Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

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Nina Wohl

Columbia University

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

LSMA – American Studies

HIS W3441
Making of the Modern American Landscape

Spring 2012

Research Paper – Dust Bowl & the Visual Historic Landscape

“Migrant Mother”

photo by Dorothea Lange

In July of 1935, Caroline Henderson wrote to Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace: “since 1931 the record has been one of practically unbroken drought resulting in complete exhaustion of subsoil moisture, the stripping of our fields of all protective covering and the progressive pulverization of the surface soil.”1 She was describing the effects of dust storms that were destroying property and lives throughout the Great Plains. The Dust Bowl is considered the worst environmental disaster in United States’ history. The Dust Bowl along with the Great Depression helped stimulate government intervention. Unprecedented unemployment, bank failures, continuing farm crisis, and a myriad of other concerns led the federal government to take action. In their efforts to “fix” America, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition worked to reach a political and economic compromise between unrestrained capitalism and socialism. In the process they changed not only the landscape of the American government; they created the visual historic record. Public relations methods were employed as New Dealers worked to secure Congressional and public support for its projects. None more was significant than the work of the Resettlement Administration and its offshoot the Farm Security Administration. Its artists helped create a visual landscape that has shaped America’s understanding of itself.

Pare Lorentz’s documentary, created under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration, The Plow that Broke the Plains begins “This is a record of land . . . of soil, rather than people – a story of the Great Plains; the 400,000,000 acres of wind-swept grass lands that spread up from the Texas Panhandle to Canada. A high, treeless continent, without rivers, without streams . . .a country of high winds, and sun . . .and of little rain . . .”2 This documentary tell the story of the Great Plains. The story is still taught in schools throughout the United States and the world.

The Great Plains became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. Zebulon Pike explored the southwestern part of the territory noting that this land would “become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa”3 In 1823, a government map was produced labeling this area as the Great American Desert. In the report that accompanied the map, the geographer, Edwin James wrote of the region: “I do not hesitate in giving the opinion, that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course, uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence. Although tracts of fertile land considerably extensive are occasionally to be met with, yet the scarcity of wood and water, almost uniformly prevalent, will prove an insuperable obstacle in the way of settling the country”4 Despite all warnings, this negative view of the land would come to an end as demand for land increased.

After the Civil War, ranchers moved into the area and helped drive out the Indians and kill the buffalo. With the railroad, homesteaders arrived. Despite the vagaries of the climate, settlers worked the land. Every time it rained there was enough water to produce a good crop. For one or two years, they might get enough rain; then for three or four years they would completely fail. The memory of this climatic cycle – rain, followed by drought – would fade with the avarice of World War I.

World War I brought a new set of people to the land. The demand for wheat grew dramatically during the war years. There were campaigns for “Wheatless Wednesdays” and it was said that “Wheat Would Win the War.” Farmers bought land and machinery to supply this demand. People were not dismayed by the absence of wood and water. Threshers, combines, engine powered tractors, and the disc plow broke the top soil for the first time. The influx of people coincided with ample rainfall. Unfortunately, the profits reaped during WWI would not continue. As Europe recovered from the war, demand fell and prices dropped. Wheat production, though, did not abate. Texas farmer Abraham Krames noted that “We just kept plowing. Our neighbors just kept plowing. We were all sure that the good times would never end.”5

This abundance was not to last. The unusually wet period of the 1920s which encouraged increased settlement and cultivation in the Great Plains came to an end in 1930. The steel edge plow which had allowed the deep-rooted grasses of the plains to be removed, now left plowed fields exposed. When the drought hit in the 1930s, there was no natural anchor to keep the soil in place. The soil dried, and as it dried it turned to dust. People had been convinced that the soil was a limitless indestructible resource. This was not the case. Tons of top soil were blown off barren fields and carried in storm clouds for hundreds of miles.

