Excerpts from "The Dust Bowl, Men, Dirt and Depression" by Paul Bonnifield.
The 1930's Dust Bowl
"Dust Bowl" was a term born in the hard times from the people who lived in the drought-stricken region during the great depression. The term was first used in a dispatch from Robert Geiger, an AP correspondent in Guymon, and within a few short hours the term was used all over the nation. The "Dust Bowl Days", also known as the "Dirty Thirties", took its toll on Cimarron County. The decade was full of extremes: blizzards, tornadoes, floods, droughts, and dirt storms.
Early Thirties Economy
In 1930 and 1931, the decade opened with unparalleled prosperity and growth. NATION'S BUSINESS magazine labeled the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas as the most prosperous region. The Panhandle was a marked contrast to the long soup lines of the Eastern United States.
Farming in the Panhandle
Wheat was a real good thing. The world needed it and was paying a good price for it. Wheat farmers with tractors, one way plows and combines purchased by most farmers after the phenomenal crop of 1926, began plowing and planting wheat as never before. The lands were planted to wheat year after year without a thought as to the damage that was being done. Grasslands that should have never been plowed were plowed up. Millions of acres of farm land in the great plains were broken.
1930 was dry but most of the farmers made a wheat crop. In 1931 the wheat crop was considered a bumper crop with over twelve million bushels of wheat. Wheat was everywhere, in the elevators, on the ground and in the road. The wheat supply forced the price down from sixty-eight cents/bushel in July 1930 to twenty-five cents/bushel in July 1931. Many farmers went broke and others abandoned their fields.
With continuing hard times and dry years, the farmers, who still had a lot of pioneering spirit and faith in the land, made ready to weather the storms. The old survival methods of pioneering were brought out of storage, dusted off and put into practice. Many farmers increased their milk cow herd. The cream from the cows was sold and the skim milk was fed to chickens and pigs.
When normal feed crops failed, thistles were harvested, and when thistles failed, hardy souls dug up soap weed which was chopped in a feed mill or by hand and fed to the stock. This was a back breaking, disheartening chore which would have broken weaker people. But to the credit of the residents of the Dust Bowl, they shouldered their task and carried on.
"I don't know, we just made it." The people of the region made it because they knew how to take the everyday practical things which had been used for years and adapt them to meet the crisis. Finding a way to make do or do differently was a way of life for the pioneers who had come to the region only a short time earlier. When they arrived there were no houses, wells, cars, telephones or fields. Times were hard when the land was settled, and the people knew how to live and grow in difficult periods.
In 1934 to 1936, three record drought years were marked for the nation. In 1936, a more severe storm spread out of the plains and across most of the nation. The drought years were accompanied with record breaking heavy rains, blizzards, tornadoes and floods. In September 1930, it rained over five inches in a very short time in the Oklahoma Panhandle. The flooding in Cimarron County was accompanied by a dirt storm which damaged several small buildings and graineries. Later that year, the regions were whipped again by a strong dirt storm from the southwest until the winds gave way to a blizzard from the north.
After the blizzards in winter 1930-1931, the drought began. First the northern plains felt the dry spell, but by July the southern plains were in the drought. It was not until late September that the ground had enough water to justify planting. Because of the late planting and early frost, much of the wheat was small and weak when the spring winds of 1932 began to blow. The wheat was also beaten by dirt from the abandoned fields. In March, there were twenty-two days of dirt storms and drifts began to build in the fence rows.
In late January 1933, the region was blasted by a magnificent dirt storm which killed much of the wheat. In early February, the thermometer dropped seventy four degrees in eighteen hours to a record low at Boise City. The mercury stayed below freezing for several days until another dirt storm scourged the land. Before the year was over, locals counted 139 dirty days in 1933.
Although the dirt storms were fewer in 1934, it was the year which brought the Dust Bowl national attention. In May, a severe storm blew dirt from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas as far east as New York City and Washington D.C. In spite of the terrific storm in May, the year 1934 was pleasant respite from the blowing dirt and tornadoes of the previous year. But nature had another trick up her sleeve, the year was extremely hot with new records being made and broken at regular intervals. Before the year had run its course, hundreds of people in Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas had died from the heat.
In 1935, the weather in the Dust Bowl again made the national headlines. This storm was followed by another and yet another in rapid succession. In late March a severe storm lashed Boise City so hard that many people were stranded for hours. No one dared to leave a store and head for home although it might be less than a block away.
On Sunday April 14, 1935, the sun came up in a clear sky. The day was warm and pleasant, a gentle breeze whimpered out of the southwest. Suddenly a cloud appeared on the horizon. Birds flew swiftly ahead of it, but not swift enough for the cloud traveling at sixty miles per hour. This day, which many people of the area readily remember, was named "Black Sunday".
By May, it seemed like the wind and dirt had been blowing for an eternity. Rain was an event occurring only in dreams. It was a year of intensive dirt storms, gales, rollers and floods mixed with economic depression, sickness and disaster. It was a year of extreme hardship, but surprisingly the vast majority of the people stayed. By 1935, the unusual had become the usual, the extreme became the normal, the exception became the routine.
During 1936, the number of dirt storms increased and the temperature broke the 1934 record high by soaring above 120 degrees. On one pleasant June day in 1936, the ground began to tremble. A sharp earthquake shook the land from Kenton to Perryton and from Liberal to Stratford. By the fall of 1936, the rains began to return and the heat wave was broken. The following year, 1937 was another year of unprecedented dirt storms. Day after day, Dust Bowl farmers unwillingly traded farms as the land moved back and forth between Texas and Kansas. And of course there were the usual floods. 1938 was the year of the "snuster". The snuster was a mixture of dirt and snow reaching blizzard proportions. The storm cause a tremendous amount of damage and suffering.
A giant dust storm engulfs Boise City. Cyclic winds rolled up two miles high, stretched out a hundred miles and moved faster than 50 miles an hour. These storms destroyed vast areas of the Great Plains farmland. The methods of fighting the dust were as many and varied as were the means of finding a way to get something to eat and wear. Every possible crack was plugged, sheets were placed over windows and blankets were hung behind doors. Often the places were so tightly plugged against the dust (which still managed to get in) that the houses became extremely hot and stuffy.
The clouds appeared on the horizons with a thunderous roar. Turbulent dust clouds rolled in generally from the North and dumped a fine silt over the land. Men, women and children stayed in their houses and tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. When they dared to leave, they added goggles to protect their eyes. Houses were shut tight, cloth was wedged in the cracks of the doors and windows but still the fine silt forced its way into houses, schools and businesses. During the storms, the air indoors was "swept" with wet gunny sacks. Sponges were used as makeshift "dust masks" and damp sheets were tied over the beds.
Black Sunday April 14, 1935. The dust storm that turned day into night. Many believed the world was coming to an end.
The Dust Bowl taught farmers new farming methods and techniques. The 1930's fostered a whole new era of soil conservation. Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned form the Dust Bowl - take care of the land. The Dust Bowl's future is controlled almost exclusively by the weather. The prolonged drought combined with the meteorological phenomena of the 1930's was rare and never before tortured the Great Plains as it did. Droughts and winds still cause many problems, but most are averted and minimized with proper soil conservation. When times turn dry again, will the wind blow and history repeat itself? Only time will tell.