Dust Bowl 1931-1939

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Dust Bowl 1931-1939

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics
See Also


"Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer's tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent—'if it rains.'" In this simple statement, Associated Press reporter Robert Geiger introduced the term "Dust Bowl" to the nation on April 15, 1935, upon reporting on the great dust storm of the previous day. Use of the term quickly spread across the nation.

Between 1932 and 1939, a series of disastrous dust storms struck the southern Great Plains of the United States. Particularly hard hit were western Kansas, eastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. Though dust storms also occurred elsewhere on the Plains, the effects were far less severe. Soils of this region had always been prone to dust storms in the past, but during the drought of the 1930s they became far more vulnerable. Farmers had removed millions of acres of the natural grass sod to plant wheat during the previous twenty years. When the wheat failed to grow as the decade-long drought arrived in 1931, the soils were left exposed to the strong winds that annually sweep across the region. Millions of tons of blinding black dirt would sweep across the Plains, turning plowed fields into sand dunes. The social and economic impacts on farming communities were particularly severe given the drought's occurrence during the Great Depression.

The extended drought became the worst in U.S. history. Over 75 percent of the nation was affected, including 27 states that were severely impacted. With dire estimates concerning the loss of valuable topsoil in the United States, public concern began to increase over the future of American agriculture. In 1935 Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act, which squarely placed the federal government in the role of promoting farmland conservation for the first time. Programs were devised to teach farmers new farming practices that would make soils less vulnerable to water and wind erosion. Local conservation districts were created to instill the soil conservation ethic in various rural communities. These national programs, though at first resisted by local farmers as foreign ideas, soon made a major difference in conserving and rehabilitating valuable crop production land. The farmland conservation programs remained a critical part of American agriculture into the twenty-first century.

In the end, a wide range of New Deal programs were created that proved useful in tackling Dust Bowl problems. They included the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the Drought Relief Service. These programs helped many of the Dust Bowl residents survive long enough for the rains to return and for the renewed demand for wheat brought on by World War II (1939–1945).

Issue Summary

The Unforeseen Arrives

As the United States entered the 1930s, Great Plains farmers were among the most prosperous in the nation, while farmers in other regions struggled. The 1931 growing season brought a record-breaking wheat crop and the future prospects seemed unlimited. A drought that had begun in the eastern United States the previous year, however, began moving west to the Great Plains. Many did not consider it significant at that time.

One of the first effects of the drought was the prevention of winter wheat crops from achieving sufficient growth in the fall of 1931 to protect the soil from windstorms. As a result, dust storms began by late January 1932 on the southern Plains. Storms swept across the Texas panhandle with sixty miles per hour winds and thick dust clouds that reached ten thousand feet into the air. From that point onward the storms steadily worsened. Fourteen storms were recorded in 1932, then 38 in 1933. The storms blew away valuable top-soil and covered farms in drifts of dust as if it were snow. With expectations that drought would soon end, farmers kept plowing and sowing wheat. Not only were dust storms of this type never seen before, but record high temperatures occurred as well. In 1934 in Vinita, Oklahoma, the temperature topped 100 degrees for 35 straight days only to reach 117 degrees on the 36th day.


Farmers plow up millions of acres of natural grasslands on the Plains.
The drought begins during the summer and will continue throughout the decade.
The weather bureau reports 14 dust storms.
The frequency of dust storms increases, with 38 recorded.
September 19, 1933:
The Soil Erosion Service (SES) is created in the Department of Interior.
April 2, 1935:
A dust storm from the Plains blows into Washington, DC, as H.H. Bennett, director of the SES, is testifying before a congressional committee about the need for a national soil conservation program.
April 14, 1935:
The great black blizzard hits, causing dramatic destruction to farmlands.
April 27, 1935:
The Soil Conservation Service is created in the Department of Agriculture, assuming the role of the SES in addition to expanded responsibilities.
March 3, 1937:
Arkansas becomes the first state to enact the Standard State Conservation Districts Law.
Drought comes to an end as rains return in the fall.

By late 1934 the Dust Bowl area extended over 97 million acres in eastern Colorado, western Kansas, eastern New Mexico, and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. The size of the area most severely affected each year would vary in location and size within the Dust Bowl. The period with the largest area affected at one time was between 1935 and 1936 when 50 million acres were affected.

The Character of Dust Storms

The nature of the storms would vary with the seasons. During the summer months, winds would come from the southwest. But the worst storms came during the winter months as strong winds blew from the north. The storms, particularly the winter ones with boiling dust clouds thousands of feet into the sky, carried millions of tons of dirt. They brought brief periods of total darkness during the daylight hours and left behind longer periods of half-light.