The Dust Bowl covered an area of about 100 million acres. Some of the worst storms blanketed the nation with dust. One storm in May 1934 deposited 12 million tons of dust on Chicago and on the streets, parks and rooftops of New York and Washington, DC. This storm was 1500 miles long, 900 miles wide and 2 miles high. It even dropped prairie dust on ships as far as 500 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.6 A government official noted: “When people along the eastern seaboard began to taste fresh soil from the plains two thousand miles away, many of them realized for the first time that somewhere, something had gone wrong with the land.”7 The worst storm hit on April 14, 1935. This was Black Sunday; 300,000 tons of the region’s topsoil, twice as much earth in one afternoon than had been excavated during the seven year construction of the Panama Canal, was swept off the Plains.8

Life for those surviving the Dust Bowl was arduous. Dealing with dust became a way of life. They were constantly cleaning. They would place wet towels in doorways, but nothing helped. Their food was gritty from the sand. Dust would climb so high, they had to climb out their windows to leave the house. There were also days when people couldn’t see their hand in front of their faces. Worst of all was dust pneumonia. It is estimated that 7,000 people died from dust pneumonia and other dust related deaths. Over 2 million people were left homeless or forced to migrate.

First-hand accounts give a flavor to what life was like. Caroline Henderson wrote: ”wearing our shade hats, with handkerchiefs tied over our faces and vaseline in our nostrils, we have been trying to rescue our home from the accumulations of wind-blown dust which penetrates wherever air can go. It is an almost hopeless task, for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over. ‘Visibility’ approaches zero and everything is covered again with a silt-like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on the kitchen floor. I keep oiled cloths on the window sills between the upper and lower sashes. They help just a little to retard or collect the dust. Some seal the windows with the gummed-paper strips used in wrapping parcels, but no method is fully effective. We buy what appears to be red cedar sawdust with oil added to use in sweeping our floors, and do our best to avoid inhaling the irritating dusts.”9

Margaret Bourke-White reported how dust was not only affecting people, but livestock as well. “. . . the real tragedy is the plight of the cattle. In a rising sand storm, cattle quickly become blinded. They run around in circles until they fall and breathe so much dust that they die. Autopsies show their lungs caked with dust and mud. Farmers dread the birth of calves during a storm. The newborn animals will die within twenty-four hours.”10

These two stories were repeated more than 100 times and in more than 100 different places. The question of how to deal with the problems created by overproduction, drought, and the dust fell to FDR’s New Deal. The government would institute a numerous policies and programs to address both the human and environmental problems. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Civil Conservation Corps and the Rural Electrification Administration were just a few of the New Deal initiative designed to mitigate the plight of the farmers. Hugh Bennett would help create the Soil Conservation Service which would address these issues through demonstration centers, conservation districts and financial aid. Plains farmers would be helped with shelterbelts, strip cropping, re-establishment of grass on damaged cropland, and new tillage methods. Other agencies would be involved as well. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) and its predecessor the Resettlement Administration (RA) would play a unique role in shaping the historical landscape of the Dust Bowl.

The RA and later the FSA were designed to combat rural poverty during a period when the agricultural climate and national economy were causing great dislocation in rural life. Managed by Rex Tugwell, the RA dealt with land conservation and rural aid. Rex Tugwell was an economist whose focus was agriculture. He believed that the current economic problems were due to excessive economic competition. This he reasoned had led to an over‐production of goods, especially in agriculture. Tugwell believed that cooperation was essential if the economy was to be improved. He wanted businessmen, industrial workers, farmers, and politicians to put aside their differences and work together. He saw the government as key to motivating all parties to participate in the plans to further the public interest. He wrote that “the public domain is becoming the basis of a new economy because the theory of non-cooperative individual control has broken down before the hard facts of dry land, sparse grass, and limited water.”11

Under his leadership the Resettlement Administration sought to change the landscape of American agriculture. Employment of photography and documentary film would help facilitate that change. One of Tugwell’s main tasks was to persuade Congress and the public of the necessity of RA programs. As a result the RA funded projects to record and transmit aspects of its work. It set up the Photography Project headed by Roy Stryker and a Film Project directed by Pare Lorentz. Tugwell saw the RA’s constituency as virtually powerless. He would use the visual to show the desperate conditions of the farm community. Tugwell told Stryker, “Roy, you’ve got a real chance now to tell the people of America that those in distressed areas are the same as everybody else except they need a better chance.”12

