Sunday, May 15, 2016

American History 101: The Dust Bowl

In the middle of the 1930’s the prairies of the United States and Canada were hit with severe droughts that caused unprecedented dry conditions in the region. The drought came in three different waves in 1934, 1936 and 1939 and caused severe erosion in the area. The erosion was marked by large, swirling clouds of dust that would darken the skies sometimes for hundreds of miles. The impacted areas included portions of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and the Texas panhandle but the dust clouds would sometimes reach as far as New York. The severe drought and dust storms are said to have impacted over 100,000,000 acres and displaced tens of thousands of families from their farmlands. It has gone down as the worst man-made ecological disaster in history.

In the decades that preceded the drought and dust storms of the 1930s, the southern plains enjoyed favorable conditions and excellent crop production. The heavy rains and fertile fields drew newcomers to the area by the thousands, and towns sprung up overnight. What has been called the “Great Plow Up” turned 5.2 million acres of thick grassland into wheatfields. When the Great Depression hit the country, prices on wheat and other crops fell which cause some of the less invested farmers to pull up their stakes and head out of town. These huge areas of abandoned land sat empty and dry. Where there used to be thousands of consecutive acres of deep, native grasslands there were now nothing by dry dust fields as far as the eye could see with nothing to balance the tempermental and moody weather conditions of the plains. This combination of favorable conditions, over farming and abandonment of the lands set the stage for a disaster that seemed natural at the time, but was anything but that. 

The heavy farming of the 1920s created the strong American wheat fields, but it also destroyed the natural grasslands tha helped keep the plains states moist and relatively dust free. When the drought began in the Great Plains erosion began very quickly without anything to temper it. The previous farming practices had not only removed the grasslands, but also the heavier topsoil that went along with it. The drought was so severe that the 1930s delivered four of the ten driest years recorded singce 1895. The drought, combined with the heavy farming, now left the entire region with light, dry and dusty soil that was easily blown about. And on November 11, 1933, a strong dust storm kicked up the fine soil from abandoned South Dakota farmlands and created the first dust bowl dust storm on record. This was followed by several other minor storms, and then on May 9, 1934, a strong dust storm that lasted for two days blew from the west towards the east and crippled the entire region. The May 1934 storm blew its dust all the way in to Chicago where 12 million pounds of dust settled. The storm did not stop in Chicagp, however. Within two days after it hit Chicago the storm also left dust in Cleveland, Buffalo, New York City and Washington, D.C. And on April 13, 1935 twenty severe dust storms hit ranging from Canada down into the plains of the United States. Known as “Black Sunday”, these dust storms were the worst since the beginning of the drought and were said to be so severe that they turned “day into night” in many areas. 

The dust storms on “Black Sunday” were the final straw for many people. The “Black Sunday” storms caused severe damage across the country. Much of the farmland that was already dried out was now completely eroded and unfarmable. In addition, homes were damaged beyond reasonable repair and even the people who had stayed with their farms were now leaving. By 1935, the drought had been going on for four years, and when the dust storms hit hard they left. It is noted as the largest mass migration within the country in the history of the United States. Between 1930 and 1940 over 3.5 million people left the plains states. In 1935 alone over 86,000 people left the plains states and moved to California. This mass migration into California was more than in the 1849 Gold Rush.

After “Black Sunday”, the government knew it had to step in to help. But even as early as 1933 President Roosevelt was stepping up efforts to increase the nations soil conservation. The Soil Erosion Service was established in 1933, and in 1935 it was placed under the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Soil Conservation Service. In 1935, the Drought Relief Service was formed and began to buy cattle from impacted areas to help the farmers stay out of bankruptcy. President Roosevelt then ordered the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant more than 200 million trees from Canada down to Abilene, Texas. These trees served as a breakwind, soil moisturizer and erosion prevention measure.  Plus, the CCC served as a big economic boost to the out of work young men of America.  In addition, the administration launched an aggressive educational campaign to help the farmers understand soil conservation, soil erosion, crop rotation, strip farming, terracing and other efficient practices. The new conservation efforts reduced the amount of blowing soil by over 60% by 1937. In spite of the overall improvements the soil remained incapable of sustaining an average working family. 

The Dust Bowl years caused some of the most damaging man-made storms on record and the largest mass migration in the nations history. While millions of people lost their homes and livelihoods, and some even lost their lives, there were many lessons learned regarding proper soil conservation, proper farming techniques and how to farm for longevity and not just a quick profit.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel

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