We have all heard the term. But where did it come from and who coined it?
It all started on April 14 (Palm Sunday), 1935.
Interestingly, the day started pretty well. It was bright, sunny, with blue skies. It seemed that the dust was over and things would be getting better. People took advantage of the clear skies to go on picnics, visit family in neighboring towns, or air out their houses. Those living in the states affected by the dust storms believed it was all over and it was time to celebrate. Yet the end had not come and all would change soon.
By 4:00 PM one of the worst dust storms or “black blizzards” in American history rolled into the area with winds whipping up the soil at 100 miles per hour. It displaced 300 million tons of topsoil from the prairies. That is the equivalent of 150,000 minivans. The cloud was over a thousand miles long or 182 Mount Everests. The sheer size boggles the mind. The swirling dust built up considerable static electricity. People actually had to drain chains behind their cars to keep the battery from shorting out. Barbed wire fences glowed blue with electricity. People shocked each other when they touched. The dust was so thick it submerged the region into total darkness so that it seemed like it was midnight. Hens, thinking it was night, went to roost in the middle of the day. Eyewitnesses reported that they could not see the streetlights nor the hand in front of their face. Many were stranded away from home and took shelter wherever they could–their cars, abandoned houses, or from kind strangers. Some even formed a human chain holding hands and leading each other to safety.
The storm was most severe in the Oklahoma and Texas pandhandles, but the storm’s effects were also felt in other surrounding areas. The deadly cocktail of erosion, drought, bare soil, and winds caused the dust to fly freely and at high speeds.
Of those who managed to survive what was dubbed “Black Sunday,” many, including children, came down with “dust pneumonia” or “the brown plague.” Similar to a coal miner’s “black lung” there is a build up of dust in the lungs, leaving the victim with lifelong asthma and other respiratory ailments. Special makeshift hospitals are set up throughout the region to help those affected.
Sadly this was a manmade disaster. Decades of cattle farming and sheep ranching had left much of the west devoid of the natural grass and shrubs that anchored the soil and overfarming and poor soil stewardship left the soil dehyrdated and lacking in organic matter. Farmers had become used to the years of good rain that had occurred and assumed that the rains would continue to fall. When a drought hit in the 1930s they were caught off guard. The lack of rainfall, snowfall, and moisture in the air dried out the top soil in most of the Great Plains. All that was needed was the wind.
The term “Dust Bowl” was coined due to this storm. Robert E. Geiger in his report to the Associated Press used the term for his report of the storm and it may have actually been an error in communication. Some thought he meant to call it the “Dust Belt” instead. It was used to describe not just this storm but a series of storms that had hit the prairies of Canada and the United States during the 1930s. It now refers to an area in the U.S. most affected by the storms, including western Kansas, eastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. These “black blizzards” started in the eastern states in 1930, affecting agriculture from Maine to Arkansas. By 1934, they had reached the Great Plains, stretching from North Dakota to Texas and from the Mississippi River Valley to the Rockies.
The destruction caused by the dust storms and especially on Black Sunday killed multiple people and caused thousands of people to relocate. Poor migrants from this region–known as “Okies” even though only about twenty percent were from Oklahoma–flooded into California overtaxing the state’s health and employment infrastructure. This great migration was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
The dust from these storms blew all the way to Washington D.C. where it fell on members of Congress deciding whether or not to pass legislation to help those impacted by the storms. They did indeed pass the legislation which is known as the Soil Conservation Act, which established the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency of the USDA. The dust also blew into New York harbor where sailors reported dust which had come from the Great Plains overshadowing the Statue of Liberty–talk about a strange site!
And these storms could not have hit at a worse time. For the 1930s were also the Great Depression–which itself was an American tragedy– and farmers were especially hard hit by it. Farmers who were worrying whether they would be able to sell their crops at market or their farms would be foreclosed upon now had to deal with great blizzards of dust engulfing their homes and farms. It must have felt like insult upon injury to them.
Many kept journals and accounts during this trying time and these have been compiled and made available. One account made by Avis D. Carlson in The New Republic sums up the experience of those who went through it:
“People caught in their own yards grope for their doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk…The nightmare is deepest during the storms. But on the occasional bright day and the usual grey day we cannot shake from it. We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions.”
Musicians and songwriters also reflected on the Dust Bowl. Woody Guthrie, who was from Oklahoma, wrote a variety of songs documenting his own experiences living during this era of dust which were collected in his first album Dust Bowl Ballads. One of them, Great Dust Storm, describes the terrible events of Black Sunday. I will close with an excerpt of the lyrics:
On the fourteenth day of April of 1935, there struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky. You could see that dust storm comin’, the cloud looked deathlike black, and through our mighty nation, it left a deadly track. From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line, Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande, it fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down, we thought it was our judgment, we thought it was our doom.