The photographers who worked for the RA/FSA provided an institutional need. Their work was to be used in support of the agency’s public relations office. They were to provide visual evidence that there was need and that the RA/FSA programs were meeting that need. In addition, they were to document "the American way of life" that caught their eye. The information division of the FSA adopted a goal of introducing America to Americans. Their effort resulted in over 200,000 images. These photos are “a visual encyclopedia of American life.”13 They turned government publicity into visual history.

The photographs taken were more than a portrayal of the events. The photographers not only told the nation what was happening, but helped bring change through their images. Today many are considered works of art, but at the time they were seen as self-serving and highly political. The pictures were taken in an effort to serve the needs of FDR’s New Deal. Although these photos are now cultural and historical artifacts that document history, they were then viewed by many as propaganda. “In the thirties, the documentary approach was used to embarrass the leaders of finance and industry, and to inform the more fortunate classes about the hardships of the poor and unemployed. In effect, the New Deal institutionalized documentary, made it official policy, and used it as a weapon to undermine and vanquish those who clung to a bankrupt status quo.”14 The photos were used in a “war” to vanquish challenges to the New Deal.

Roy Stryker took exception to the word propaganda. It had a strong pejorative connotation, especially when considering Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Because propaganda film is seen as a distortion of the truth and designed to serve political ambition, the photographers of the FSA saw their work differently. Stryker insisted that his photographers use a documentary eye. Documentary photography meant no photographic tricks. Photographs were to record real life without pretense which would allow the viewer see what was actually there. It is important to understand, however, that objectivity was not the goal. The purpose of the FSA photos was to persuade and help reform efforts. They were an interpretation and a commentary on events of the day. Moreover, photographs by their very nature are biased. Who takes the picture, what is taken and how it is framed means that the work is not objective. There is a thin line between propaganda and documentary.

Michael L. Carlebach, an Associate Professor of Photojournalism in the School of Communications at the University of Miami believes that these photos were in fact propaganda, but “propaganda infused with the methodology of documentary.”15 Roy Stryker insisted that the photographs were documentary, not propaganda, “he argued [that they were] accurate, truthful, unmanipulated slices of life.”16 Stryker saw the photograph as the free flow of information and ideas. The capturing of these images was seen just another journalistic method for disseminating information which is key to a functioning democracy.

The photographers themselves felt compelled to document what they saw. For Arthur Rothstein, “there was a feeling . . . a missionary sense of dedication to this project….”17 Ben Shahn felt that “we just took pictures that had to be taken.”18 And Dorothea Lange said of the photography, “Everything is propaganda for what you believe in . . . I never have been able to come to the conclusion that that’s a bad word.”19 Even if the conclusion is that the FSA photos were employed for propagandistic purposes, their lasting legacy is one of visual history.

When thinking about this time period, one image comes to mind. The iconic image “Migrant Mother” taken in 1936 by Dorothea Lange still evokes the uncertainty and despair resulting from the hardships brought about by the Dust Bowl. The power to shape the cultural landscape was the true power of the RA/FSA. Historical interpretation of this time period will be forever shaped by the images captured by the photographers of the FSA.

Tugwell resigned in 1936 when the Resettlement Administration went from an independent agency to an agency within the Department of Agriculture. This was not before making one of the RA’s most important contributions – the documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains.

The Resettlement Administration employed Pare Lorentz to write, direct and produce a film which would portray a great social and economic problem in a dramatic manner.20 Lorentz believed that movies could be a tool for social justice and education. He was committed to the goals of the New Deal. He had even tried to make a film called recounting FDR’s first year in office. He could not get backing, but turned his idea into a book entitled The Roosevelt Year: A Photographic Record. It conveys the upheavals in American life caused by the Great Depression through photography. Lorentz came to the attention of the RA after he wrote a newspaper piece on Henry A. Wallace. This piece help bring him to the attention of the RA. In 1935, Lorentz was introduced to Rex Tugwell by Henry A. Wallace. Together Tugwell and Lorentz decided to produce a “Film of Merit.”

