In 1931 it hit. In what had been a flourishing business, farming went sour. The drought had killed the farmers crops and with it their livelihood. The ‘breadbasket of America’ was a Dust Bowl. Compounding the problems was that in 1929 the Depression had hit the US, driving many into poverty. Before the drought, farmers had been bringing in more crops than was in demand. Because of this, prices dropped. The farmers either had to live with those prices or do like some and store those crops until prices went back up. The profits generally went to paying off debts. The machinery (e.g. tractors) had been bought on credit. Many of the houses had mortgages that still needed paying.
As if the those things were not bad enough a drought and heat wave (1936) also took over. Due to the excessive farming and poor practices, topsoil had accumulated with nothing to hold it down. With the crops dead, the exposed dirt was being blown up into huge clouds that raced across the Great Plains. The fertile soil was being blown away by the tons. Dust storms, ‘rollers’, ‘dusters’ and ‘black blizzards’ were becoming common place, although no one would actually get used to them. And who could? Dirt was impossible to keep out of the house, despite the best efforts. Food had a gritty texture to it and tasted of dirt. ‘Dust pneumonia’ was causing more and more people to come down respiratory problems. Dusts drifts piled up making travel difficult if not nearly impossible. Wet rags were put around doors and windows to keep the dirt out. Adults and children alike covered their faces with wet rags. Later the American Red Cross would begin sending the sufferers dust masks.In the mornings after rising from bed, layers of dirt would be on everything.Ann Marie Low of North Dakota best illustrated the situation in her diary:
Mama couldn’t make bread until I carried water to wash the bread mixer. I couldn’t churn until the churn was washed and scalded. We just couldn’t do anything until something was washed first Every room had to have dirt almost shoveled out of it before we could wash floors and furniture. We had no time to wash clothes, but it was necessary. I had to wash out the boiler, wash tubs, and the washing machine before we could use them. Then every towel, curtain, piece of bedding, and garment had to be taken outdoors to have as much dust as possible shaken out before washing. The cistern is dry, so I had to carry all the water we needed from the well.
It was a never ending battle. The dirt always won. Attics would collapse as dirt continued to pile up in them. In the Atlantic, crews were finding layers of dirt on the ship. Animals were also being affected. Cattle were suffocating, chickens and other farm animals would be buried in the dirt.And with nothing growing, they were starving. Water had become ‘scarce as hen’s teeth’.
On April 14, 1935, a black blizzard wreaked havoc throughout much of the western states. This time the storm caused the bright afternoon to turn into an artificial night. A person would be lucky to see their hand in front of their face. Aviator Laura Ingalls, who had set out to break Amelia Earhart’s transcontinental flying record, was caught in the storm.
It was the most appalling thing I ever saw in all my years of flying…I was 22, 000 feet and it still was above me. I must have flown as far as Wichita, Kansas, in that haze. I had fears it was ruining my motor. Then I headed back. My radio went out and I just was out of touch with everything, isolated in a blanket of dust that spread in every direction.
This storm caused the skies of many East Coast cities to darken as dust blocked out the sun. For those witnessing the storm firsthand, it seemed as if the end of the world had come. In Salina, Kansas, a man was caught outside in the storm when the storm came through. It killed him. Parents, never knowing when a storm would blow up, feared sending their children to school. In Hays, Kansas, a child was leaving school and headed home when a storm took his life. These storm also created static electricity. The electricity interfered with radios, burnt up what little crops there were, shorted cars out or stalled them.
Another problem was jackrabbits. They were rapidly multiplying and causing farmers headaches. Rabbit drives were invented to battle the culprits. Instead of using firearms, which resulted with injuries to many of the ‘drivers’, rabbits were clubbed to death. Many of these rabbits could be used to feed hungry families. Despite all this the sufferers kept a good outlook on things, as evidenced in their humor.
A pilot flying over Amarillo got caught in a sand storm. His motor clogged; he took to his parachute. It took him six hours to shovel his way back to earth.
After sticking it out for so long some families pulled up stakes. Some moved the next county over, while others to a different State. The most popular State, it would seem, was California. Okies, as they were referred to regardless of where they came from, abandoned their farms in order to make a living elsewhere. The abandoned farms usually went back to the bank. Those who left for California usually intended to start their own farm there. Instead they found themselves working on greedy company’s farms for little pay. All hopes of owning their own farm were dashed.
The Okies were treated with contempt and disrespectfully. For awhile policemen would turn migrants away at the California border. Okies who refused to comply found themselves in jail. With no job and no money, the Okies were simply not welcomed. Those who did make it into California formed ditch camps. These camps were awful places to live, where sickness ran rampant. However, survivors that they were, they made do.
The government began setting up housing and camps for the Okies. If they were unable to find a job to pay rent on their houses they could do jobs around the camps to make up for it. In Matanuska Valley, Alaska, farmers were in demand, but none were available. In an experiment, some Dust Bowl families were brought to the area. While they did produce bountiful crops, the going was hard. Many abandoned the challenge.
To combat the Dust Bowl, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was passed. With it came the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. The AAA paid farmers not to plant a certain amount of crops. They also bought up starving cattle. The government then slaughtered the cattle and fed starving families. But the AAA had a serious downfall. If too much was planted, that crop would have to be destroyed. When news of this leaked out Americans were enraged. This was only one of many complaints. In 1936 the Supreme Court declared the AAA unconstitutional.
The government continued to search for a solution to the Dust Bowl. After much research and experiments contour farming was found to be a better alternative than what farmers had been using. Efforts in irrigation were also made, although it proved too expensive for cash-strapped farmers to go through with. To guard against winds and dust storms rows of trees were planted. These were referred to as shelterbelts. Grass was replanted by the government to replenish the soil and hold the moisture in the ground.
It was a long time coming for many, but while the drought continued, the dust storms had largely diminished by ’37. In 1939 the Dust Bowl had official ended. This was indeed trying times to be living in, but those who lived through that era had the grit to stay alive and endure. They did what was needed to be done. They would need that determination and courage to get through the coming storm. World War II.