited, althoufh this varied over time. Despite this early outlook, the Great Plains is now seen as the 'American heartland'. And in practgical terms is 'the breadbasket of the world'. Harvests from the Plains have saved millions from starvation around the world. The Great Plains are immense streaching out in flat panorama seemingly forever. It is characterized by flowing grasslands, called the 'wavin' wheat' in the Oscar and Hammerstein peice fittinglybadopted as the Oklahoma state song. And in this emense area with seemingly endless horizons tghere is a sparsse population. Despite the limited population, there has been many important historical events. More than anything, the major event has been the harvests that have saved millions around the world devestated by war, drought, plage and other maturl disasters. The other most famous historical event has been the Depression era Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Other events include: the massacre at Wounded Knee, the North-West Rebellion, the Tulsa race riot, the Lincoln County War, the purported Roswell alien landing, and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Precipitation

The Southern Plains was not a desert. There was precipitation, but it was relatively limited and highly variable. There were commonly yet and dry periods which could last a decade or more. Over millions of years the naturl grasses which covered it evolved into plabnts which could thrive under such conditions and hold the soil in place even during periods of severe drought.

Farming on the Plains

The Great Plains were opened to farming by new devices such as the steel plow. The advent of tractors enabled even more intense farming. Farmers did not, however employ needed soil conservation measures. Vast areas of land had been converted to farm land on the Great Plains. This had removed the natural vegetsation which held the top soil in place. A range of farming practives thus made farms on the plains vulnerable. The Great Plowup. The Federal Govermnt promoted a huge land rush. This resulted in the Great Plowup. And it occurred in a cyclically wet period, especially the 1910s.

World War I (1914-18)

World War I in particular incouraged farmers to increase production. THe War affected European harvests. Many farmers and farm workers were conscripted, Transport and the availbikity of fertilzers abnd other supplies was empeiled. Draft animalswere seized by authorities. As a result harvests declined. Or in the case of Belgium, the Germans seized food supplies. And some urban areas were cut off from the growing areas that once supplied grain. Britain could import food from America and the Domionions. France was such a rich agricultural area that food availability was adequate. The situation in Russua and the Central Powers deteriorated. The overall result was the sudden creation of an enormous demand for wheat. Farmers rushed into the southern Plains and established homsteads. They plowed up as large an acrage as possible. Among these new farmers were many European immigrants and 'suitcase' farmers. Wheat is the crop that most of the new farmers planted. An estimated 5.2 million acres of virgin prarie along with their protective native grasses were plowed up. This set the stage for an ecological disaster. Afer the War as European harvests recovered a depression in rural areas began even while the rest of America experienced the Roaring 20s.

Causes

The Dust Bowl had both natural and man-made causes. The Plains were subject to wide periodic shifts in precipitation. This was not fully understood at the time as the period of intensive cultivation was relatively short. And the causes of natural precipitation cycles was not understood at all. The Jet Stream and its impact on wweather swas entirely unknown. The Jet Stream would not be really discovered until World War II. The Japanese knew a bit about it and used it to send baloon fire bombs to set forests in the Pacific Northwest afire. The Americans knew nothing about it until the U.S. Air Force found some thing was affecting bombing operations off Japan. It was the Jet Stream and it made high-level bombing as originally planned ineffective. It was changes in the Jet Stream that was affecting percipitation in th Plains. The natural ground cover on the Plains were adapted to such shifts. But the farmers had ploughed up the fields, removing the natural ground cover--the prarie grasses. Farmers produced oceans of wheat replacing the sea of prairie grasses that for milenia had anchored the topsoil in place. Farmers made other mistakes. Cotton farmers, foe exa,ple, would leave their fields bare during the winter or even burned what was left after picking the cottonn to control weeds. That had the effect of stripping the fields of potential nutrients and destroying surface vegetation that could help retain moisture in place and hold the top soil in high winds. Once the wheat and iother crops dried up, the Plains were defenseless against the drought and winds. Thus the Dust Bowl of the 30s becme the worst man-made ecological disater in American history. Plowng up vast areas of natural vegetation, and the lack of conversation measures prepared the basis for disaster. Farners had turned the vast natural prarie grasslands into productive farms. But indestroying the natural grasslands which held the soil in place they prepared the basis for creating deserts. The fall in precipitatiion was a natural event. The actual Dust Bowl was, however, caused by poor farming practicies and fed by drought and wind. It was the adverse weather conditions, extended drought, that made the Dust Bowl people. It was the poor farmkng practics and lack of conservation measures that caused the catasrophy of the Dust Bowl.

Results

It was the culmination of decades of abuse of the land and a drought. In modern parlance it was a perfect storm. After World War, Europe began to recover and farnmers there began to achievev normal harvests. As a result the War-time wheat bubble burst causing prices in America to fall. The rain in contrast did not fall. The wet period during the 1910s was followed by a strong dry period. The land began drying up. And when the Depression began, the southern planes were an ecological disaster waiting to happen. The native grasses were gone. The Southern Plains were a vast landscape of dry ploughed up filds. Then the heat and seasonal summer winds came. Nothing was holding the dry top soil in place. The result was that that millions of acres in the Great Plain were turned into a wasteland. Tons of topsoil were swept off barren fields and and drawn into into storm clouds for hundreds of miles. The already declining markets were exacebated by the Dust Bowl. Farmers literaly watched their farms, the precious top soil blow away. Robert Geiger, an AP correspondent in Guymon, Oaklahoma first used the term in a dispatch. It was quickly picked up by other journalists and became part of the American vernacular. The affects of the dust storms eventually affected the entire country. Massive deadly dust storms consumd everything they touchd. To the people caught up in the vortex, it seemed like the end of the world. There were mile high dust storms. The southern Plains were ravagd beyond reconition.

