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Caroline A. Henderson

Caroline A. Henderson

Excerpts from "Letters from the Dust Bowl"

originally published inthe atlantic monthly,may 1936
reprinted fromreader's digest
published in july 1936


"We can't hold out indefinitely without some income, however small. But if we can keep the taxes paid, we can work and hope for a better day."

caroline a. henderson

In 1930, the wheat farmers of the Great Plains, the vast middle space of the United States from North Dakota south to the Texas Panhandle, were relatively prosperous even as farmers struggled in other regions of the country. The spring of 1931 produced another record-breaking wheat crop. However, by summer of that year a drought that had begun in the eastern United States moved west to the Great Plains. The winter wheat crops planted in the fall of 1931 were unable to grow enough to protect the soil from furious windstorms that blew from the north every year. There were no native grasses to protect the soil, because farmers in the previous two decades had removed millions of acres of native sod to plant wheat. By January 1932, dust storms began to roll over the Great Plains. Winds of sixty miles per hour created huge clouds of thick dust reaching 10,000 feet into the air. The storms blew away valuable topsoil and covered farms in drifts of dust.


The drought persisted, and the dust storms steadily worsened over the next few years. Hardest hit were the southern plains in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and northeastern New Mexico. By 1935 and
1936, horrific dust storms carrying millions of tons of black dirt swept across the Great Plains, plunging the daylight hours into total darkness and leaving days of half-light as dust remained suspended in the air. Businesses and schools were forced to close as people sought shelter in their homes. But the dust went anywhere air went. People would seal window frames with gummy tape, stuff rags into any cracks, and hang wet sheets in windows and doorways, but the dust—buckets of dust—still found its way inside. Dust got into people's eyes, noses, and mouths and into food and drinking water. Often people had to shovel their way out of the house following a storm. Families lost crops and livestock, and eventually they lost their farms to the banks when they could no longer make payments on their farm loans. People began to pack up their cars and drive away. The number of people leaving the Dust Bowl region grew from hundreds to thousands and then to hundreds of thousands. Many migrated to California, Oregon, and Washington to search for agricultural jobs.

The dust storms were not only an economic and social disaster but an environmental disaster as well. As early as 1930, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established a few soil erosion experimental stations, but by 1932 and 1933, when the dust storms became intense, still very little was known about preventing wind erosion. In 1933 the Soil Erosion Service (SES) was created under the U.S. Department of the Interior. Under Hugh Hammond Bennett, known as the "father of soil conservation," the SES encouraged new farming practices that conserved soil. For example, the stubble left after wheat harvests was no longer burned or used for grazing; leaving the stubble in the ground helped keep soil in place. Trees were planted in rows to serve as windbreaks.

The following excerpt from "Letters from the Dust Bowl," written by Caroline A. Henderson of Eva, Oklahoma, and published in the July 1936 issue of Reader's Digest, describes life on a family farm in the Dust Bowl. The Hendersons believed that someday the rains would return so they struggled to stay on their farm.


Things to remember while reading "Letters from the Dust Bowl":

  • Because of the great demand for wheat to feed Europeans during World War I (1914–18), U.S. wheat farmers extended cultivation deeper and deeper into the dry, short grass prairies of the western Great Plains.
  • The native prairie grass sod that had anchored the top-soil was plowed up and planted in wheat. After harvest the land was bare for several months. Also, ranchers overgrazed their cattle on the remaining grasslands. The resulting bare soil was easily blown away by the strong winds that came from the north.
  • In the 1920s, rains were constant and hid the damage to the land.
  • At the beginning of the 1930s, little was known about farming techniques to prevent erosion of the land.

Excerpt from "Letters from the Dust Bowl"

Eva, Oklahoma

June 30, 1935

My dear Evelyn:

In the dust-covered desolation of our No Man's Land here, 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 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 and between the upper and lower sashes. Some seal the windows with the gummed-paper strips used in wrapping parcels, but no method is fully effective.

On a 60-mile trip yesterday to procure tractor repairs we saw many pitiful reminders of broken hopes. Little abandoned homes where people had drilled deep wells for the precious water, had set trees and vines, built reservoirs , and fenced in gardens—with everything now walled in or half buried by banks of drifted soil—told a painful story. I grieved especially over one lonely plum thicket buried to the tips of the twigs, and a garden with a fence closely built of boards for wind protection, now enclosing only a hillock of dust covered with the blue-flowered nettles which no sands discourage.

Early in May, with no more grass or even weeds on our 640 acres than on your kitchen floor, and even the scanty remnants of dried grasses from last year cut off and blown away, we decided to ship our cattle to grass in the central part of the state. We sent 27 head.