The dense clouds of blowing dust would force residents to seek shelter. Businesses and schools would close. Like snow, dust would pile in drifts against buildings and fences. Often drifts reached up to the windowsills, and people would have to shovel their way out of the front door following a dust storm. People got dust in their eyes, mouth, and noses. Everyone could feel the grit in their teeth and in their food.

Various measures were taken to protect against the storms. In some areas schoolchildren were required to wear gauze masks. Farmers and other residents would hang wet sheets in the windows and doorways to catch the dust. They would stuff window frames with gummed tape and rags, often in futility. Housecleaning after a storm could involve removing buckets full of dirt. People would wear handkerchiefs over their faces and put Vaseline in their nostrils.

Women found it difficult to prepare meals. They would knead bread in dresser drawers covered with a cloth with two holes cut in it for them to place their hands through. Baking in the oven was preferred over stovetops because of the protection from dust. Meals were immediately eaten when prepared before dust could cover them. Water and milk would be placed in tightly sealed Mason jars, which were normally used to preserve fruits and vegetables.

The worst dust storm came on Sunday, April 14, 1935, in the southern Plains, catching many unaware. Dust storms had been blowing for weeks. One toward the end of March destroyed five million acres of wheat crops. But the sun broke out that morning, and people ventured about going to church and other activities. Suddenly a fast moving black cloud appeared on the horizon. As it struck, residents outside fled for cover. This one proved the last and most severe for that year. One Kansas farmer was later found dead by suffocation in his car, having become lost in the storm. The event became known as "Black Sunday."

As if drought, heat, and dust storms were not enough, another natural disaster occurred in 1935. Like a plague, thousands of jackrabbits swept out of the parched hills, stripping what little vegetation was available, including farmers' struggling crops. Although the exact reason for this bizarre occurrence is unknown, many speculate that the rabbits were driven out of the hills because of the dust storm's effect on their food supply. Farmers banded together to conduct rabbit drives in an effort to exterminate them. Forming long lines, farmers swept across areas driving the rabbits into hastily built pens where they were clubbed to death.

The toll on the region was mounting by the end of 1935. Experts presented dramatic statistics at a meeting in Pueblo, Colorado, in December 1935. Soil scientists estimated that 850 million tons of topsoil was lost to winds on the southern Plains during 1935. Over 4.3 million acres were affected. Dire forecasts warned yet more acres of topsoil would be affected that following spring.

The dust storms continued to be severe through 1936 and 1937 and then lessened in 1938 and 1939. Relief arrived finally with the rains. The first rains arrived in the fall of 1939, followed by more continuous rainfall through the 1940s. Support of the major war effort increased the demand for wheat once again. The area had largely recovered by the early 1940s, supporting golden fields of wheat.

A Rural Society Unravels

The social and economic toll of the storms was dramatic. Though only a few deaths were directly attributed to the dust storms, many suffered from "dust pneumonia." Children were particularly susceptible to the health problems. People would spit up clods of dirt, sometimes the width of a pencil and three to four inches long. People tried various home remedies to clear the dusty phlegm from their throats and lungs. Inhalation of dust particles increased the number of deaths from pneumonia and other illnesses.

The dust storms were especially hard on farm animals. Animals died in the fields with their stomachs coated inside with two inches of dirt. For range cattle the dust combined with tears, cementing their eyes closed. Blindness, thirst, and exhaustion would then take their toll. Chickens smothered in hen houses. Horses and mules could be better protected with masking over the eyes and feedbags over their muzzles.

Having lost their crops and livestock, thousands of families left the region by the mid-1930s. Many had lost their farms to bank foreclosure. A foreclosure is when a homeowner does not keep up with their loan payments, and the bank takes the house and sells it to repay the house loan. Often they packed up the car with their belongings and simply drove away. Of those leaving about 200,000 headed west to the agricultural fields of California. Those that left hoping for greener pastures in California still struggled. If they were able to find work, they were not treated well and wages were extremely low. They also had no permanent home and conditions in work camps were unsanitary at the very least. This migration out of the Dust Bowl during the 1930s became the largest migration in U.S. history. Approximately 2.5 million people had left the region by 1940.

Economic impacts were extensive. The Depression had already taken its toll on the region with lowered crop prices. The dust storms devastated the region even further. Crop failures led to stagnation of towns. Eventually about one-fourth of the residents left the region looking for new opportunities elsewhere. The formerly tight-knit rural communities broke apart socially, and many were left dependent on federal relief programs. Banks and businesses failed, and schools were boarded up. Life was no longer the same for either those leaving or those staying.