When Pare Lorentz began this project, he was faced with the question of what to tell and how to tell it. He decided to dramatize the Great Plain of America because it was a country with a dramatic background and because the dust storms were current and known to the general public. He suggested the Dust Bowl because he remembered the great vast landscape from his trip in 1924 and . . . “a heavy slow moving gray cloud, dust from the drought stricken Great Plains, [which] blew down in the middle of Manhattan Island and settled like an old blanket over the tower of the New York Times building in Times Square.”21 The film would focus on what men did to the land, rather than what the land had done to the people. Lorentz’s “intent . . .was to have the pictures tell their story; to augment that story with music that would not only be an accompaniment but would also evoke emotions related to the lives of the people concerned, and finally to write the fewest possible words solely for explanation and clarity and to have them as much as possible in time with the music.”22

“The making of The Plow that Broke the Plains brought together within the Resettlement Administration a group of young intellectuals who [saw] in the production of motion pictures a wholly new form of literature, history, and propaganda.”23 The documentary used history as a way of asserting the validity of the narrative and supporting the solutions it proposed. The work discredited past practices and sanctioned government intervention. The documentary changes mood as it moves from the productive past to the dust storm inflicted “present,” ending with a hopeful future symbolized by the screen shot of healthy grasses. The structure of the film lends itself to articulating the core message of the film – the nation’s future can be improved by making New Deal legislation a reality.

Although the film was well reviewed by critics, there were questions about its role in the nation’s politics. Variety’s review praised the film as the best ever produced by the United States government. “[The] film is entirely without dialogue, using, instead, superb musical accompaniment and intermittent comments by announcer. Actors are incidental, being chiefly bona fide farmers who aren’t called upon for any histrionics other than staring at the sky or whittling stick to indicate complete resignation to fate.”24 Variety’s reviewer, though, took exception to the ending of the film which advertised New Deal programs. When the National Board of Review Magazine critiqued the film, the reviewer said that the work was propaganda, not entertainment. The reviewer characterized the film as “the struggle between man and nature, with greed and carelessness weighing in the balance against man.”25 The reviewer wrote that the film was more like an episode of The March of Time and that is was a patriotic film designed to save a threatened country. Like the photographic work of the FSA, The Plow that Broke the Plains is more than an artistic and educational piece; it too is a piece designed to influence policy makers and the general public to support agricultural programs of the New Deal. Although the film holds up as a historical documentary even today, its purpose was ultimately propagandistic.

Lorentz had wanted his film to play alongside Hollywood produced films, but “Hollywood magnates . . . declined [distribution] . . . because they considered it too full of New Deal propaganda . . . It was suggested, too, that the movie tycoons feared that, if they showed the picture in their chains of theaters, the Republican party and other groups opposed to the New Deal might insists on similar treatment for their output of cinematic propaganda.”26 The film was also too long to be a short feature and too short to be a feature film. Instead of relying on Hollywood for distribution Lorentz packed suitcases with film cans and set out with a team to circumvent this stumbling block. Commercial bookings report from Lorentz’s Archive show that he was quite successful in getting his film shown.27

The Plow that Broke the Plains was the first film written and directed by Pare Lorentz. It was unique in its accomplishments and allowed Lorentz to produce other films for the United States. Robert L Snyder wrote “Pare Lorentz’s love and appreciation for film burst forth in all honest when he made The Plow that Broke the Plains as a project for the United States Department of Agriculture, a documentary film that recounts with a harmonious blend of poetic images, narrative, and music the agricultural misuse of the Great Plains that resulted in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. With this first film, he formulated a unique and individual style in the documentary form.”28 The Plow’s success lead to investment in more government sponsored films. The film’s accomplishments include:

  • “First federal film to be shown at the International Exposition of Cinematographic Art, Venice, Italy;

  • First government film to be released, billed and distributed and reviewed on par with feature productions of Hollywood.

