1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email

Dust Bowl

An Ecological Disaster During the Great Depression

By Shelly Schwartz, Contributing History Writer

Picture of three girls wearing Dust Bowl masks.

Three girls modelling various Dust Bowl masks to be worn in areas where the amount of dust in the air causes breathing difficulties. (circa 1935)

(Photo by Bert Garai/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Dust Bowl was the name given to an area of the Great Plains (southwestern Kansas, Oklahoma panhandle, Texas panhandle, northeastern New Mexico, and southeastern Colorado) that was devastated by nearly a decade of drought and soil erosion during the 1930s. The huge dust storms that ravaged the area destroyed crops and made living there untenable. Millions of people were forced to leave their homes, often searching for work in the West. This ecological disaster, which exacerbated the Great Depression, was only alleviated after the rains returned in 1939 and soil conservation efforts had begun in earnest.

It Was Once Fertile Ground

The Great Plains was once known for its rich, fertile, prairie soil that had taken thousands of years to build up. However, following the Civil War, cattlemen over-grazed the semi-arid Plains, overcrowding it with cattle that fed on the prairie grasses that held the topsoil in place.

Cattlemen were soon replaced by wheat farmers, who settled in the Great Plains and over-plowed the land. By World War I, so much wheat grew that farmers plowed mile after mile of soil, taking the unusually wet weather and bumper crops for granted.

In the 1920s, thousands of additional farmers migrated to the area, plowing even more areas of grassland. Faster and more powerful gasoline tractors easily removed the remaining native Prairie grasses. But little rain fell in 1930, thus ending the unusually wet period.

The Drought Begins

An eight-year drought started in 1931 with hotter than usual temperatures. Winter’s prevailing winds took their toll on the cleared terrain, unprotected by indigenous grasses that once grew there.

By 1932, the wind picked up and the sky went black in the middle of the day when a 200-mile-wide dirt cloud ascended from the ground. Known as a black blizzard, the topsoil tumbled over everything in its path as it blew away. Fourteen of these black blizzards blew in 1932. There were 38 in 1933. In 1934, 110 black blizzards blew. Some of these black blizzards unleashed large amounts of static electricity, enough to knock someone to the ground or short out an engine.

Without green grasses to eat, cattle starved or were sold. People wore gauze masks and put wet sheets over their windows, but buckets of dust still managed to get inside their homes. Short on oxygen, people could barely breathe. Outside, the dust piled up like snow, burying cars and homes.

The area, which had once been so fertile, was now referred to as the “Dust Bowl,” a term coined by reporter Robert Geiger in 1935. The dust storms grew bigger, sending swirling, powdery dust farther and farther, affecting more and more states. The Great Plains were becoming a desert as over 100 million acres of deeply plowed farmland lost all or most of its topsoil.

Plagues and Illnesses

The Dust Bowl intensified the wrath of the Great Depression. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered help by creating the Drought Relief Service, which offered relief checks, the buying of livestock, and food handouts; however, that didn’t help the land.

Plagues of starving rabbits and jumping locusts came out of the hills. Mysterious illnesses began to surface. Suffocation occurred if one was caught outside during a dust storm – storms that could materialize out of nowhere. People became delirious from spitting up dirt and phlegm, a condition which became known as dust pneumonia or the brown plague.

People sometimes died from their exposure to dust storms, especially children and the elderly.

Migration

With no rain for four years, Dust Bowlers by the thousands picked up and headed west in search of farm work in California. Tired and hopeless, a mass exodus of people left the Great Plains.

Those with tenacity stayed behind in hopes of the next year being better. They didn’t want to join the homeless who had to live in floorless camps with no plumbing in San Joaquin Valley, California, desperately trying to seek enough migrant farm work to feed their families. But many of them were forced to leave when their homes and farms were foreclosed.

Not only did farmers migrate but also businessmen, teachers, and medical professionals left when their towns dried up. It is estimated that by 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Dust Bowl states.

Hugh Bennett Has an Idea

In March 1935, Hugh Hammond Bennett, now known as the father of soil conversation, had an idea and took his case to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. A soil scientist, Bennett had studied soils and erosion from Maine to California, in Alaska, and Central America for the Bureau of Soils.

As a child, Bennett had watched his father use soil terracing in North Carolina for farming, saying that it helped the soil from blowing away. Bennett also had witnessed areas of land located side by side, where one patch had been abused and become unusable, while the other remained fertile from nature’s forests.

In May 1934, Bennett attended a Congressional hearing regarding the problem of the Dust Bowl. While trying to relay his conservation ideas to the semi-interested Congressmen, one of the legendary dust storms made it all the way to Washington D.C. The dark gloom covered the sun and the legislators finally breathed what the Great Plains farmers had tasted.

No longer in doubt, the 74th Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act, signed by President Roosevelt on April 27, 1935.

Soil Conservation Efforts Begin

Methods were developed and the remaining Great Plains farmers were paid a dollar an acre to try the new methods. Needing the money, they tried.

The project called for the phenomenal planting of two hundred million wind-breaking trees across the Great Plains, stretching from Canada to northern Texas, to protect the land from erosion. Native red cedar and green ash trees were planted along fencerows separating properties.

The extensive re-plowing of the land into furrows, planting trees in shelterbelts, and crop rotation resulted in a 65 percent reduction in the amount of soil blowing away by 1938. However, the drought continued.

It Finally Rained Again

In 1939, the rain finally came again. With the rain and the new development of irrigation built to resist drought, the land once again grew golden with the production of wheat.
  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. 20th Century History
  4. Decade By Decade
  5. 1930s
  6. Dust Bowl

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.