Relief Through The New Deal

Having hit a postwar slump in the 1920s, the agricultural industry continued to suffer nationwide economic problems into 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) took office. As a result, much of the earliest New Deal activity addressed farm issues. Some of these benefited Plains farmers as they did farmers in other regions. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) paid farmers to reduce production. For Dust Bowl farmers, their AAA payments came primarily for reducing wheat and hog reduction. By the time the program took effect, however, the drought was having its own effect in reducing crops. Therefore few could actually benefit from the aid.

Other types of aid also became available. The Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, passed in May 1933, provided $200 million in federal funds to refinance mortgages of farmers facing foreclosure. In addition the Farm Credit Act, passed that same month, created a network of local banks and credit associations to provide low interest loans to farmers. In June 1934 Congress passed the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act, sponsored by Representative William Lemke and Senator Lynn Frazier, both of North Dakota, that limited the ability of banks to repossess the farms of those financially struggling. The act passed despite President Roosevelt's opposition.

Unfortunately in 1935 the act was found to be unconstitutional. In its place, that same year, the Farm Mortgage Moratorium Act was introduced into the Senate by Frazier and into the House of Representatives by Lemke. The Supreme Court upheld the Farm Mortgage Moratorium Act as constitutional in 1937.

By spring of 1934, after two full years of drought and windstorms, livestock feed in the region was largely depleted. Predictions indicated conditions were not expected to improve any time soon. On May 18, 1934, the AAA created the Emergency Cattle Purchase Program to purchase and destroy thousands of starving cattle. The Drought Relief Service (DRS) was established to coordinate relief activities. The DRS designated certain counties as emergency areas. The first cattle purchases came in June 1934. The DRS would purchase the cattle for $14 to $20 a head, often above market value. Those unfit for human consumption were destroyed. Over half of those purchased fell into this category.

Those cattle still having some food value were given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation for distribution to needy families. Though the program saved many from bankruptcy, farmers found the extensive cattle slaughter one of the toughest actions to suffer through. It was difficult for farmers to give up herds they had managed for years, and the prospect of having to establish a new herd after the drought ended was daunting. Not having the responsibility of feeding cattle when they barely could feed their families, however, was a welcome relief for most farmers helped by the program.

More About… "The Plow That Broke the Plains"

In 1935 the Resettlement Administration hired journalist and film critic Pare Lorentz to produce a film on the Dust Bowl. Lorentz was nationally known for his articles appearing in Fortune and Harper's. He was an ardent supporter of New Deal policies. The intent of the agency was to create a Hollywood-quality commercial film to educate the public about the fragility of the land and the need to reform farming practices.

Lorentz wrote, directed, and edited the film entitled The Plow That Broke the Plain. Shot on location in various areas of the Great Plains, he captured the realities of the poverty, drought, and dust storms. The musical score and narration balanced beautifully with the visual documentation.

Despite the small budget and hardships in production, the thirty-minute film received great reviews from film critics and an enthusiastic public response. Some reviewers, however, labeled it a propaganda film for New Deal policies. Major film studios, fearful of controversial subjects and focused on Shirley Temple movies and screwball comedies, refused to distribute the film. As a result, the short-subject film debuted in May 1936 at the Rialto Theater in New York City and was shown in a limited number of independent neighborhood theaters. The film received a strong endorsement from President Franklin Roosevelt.

With the popularity of The Plow, Lorentz next produced The River. This film focused on the need for flood control in the Mississippi River Valley, as well as soil erosion from agricultural practices. During its filming major flooding of the Ohio River occurred in January 1937, providing graphic footage of the issues. The film was shown internationally and won first prize at the Venice Film Festival. Success of The Plow and The River led President Roosevelt to form the United States Film Service to produce more films to educate the public about social issues and to promote support for New Deal relief and planning agencies.

With dust storms lasting for weeks on the Plains during the early part of 1935, President Roosevelt and Congress took action. President Roosevelt signed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act on April 8. The act not only led to creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a major New Deal works program, but also provided $525 million for drought relief.

On April 30, 1935, President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Resettlement Administration (RA), to administer the financial aid for Dust Bowl farmers. Rexford G. Tugwell, a professor of economics and close presidential advisor, was appointed as the director of the RA. The program was for those who had exhausted all other means of getting credit. RA loans were made available to purchase such necessities as food, clothing, feed, and fertilizer. The agency would design a farm management program for each farmer who received the aid. The goal was for the farmers benefiting from the aid to become self-sufficient once the drought had ended, and they were once again able to raise and harvest crops to support their families and properly manage their farms.