Location

The Dust Bowl was felt all over the Great Plains, but was most severe in the southern area. The most severely affected area was southeastern Colorado, southwest Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas.

Chronology

There were small storms earlier in the early 1930s: 1932 (14 dust storms) and 1933 (38 storms). More and more dust storms began blowing up and increasing in intensity. One source estimated that by 1934 that 100 million acres of farmland had been stripped of their top soil. There were weeks of dust storms when Spring reached the southern plains. In early April there were weeks od dust storms. It was Black Sunday (April 14, 1935) that caught the nation's attention. This was when the Dust Bowl got its name. The vast cloud that appeared on the horizon that Sunday was the worst ever seen. Winds were recorded at 60 mph. Then the storm hit. One of President Roosevelt's agricultural advisors, Hugh Hammond Bennett, was on his way to Washington D.C. when the storm hit. He testified to Congress about the need for soil conservation. A dust storm arrived in Washington all the way from the Dust Bowl. A dusty gloom spread over Washington and blotted out the sun. Bennett explained to the Congressmen, "This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about." Congress quickly passed the Soil Conservation Act and President sined it into law.

School

Going to school proved a special challenge during the Dust Bowl. Both the parents and teachers did what tghey could. This included both while the children were still at home and then after they fled their homes. While still at home there were both town schools and small rural one-room schools. Most of the children walked to school. Moms tried to dress the children in protective clothing making use of what they had at hand. In the towns this was not such a problem. The walks were relatively short along well defined streets wuith lots of houses along the way. In the rural areas, walking home could be dangerous during a powerful storm. Some of the children were very young, as young as 6 years old. Getting home could be very dangerous, especially if they did not have older siblings. Farms roads could be easily covered over during a bad storm. In fact gars and even homes were covered over. Teachers had to keep their eyes on the sky for any hint of of a storm so she would close the school early and make sure the children got home safely. When the farmers fled their homes, the children generally went without schools. There were no government programs to asisst them. Emergency farm-labor camps sprang up on the fringes of the Dust Bowl, espoecially on the way to Califirnia. Some organized their own schools in these camps as a stop-gap measure. Superintendent Leo Hart and 50 Okie kids built their own school in a field at Weedpatch Camp. [Stanley]

Plagues

And if drought was not bad enough, thre wre plagues ob biblical proporions. The farmers had to contend with jack rabbits and gress hoppers.

Response

The response of the people on the souther plains varied. Some fled--these were the Oakies because so many came from Oklahoma, perhaps the worst hit state. some stayed put and tried to weather it out. The Grapes of Wrath is about the Oakies, the ones who left, often in their cars. Many struck out for California hearing the jobs were available there. Actually most in the affected areas stayed. This included both prarie farmers and people in the small towns scattered throughout the Plains. This was more possible in thetowns than on the farms. People were attached to their farms and remained and for several years prayed for rain. Many only left when unable to pay thei mortgages, they lost ther farms. It was not at first understood that the Dust Bowl was not entiely a natural event, but a man-made disaster. Many families found ways to survive and hold on to heir land. Government programs, especially the New Deal, kept hungary families alive and on their land. [Duncan and Burns] And the Governmnt also developed a range of new farming and conservation methods designed to permit sustanable farming on the soutghern Plains. The prolonged drought and the meteorological phenomena of the 1930s was rare, but not unique. There were undountedly droughts before. It was, however, the first time since farnmers began intensive cultivation that they the weather conditions occurred with such intensity. The conservation measures and improved farming practices meant that future periods of low precipitation could be better dealt with.

Rains Return (1938-39)

Government assistance helped, but it was not until the rains began returning at the end of the decade that relief for the beleagered people of the Southern Plains finally came. The rains never entirely stopped, but they became less frquent and overall preciopitation levels fell far below normal. The worst seemed to be over for the souther plains by 1938. Rain began to fall. This of course was not something the Government could help with. Natural forces controlled the winds. What the Government coukld cdo was help farmers learn to effectively use what rain did fall. Some natural vegetation began to be seen such as Russian Thistles. There were still dust storms as the land was so dry. The heat and drought, however, abated. The dust had largely settled by 1939. And precitation rated reached normal, levels for the first time in more than a decade. The years of both depression and dust bowl seemed to be finally over and farmers had begun adopting improved methods and conservation measures.

World War II (1939-45)

The inter-War 1920s and 1930s proved to be simply a peaceful interlude. Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland (1939). Fortunately for the Allies, by the time of World War II, the southern Plains had begun to recover. The rains had returned and farmers were aopting the conservation methods and methods developed by government agencies. They were greatly aid by the resulting recovery of farm prices. As a result, harvests from the Dust Bowl area were part of the American World War II farm effort. Grain from the former Dust Bol was bing sentb to Britain even before the Japanese carrier attack ion Pearl Harbor brought America into the War (1941). The beleagered farnmers of the Southern Plains helped feed the United States and its Allies during the War. And they were part of the American relief efforts that help feed a devestated Europe as it began to recover from the War. Thus the devstated Southern Plains so afflicted in the 1930s would save millions in Europe from starvation.

Green Philosophy

Those with a Green outlook criticize the development of the southern Plains. Some advocate the return of theland to natural grasslands. One recent book seems to advocate near-subsistence farming. [Duncan and Burns] Usully such authors simply ignore the millions of lives saved by crops harvested on the southern Plains. Or just where the crops needed to feed the world's growing population is going to come from.

Sources

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Buns. The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History (2012), 232p.

Stanley, Jerry. Chikdren ofthe Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedopatch Camp







CIH -- Great Depression







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Created: 5:25 AM 5/3/2010
Last updated: 3:20 AM 11/8/2013