12 Things You Might Not Know About the Dust Bowl

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In the 1930s, the United States faced one of its greatest natural disasters. The farmers in the High Plains had turned over too much soil too fast, leaving over 100 million acres stripped of its native Buffalo Grass and barren of crop. Combine this with one of the driest summers on record and you have what came to be known as the Dirty Thirties.

1. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, a governor from Oklahoma (one of the hardest hit states), ran for President in 1932 under the platform "Bread, Butter, Bacon, Beans." During a time when most people were eating various forms of wheat three times a day, bacon and beans were powerful words. Not powerful enough, however to beat FDR for the Democratic nomination.

2. During a particularly bad storm on May 9, 1934, over three tons of dust for every American alive traveled across the country covering Chicago, New York and Atlanta. The storm spanned 1,800 miles and weighed 350 million tons.

3. At one point, 4,000 out of 5,500 families in six Oklahoma counties were receiving government aid. When FDR came into office he also implemented a program in which the government bought these farmers' starving livestock in order to butcher those still edible to feed the homeless in the Hoovervilles. The $12 earned for every cattle sold was soon the only source of income for many.

4. Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, grew rampantly during this period—one of the few plants that could survive the harsh conditions. People became so desperate that they started to brine the tumbleweed, rendering it edible. Supposedly high in Chlorophyll and iron, a county in Oklahoma declared a "Russian Thistle Week" where people were encouraged to harvest the weeds.

dust-bowl.jpg5. When a storm blew in, people were never safe. Dust particles snuck through cracks in their walls and windows, clogging their ears, noses, and mouths. The buildup of this dust in the lungs caused dust pneumonia, which is a lot like the Silicosis. Silicosis, the oldest occupational respiratory disease, was now affecting every person, young or old, in the High Plains.

6. This was the era of Bonnie and Clyde's famous bank robberies, and many farmers admired the duo for their sense of justice. Many people figured that the banks that had robbed them of their savings during the bank crisis deserved to get a taste of their own medicine.

7. The 1930s were the first decade where the birth rate fell below twenty children for every 1,000 women. Never before had there been so few children living in the United States.

8. The worst storm of the Dust Bowl occurred on April 14, 1935—Black Sunday. Carrying dust up to 200 miles off the Atlantic coast, the storm blackened cities and traveled at over 100 miles per hour. Animals and insects fled south and a woman believing the storm marked the beginning of Armageddon, killed her child to spare her the horror. And while Hugh Hammond Bennett was delivering a speech to Congress about soil preservation, dust rained down on Washington D.C. and blackened out the sun. Congress passed his legislation.

9. A single storm generated enough static electricity to short radios and cars and caused blue flames to erupt from barbed wire fences. It was so strong it even knocked full grown men off their feet if they accidentally touched or shook hands. People would drag chains in order to offset the static electricity. On Black Tuesday, enough static electricity was produced to power New York City.

guthrie.jpg10. Woody Guthrie (the singer of "This Land") even wrote a song about the Dust bowl. Surrounded by people claiming Black Sunday to be the end of world, Guthrie penned his famous song "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya." You can listen to it here.

11. While two-thirds of farmers of the Dust Bowl stayed, those that did leave had minimal prospects of finding jobs. Many had no money, no gas for their ragged Ford Model T and no place to go. Arizona didn't want them and California placed signs at their borders that read "Okies Not Welcome."

12. The Plow that Broke the Plain is an excellent documentary by Pare Lorentz. Filmed during the Dirty Thirties, it illustrated the causes and effects of the agricultural policies (or lack thereof) that led to the Dust Bowl. It is also the only film in American history to be commercially produced by the government during a peacetime period. In 1999, the Library of Congress preserved the film because of its cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance.

Note: There's an excellent book on the period called The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. If you are interested in the Dust Bowl I highly recommend it. And for all you young adult Flossers, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse gives an excellent depiction of this period.

July 8, 2008 - 9:05am
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