Procure

Procure: obtain.

Reservoirs

Reservoirs: places to store water.


Hillock

Hillock: small hill or mound.

Nettles

Nettles: a prickly weed.

Drouth

Drouth: drought.

The next day, the long drouth was temporarily broken by the first effective moisture in many months—about one and one-quarter inches in two or three gentle rains. But all hope of a wheat crop had already been abandoned, and the helpful effects of the rains have been largely destroyed by the drifting soil from abandoned lands about us. It fills the air and our eyes and noses and throats, and worst of all, our furrows, where tender shoots are coming to the
surface only to be buried by the smothering silt from the [abandoned] fields.…

Naturally you will wonder why we stay here where conditions are so disheartening. Why not pick up and leave as so many others have done? Yet I cannot act or think as if the experiences of our 27 years of life had never been. To break all the closely knit ties of our continued and united efforts for the sake of a possibly greater comfort elsewhere seems like defaulting on our task. We may have to leave. We can't hold out indefinitely without some income, however small. But if we can keep the taxes paid, we can work and hope for a better day. We long for the garden and little chickens, the trees and birds and wild flowers of the years gone by. Perhaps if we do our part those good things may return some day, for others if not for ourselves.

Silt

Silt: deposits of blowing dirt.

Defaulting on

Defaulting on: failing to carry out.

A great reddish-brown dust cloud is rising now from the southeast, so we must get out and do our night work before it arrives. Our thoughts go with you.…

March 8, 1936

Dear Evelyn:

Since I wrote you, we have had several bad days of wind and dust. Old sheets, stretched over door and window openings, and sprayed with kerosene, quickly became black. Nothing that you hear or read will be likely to exaggerate the physical discomfort or material losses due to these storms. Less emphasis is usually given to the mental effect, the confusion resulting from the overthrow of all plans for normal farm work. To give just one example: the paint has been literally scoured from our buildings by the storms, but who knows when we might safely undertake to repaint, to "save the surface?" The pleasantest morning may be a prelude to an afternoon when the "dust devils" unite in hideous onslaught . The combination of fresh paint with a real dust storm is not pleasing to contemplate .

There has been no moisture of any kind since the light snow of early January. Still, there seems no doubt that improved methods of late, encouraged by the Soil Erosion Control Service, are already yielding some results in reduction of wind erosion . But rain must come soon to encourage growth even on the best fields if there is to be any wheat harvest. Interspersed with the more hopeful areas are other tracts apparently abandoned to their fate.…

We have had only slight contact with the Rehabilitation Service . The man in charge stopped the other morning to see whether we really meant it when we promised the use of our tractor and other equipment to a young neighbor who is trying to make a new start for himself and wife and daughter through a rehabilitation loan. In spite of adverse conditions, this agent spoke of a surprising general spirit of optimism. I suppose there is something of the gambler in all of us. We instinctively feel that the longer we travel on a straight road, the nearer we must be coming to a turn. People here can't quite believe yet in a hopeless climatic change which would deprive them permanently of the gift of rain.

May be a prelude

May be a prelude: may lead.

"Dust devils" unite in hideous onslaught

"Dust devils" unite in hideous onslaught: dust storms come together and form a frightening sight as they approach.

Contemplate

Contemplate: think about.

Erosion

Erosion: deterioration of the soil.


Rehabilitation Service

Rehabilitation Service: farm security administration, a government agency charged with helping farmers improve the land.

Surveying contour lines

Surveying contour lines: determining curving lines for plowing.


Laying up terraces

Laying up terraces: building up raised areas.


Gullies

Gullies: trenches formed by water erosion.


Adaptability

Adaptability: suitability.

To me the most interesting government undertaking in the dust bowl centers about the group of erosion control experiments scattered over a wide area. The work includes such activities as surveying contour lines , laying up terraces , cleaning out fence rows piled high with drifted soil, filling gullies to prevent washing in that longed-for time of heavy rainfall, cutting down dead trees and brush, resetting trees in favorable locations, testing the adaptability of different types of grass to the difficult task of reseeding wind-blownspaces, and so on. Altogether it is just such work as a provident farmer would like to do if he had the means. [Henderson, pp. 19–20, 21–22]

Provident

Provident: wise in planning for the future.

