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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Surviving The Dust Bowl

The “black blizzards” (pictured) that started in the summer of 1933 enveloped the lower great plains in a shroud, blowing away the thin layer of topsoil exposed by the ploughs of the hardy settlers who sought to tame what was marked, perhaps presciently, on early maps as “The Great American Desert.” For two years the summers were dry and windy, prompting some to leave, but as many as two thirds of the farmers stayed put, weathering the drought.
Carson County Square House Museum
The “black blizzards” (pictured) that started in the summer of 1933 enveloped the lower great plains in a shroud, blowing away the thin layer of topsoil exposed by the ploughs of the hardy settlers who sought to tame what was marked, perhaps presciently, on early maps as “The Great American Desert.” For two years the summers were dry and windy, prompting some to leave, but as many as two thirds of the farmers stayed put, weathering the drought.

Airs Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV + Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2

The Remarkable Story of the Determined People Who Endured Drought, Dust, Disease and Even Death for Nearly a Decade

In 1931 the rains stopped and the “black blizzards” began.

Powerful dust storms carrying millions of tons of stinging, blinding black dirt swept across the Southern Plains — the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, western Kansas, and the eastern portions of Colorado and New Mexico. Topsoil that had taken a thousand years per inch to build suddenly blew away in only minutes.

One journalist traveling through the devastated region dubbed it the “Dust Bowl.”

"Surviving The Dust Bowl" is the remarkable story of the determined people who clung to their homes and way of life, enduring drought, dust, disease — even death — for nearly a decade.

Less well-known than those who sought refuge in California, typified by the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” the Dust Bowlers who stayed overcame an almost unbelievable series of calamities and disasters.

“Only one-quarter of the Dust Bowlers fled to California — most stayed, persevering through ten grueling years,” said Producer Chana Gazit. “I was intrigued by their stories — their stamina and resilience to battle through frighteningly powerful, devastating wind and dust storms.”

The first major influx of farmers into the Southern Plains came at the turn of the century.

Lured by a land lush with shrubs, grasses, and soil so rich it looked like chocolate, the farmers didn't realize that what they were witnessing was but a brief respite in an endless cycle of rain and drought.

Unaware, they enjoyed great harvests and raced to turn every inch of the Southern Plains into profit.

But in the summer of 1931, the rains disappeared. Crops withered and died. There had always been strong winds and dust on the Plains, but now over-plowing created conditions for disaster.

The land became parched, the winds picked up and the dust storms began. They rolled in without warning, blotting out the sun and casting entire towns into darkness.

Afterward, there was dust everywhere — in food, in water, and in the lungs of animals and people.

In 1932, the weather bureau reported 14 dust storms. The next year, the number climbed to 38.

People tried to protect themselves by hanging wet sheets in front of doorways and windows to filter the dirt. They stuffed window frames with gummed tape and rags.

But keeping the fine particles out was impossible. The dust permeated the tiniest cracks and crevices.

Through it all, the farmers kept plowing, kept sowing wheat, kept waiting for rain.

Along the highway near Bakersfield, Calif., Dust Bowl refugees, November 1935.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Along the highway near Bakersfield, Calif., Dust Bowl refugees, November 1935.

By 1934, the storms were coming with alarming frequency. Residents believed they could determine a storm’s point of origin by the color of the dust: black from Kansas, red from Oklahoma, gray from Colorado or New Mexico.

The dust was beginning to make living things sick. Animals were found dead in the fields, their stomachs coated with two inches of dirt.

People spat up clods of dirt as big around as a pencil. An epidemic raged throughout the Plains: they called it dust pneumonia.

By the end of 1935, with no substantial rainfall in four years, some residents gave up. Dust Bowlers watched as their neighbors and friends picked up and headed west in search of farm jobs in California.

They packed their meager belongings and didn't even bother to shut the door behind them. They just drove away. Banks and businesses failed, churches shut their doors, schools were boarded up.

Abandoned farm, Coldwater District, north of Dalhart, Texas, June 1938.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Abandoned farm, Coldwater District, north of Dalhart, Texas, June 1938.

Yet even with the world crumbling around them, three-quarters of the Dust Bowlers chose to stay. Some prayed for rain; others went in for more drastic measures:

  • Billing himself as a rainmaker, explosives expert Tex Thornton claimed he could blast rain out of the sky.
  • John McCarty, editor of the Dalhart Texan, created The Last Man’s Club, designed to promote a spirit of courage.
  • Judge Cowen recalls the pledge members had to sign: “In the absence of an act of God, serious family injury, or some other emergency, I pledge to stay here as the last man and to do everything I can to help other last men remain in this country. We promise to stay here `til hell freezes over and skate out on the ice.”
  • In 1936, Dust Bowlers saw their first ray of hope: an innovative plan spearheaded by Hugh Bennett, a leading agricultural expert, to conserve valuable topsoil. He persuaded Congress to approve a federal program that would pay farmers to use new farming techniques. By 1937, the soil conservation campaign was in full swing. By the next year the soil loss had been reduced by 65 percent. Though the new techniques were taking root and the situation had improved, the drought dragged on.

Related Article: A Child of the Dust Bowl - Imogene Glover from Guymon, Oklahoma recalls her family's experience.

Sand drift along fence, north of Dalhart, Texas, June 1938.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Sand drift along fence, north of Dalhart, Texas, June 1938.

Finally, in the fall of 1939, the skies opened.

“It was a very emotional time, when you’d get rain, because it meant so much to you. You didn't have false hope then,” said Floyd Coen of Kansas. “When the rain came, it meant life itself. It meant a future.”

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CREDITS:

A Steward/Gazit Productions, Inc. film for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Written and Produced by Chana Gazit. Co-produced and Edited by David Steward. Associate Producers: Laura Ozment-Schenck and Maria Nicolo. Production Coordinator/Researcher: Marilyn Ness. Music by Michael Bacon. Narrated by Liev Schreiber. Voice of Lawrence Svobida: Matthew Modine. Cinematography: Allan Palmer. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is a production of WGBH Boston. Senior Producer: Susan Bellows. Executive Producer: Mark Samels.