The RA, however, was not strictly limited to resettlement efforts and financial and educational support of farmers. Another significant area of the RA was the Historical Section, headed by Roy Stryker. The purpose of the Historical Section was to document relief efforts of the RA as well as the conditions under which struggling farmers and their families lived—especially those in the Dust Bowl and those who had fled the area and headed for California. Several talented and famous photographers were employed by the Historical Section.

Dorothea Lange was famous for her photograph of a weathered and worn mother seven with two of her children burying their faces in her shoulders and an infant in her lap. It was titled Migrant Mother. The woman was representative of the struggle and poverty of those who had left the Dust Bowl in search of something better. Thousands of photographs like Dorothea Lange's were taken to document the plight of the American farmer. The pictures were distributed to newspapers all over the United States for publication to accompany news stories. The photographs were instrumental in publicizing and making real the problems in the Dust Bowl and the West.

The RA was in operation until 1937 when it was integrated into the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Rexford Tugwell left, but Stryker stayed on as head of the Historical Section, which continued to function in its same capacity until 1942 when it was transferred to the Office of War Information.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional in early 1936, Congress quickly passed the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act to insure continued aid to farmers. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) remained in operation following the Court ruling. But now its emphasis shifted from paying farmers to limit production to paying farmers for planting soil-conserving crops such as grasses, legumes, and feed crops. The shift particularly benefited Dust Bowl farmers, and nearly all participated. AAA payments became the major source of farm income by 1937.

One of President Roosevelt's personal favorites among the New Deal programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC employed youths between 18 and 24 to perform conservation tasks, including tree planting, stocking fish, constructing wildlife shelters, digging irrigation ditches, and numerous other activities. By September 1935 more than five hundred thousand CCC workers lived in camps across the West.

With conditions worsening in the Dust Bowl region, Roosevelt sought to apply the CCC programs to the region. A grand scheme was devised, called the Prairie States Forestry Project. Roosevelt sought to plant 220 million trees across the Great Plains from northern Texas to Canada in a one hundred mile-wide zone. The trees, including green ash and red cedar, would serve to break the winds and greatly reduce wind erosion. They would be planted along fence lines separating properties and along roadways.

Estimated to cost $75 million over a 12-year period, the program saw only limited success. Critics claimed the effort was largely futile since no related effort was established to control the amount of plowing and planting going on.

Rise of Conservation

In addition to their social and economic effects, the storms were an environmental disaster. Valuable topsoil was literally blown away from vast areas, leaving only a bare hard ground. At the beginning of the Dust Bowl era, little scientific knowledge was available on preventing wind erosion.

Farming techniques to prevent water erosion from seasonal rains, such as contour plowing, strip plowing, and terracing, had little effect on wind erosion. Contour plowing means tilling a slope back and forth at the same elevation rather than tilling up and down a hill. Strip plowing leaves untilled strips of land between the tilled and planted strips. Terracing involves changing a sloped hillside into a stepped series of flat planting areas. Some local efforts at soil conservation developed, including the invention of the chisel plow, by Fred Hoeme of Hooker, Oklahoma, which has narrow curved bottoms that break up soil without bringing it up to the surface and subjecting it to erosion. Federal efforts, however, would prove much more effective through time.

Federal efforts toward soil conservation began at the first of the decade. To combat erosion, in 1930 Congress authorized the Department of Agriculture to establish a series of soil erosion experiment stations and to set up demonstration projects. In September 1933 the Soil Erosion Service (SES) was created, located in the Department of Interior, to operate the stations and promote farmer cooperation.

The SES soil scientists and other specialists worked with farmers to demonstrate the new farming practices. The demonstration areas became show-places to encourage others to adopt the new techniques. In 1934 SES's research at the wind erosion station in Dalhart, Texas, found that not burning or having livestock graze the remaining stubble of wheat after harvest made a major difference in wind erosion. This crop residue held the soil in place. In addition, trees were planted in rows to provide windbreaks. The SES also provided farmers with equipment, seeds, seedlings, and advice on how to plan their planting and harvesting to reduce soil erosion.

Media Depictions

A number of media resources are available on the Dust Bowl, bringing the experience vividly to life. These include:

Places in the Heart. This 1984 movie relays a fictional account of a widow struggling to care for her children in a small Texas town during the Great Depression. When her husband is killed in an accident, Edna Spalding must provide for her two children. Mose, an out-of-work black man, comes along with a plan to help Edna and himself. Together, they plant cotton on her land, hoping its crop will provide them with money and allow Edna to pay her mortgage. The two must rely on each other, as little help is to be found. A tornado and the Ku Klux Klan, who disapprove of Mose, are just a few of the obstacles to stand in their way. The movie stars Sally Field, Danny Glover, and John Malkovich.

