The Dust Bowl refers to a ninety-seven-million-acre area in the southern Great Plains where drought and wind erosion were the most severe during the 1930s. Extending approximately four hundred miles from north to south and three hundred miles from east to west, the Dust Bowl encompassed southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, western Kansas, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. The region of the southern Great Plains that became known as the Dust Bowl received its name after a gigantic dust storm, known as a black blizzard, struck the area on April 14, 1935. Robert E. Geiger, a reporter for the Associated Press who was traveling in the area, sent a series of articles from the region to the Washington, D.C. Evening Star. Geiger referred to the southern Great Plains as a "dust bowl." The public and the Soil Conservation Service quickly adopted the term, and it became the sobriquet for this windblown, drought-stricken area.
Sandy loess soil, drought, lack of soil-holding vegetation, and wind have caused the dust to blow on the southern Great Plains since the prehistoric period. During the nineteenth century, drought and prairie fires sometimes destroyed the grass and exposed the soil to wind erosion. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the settlement of the region and drought contributed to dust
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storms as farmers plowed the grassland for crops. Similarly, between 1900 and 1930, farmers on the southern plains broke even more native sod for wheat. Steam traction engines, gasoline-powered tractors, and one-way disc plows helped farmers plow the sod and expose the soil to the nearly constant wind. High agricultural prices stimulated by World War I and adequate precipitation encouraged agricultural expansion on the southern plains, and few farmers gave much thought to soil conservation. Many factors, then, contributed to the creation of the Dust Bowl—soils subject to wind erosion, drought that killed the soil-holding vegetation (including wheat), the incessant wind, and technological improvements that facilitated the rapid breaking of the native sod.
In 1931, drought struck the southern Great Plains. By late January 1932, dust storms began to sweep across the Texas Panhandle, and wind erosion became a common problem for the region during the spring. During the worst storms of the decade, the dust drifted like snow, halted road and railway travel, and made breathing difficult. Work crews shoveled the railway tracks clear of drifted dust so the trains could pass. Railroad engineers sometimes missed their stations. During the worst dust storms, residents sealed windows with tape or putty and hung wet sheets in front of windows to filter the air. Others spread sheets over their upholstered furniture, wedged rags under doors, and covered keyholes to keep the dirt out of their homes. Mealtime during a storm meant that plates, cups, and glasses were often covered with a thin coat of dust, and the dust made the food and one's teeth gritty. Electric lights dimmed to a faint glow along streets during the middle of the day. Travel on highways was hazardous during a dust storm because of poor visibility and dust drifts across highways. Static electricity accompanied the storms and caused automobile ignition systems to fail and cars to stall during the storms. Motorists attached drag wires and chains to their automobiles and trucks to ground this static electricity and prevent their vehicles from stalling. Even windmills, pump handles, and cooking pans became so highly charged that a mere touch caused a good shock. Residents often wore masks when they went outside during a storm, because the dust contained silica that irritated the mucus membranes of the respiratory system and made people feel ill. Many residents died from "dust pneumonia." Surgeons and dentists confronted the problems of sterilization. Between 1932 and 1939, dust storms made life miserable and sometimes dangerous for residents of the Dust Bowl.
Throughout the 1930s, continued drought and crop failure caused the soil to blow. The number of dust storms increased across the region from 1934 to 1938. The acreage subject to wind erosion also expanded during the period, despite the increased efforts of farmers and government officials to bring
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fields under control by various soil and water conservation methods. The dust storms that began in 1932 and peaked in 1935 continued intermittently, primarily during the spring "blow months" of February, March, and April, when the wind velocity is the highest in the region. By spring 1936, the coarse, granular structure of the soil particles had broken down due to drought and the constant blowing and shifting of the soil. Much of the topsoil had become a fine powder that even low-velocity winds could easily lift into the air and carry for hundreds of miles. During the winter the alternate freezing and thawing of the ground pulverized the soil still further, making it even more susceptible to wind erosion. The dust storms remained severe into 1937, and the prevailing winds carried the soil to the Middle Atlantic and Gulf Coast states. During the worst storms, sand and soil lacerated the wheat and cotton crops, and covered pastures and killed the grass used for grazing and hay.
By 1933 the wind erosion conditions in the southern Great Plains became so serious that farmers looked to the federal government for technical and financial support to help them bring the blowing lands under control. In March the Forest Service became the first federal agency to try to stop the dust storms in the region after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked the agency to investigate whether a major tree-planting program could substantially reduce wind erosion on the Great Plains. Working with nearly record speed, in August the Forest Service reported that it could. This plan, known as the Shelterbelt Project, advocated the creation of a zone a hundred miles wide that would stretch from Canada to northern Texas, with the western edge running along a line from Bismarck North Dakota, to Amarillo, Texas. Within that area, shelterbelts, that is, rows of trees, would be planted across the entire zone to slow the prevailing winds. With the wind controlled, the dust storms would end or become less severe, and the land could be restored to normal agricultural productivity when the drought ended.
