“Man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication and many accomplishments, owes the fact of his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”
-Anonymous, often attributed to John Jeavons
The Great Depression, in and of itself, was terrifying. Having lived through the Great Recession, we jaded folks of the mid-2010s probably feel like we could stare the Great Depression in the eye and laugh, or at the very least, smirk a little bit. Believe me when I tell you, though, that the Great Depression (1929-1941ish) was far worse than anything we’ve experienced in the past eight years. At the peak of the Depression, in 1933, the unemployment rate in America was 25%. That’s fully one in four people who were out of work. Between 1929 and 1932, the income of the average American family fell a good 40%, and during 1932 and 1933, money circulation was so low that the U.S. Mint didn’t even bother to mint nickels.
Now imagine that, in addition to the horrors of the Great Depression, at the same time there was also a drought unlike anything seen before ravaging the country’s farmland in what would become a perfect storm of “Gee, you folks sure picked a bad time to be born!” Guess what, you don’t have to imagine it. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Dust Bowl.
People enticed by the Homestead Act (1862) in which a settler could receive 160 acres of land for small fee and a promise to work that land for a period of five years swarmed the wide-open spaces and cultivated huge patches of the middle of the country (how else do you think people wound up in Kansas?). During these pioneering years, however, farmers didn’t have a very good understanding of the ecology of the mid-West. The then-customary deep plowing into what was virgin topsoil proved to be a bad idea due to the removal of the network of deep-rooted grasses that would ordinarily help to trap moisture and nutrients, even during times of drought. Extensive overgrazing of cattle only exacerbated the problem. Sixty or seventy years of this treatment effectively destroyed the now-unanchored soil’s ability to successfully grow crops. When a poorly timed drought hit in the early 1930s, the dirt that had been the lifeblood for two or three generations of farmers turned to useless sand.
A South Dakota farm in 1936.
To make matters worse yet again, this soil-turned-sand didn’t just sit there. In a series of severe dust storms that plagued the region, the sand blew around, filling the air and people’s lungs, even to the point of illness or death.1 During these storms, people – even those securely inside buildings with closed doors and windows – were plagued to the point that they could not see five feet in front of their faces. One such dust storm in 1934 deposited over 12 million pounds of dust on Chicago. Of course, it was Chicago in 1934, so most enterprising souls probably just saw the mounds of dust as convenient places to hide from the Mob.
On April 14th, 1935, now known as “Black Sunday,” one of the worst dust storms in America’s history blew through the plains states. The storm, moving at 50 to 60 MPH, displaced an estimated 300 million tons of topsoil. One man, Melt White, later remembered his Black Sunday experience:
“It kept gittin’ worse and worse and wind blowin’ harder and harder and it kept gittin’ darker and darker. And the old house was just a-vibratin’ like it was gonna blow away. And I started tryin’ to see my hand. And I kept bringin’ my hand up closer and closer and closer and closer and closer and I finally touched the end of my nose and I still couldn’t see my hand. That’s how black it was.”2
Black Sunday dustcloud approaching a small town in Texas.
Even during periods of relative calm, life for people in America’s heartland was miserable. There wasn’t enough food or money for even the most hardworking families to prosper, and the crops just couldn’t grow in sand. The dust was pervasive. It got in through even the smallest cracks. People turned plates upside down when setting the table so that dust would not accumulate on them before the meal. Parents put wet cloths over babies’ cribs so they wouldn’t breathe in the dust while they slept. Numerous people died from dust pneumonia (often called the “brown plague”), which was caused by – you guessed it – inhalation of dust which coated and inflamed the lungs. And, as if things couldn’t get any worse, hordes of grasshoppers and jackrabbits descended upon what was left of the meager crops (if you’re creating a chart of bibilically-inspired terrors, “plague of rabbits” sits squarely between “plague of frogs” and “plague of beagles”). As a result, some towns engaged in what came to be known as “rabbit drives,” in which people drove hundreds or thousands of jackrabbits to pens in the center of town and beat them to death with clubs or baseball bats.3
As a result of the Dust Bowl, many farming families were forced to abandon their homes, striking out for what they hoped would be a safer environment and a good living elsewhere in the country, as demonstrated by the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath. These refugees from nature’s fury – a full 25% of farming families in the Midwest – came to be known as “Okies,” a derogatory term referencing their supposed point of origin.
All was not lost, however. The government educated the farmers who remained in methods of farming designed to conserve and protect the soil, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted a belt of more than 200 million trees stretching from Canada to Texas to help alleviate the soil and serve as a windbreak, and the Drought Relief Service coordinated large-scale efforts to stabilize food prices and provide supplies (food and clothing) to the needy. At the end of the 1930s, following the long-awaited return of average rainfall levels, life slowly began to return to normal.
I look at the Dust Bowl as a sterling example of the disaster that simple ignorance can cause, and the good that a responsive government can affect. While droughts are natural and unavoidable, the Dust Bowl was inevitable only because people cultivated wide swaths of land while blissfully unaware of the long-term effects of their methods. What resulted was an horrific experience. However, the government’s active intervention not only saved lives, through conservation and education, it served to ensure that the experience would not soon be repeated.
1 Have you seen Interstellar? The dust storms experienced by the characters are very clearly and consciously based on the storms of the Dust Bowl. In addition, the interviews shown at the beginning of the movie are drawn from Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary, The Dust Bowl.
3 If you, too, have seen the “Wacking Day” episode of The Simpsons from 1993: This episode was not actually based on Dust Bowl-era rabbit drives; it’s based on actual historical rattlesnake round-ups in this country.