Voices From the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940–41. An on-line presentation by the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, of interviews documenting everyday life of Dust Bowl refugees. The recordings were made at Farm Security Administration migrant work camps in central California in 1940 and 1941. The collection includes traditional ballads, camp meetings, conversations, storytelling, and personal experiences. Available from the World Wide Web at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/afctshtml.html.

Surviving the Dust Bowl">http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/afctshtml.html.

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Surviving the Dust Bowl. The Public Broadcasting System produced this 1999 program as part of their "The American Experience" series. The program includes both a video and website complete with narrative, images, and teacher's guide. Information available from the World Wide Web at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/dustbowl.htm.

Out of the Dust. A book and an audio cassette of first-person, free-verse poems that read as a novel telling the story of a 15-year-old girl who helps her family struggle through the Dust Bowl years on an Oklahoma farm. Written by Karen Hesse. Listening Library published the cassette in 1998, and Scholastic Paperbacks published the book in 1999. Both are winners of various awards.

Less than two weeks after the epic Black Sunday dust storm, Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act on April 27, 1935. Congress declared soil erosion "a national menace." The act shifted the Soil Erosion Service from the U.S. Department of Interior to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and renamed it the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). The SCS assumed much broader responsibilities than its predecessor did. With Hugh H. Bennett named as director, the SCS launched an extensive conservation program. Since preaching was not enough to change old ways, the SCS also offered a program to pay farmers to practice these new soil conservation techniques. Farmers were paid about one dollar an acre for the areas to which they applied the new farming techniques.

When soil conservation demonstration projects began in 1934 under the Soil Erosion Service, only 10,454 acres were involved. With conversion of the SES to the Soil Conservation Service, and the addition of WPA and CCC labor, the acreage increased to 600,000 acres by the end of 1936 using contour plowing, strip cropping, and terracing.

Besides providing loans to farmers, the Resettlement Administration also focused on removing Dust Bowl farmers from farmland that was prone to erosion and relocating them onto less vulnerable acreages. The lands that were acquired from the displaced farmers were re-seeded into grass to prevent further wind erosion.

With farmers still slow to adopt the new farming practices being introduced by "Washington outsiders," it was recognized that voluntary acceptance, not national enforcement, would be most effective. On February 27, 1937, President Roosevelt introduced a new program encouraging states to individually pass conservation district laws. Under the laws farmers would establish their own local conservation districts. The Department of Agriculture would assist regions through these local organizations.

In March Arkansas became the first state to pass the Standard State Solid Conservation Districts Law. The first actual district to be organized was in North Carolina in August. Use of the districts allowed expansion of the conservation program beyond demonstration areas. The SCS programs promoting new farming techniques through local districts began seeing positive affects. By 1938 it was estimated that 65 percent less soil was eroding despite continuing drought and windstorms. A highly successful grassroots system of farmers was established that would persist beyond the Dust Bowl years.

Contributing Forces

The Great Plains of the United States is a broad, mostly flat, treeless expanse of dry grasslands covering parts of ten states and stretching from the Canadian border south to the Rio Grande in Texas. U.S. military expeditions that journeyed through the region in the early nineteenth century called the area the Great American Desert and declared it "almost wholly unfit for cultivation." The extensive natural grasslands traditionally supported mostly stock raising until wheat farming began expanding toward the end of the nineteenth century. The sod roots of the natural grasslands had anchored the soil and retained water from rains and snow.

Droughts and dust storms were no strangers to the Great Plains, particularly the more southern region. Dry spells were known to occur at regular intervals. Such events were noted from the time the region was first settled, including a severe drought in the early 1860s. More favorable weather in the 1870s led to increased agricultural settlement.

The thick sod was initially resistant to the traditional plows, but the introduction of steel plows proved highly effective in breaking the sod for planting. Drought returned in the late 1870s, slowing the farming movement. The worst dust storm recorded for the nineteenth century occurred on March 26, 1880, and affected an area from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Iowa, to eastern Missouri. Several states and private organizations provided some relief to the struggling farmers during these periods of drought, primarily by providing them with seed and food.

Good weather returned again in the 1880s. In periods of above-average precipitation, lush grasslands with rich-looking dark soil lured many farmers to the Great Plains.

Even private railroad companies and state governments were actively recruiting farmers to the region. They were trying to stimulate business and tax revenue. Some states, such as Kansas, mounted advertising campaigns. In Kansas homestead entries rapidly escalated from 3,547 in 1884, to 9,954 in 1885, and 20,688 in 1886. Drought came again from 1887 to 1897, however, causing population declines in some areas of the Plains.

