Written by Judith Klinger

Where Texas and Oklahoma meet, there is a strip of land called “No Mans Land”.

The year is 1901 and you're heading west; to farm and to raise some cattle. You don’t want to settle in No Mans Land; you want to push on to Colorado. Who would settle in a place with a name like that? But the car won’t last much longer, the family needs something to eat and you just can’t go any further.

People don’t dream about living in a dugout, but with an unending wind, and nothing to build with, you dig yourself a place to live. It’s only temporary because you dream of pulling up all that prairie grass and planting wheat or corn. Then you’ll make a good, honest living. Just like the land syndicates told you.

The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up.--1909 Bureau of Soils announcement

Images from "The Plow that Broke the Plains"
Images from "The Plow that Broke the Plains"

The government wants you here. They tell you you to grow wheat because ‘wheat will win the war’ that is brewing in Europe. We’re not just feeding ourselves; we’re feeding our allies. Wheat prices shoot up and the future looks golden.

One of the pioneer women of the Oklahoma Panhandle Dust Bowl, Photo Credit: Arthur Rothenstein, April 1936
One of the pioneer women of the Oklahoma Panhandle Dust Bowl, Photo Credit: Arthur Rothenstein, April 1936

Next thing you know, for the first time, the banks are lending money to farmers in the area. Now there are gas powered tractors and threshers that make it easier and faster to plow under the nuisance prairie grass in order to plant the wheat.

That same prairie grass that had been there for millennium, holding down the soil through wet years and dry, sustaining Native Americans, buffalo and who knows what all, was deemed expendable. We needed wheat and cattle.

The rains stopped coming in the summer of 1930. Just when you thought you might have saved enough and could build a house above ground, something with windows, the earth dried up. The mangled soil died and the dirt turned to dust.

Don’t know why anyone was surprised. Anyone who spent time in the plains knew this land had known more drought than it ever knew rain.

What happens when soil goes dry? When the topsoil has been ploughed and there is no cover crop? When the wind blows?

The ‘black blizzards’ start blowing. This is choking dust that creeps into every crack. There is nowhere in the house that stays clean. Babies get terrible lung diseases and sometimes they die. Everyone coughs. All the time. People stop shaking hands because the static shocks from the dryness and the dust are so bad. Car batteries short-out because of the static. Metal fences glow with electricity during the storms.

The dust is too much for this farmer's son in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, April 1936
The dust is too much for this farmer's son in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, April 1936

In 1932, there are 14 official dust storms.

1933, the dust blizzards come 38 times.

On May 9, 1934, there is a two day howling dust storm that blows east. It deposits 12,000,000 pounds of dust on Chicago. It continues east, blotting the sun and dropping more dust in NY, Boston and Washington DC.
That winter, in New England, the snow is dyed red from the dust. By now, the drought has affected 75% of the US in 27 states.

Oklahoma Dust Bowl Refugees. Photo Credit: Dorthea Lange
Oklahoma Dust Bowl Refugees. Photo Credit: Dorthea Lange

The Great Depression is raging. Work is scarce. People are starting to give up their homes, their farms, their cattle and make the difficult decision to leave their home in the plains.

Teddy Roosevelt is president and the promise of the New Deal and work is all that is holding some people together.

If there is a hero in this sad story, it’s Hugh Bennett.

Bennett started working for the Department of Agriculture in the 1900’s and understood the need for soil conservation. In 1928, as a Dept. of Agriculture employee, he writes a publication entitled: "Soil Erosion A National Menace." He’s one of the few people who understands the country’s greed for wheat and beef is creating this dusty devastation. In 1933, Bennett is made head of the Soil Erosion Service.

...Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race or people, barbaric or civilized. There must be “a tremendous national awakening to the need for action in bettering our agricultural practices.” --Hugh Bennett

In Washington DC, as you might expect, there was some jockeying for power and Bennett was about to lose funding and be subsumed by the Department of Agriculture.

There were conflicting arguments that tried to make sense of what was happening. Was this an irrevocable but natural shift in weather patterns that would make the southern plains a barren desert? Was it just a severe drought that would end in the next ten years…or so? Was Mother Nature just being extremely nasty? Or was this truly a man-made disaster, as Bennett argued. He pushed common sense approaches to farming such as: community districts where everyone would agree to crop rotation, fallowing land, contour plowing, and building barriers to stop the spread of dunes.

In June of 1933, Roosevelt authorizes the first Civilian Conservation Corp to try and stabilize the ravaged land and Hugh Bennett is put in charge of the newly formed Soil Erosion Service.

Roosevelt had a pet project called the “Shelterbelt”. The plan was to plant a lot of trees to hold down the soil and capture moisture. Between 1934 and 1942, 220 million trees were planted in a 100-mile wide zone that extended from Canada to the Brazos River in Texas. The program never quite succeeded because only planting trees wouldn’t undo the ongoing damage caused by the farmers and cattle ranchers.

This farmer took the roof off his barn to make a windbreak for his garden. There was no rain. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, April 1936
This farmer took the roof off his barn to make a windbreak for his garden. There was no rain. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, April 1936

The cattle ranches are in trouble now.

The dust blinds the cattle, winds up in their digestive tract and is literally packing their lungs and stomachs with dirt. Milk cows go dry. Some just drop dead from “dust fever”. Jobs are scarce and belts are tight, as the price of beef continues to drop and the Great Depression staggers on.

Weirdly, inexplicably, like a Biblical plague, there are the rabbits.