In 1935, after nearly two years of studying the climate, soils, native vegetation, and earlier tree plantings on the Great Plains, the Forest Service reaffirmed the practicality of the project but recommended that the western edge of the zone be moved eastward to follow a line from Devil's Lake, Page 254 | Top of Article North Dakota, to Mangum, Oklahoma; this new border area received twenty-two inches of precipitation annually, compared to sixteen inches in the border area originally proposed. The Forest Service then began the Prairie States Forestry Project, as it became known in 1937, planting shelterbelts on selected lands leased from farmers. As the trees grew, the shelterbelts shielded wheat fields from the wind and slowed the blowing soil. By the time the project terminated in 1942, the Forest Service had planted nearly 18,600 miles of shelterbelts that had nearly a 60 percent survival rate. Although the return of normal precipitation enabled nature to heal the wounds to the soil from drought and wind, the shelterbelts helped check soil erosion and protected farmsteads, livestock, and fields.
The Soil Erosion Service (SES) in the Department of the Interior and the Department Agriculture also developed plans to end wind erosion in the Dust Bowl. On August 25, 1933, the Public Works Administration provided $5 million to the Soil Erosion Service to support a conservation program. The SES used these funds to establish demonstration projects on private lands where nearby farmers could observe the best soil conservation practices. The work of the SES, however, duplicated many projects of the Department of Agriculture and, in 1935, the agency was renamed the Soil Conservation Service and moved under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture.
The Soil Conservation Service also established demonstration projects to persuade farmers to adopt proper conservation techniques. By the late 1930s, the work of the Soil Conservation Service (along with federal dollars and the return of near normal precipitation) helped farmers bring their blowing lands under control. Most farmers who followed the technical advice and procedures of the SCS adopted proper tillage and cropping practices, such as contour plowing, terracing, strip cropping, and planting drought-resistant crops such as grain sorghum. In order to halt dust storms completely, though, the grazing lands had to be restored. Accordingly, the SCS advised farmers to rotate, rest, and reseed pastures and to use contour furrowing and ridging techniques on their grasslands to derive the maximum benefit from precipitation and prevent runoff. The soil conservation practices promoted by the SCS were designed to restore the land to predrought, pre-Dust Bowl conditions.
The soil conservation projects depended on persuasion and voluntary agreements between the farmers and the agency. Officials in the SCS did not believe the agency had the constitutional authority to impose mandatory land-use regulations. Consequently, the SCS encouraged the state governments to require farmers to practice the best soil conservation techniques. On May 13, 1936, the SCS drafted a model state law, titled A Standard Soil Conservation District Law, which provided for the creation of state conservation districts by local petition and referendum. After a district organized under the direction of the state soil conservation authority, committee, or agency, the farmers in the district worked in a common effort to halt soil erosion, particularly from the wind, and to follow the best soil conservation practices. District supervisors provided technical information and financial aid to help farmers conduct various conservation practices and purchase gasoline, oil, and horse feed to meet basic soil conservation expenses. Dust Bowl farmers adopted SCS programs because they were geared to practicality and low cost, and the SCS and other agencies provided funds to help them initiate the recommended soil conservation practices. By 1940, most farmers who participated in SCS conservation programs credited the agency with improving their farm practices, increasing their land values, and boosting their incomes. Most Dust Bowl farmers planned to continue their newly learned soil conservation practices.
The most optimistic attempt to help farmers in the Dust Bowl end the wind erosion menace involved the land-use program of the Resettlement Administration (RA) and Farm Security Administration (FSA). The Resettlement and Farm Security administrations, like the SCS, contended that if severely eroded lands could be removed from cultivation and restored to grass, and the blowing range lands reseeded, then the soil could be stabilized, the dust storms ended, and the land returned to a grazing economy similar to that of the Great Plains before the sod was broken for crops. Accordingly, in Page 255 | Top of Article 1935 the Resettlement Administration, and later the Farm Security Administration (which assumed this responsibility in 1937), began a land-purchase program to acquire the most severely wind-eroded lands on the Great Plains in order to restore them with grass and the best soil conservation techniques, and to move the farmers from the lands that it acquired to better federally owned lands. By the time the SCS assumed responsibility for this work in 1938, the land-purchase program had become an unprecedented experiment in environmental and social planning. The SCS continued to restore the wind-eroded lands in the purchase areas after normal precipitation returned. Since 1960, many of these land-utilization projects have been known as national grasslands, such as the Cimarron National Grassland in Kansas, the Comanche National Grassland in Colorado, the Rita Blanca National Grassland in Oklahoma, and the Kiowa National Grassland in New Mexico.