Despite drought years and short-term setbacks in the 1890s, the southern Plains actually filled with farms between 1886 and 1910 as wheat farming and cattle raising generally prospered. Drought struck again between 1910 and 1913. Some farmers lost 70 percent of their cattle herds during that period. The occurrence of several severe dust storms between 1912 and 1914 raised the issue of wind erosion and what to do about it.

One outcome of the periodic droughts was that farmers learned what crops were more resistant to drought than others. "Turkey Red" wheat, brought by Russian-German immigrants in the early 1870s, proved one of the hardiest. More and more farmers turned to this strain of wheat.

The return of rain in 1914, the push by the federal government to grow more wheat for the war effort, and the resulting high prices overshadowed concerns of future droughts and winds. In addition new improvements in farm mechanization enabled farmers to tend to far greater acreages of crops. By 1924 another 17 million acres of prairie land had been converted into wheat fields. A drought between 1917 and 1921 did little to slow development. An additional 15 million acres were converted between 1924 and 1929. In the southern Plains wheat acreage increased 200 percent between 1925 and 1931. Weather stayed highly favorable for most of the span between 1914 and 1931.

During this period farmers in the region would leave little crop residue on the ground following each harvest. They would let livestock graze the freshly harvested fields, cleaning off any remaining vegetative material. During these boom years the farmers enjoyed great harvests, unsuspecting of what lay ahead. During planting season plowing and breaking sod often went on 24 hours a day in shifts, stopping only for servicing the tractor every six hours or so. Cultivation of the same fields continued year after year, pulverizing the soil into a fine dust.

The prosperity led to absentee ownership and "suitcase" farming, in which little care was given to protecting the land. "Suitcase farmers" were people who resided elsewhere, such as east coast businessmen, who would come out, plant seed, and then return home until harvest season. Years of over-cultivation and generally poor land management extending from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s led to severely abused land that was unfit and unprepared to deal with severe drought conditions.


Residents of the Dust Bowl referred to the period as the "dirty thirties." They greatly disliked the term "Dust Bowl," believing it only served to further decrease property values and discourage business prospects in the region. But the label stuck from Geiger's first use of it in April 1935. Even Soil Conservation Service maps soon used the term in marking the area most affected by the drought and storms.

Dust Bowl Refugees

One-fourth of the population of the southern Plains left during the Dust Bowl years, including 200,000 to California. More than 86,000 arrived in California from the drought states between June 1935 and September 1936 alone. California residents and authorities did not warmly receive the refugees. Foreseeing this coming trend, in early 1935 the city of Los Angeles formed the Committee on Indigent Alien Transients. Scorn was directed at transients who had no visible means of financial support and whose legal residence was other than California.

The migration had actually begun in the 1920s while the agricultural industry was experiencing economic woes and increased mechanization of farms was displacing farm laborers. But the Great Depression and Dust Bowl conditions caused a dramatic increase in the flow of immigrants. Most arrived between 1935 and 1937, primarily by automobile, following U.S. Highway 66 across the Southwest.

To turn away "undesirables," the Los Angeles police chief even sent 125 policemen to the state borders with Arizona and Oregon. The press labeled the contingent the "bum brigade," as they stopped every vehicle entering California for two months, asking for proof of money or employment. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the city, objecting to the practice. An assessment by the California attorney general that the practice was unconstitutional brought it to a close.

John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, and others wrote articles, books, and songs about the migrant experience on the road to California. In 1936 Steinbeck wrote a series of articles titled "The Harvest Gypsies" for the San Francisco News. He followed that with the epic novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Guthrie produced a 1940 album titled Dust Bowl Ballads. The Dust Bowl refugees were called the derogatory term "Okies" regardless of whether they were from Oklahoma or some other region. "Arkies" was also used, though less commonly.

Though Okie migration has been commonly attributed to people escaping from the Dust Bowl of the southern Plains, many also came from sharecropping and cotton farms of the Southeast. The Okies not only replaced Mexicans in the California fields as a cheap labor source, but they also replaced them as the key target of prejudice as well.

Their poverty also brought other major social problems. They lived in unhealthy conditions on the outskirts of towns and placed heavy burdens on local hospitals, schools, and social services. The plight of the Okies became the subject of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Resettlement Administration built several camps for migrants to improve sanitation and protect the migrants from local hostile groups.

Depictions of the "Okie" life in California led to congressional hearings by the Select Committee to Investigate the Migration of Destitute Citizens. Hearings were held across the country. The committee issued a report in 1941 titled Interstate Migration that fixed firmly in the mind of America the image of Dust Bowl refugees.

