The Dust Bowl
Marshall Drake

Dust Storm Texas

The term Dust Bowl refers to an environmental disaster that occurred in the Great Plains from 1931-1939
caused by a combination of severe drought conditions and unsustainable farming practices.



From the mid to late 1900’s thousands of pioneers were drawn to a vast swath of land cutting north – south through the middle of the North American Continent from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. This area which was covered by prairie grasses taller than a man came to be known as the Great Plains.

The majority of the homesteaders drawn to these lands came to farm. However, conflicts with Native Americans inhibited these efforts early on. However, by the late 1800’s the U.S. military had defeated and or pushed out the Native Americans in most of the region. This significantly reduced threat of hostilities, combined with favorable rains during most of the next quarter century led to a steady increase in cultivation into the early 20th century.
With the implementation of agricultural mechanizations starting around 1910 along with increased demand for wheat in Europe (especially during World War I) cultivation of prairie lands into farmland nearly doubled during the period of 1910 – 1920, and favorable rains over the next decade continued the agricultural expansion in the plains up until 1931.
Southern Great Plains
While most of the plains were affected by the Dust Bowl, most of the damage occurred in the southern plains, a one hundred million acre area covering western Kansas, New Mexico, the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, and eastern Colorado. In the summer of 1931 a drought started that would last the better part of a decade.

The Early Years 1931 - 1933

When the drought hit in 1931, crops withered and died. The soil which had been built up and held in place for thousands of years by the tough rooted prairie grasses, now over-cultivated and plowed in a manner that encouraged soil erosion was parched and susceptible to the wind and to dust storms. Dust storms typically occurred without warning, blotting out the sky, enveloping the area in darkness, leaving dust everywhere – in food, water, and even in the lungs of animals and people, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to hours at a time. People tried various ways to protect themselves from the dust - hanging wet sheets in front of doors and windows, and stuffed window frames with tape and rags, but the dust still got through, permeating the tiniest cracks and crevices.
There were fourteen reported dust storms in 1932and thirty-eight reported in 1933. By 1934 they would be too numerous to count until 1937.
Dust Storm Era Farm

The Middle Years 1934 - 1935
By 1934, cattle feed in the Dust Bowl was depleted and the federal government began buying and destroying thousands of starving livestock from the farmers. While it was difficult for the farmers to see their livestockslaughtered, this program allowed many of them to avoid bankruptcy and stay on their farms.
In 1935, after four years with no substantial rainfall, some of the farmers gave up. About 25% packed the few belongings that they had and could carry, and headed west, in hopes of finding a better life in California. Yet even given the bleak living conditions, the majority of the farmers chose to stay, surviving on diets of cornbread beans and milk. Continuing to plow and plant their fields in hopes that the drought would end.

Black Sunday
The dust storms continued throughout this period and in the spring of 1935 the wind blew non-stop for
27 days and nights. On Sunday April 14, 1935 the worst dust storm of the Dust Bowl period occurred.

The storm which only lasted lasted a single afternoon, was reported to have winds up to 60 mph and to have carried more than 300,000 tons of topsoil airborne (twice as much dirt as was dug out of the Panama Canal). The storm which rolled through to the east coast (including Washington D.C.) is credited with increasing government awareness on the Dust Bowl issue, and leading to the Soil Conservation Program.

The Final Years 1936 -1939
In 1936, the federal government instituted a Soil Conservation Program. This program paid farmers to utilize new farming techniques emphasizing soil conservation. By 1937 the soil conservation program was fully implemented and these practices along with other conservation programs put in place by the federal government are estimated to have decreased soil erosion by sixty-five percent in 1938. While the soil conservation efforts put in place had improved the situation, the drought continued, and it wasn’t until the fall of 1939 that the rains returned to the prairies ending the almost decade long drought, bringing an end to the Dust Bowl era..

The Aftermath

By most accounts the Dust Bowl is the worst ecological disaster in the history of the United States. While more than 7,000 people died during this period, it is impossible to give a definitive number as to how many people died as a result of the Dust Bowl due to quantification issues and poor record keeping. An estimated 250,000 people (25% of the population) were displaced either giving up and leaving, or foreclosed on and forced out most headed west in search of a better life, and most of these headed for the golden state of California.

While periods of drought have occurred in the Great Plain since the 1940’s, the conservation efforts established in the Dust Bowl years has limited the damage significantly.

What Now
The end of the dustbowl era found the land deeply scarred and in some places forever changed.
While a large portion of the land quickly recovered and resumed producing bountiful harvests, even now more than seventy years later, the effects still linger and portions of the land are still sterile. In the heart of the Dust Bowl region there are now three national grasslands run by the Forest Service. However, Agribusinesses are draining away the Ogallala Aquifer (the nation’s largest source of groundwater) at a rate eight times faster than natural resources can refill it.