  • First government film to be given Broadway booking at the Times Square theatre as the principal motion picture attraction at a leading moving house.

  • Established new record for extended run for documentary film – ten weeks at the Fine Arts Theater in Boston.

  • Distributed to approximately 3,000 commercial theaters in the U.S. – more than 10 million people have paid for submission.

  • First time the Federal government has been able to integrate into a single film production special musical score by a leading modern composer; with musical score as paly by memebers of world-famous orchestral organization and photography by international famous camermen.

  • Made such a strong impression the new field of film documentation that museums, forum, libraries and educational institution have purchased prints for instructional use.

  • Musical score has been used by music students as model for competition and utilization of music in film form.

  • The narrative commentary has been used by literature classrooms in numerous colleges as a pattern for dramatic expression and scenario writing.

  • The film has been show in every major country of the world and has enjoyed a command performance in foreign capitals.

  • The film has added great imputus to the U.S. film form know as “documentary;” has been said by many to have made U.S. critics and moviegoers “documentary-conscious.”29

The accomplishments of The Plow helped shape not only the visual historic landscape, but the modern environmental movement. The impact of The Plow that Broke the Plains can be seen when perusing YouTube. Subsequent documentaries use footage that Lorentz used in The Plow. His film is also heavily featured in the PBS documentary Surviving the Dust Bowl. The son of the farmer who was prominently featured in Lorentz’s film explains that his father was paid $25 for two hours work and that he did not know how it would be used until he saw the film. The PBS website featuring Surviving the Dust Bowl contains a plethora of information about the Dust Bowl and its impact. The Plow that Broke the Plains made this possible. The impact of this film on our historical memory is long.

Accompanying the film distribution was a study guide. The study guide was not just for schools; it was to be used after showings of the film to facilitate discussion. The background information is explained in detail in the guide’s section “the problem of the Great Plains.” The guide itself is well designed and could be used successfully in classrooms today. In addition to addressing the central problems of drought, dust and general misuse of the Great Plains, the study guide incorporates music, art, drama, poetry, literature, science, economics, geography and history into its teaching suggestions. More interesting than the pedagogy, is the point of view of the curriculum writers. Their study questions and topics for discussion seemed to be designed to illicit what today would be characterized as “left wing” environmentalism. Viewers are asked to record their reactions to the following attitudes before and after the film:

“ 1. That man conquers nature;

2. That natural resources are inexhaustible;

3. That habitual practices are best;

4. That what is good for the individual is good for everybody;

5. That an owner may do with property as he likes;

6. That expanding markets will continue indefinately;

7. That free competition coordinates industry and agriculture;

8. That values will increase indefinitely;

9. That tenancy is a stepping stone to ownership;

10. That ownership means security;

11. That the individual must make his own judgements.”30

It is also suggested that chapter five entitled Attitudes of Mind from the Report of the Future of the Great Plains in 1936 be consulted. The report listed attitudes widely held by residents of the plains that in the opinion of the authors was unfounded:

“- Man conquers nature.

  • Natural resources are inexhaustible.

  • Habitual practices are the best.

  • What is good for the individual is good for everybody.

  • An owner may do with his property as he likes.

  • Expanding markets will continue indefinitely.

  • Free competition coordinates industry and agriculture.

  • Land values will increase indefinitely.

  • Tenancy is a stepping stone to ownership.

  • The factory farm is generally desirable.

  • The individual must make his own adjustments.”31

These attitudes are held responsible for much of the problems facing the victims of the Dust Bowl. By examining these fallacies attitudes about the environment would change. Figures 2, 3, and 432 show the authors’ attitude regarding the Great Plains and how they envisioned the future. Although Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is credited with the modern environmental movement; these documents clearly show that the environmental sensibility was shaped long before its publication. The widespread distribution of The Plow that Broke the Plains was coupled with the concerted effort to change attitudes. This is not surprising given the government officials involved in its creation.