Literally thousands upon thousands of rabbits are everywhere; so many they were considered a menace that needed to be exterminated. To pass the time, or maybe to vent frustration at all the hardships they endured, the citizens organized rabbit drives. The hunters would march in a line flushing out the rabbits and herding them into an enclosure where they would be bludgeoned to death.

In 1934, the government sets a goal of slaughtering 8,000,000 head of cattle. This is partly to reduce supply and prop up prices and partly to get the over-abundance of cattle off the Plains. Men who had spent their whole lives tending cattle were now literally destroying their livelihood.

Black Sunday, Baca County, Colorado, Photo Credit: J.H. Ward, April 14, 1935
Black Sunday, Baca County, Colorado, Photo Credit: J.H. Ward, April 14, 1935

April 14, 1935 came to be known as “Black Sunday”, but the day didn’t start out that way.

The sky over the plains that morning was clear blue for a change. People opened windows, cleaned, did chores. Took a walk outside to breathe in the fresh air.
The Boise City News invited citizens to a “grand and glorious” rabbit drive that was to be held that day. They expected to slaughter upwards of 50,000 rabbits.

In Bismark, North Dakota, by late morning, the weather started to get strange. The temperature dropped 30 degrees in two hours.

A duster was heading south, bigger and blacker than anything anyone had ever seen before.

Dodge City, Kansas went black with the storm at about 2:30 pm. Within minutes you couldn’t see the person sitting next to you.

In No Man’s Land Oklahoma, the birds and rabbits were the first to know the storm was coming, and they tried to outrun it.
That evening, in the Texas Panhandle, citizens choked on the dust that had rolled in from North Dakota.

Aftermath of dust storm. Baca County Colorado. Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein
Aftermath of dust storm. Baca County Colorado. Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein

The Black Sunday dust storm continued blowing east and Bennett knew it was heading towards Washington DC. He also knew he had a funding meeting on April 19 and if he played his cards right and the wind held…the dust would smother DC and maybe bring the senators around to his way of thinking. That day, he filibustered for awhile, telling stories, reminding them that an inch of topsoil can blow away in an hour, but it takes 1,000 years to be restored to life. As he talked the storm got closer and the senators noticed the midday sun growing feeble. And once again, precious soil from the plains blew into town.

“When people along the eastern seaboard began to taste fresh soil from the plains two thousand miles away, many of them realized for the first time that somewhere, something had gone wrong with the land. “--Hugh Bennett

Twenty-four hours later Bennett had the funding for a permanent agency. The Soil Conservation Service eventually grew to 20,000 workers who would labor to restore the land.

Black Sunday was the fiercest of the storms but the dust storms weren’t over and neither was the ongoing tragedy.

More Oklahomans, Photo Credit: Dorthea Lange
More Oklahomans, Photo Credit: Dorthea Lange

The government infighting continued. A contentious resettlement program, known as Executive Order 7028, offered families money to leave the Dust Bowl.

But go where? Some in Oklahoma joined the Last Man Club, vowing to stay on their land. That is until it became impossible to survive and they left too.

From June 1935 to September 1936, more than 86,000 refugees of the Dust Bowl states arrived in California where they were simply not welcome.

A 1935 Collier’s magazine article described the situation at the border as a man tries to block their entrance into the state: ‘California’s relief rolls are overcrowded now. No use to come farther’.

In 1936, Los Angles sends 125 patrolmen, dubbed the ‘bum patrol’, to guard the Arizona and Oregon borders to keep out ‘undesirables’. No one wants Oakies or Arkies living in their back yard. The Oakies displace the migrant Mexicans in the fields and absolutely no one is happy with the situation.

In 1939 the rains return to the Plains. Wheat is planted again and the harvests return. Even though there would be dust storms again, the worst of the dirty years is over.

Epilogue:

A possible solution to the dust problem is irrigation. This farmer is pumping water from a well to his parched fields. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, April 1936
A possible solution to the dust problem is irrigation. This farmer is pumping water from a well to his parched fields. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, April 18936

The High Plains are still heavily scarred by the Dust Bowl years but there has been progress. Some land is still just sterile dirt, blowing in the wind. But the Forest Service has established three areas of national grassland to hold down the soil and that's made a big difference.

This is good news. This is progress, right? We’ve learned our lesson, right?

There is still massive agribusiness going on in the Plains and it needs a consistent supply of water. The Ogallala Aquifer is a major source of the necessary water. It’s the largest underground source of fresh water in the country and we’re drawing it down eight times faster than it can be filled.

What about California, the miracle bread basket of the country where we counted on a steady water supply and not on the extended drought? Depending on how you look at the numbers, big ag uses between 40 to 80% of available water. Saving water at home certainly matters, but a total understanding and overhaul of water usage is urgently needed. Farmers need to adopt drip irrigation and have their water metered, and that’s just for starters.

The US isn’t the only wasteful country. Not by a long stretch. But if we pride ourselves in being innovative, let’s start paying attention to our water and soil and get going. We’ve got a lot of mouths to feed.

Culture and the Dust Bowl

The Plow That Broke the Plains, 1937, Pare Lorentz, Documentary
"Settler, plow at your peril."

Woodie Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads
Dust Bowl Refugee

Judith KlingerJudith Klinger is a Founder and Director of World-Eats.org. She believes in eating well, laughing hard, and sharing meals with anyone who shows up at the table.
World-Eats developed out of a firm belief that our food is better when we share local knowledge on a global scale.
Judith has been a food blogger, personal chef, and cookbook author for Aroma Cucina. She was a Director and Operations Manager for the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
When not at the stove, or the keyboard, she likes to go outside to play.



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