More About… "Dust Bowl Ballads"

In May 1940 RCA Victor released an album by folksinger Woody Guthrie entitled Dust Bowl Ballads. Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1912. Living in the panhandle of Texas, he began to take up song writing seriously by the mid-1930s. One of the first original songs he wrote was inspired by Black Sunday, the great dust storm of April 14, 1935. The dust storm also inspired Guthrie to leave the pan-handle and begin traveling and singing in bars. His journeys carried him to California where he witnessed the border blockades set up to keep unemployed "Okies"—like himself—out.

Following his viewing of the newly released movie The Grapes of Wrath, Guthrie wrote a song about the lead character, "Tom Joad." This song, together with 12 other songs, including "Dusty Old Dust (So Long, It's Been Good to Know You)," "Dust Pneumonia Blues," "Dust Can't Kill Me," "Dust Bowl Refugee," and "Do Re Mi" were released on the album. Guthrie wrote in the liner notes, "They are 'Okie" songs, 'Dust Bowl' songs, 'Migratious' songs, about my folks and my relatives, about a jillion of 'em, that got hit by the drought, the dust, the wind, the banker, and the landlord, and the police, all at the same time."

Though the album was not a big seller, it clearly became part of the Dust Bowl saga. The following lyrics are from Guthrie's song, "Talking Dust Bowl," which he wrote while riding the rails in 1936 and 1937.

Back in 1927, I had a little farm, and I called that heaven.
Prices up, and the rain come down;
I hauled my crops all into town, got the money …
Bought clothes and groceries … fed the kids
And raised a big family

But the rain quit and the wind got high
Black old dust storm filled the sky;
I traded my farm for a Ford machine,
Poured it full of this gas-i-line
And started-rockin' and a-rollin'
Deserts and mountains-to California …

Got to California so dad gum broke,
So dad gum hungry I thought I'd choke;
I bummed up a spud or two,
Wife fixed up some tater stew.
We poured the kids full of it …
Looked like a tribe of ther-mometers a runnin' around.

Local Perspectives—The Last Man's Club

Following the catastrophic dust storm of April 14, 1935, many Plains' residents began moving out of the region. In response to the worsening conditions on the Plains, the Resettlement Administration was created in the spring of 1935. One agency administrator recommended that the federal government purchase over two million acres of farmland in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas and permanently move hundreds of farm families to other locations. President Roosevelt opposed the proposal, claiming it should be the decision of the farmers whether to remain and fight through the situation or to move elsewhere.

Hearing of the proposal, rumors began circulating across the Plains that the federal government would soon be forcing many to leave the area. Despite the hardships endured, many in the area were determined to stay put and outlast the drought to save their homes and farms. John L. McCarty, the young editor of the Dalhart, Texas, newspaper, led a charge to resist any such efforts if they should appear.

McCarty also lashed out at those who blamed the situation primarily on the farmers for not farming properly, rather than on natural factors such as drought and wind. McCarty published a pledge in his newspaper vowing to be the last man on the Plains and daring others to join him. In response people from all walks of life—bankers, farmers, doctors, and teachers—came to the newspaper office to sign the pledge to stay. The Last Man's Club came to symbolize the determination of many to join together and fight against the Dust Bowl hardships. Soon, however, many farmers begrudgingly accepted the new soil conservation farming practices promoted by the Soil Conservation Service.

Government Response to Refugee Problem

Some 40 percent of the Dust Bowl refugees who became migrant workers ended up picking grapes and cotton in the San Joaquin Valley. They replaced the 120,000 Mexican workers who were repatriated (sent) to Mexico during the Great Depression. Many migrants earned between 75 cents and $1.25 a day and lived in tarpaper shacks lacking plumbing. The resulting pollution from wastes led to outbreaks of disease, including typhoid, malaria, smallpox, and tuberculosis.

President Roosevelt sought to assist the migrants who were living in such makeshift camps along the rural roads and who were subject to attacks by groups of vigilantes. The New Deal's Farm Security Administration built 13 camps, each housing for temporary periods three hundred families in tents on wooden platforms. Families were expected to work to pay for their room and board.


A New Outlook

Events of the Dust Bowl contributed to an official change in policy by the federal government toward conservation of natural resources. Perhaps best exemplified by the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, for the first time Congress was asserting that conservation of farmlands was in part a responsibility of the federal government. For sixty years the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) played a major role, beginning with its demonstration projects in the 1930s using WPA and CCC labor, then by shifting to work with local conservation districts.

