By Vickie McDonough
The wide-open plains of Oklahoma were once covered in short grasses with tangled roots as deep as five feet. The dense sod nourished buffalo, antelope, deer, and jackrabbits and was home to the various tribes of the Plains Indians.
In 1862, Congress enacted the Homestead Act, which allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of land, and it opened much of the Midwest to settlement. When the land was first plowed up, farmers claimed the soil was so rich it looked like chocolate. A team of horses could turn 3 acres of sod in a day, but horses were eventually traded in the 1920s for tractors, which could turn 50 acres per day. The spring of 1931 boasted record-breaking wheat crops, and the land was called Hog Heaven by the locals, and they believed it would always be abundantly fertile.
Posters that showed huge vegetables encouraged eastern farmers that the plains of the Midwest was the Garden of Eden, and many came to farm. They used familiar methods of tilling, breaking up millions of acres of land. By the summer of 1931, the rain stopped, leaving soil vulnerable to the incessant winds. Dust devils or whirlwinds had always danced across the prairie so no one noticed when they grew wider and denser. The huge dust storms rose high in the sky and coated everything, leaving behind giant mounds and houses filled with dirt. The dust storms increased over the years, turning into black blizzards that churned miles in the sky, covering everything in black stinging, blinding dirt.
In 1932 there were fourteen dust storms in Oklahoma. By 1933, that number rose to thirty-eight. In 1934 they occurred with alarming frequency. 100,000,000 acres of land turned into wasteland with the panhandles of TX & OK, southwestern KS, southeastern CO & northeastern NM being the hardest hit. Residents thought they could tell where dirt came from by its color: black dirt was supposedly from Kansas, red from Oklahoma, and gray from Colorado and New Mexico.
As dust got into the eyes, nose, and throat, a mysterious illness began to affect those living in the dust-laden areas. People spat out saliva that resembled tobacco juice. Children were especially vulnerable to dust pneumonia, and many of them died. Their parents tried a number of home remedies to help, such as skunk oil, sugar with a drop of turpentine in it, and they even tried rubbing throats with a stinky mixture of kerosene and lard. People began wearing masks, especially the children, and the plains soon resembled a WWI battlefield with everyone wearing masks to protect from dust instead of mustard gas.
|From PBS and the Green family collection|
In the fall of 1934, because there was no food to feed cattle and the animals were suffering, the government seized and killed them. Farmers were paid $16 per cow and $3 per calf. It was a difficult thing but merciful.
And if dust and failure of crops weren’t enough, in 1935, hundreds of thousands of rabbits came down from hills searching for food. They ate anything the dust storms hadn’t already destroyed. As a means of survival, jackrabbit drives were formed and held on Sunday afternoons, and thousands of rabbits were trapped and killed. At least the framers had some meat on which to feast. On April 14th, 1935, a day now known as black Sunday, a gigantic black dust storm covered the area for four hours after the jackrabbit drive. Some people thought it was punishment for killing the rabbits, while others believed it was the end of the world.
|Jackrabbits hanging on fence|
But life continued. Then in the spring of 1935, the wind blew for 27 days and nights without stopping. There was no relief from the howling beast, and many people thought they’d go crazy. With no fresh vegetables or fruit to consume, people ate cornbread & beans for the noon meal and cornbread and milk for supper. Wet sheets were hung over doorways, while window frames were stuffed with rags made sticky with gum, but the vile dust still found its way into the food. Grit was constantly in everyone’s mouths. The topsoil blew away, and tall mounds formed around fence posts. Dust was as high as windowsills, so someone had to climb out the window in order to shovel the dirt away from the doorway. Wheat scoops were used to shovel buckets of dust from houses in a never-ending battle with nature.
By the end of 1935, there had been no substantial rainfall for four years, and many farmers were giving up. People packed what little they had and drove away, not even bothering to close the doors of their houses. In the mass exodus, nearly 1/4 of the population of the affected states left. Banks and businesses failed. Churches and school closed, but most people stayed. They believed next year would be better. But it wasn’t. Living on the plains became a determination of sheer will.
The summer of 1936 was one of the hottest ever recorded. The sun beat down on the bare ground. Wind, like a blast from a hot furnace, blistered faces, while static electricity killed new growth on wheat crops. The government began relief programs, but many men were too proud to accept it. They were not gleaners and didn’t want the government supporting their families. The government even paid farmers to plow using conservation methods, although many refused. Still, by 1938, conservation efforts reduced the dust storms by 60% but the rain still refused to fall. Many folks hung on, saying, “It’s gonna get better.” One bizarre thing happened—residents on the outskirts of Amarillo, TX, discovered a crow’s nest made completely of barbed wired, probably the only thing salvageable. Even the critters were tenaciously holding on by whatever means possible.
Eventually, the rains returned, and the crops grew once again. Some argue that the dust storms in the 1930’s pointed to climate changes. Others believe the storms were a result of over-farming the land and the wind picking up the topsoil, blowing it clear to Washington D.C. Before the Dust Bowl, Washington considered the soil a limitless, indestructible resource, but after experiencing the dust for themselves, Washington bureaucrats soon put all their resources behind conservation efforts. We may never know for certain the real cause, but the end result was the same—the worst ecological disaster in American history.
Below is a link to a video of Woody Guthrie singing about the Dust Bowl days. Guthrie is a native of Oklahoma, but he was living in the Texas panhandle on Black Sunday. He wrote the moving tune after surviving that horrible day. The song is called Dusty Ole Dust. Note: there’s a short advertisement before the video. Click here.
Bestselling author, Vickie McDonough, grew up wanting to marry a rancher, but instead, she married a computer geek who’s scared of horses. She now lives out her dreams in her fictional stories about ranchers, cowboys, lawmen and others living in the West during the 1800s. Vickie is the award-winning author of over 30 published books and novellas. Her books include the fun and feisty Texas Boardinghouse Brides series, and End of the Trail, from the Texas Trails series, which was the OWFI 2013 Best Fiction Novel winner. Whispers on the Prairie, Pioneer Promises book 1 was a Romantic Times Recommended Inspirational Book for July, 2013. Forging a Family, a novella in The Pioneer Christmas Collection, is a finalist in the IRCA (Inspirational Readers Choice Awards)
Song of the Prairie
Janie Dunn’s dream of being an opera singer suddenly fades when, at her dying cousin’s request, she flees Boston with her cousin’s newborn son to protect him from his abusive father. She moves to Kansas to live with her brother, but life takes another dire change when he is suddenly killed. Is a marriage of convenience the answer to her problems? Is Kansas far enough away from Boston that they are safe from the baby’s vengeful father?