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Dust Bowl

DUST BOWL


Farmers across the Great Plains longed for rain during the spring of 1934. But day after day, the weather offered no relief, only intense sun, wind, drought, more sun, then gale-force winds. On April 14, massive clouds of dust blotted out the sun over western Kansas. At first the wind raced along the surface, tearing at the stunted wheat and licking up the topsoil. Then the dust thickened into low, heavy, dirt-laden clouds. From a distance, the storm had the appearance of a cumulus cloud, but it was black, not white; and it seemed to eat its way along with a rolling, churning motion. As the storm swept toward Oklahoma and Texas, the black clouds engulfed the landscape. For those at the storm center there was an eerie sensation of silence and darkness. There was little or no visibility, and wind velocity hit 40 to 50 miles per hour. The next month was exceedingly hot with a temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. On May 10, the gales returned, this time from the west. Unlike the previous storm, these winds whipped up a formless, light-brown fog that spread over an area 900 miles wide and 1500 miles long. The next day an estimated 12 million tons of soil fell on Chicago, Illinois, and dust darkened the skies over Cleveland, Ohio. On May 12, dust hung like a shadow over the entire eastern seaboard. By the time they were over, these two storms alone blew 650 million tons of topsoil off the Great Plains.

The Dust Bowl covered 300,000 square miles of territory located in Kansas, Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, and New Mexico. In the hardest-hit areas, agriculture virtually ceased. With successive storms, the wind and the flying dust cut off wheat stalks at ground level and tore out the roots. Blowing dirt shifted from one field to another, burying crops not yet carried away from the wind. Cattle tried to eat the dust-laden grass and filled their stomachs with fatal "mud balls." The dust banked against houses and farm buildings like snow, and buried fences up to the post tops. Dirt penetrated into automobile engines and clogged the vital parts. Housewives fought vainly to keep it out of their homes, but it seeped in through cracks and crevices, through wet blankets hung over windows, through oiled cloths and tape, covering everything with grit. Hospitals reported hundreds of patients suffering from "dust pneumonia." The black blizzards struck so suddenly that many farmers became lost in their own fields and suffocated, some literally within yards of shelter. More than 350,000 people fled the Great Plains during the 1930s. These "Okies" loaded their meager household goods and struck out along famous highway Route 66 for California.

Fifty years earlier, a strong, protective carpet of buffalo grass had covered the Great Plains. The grass held moisture in the soil and kept the soil from blowing away. In dry years, the wind blew out huge craters, later mistakenly called "buffalo wallows," but as long as the turf remained, the land could recover. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, farmers began staking out homesteads in regions once considered too arid for anything other than range. Wherever they went, farmers plowed under the buffalo grass. During World War I (19141918) the demand for wheat, along with the invention of the tractor, meant plowing larger areas of the virgin grassland. Between 1914 and 1917, the area of wheat planted increased to 27 million acres, much of which (more than 40 percent) had never been plowed before. After the war, the plowing continued. Larger tractors and combines, new machines that could harvest and thresh grain in one operation, inaugurated the age of the wheat kings. By 1930, there were almost three times as many acres in wheat production as there had been a decade earlier, and that number was steadily increasing. The plow exposed the land to rain, wind, and sun. By 1932, the earth on the plains was ready to blow away.

The Dust Bowl sped the development of long-range federal programs in the new field of soil conservation. A veteran conservationist, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945) in late 1933, created the Soil Erosion Service, later the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), with Hugh Bennett as its head. The SCS's task was to supply technical assistance and leadership, while local soil conservation districts carried out Bennett's program of strip crops, contour plowing, stubble-mulch farming, and terracing. More dramatically, the Forest Service under Ferdinand A. Silcox in 1934 started planting a "shelter belt" of trees, within a 100-mile wide zone, from Canada to the Texas Panhandle. Ten years later, more than 200 million cottonwoods and other varieties of trees were serving as wind breaks and helping to conserve moisture. In 1936, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), directed by Chester Davies, adopted soil conservation as a subterfuge to get around an unfavorable Supreme Court decision; but on the Great Plains, soil conservation was a legitimate part of the AAA program. Farmers received government checks for both acreage reductions and wind control practices.

After 1936, the New Deal added little to its conservation program. Roosevelt did appoint two special committees under the chairmanship of Morris L. Cooke, one to study Dust Bowl conditions and the other to recommend specific legislation. Congress passed a water storage bill along the lines that the latter committee had suggested, but did little else. In 1939 Harlan H. Barrows reported for the Committee on the Northern Great Plains but again, little was done.

Although it achieved less than it might have, the New Deal did much to hasten recovery in the Dust Bowl; more importantly, the rains began anew. As the buffalo grass spread again, the bowl area rapidly shrank from 8.727 million acres in 1938 to 1.2 million in 1939. Yet there remained the danger that farmers would forget the terrible lessons from the drought and that the Dust Bowl would once again reappear.

See also: Agricultural Equipment Industry, Agriculture Industry, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas


FURTHER READING

Bennett, Hugh Hammond. Elements of Soil Conservation, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1955.

Sears, Paul B. Deserts on the March. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking Press, 1939.

Svobida, Lawrence. An Empire of Dust. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1940.

Johnson, Vance. Heaven's Tableland : The Dust Bowl Story. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1947.

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Dust Bowl

DUST BOWL

DUST BOWL, a 97-million-acre section of southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, western Kansas, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, that in the Depression-torn 1930s was devastated by dust storms, resulting in the one of the greatest agro ecological disasters in American history. Already suffering from one


of the worst droughts in recent history and with eastern markets insisting upon the adoption of unsustainable agricultural practices to maximize production, the region was hit by strong winds that lifted the dry topsoil from fields, creating clouds of dust that, at their worst, plunged communities into total darkness sometimes for hours at a time. As a result of economic and agricultural depression, many small farmers were forced to foreclose and leave the region.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bonnifield, Mathew Paul. The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979.

Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hurt, R. Douglas. The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.

Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

MichaelEgan

See alsoGreat Depression .

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Dust Bowl

Dust Bowl, the name given to areas of the U.S. prairie states that suffered ecological devastation in the 1930s and then to a lesser extent in the mid-1950s. The problem began during World War I, when the high price of wheat and the needs of Allied troops encouraged farmers to grow more wheat by plowing and seeding areas in prairie states, such as Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, which were formerly used only for grazing. After years of adequate yields, livestock were returned to graze the areas, and their hooves pulverized the unprotected soil. In 1934 strong winds blew the soil into huge clouds called "dusters" or "black blizzards," and in the succeeding years, from December to May, the dust storms recurred. Crops and pasture lands were ruined by the harsh storms, which also proved a severe health hazard. The uprooting, poverty, and human suffering caused during this period is notably portrayed in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Through later governmental intervention and methods of erosion-prevention farming, the Dust Bowl phenomenon has been virtually eliminated, thus left a historic reference.

See D. Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979); T. Egan, The Worst Hard Time (2005); K. Burns, dir., The Dust Bowl (documentary, 2012).

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dust bowl

dust bowl • n. an area of land where vegetation has been lost and soil reduced to dust and eroded, esp. as a consequence of drought or unsuitable farming practice. ∎  (the Dust Bowl) an area of Oklahoma, Kansas, and northern Texas affected by severe soil erosion (caused by windstorms) in the early 1930s, which obliged many people to move.

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dust bowl

dust bowl Area of c.40 million ha (100 million acres) of the Great Plains, USA, that suffered extensively from wind erosion. Due to drought, overplanting and mismanagement, much of the topsoil was blown away in the 1930s. Subsequent soil conservation programmes have helped restore productivity.

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