Dust Bowl

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Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas
Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas

The Dust Bowl, also known as the "Dirty Thirties", was a series of dust storms caused by a massive drought that began in 1930 and lasted until 1941. This ecological disaster caused a mass exodus from the Oklahoma Panhandle region and also the surrounding Great Plains. Around 300,000 to 400,000 Americans were displaced[1]. Topsoil across millions of acres was blown away because the indigenous sod had been broken for wheat farming and the vast herds of buffalo were no longer fertilizing the rest of the native grasses.

It is well known that there was economic instability in agriculture during the 1920s, due to overproduction following World War I. National and international market forces during the war had caused farmers to push the agricultural frontier beyond its natural limits. Increasingly, marginal land that would now be considered unsuitable for use was developed to capture profits from the war. After the land had been stripped of its natural vegetation, the ecological balance of the plains was destroyed, leaving nothing to hold the soil when the rains dried up and the winds came in the 1930s

With their crops ruined, lands barren and dry, and homes foreclosed for unpayable debts, thousands of farm families loaded their belongings into beat-up Fords and followed Route 66 to California. Many of the displaced were from Oklahoma, where 15% of the state's population left. The migrants were called "Okies," whether or not they were from Oklahoma. High end estimates for the number of displaced Americans are as high as 2.5 million, [2] but the lower value of 300,000 to 400,000 is more probable based upon the 2.3 million population of Oklahoma at the time.

Buried machinery in barn lot.  Dallas, South Dakota, May 1936
Buried machinery in barn lot. Dallas, South Dakota, May 1936

In South Dakota on November 11, 1933 a very strong dust storm stripped topsoil from desiccated farmlands in just one of a series of disastrous dust storms that year. Then on May 11, 1934 a strong two-day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago where filth fell like snow, dumping the equivalent of 4 pounds of debris per person on the city. Several days later, the same storm reached cities in the east, such as Buffalo, Boston, New York, and Washington. That winter, red snow fell on New England.

Black Sunday, when the day was turned to darkness.  Dodge City, Kansas, April 1935
Black Sunday, when the day was turned to darkness. Dodge City, Kansas, April 1935

On April 14, 1935, one of the worst "Black Blizzards" occured throughout the dustbowl, causing extensive damage, turning the day to night. Witnesses reported that they could not see 5 feet in front of them at certain points.

During FDR's first 100 days, governmental programs to restore the ecologic balance of the nation were implemented. The U.S. Government was to form the Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The human crisis was documented by photographers from the Farm Security Administration, among which the most famous was Dorothea Lange.

The Dust Bowl has been featured in the HBO series Carnivàle in which the show's characters endure the hardships of the times while coping with other problems.

See also

Further reading

  • The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression, Paul Bonnifield, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1978, hardcover, ISBN 0-8263-0485-0
  • Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, 1935, Katelan Janke, Scholastic (September 2002), ISBN 0-4392-1599-4
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press. New York.. First Edition, 1939.

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