The Dust Bowl

Pure grit saw farmers and ranchers through the greatest natural disaster of a century.
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Pure grit saw farmers and ranchers through the greatest natural disaster of a century.
Credit: AGE Fotostock

Credit: AGE Fotostock

In the decades leading up to the “Dirty Thirties,” economic, environmental, and political factors would all steamroll together to create one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history. From the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains, and from Texas to Canada, 100 million acres of crop turned to dust, and the skies rained dirt and despair on the nation throughout the 1930s.

For those in hard-hit areas, like the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, the rug of prosperity was yanked out from beneath their feet as wheat prices crashed and the clouds refused to yield moisture. Worse still, babies died of dust pneumonia and mental health was carried away on the same winds that stole nutrient-rich soils and hope. A mass migration occurred as 3.5 million people were displaced from their sand-beaten homes.

Families suffered incredible burdens, and yet, many survived and even remained, turning a blistered cheek to the winds. For a decade, they withstood dirt in every corner of their homes, and livestock simply walking away as tumbleweeds and sand created dunes over fence lines. During the “black blizzards,” when the dust carried in on the winds was so thick it blotted out the sun, family members would hunker indoors with wet rags covering their faces so as not to breathe in the dirt, though the rags too turned black with earth.

In a letter to a friend back East, Caroline A. Henderson, who wrote for the Atlantic Monthly from 1931 to 1936 about life on her 640-acre ranch in what was known as “No Man’s Land” in the center of the Oklahoma panhandle, describes the struggle and her family’s justification for staying. In 1935, she wrote, “I cannot act or feel or think as if the experiences of our twenty-seven [sic] years of life together had never been. … To leave voluntarily … seems like defaulting on our task.”

Henderson, like many others, was a proud person who had already committed years of love and labor to her land. She explains, “We have spent so much in trying to keep our land from blowing away that it looks foolish to walk off and leave it….” 

She also gives voice to the two factors—one truth and one hope—that encouraged so many to endure: “Our soil is excellent. We need only a little rain….” 

Eventually the rains did come. Farming practices changed, the market steadied, and the survivors forged ahead. In an essay for an earlier issue of American Cowboy, author John Erickson shares the written words of his great aunt, who lived on the West Texas prairie: “The prairie and sky have a way of trimming people down to size or changing them into giants—into people to whom nothing seems impossible.” 

These are the people who survived the Dust Bowl.

It is unlikely that we will ever experience another Dust Bowl, especially with modern farming technologies. Also, having realized the importance of the grassland prairies, portions of the Great Plains have been set aside to let the land return to its natural state, where vegetation keeps the soil moist, in place, and rich in the nutrients that make the region so ideal for farming. 

But the rains are out of our control and droughts continue to challenge these agricultural communities. Even today, families are displaced by dry spells, moving to where they can find work. And also today, other families remain, gritting out the tough times, knowing that they only need a little rain.