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The Dust Bowl

THE DUST BOWL, a new two-part, four-hour documentary by Ken Burns, airs Sunday and Monday, November 18-19, 2012 on KPBS TV. It was written and co-produced by longtime Burns collaborator Dayton Duncan. Survey the causes of the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, when the frenzied wheat boom of the “Great Plow-Up,” followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s, nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. See vivid interviews with 26 survivors of those hard times, combined with dramatic photographs and seldom-seen movie footage, that bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible perseverance. The documentary is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us — a lesson we ignore at our peril.

FSA photographer Dorothea Lange came across Florence Thompson and her children (pictured) in a pea pickers' camp in Nipomo, California, in March 1936. During the decade of Great Depression, California's population grew by more than 20 percent, an increase of 1.3 million people. More than half of the newcomers came from cities, not farms; one in six were professionals or white collar workers. Of the 315,000 who arrived from Oklahoma, Texas, and neighboring states, only 16,000 were from the Dust Bowl itself. But regardless of where they actually came from, regardless of their skills and their education and their individual reasons for seeking a new life in a new place, to most Californians - and to the nation at large - they were all the same. And they all had the same name: Okies.

FSA photographer Dorothea Lange came across Florence Thompson and her children (pictured) in a pea pickers' camp in Nipomo, California, in March 1936. During the decade of Great Depression, California's population grew by more than 20 percent, an increase of 1.3 million people. More than half of the newcomers came from cities, not farms; one in six were professionals or white collar workers. Of the 315,000 who arrived from Oklahoma, Texas, and neighboring states, only 16,000 were from the Dust Bowl itself. But regardless of where they actually came from, regardless of their skills and their education and their individual reasons for seeking a new life in a new place, to most Californians - and to the nation at large - they were all the same. And they all had the same name: Okies.

Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress

As a black blizzard rolls in to Ulysses, Kansas, two women and a girl pose for a photograph before taking shelter.

As a black blizzard rolls in to Ulysses, Kansas, two women and a girl pose for a photograph before taking shelter.

Credit: Courtesy of Historic Adobe Museum

In Lakin, Kansas, three children prepare to leave for school wearing goggles and homemade dust masks to protect them from the dust in 1935.

In Lakin, Kansas, three children prepare to leave for school wearing goggles and homemade dust masks to protect them from the dust in 1935.

Credit: Courtesy of Joyce Unruh; Green Family Collection

When Harry Forester lost his farm to the dust and Depression in Oklahoma, the family converted its truck into a modern-day covered wagon and migrated to California in 1936, where Forester had found work. Two of his daughters (Louise, front row, left, in cap; and Shirley, second row, second from right) help tell the story of their father's broken dreams and the journey to a new life.

When Harry Forester lost his farm to the dust and Depression in Oklahoma, the family converted its truck into a modern-day covered wagon and migrated to California in 1936, where Forester had found work. Two of his daughters (Louise, front row, left, in cap; and Shirley, second row, second from right) help tell the story of their father's broken dreams and the journey to a new life.

Credit: Courtesy of Forester Family Collection

The huge Black Sunday storm - the worst storm of the decade-long Dust Bowl in the southern Plains - as it approaches Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935. Daylight turned to total blackness in mid-afternoon.

The huge Black Sunday storm - the worst storm of the decade-long Dust Bowl in the southern Plains - as it approaches Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935. Daylight turned to total blackness in mid-afternoon.

Credit: Courtesy of Historic Adobe Museum

FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein captured this photograph of Art Coble and his sons, south of Boise City, Oklahoma, in April 1936. It became one of the iconic photographs of the Dust Bowl and one of the most reproduced photos of the twentieth century.

FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein captured this photograph of Art Coble and his sons, south of Boise City, Oklahoma, in April 1936. It became one of the iconic photographs of the Dust Bowl and one of the most reproduced photos of the twentieth century.

Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress

The huge Black Sunday storm - the worst storm of the decade-long Dust Bowl in the southern Plains - just before it engulfed the Church of God in Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935. Daylight turned to total blackness in mid-afternoon.

The huge Black Sunday storm - the worst storm of the decade-long Dust Bowl in the southern Plains - just before it engulfed the Church of God in Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935. Daylight turned to total blackness in mid-afternoon.

Credit: Courtesy of Historic Adobe Museum

An abandoned farm north of Dalhart, Texas, 1938. FSA photographer Dorothea Lange took the picture.

An abandoned farm north of Dalhart, Texas, 1938. FSA photographer Dorothea Lange took the picture.

Credit: Courtesy of Dorothea Lange; Library of Congress

During the decade-long drought that turned the southern Plains into the Dust Bowl, the hardest hit area was centered on Boise City, Oklahoma, in a part of the Panhandle formerly known as No Man’s Land. And the worst storm of all hit on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935—a day remembered as Black Sunday. Here the storm sweeps over a farmstead on its way toward Boise City.

During the decade-long drought that turned the southern Plains into the Dust Bowl, the hardest hit area was centered on Boise City, Oklahoma, in a part of the Panhandle formerly known as No Man’s Land. And the worst storm of all hit on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935—a day remembered as Black Sunday. Here the storm sweeps over a farmstead on its way toward Boise City.

Credit: Courtesy of Associated Press

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