Rex Tugwell wrote about the need to force a common-sense realization that protecting national lands was vital. He wrote: “It is a battle to establish conservation and sound use in fields where speculation and waste have prevailed. The creation and improvement of our . . . storehouse for natural heritage of land resources, remains one of the major tasks of the coming years.”33 He warned that the United States would go the way of ancient civilizations if Americans did not protect their “collective birthright.” Tugwell’s words echo to today. Modern environmentalists share his thoughts.

FSA images and The Plow was a boost to the effectiveness of the Soil Conservation Services. The Depression and the Dust bowl awoke the nation to the interrelated problems of poverty and poor land use. The photographs and The Plow told that tale and captured the national attention. “Newspaper accounts of dust storms, the government sponsored The Plow that Broke the Plain, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, evoked powerful images. “The Dust Bowl set the image of the human condition complicated by the problem of soil erosion. It remains a powerful historical touchstone for the public’s idea about soil erosion.”34 These images remind Americans of the need to protect their natural environment.

The Dust Bowl was an “environmental, economic and social disaster all wrapped up in one.”35 It turned the Jeffersonian dream of the yeoman farmer on its head. Americans thought the land was an inexhaustible resource and that breaking the sod for wheat was without consequence. They were wrong. The hardships experienced during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl are well documented. The effort to employ artists led to the creation of a visual historical landscape that continues to shape America’s understanding of itself. Although the original intent of the photographers and filmmakers of the Resettlement Administration and the subsequent Farm Security Administration was to support New Deal programs, they ended up with art. The propaganda of the past has become the historical record.

1 Caroline Henderson, Letters from the Dust Bowl (University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), p.141
2 The Plow that Broke the Plains (United States Resettlement Administration, 1936)

3 Robert Athearn, “The Great Plains in Historical Perspective” Montana: The Magazine of

Western History Vol. 8, No 1, Great Plains Issue (Winter, 1958), p.13.
4 D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p.76.
5 Martin W. Sandler, The Dust Bowl through the Lens (Walker and Company: New York, 2009.), p.10.
6 Ibid, p. 18.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid, p.22.
9 Henderson, p. 147.

10 Margaret Bourke-White, “Dust Changes America” The Nation (5/22/35).

11 Rexford G. Tugwell, “Our New National Domain” Scribners (March 1936), p.3.
12 Michael L. Carlebach,“Documentary and Propaganda: The Photographs of the Farm Security Administration” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol.8 (Spring, 1988), p.17.
13 Ibid, p.23.
14 Ibid, p.13.

15 Ibid, p.6

16 Ibid.
17 Ibid, p.17.
18 Sandler, p.40.

19 Ibid, p.50.

20 Pare Lorentz 1914-1994, Series III: The Plow That Broke The Plains, Box 40.
21 Pare Loretz, FDR’s Movie Maker, (University of Nevada Press: Reno, 1992), p.37.
22 Ibid, p.43.

23 ProQuest Historical Newspapers, “New Deal Movie Wins Critics, But Theaters Bar Doors To ItThe Baltimore Sun (May 14, 1936), p.2.
24 Ibid.
25 Lorentz, Box 38. (National Board of Review Magazine, Vol. XI, No.6, June 1936).
26 ProQuest Historical Newspapers, p.1.
27 Lorentz, Box 40.
28 Pare Lorentz, Lorentz on Film (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1975.), p.3.
29 Lorentz, Box 40.
30 Ibid.

31 Gilbert F. White, “The Future of the Great Plains Revisited” Great Plains Quarterly, Vol. 6 (Spring 1986), p.91.
32 Ibid, pp.89 & 90.
33 Tugwell, p.5.
34 Douglas Helms, “Conserving the Plains: The Soil Conservation in the Great Plains” Agricultural History, Vol. 64, No. 2, The United States Department of Agriculture in Historical Perspective (Spring, 1990), p. 59.
35 Mitchel Roth, Issues of Westward Expansion (Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 2002), p.261


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