What happened next…

For those determined to stay on their land in the Dust Bowl, relief from the federal government was frequently the only way to survive. Federal plans were established to create easier repayment terms for farmers' loans. In addition, the Emergency Cattle Purchase Program was established in May 1934. Through this program starving cattle were purchased, often for above market value, and those still fit for consumption were slaughtered and given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, which distributed the meat to hungry families. The Taylor Grazing Act of June 1934 set up a program to limit the amount of grazing allowed; the goal was to allow some native grasses to return and prevent wind erosion. The Drought Relief Service (DRS) coordinated relief activities and designated certain counties as emergency areas. On April 8, 1935, Roosevelt signed another New Deal relief act, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which provided $525 million for drought relief. On April 30, 1935, Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Resettlement Administration (RA), which attempted to resettle sharecroppers and tenant farmers on good land and give them opportunities to buy the land. In reality, very few families were ever resettled. Instead, by 1937 the RA evolved into the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which concentrated on loaning money to the families (to buy food, clothing, feed, seed, and fertilizer) rather than trying to resettle them. The agency also designed an individualized farm management program for each farmer.

On April 27, 1935, Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act, which shifted the Soil Erosion Service (SES) to the Department of Agriculture and renamed it the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). The SCS launched a much broader soil conservation program than the SES had offered. It featured a program to pay farmers approximately one dollar an acre for every acre that employed new conservation techniques. Under the SES, only 10,454 acres incorporated new methods. Under the SCS, which had help from workers in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), 600,000 acres were cultivated with contour plowing, strip-cropping, and terracing techniques. (Contour plowing is plowing across a hill rather than up and down; strip-cropping leaves unplowed strips between the plowed and planted land; terracing involves reshaping a sloping area into a series of flat, horizontal planting spaces. For example, in regard to strip-cropping, for every twenty planted rows a space for approximately five rows would be left unplowed and in natural vegetation such as grasses. This practice slowed runoff of water and helped hold topsoil in place.)

In February 1937, Roosevelt introduced a new program to encourage states to pass their own conservation laws and farmers to set up their own conservation districts. The efforts of the SCS and local programs began to take effect, and by 1938 it was estimated that 65 percent less soil was blowing across the land, even though the drought continued. Rain finally came in the fall of 1939 and continued through 1940. As the United States mobilized for World War II (1939–45), Europe again needed wheat in large amounts. By the early 1940s, golden wheat fields once again predominated across the Great Plains.



Did you know…

  • One-fourth of the population of the southern Plains left the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Approximately two hundred thousand went to California, and roughly half of them became migrant workers picking grapes and cotton in the San Joaquin valley.
  • The Dust Bowl refugees were called "Okies," short for Oklahoma, whether they were from Oklahoma or another state.
  • Californians did not welcome Dust Bowl refugees, fearing they would stretch relief resources to the limit.
  • The Farm Security Administration built thirteen camps in California to improve the refugees' shelter and sanitation and to protect them from hostile local residents.
  • Artists told the story of the migrants from the Dust Bowl. John Steinbeck's book The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, follows a fictional family, the Joads, to California. Woody Guthrie (1912–1967) produced an album in 1940 titled Dust Bowl Ballads.
  • One of the most horrific dust storms of the 1930s descended on Kansas and Nebraska on April 14, 1935, which became known as "Black Sunday."
  • Cooking and eating could be difficult in Dust Bowl homes because dust quickly found its way into food. Women kneaded bread in dresser drawers covered with a cloth, inserting their hands through two holes cut in the front of the drawer. Food was cooked in an oven, not on the stove top, and had to be eaten immediately.
  • Many people were determined to stay on their land and endure the Dust Bowl hardships. John L. McCarty, a young editor of a Dalhart, Texas, newspaper, formed the Last Man's Club. Each club member vowed that even if he were the last man on the plains, he would stay.

Consider the following…

  • What personal traits do you think helped the Henderson family endure the hardships in the Dust Bowl?
  • In a letter not included in this excerpt, Henderson questions whether they were courageous or foolish to stay on their land. What do you think and why?
  • When the government began urging farmers to try new farming techniques, do you think the Hendersons welcomed or resented it?

For More Information

Books

de angelis, therese, and gina deangelis. the dust bowl. philadelphia, pa: chelsea house publishers, 2002.

dyck, mary k. waiting on the bounty: the dust bowl diary of mary knack-stedt dyck. iowa city, ia: university of iowa press, 1999.

gregory, james n. american exodus: the dust bowl migration and okie culture in california. new york, ny: oxford university press, 1989.

mcarthur, debra. the dust bowl and the depression in american history. berkeley heights, nj: enslow publishers, 2002.

meltzer, milton. driven from the land: the story of the dust bowl. new york, ny: benchmark books, 2000.


Periodicals

henderson, caroline a. "letters from the dust bowl." reader's digest (july 1936): pp. 19-22.

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