Dust Bowl Timeline
Severe drought hits the midwestern and southern plains. As the crops die, the 'black blizzards" begin. Dust from the over-plowed and over-grazed land begins to blow.
The number of dust storms is increasing. Fourteen are reported this year; next year there will be 38.
March: When Franklin Roosevelt takes office, the country is in desperate straits. He took quick steps to declare a four-day bank holiday, during which time Congress came up with the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which stabilized the banking industry and restored people's faith in the banking system by putting the federal government behind it.
May: The Emergency Farm Mortgage Act allots $200 million for refinancing mortgages to help farmers facing foreclosure. The Farm Credit Act of 1933 established a local bank and set up local credit associations.
September: Over 6 million young pigs are slaughtered to stabilize prices With most of the meat going to waste, public outcry led to the creation, in October, of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. The FSRC diverted agricultural commodities to relief organizations. Apples, beans, canned beef, flour and pork products were distributed through local relief channels. Cotton goods were eventually included to clothe the needy as well.
October: In California's San Joaquin Valley, where many farmers fleeing the plains have gone, seeking migrant farm work, the largest agricultural strike in America's history begins. More than 18,000 cotton workers with the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) went on strike for 24 days. During the strike, two men and one woman were killed and hundreds injured. In the settlement, the union was recognized by growers, and workers were given a 25 percent raise.
May: Great dust storms spread from the Dust Bowl area. The drought is the worst ever in U.S. history, covering more than 75 percent of the country and affecting 27 states severely.
June: The Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act is approved. This act restricted the ability of banks to dispossess farmers in times of distress. Originally effective until 1938, the act was renewed four times until 1947, when it expired. Roosevelt signs the Taylor Grazing Act, which allows him to take up to 140 million acres of federally-owned land out of the public domain and establish grazing districts that will be carefully monitored. One of many New Deal efforts to reverse the damage done to the land by overuse, the program was able to arrest the deterioration, but couldn't undo the historical damage.
December: The "Yearbook of Agriculture" for 1934 announces, "Approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land have essentially been destroyed for crop production. . . . 100 million acres now in crops have lost all or most of the topsoil; 125 million acres of land now in crops are rapidly losing topsoil. . . "
January 15: The federal government forms a Drought Relief Service to coordinate relief activities. The DRS bought cattle in counties that were designated emergency areas, for $14 to $20 a head. Those unfit for human consumption - more than 50 percent at the beginning of the program - were destroyed. The remaining cattle were given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation to be used in food distribution to families nationwide. Although it was difficult for farmers to give up their herds, the cattle slaughter program helped many of them avoid bankruptcy. "The government cattle buying program was a God-send to many farmers, as they could not afford to keep their cattle, and the government paid a better price than they could obtain in local markets."
April 8: FDR approves the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which provides $525 million for drought relief, and authorizes creation of the Works Progress Administration, which would employ 8.5 million people.
April 14: Black Sunday. The worst "black blizzard" of the Dust Bowl occurs, causing extensive damage.
April 27: Congress declares soil erosion "a national menace" in an act establishing the Soil Conservation Service in the Department of Agriculture (formerly the Soil Erosion Service in the U.S. Department of Interior). Under the direction of Hugh H. Bennett, the SCS developed extensive conservation programs that retained topsoil and prevented irreparable damage to the land. Farming techniques such as strip cropping, terracing, crop rotation, contour plowing, and cover crops were advocated. Farmers were paid to practice soil-conserving farming techniques.
December: At a meeting in Pueblo, Colorado, experts estimate that 850,000,000 tons of topsoil has blown off the Southern Plains during the course of the year, and that if the drought continued, the total area affected would increase from 4,350,000 acres to 5,350,000 acres in the spring of 1936. C.H. Wilson of the Resettlement Administration proposes buying up 2,250,000 acres and retiring it from cultivation.
February: Los Angeles Police Chief James E. Davis sends 125 policemen to patrol the borders of Arizona and Oregon to keep "undesirables" out. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union sues the city.
May: The SCS publishes a soil conservation district law, which, if passed by the states, allows farmers to set up their own districts to enforce soil conservation practices for five-year periods. One of the few grassroots organizations set up by the New Deal still in operation, the soil conservation district program recognized that new farming methods needed to be accepted and enforced by the farmers on the land rather than bureaucrats in Washington.
March: Roosevelt addresses the nation in his second inaugural address, stating, "I see one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished . . . the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." FDR's Shelterbelt Project begins. The project called for large-scale planting of trees across the Great Plains, stretching in a 100-mile wide zone from Canada to northern Texas, to protect the land from erosion. Native trees, such as red cedar and green ash, were planted along fence rows separating properties, and farmers were paid to plant and cultivate them. The project was estimated to cost 75 million dollars over a period of 12 years. When disputes arose over funding sources (the project was considered to be a long-term strategy, and therefore ineligible for emergency relief funds), FDR transferred the program to the WPA, where the project had limited success.
The extensive work re-plowing the land into furrows, planting trees in shelterbelts, and other conservation methods has resulted in a 65 percent reduction in the amount of soil blowing. However, the drought continued.
In the fall, the rain comes, finally bringing an end to the drought. During the next few years, with the coming of World War II, the country is pulled out of the Depression and the plains once again become golden with wheat.
Great Plains Priarie Land

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