As the wheat and cotton crops withered under the sun on the southern Great Plains, farmers looked to the federal government for aid beyond soil conservation. Although the federal government provided many programs for economic relief from drought and depression, the aid from the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) became the most significant. Without the financial aid of the AAA, many farmers in the Dust Bowl would have suffered bankruptcy and lost their lands. The AAA paid farmers nationwide to reduce production by withdrawing a specific acreage from production. In the Dust Bowl, the AAA paid them to reduce production of wheat and cotton, mostly. With fewer acres planted in these crops, agency officials believed that the surplus of these commodities nationwide would disappear and agricultural prices would rise, thereby increasing farm income. Economic necessity compelled nearly all Dust Bowl farmers to participate in the AAA program, but the drought, not the AAA, played a greater role in reducing production than did the allotment or acreage reduction program. Until World War II rapidly increased agricultural prices, AAA checks provided the most important income for many of them.
Dust Bowl farmers also received financial aid from the Resettlement Administration. Only those farmers who could not qualify for loans at banks or other lending institutions could apply for RA rehabilitative loans. These loans allowed farmers to purchase necessities such as food, clothing, feed, seed, and fertilizer in order to remain on their land and ultimately return to self-sufficiency when the drought ended. Before making a loan, the RA prepared a farm management plan that budgeted the farmer's income for daily home and operating needs as well as loan and mortgage obligations. Resettlement Administration loans in the Dust Bowl averaged about $700 per family. In 1937, the Farm Security Administration continued this loan program for the most destitute farmers, on the conditions that the farmers' operations could become profitable and they had adequate credit to obtain equipment, seed, and livestock. The FSA also encouraged Dust Bowl farmers to diversify by raising more cattle and less wheat.
Despite aid from the AAA, RA, FSA, and other federal agencies and programs, Dust Bowl residents often did not have enough income to meet their financial obligations. In some areas drought, dust, and economic depression caused property values to decline as much as 90 percent. As farm valuations shrank, tax revenues decreased and some local governments responded by imposing higher property taxes. As income from wheat and cotton fell and as property tax rates rose, tenancy and nonresident ownership increased more than 40 percent in some areas, and tax delinquencies and bankruptcies increased.
Although wheat and cotton prices fell because of overproduction and although drought and dust storms ruined crops and caused additional economic hardship, farmers did not emigrate in great numbers from the Dust Bowl. The migrant characters in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath were not from the Dust Bowl, but from the cotton region east of the most drought-stricken areas. Migrants from this area had been tenant farmers or share-croppers whom landowners evicted in order to keep the total amount of the AAA allotment checks Page 256 | Top of Article for reducing cotton production (farmers were required to share the aid with any tenants, but they ignored this provision of its AAA program). These thousands of displaced cotton farmers and field workers were the Okies who headed west to California. Still, between 1930 and 1940, the counties in the Oklahoma Panhandle lost 8,762 people, but they did not create a great Dust Bowl migration. Many Dust Bowl farmers moved to the nearest town, where they sought employment or relief from government agencies such as the Civil Works Administration or Works Progress Administration. Some areas rich in natural gas and oil gained population as the petroleum industry expanded and created job opportunities. Similarly, in the Texas Panhandle twenty-three counties lost fewer than fifteen thousand inhabitants between 1930 and 1940.
In southwestern Kansas, the number of farmers actually increased in a twenty-seven county area between 1930 and 1935 as the children of resident farmers and townspeople returned home from cities, often in other states, seeking refuge from the economic hard times of the Great Depression. Between 1935 and 1940, however, the population of southwestern Kansas dropped dramatically, with losses ranging from 18 percent to 53 percent in many Dust Bowl counties. As the farm population decreased, the number of farms declined and farm sizes increased by 24 percent due to the consolidation of farms. Most residents who left the Kansas portion of the Dust Bowl were single men and women or young married couples who perceived better opportunities elsewhere in the region or beyond. Tenant farmers often left the Dust Bowl but landowners usually stayed because they were unwilling to lose their investments in the land, and the agricultural and work-relief programs of the federal government kept most farmers on the land and the majority of the nonfarm population in the towns. Certainly, a large number of people moved within the Dust Bowl area and from the Great Plains states during the 1930s, but most were not people displaced by drought and wind erosion.
During the spring of 1938 precipitation increased and the wheat, grass, and cotton grew and helped hold the soil against the wind. As a result, the black blizzards ended and even the lesser dust storms diminished in number and intensity. By the spring of 1939 only 9.5 million acres were still subject to severe wind erosion, compared to fifty million acres in 1935. Only a few dust storms occurred throughout the year. By December 1939, the Dust Bowl encompassed only southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado. During the early 1940s, the return of near-normal amounts of precipitation ended the drought, and weeds, grass, and crops covered much of the land, preventing the wind from lifting and blowing the soil.
A combination of factors, then, created the Dust Bowl in the southern Great Plains—the plowing of too much marginal land for wheat and cotton, the failure to practice soil conservation, the drought, and the relentless wind. The dust storms of the 1930s forced farmers and the federal government to utilize all of the technical expertise and financial resources they could command to bring the wind erosion problem under control. When drought and dust storms returned to the region during the 1950s, the technology and conservation practices that Dust Bowl farmers had been using for twenty years prevented the region from reverting to the severe conditions of the 1930s.
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R. DOUGLAS HURT