Major Writings

The Grapes of Wrath

In 1939 John Steinbeck published a work that would become an integral part of the American literary canon. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of a family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, following them on their journey to California in search for work as migrant farm laborers in order to survive. Tom Joad, the eldest Joad son, and protagonist, arrives home from jail only to find that his family had been evicted from their Dust Bowl-ravaged farm. The family decides, as many Dust Bowl families during the depression did, that California, with its orchards and fields, is the place for them to find work and salvation from their poverty.

Steinbeck was born and raised in Salinas, California, not far from many migrant farms. Steinbeck was horrified and angered by the living conditions and poor treatment of the migrant farm workers. He was compelled by what he saw to write about the situation. He wrote a series of articles titled The Harvest Gypsies for the San Francisco News. His work journals, kept during the time that he was researching and writing The Harvest Gypsies, focus on the desire to write a book that could accurately portray the migrant workers in California and inspire readers to action to solve the problems of the migrant laborer. It was this series that inspired Steinbeck to create a fictional account of a migrant family.

Steinbeck's novel, though a work of fiction, was strongly grounded in reality. Steinbeck tirelessly researched the topic of migrant families, making four trips to migrant farms. Steinbeck interviewed the migrant workers closely observing their speech and mannerisms, so that he could accurately represent them within the framework of The Grapes of Wrath.

Although it opened many readers' eyes to the problems that assailed the Dust Bowl refugees, the novel was seen as controversial when it was released. It supported organization of migrant workers and collectivism to solve the problems of poverty and unemployment. These topics were considered "un-American" and "communist" by some who associated labor movements and "sharing the wealth" with left-wing political movements such as communism. Steinbeck, however, made a concerted effort not to appear communist, so as not to offend farmers. It was burned in Salinas, Steinbeck's hometown, and it was banned in towns all over the country.

Regardless of the disdain that people had for the ills that the novel revealed and the solutions proposed, namely the mistreatment of desperate and impoverish migrant families, the book did exceptionally well. In 1940 it received the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford. When Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in 1962, it was largely due to The Grapes of Wrath. To date, The Grapes of Wrath has sold over 14 million copies, and has been translated into virtually every language on earth. Steinbeck's work has set the tone for many works about the Dust Bowl—from books to films—that have been created since.

By October 1980 over 2.8 million acres of former cropland had been converted back to grassland. Also, the use of drought-resistant crops greatly decreased wind erosion. As a result, not only was the environment stabilized, but the cycles of human migration in and out of the drought-prone area had ended. Farms were much more able to withstand the periodic episodes of drought.

Similarly, Congress looked at the deterioration of public lands in the West through the effects of drought and overgrazing. Historically, the federal government had the policy of passing titles of public lands into private ownership when someone wanted them. Local ranchers could graze lands still owned by the United States.

The uncontrolled grazing led to overgrazing, however, and by 1934 it was evident federal measures were needed to conserve natural resources on the remaining federal lands. Thus, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. The purpose of the act was to attempt to reverse the effects of decades of overuse, but little could be done. The Taylor Grazing Act helped stop further deterioration but failed to reverse the damage. Under the act Roosevelt was allowed to take 140 million acres of federally owned land and disallow public use of these lands for grazing, which contributed to erosion and degradation of the topsoil. The act also established the U.S. Grazing Service to administer a system of grazing districts. A permit system controlled the number of cattle ranchers could graze in particular areas. District, state, and national advisory boards composed of ranchers would make policy recommendations to the Service. The Grazing Service became part of the newly formed Bureau of Land Management in 1946.

The "Filthy Fifties"

With favorable weather present once again, and the heavy demand for wheat during World War II, another five million acres of the Plains was converted to crops between 1941 and 1950. Dust storms, however, would revisit the Great Plains once more beginning in June 1950. The Department of Agriculture created the Great Plains Committee early in 1950 to study the problem and make recommendations. The biggest dust storm during the "filthy fifties" arrived on February 19, 1954. Some claimed the storm was worse than those of the 1930s. Because economic times were generally good, panic and migration out of the area did not occur as before.

The area affected by dust storms in the 1950s was actually larger than in the 1930s and included the entire Dust Bowl area. A total of $70 million in government funds was spent between 1954 and 1956 on drought emergency conservation measures. The Great Plains Committee developed recommendations for converting croplands back to prairie grass and discouraging further plowing of new areas. The Great Plains Agricultural Council took the committee's recommendations and developed a long-range plan to reduce the need for periodic emergency measures on the Plains. Seeking to establish agricultural stability, President Dwight Eisenhower (served 1953–1961) sent the proposal to Congress to establish the Great Plains Conservation Program in January 1956. As in the 1930s, conservation districts guided this program. It was signed into law in August 1956. Success of these programs seemed apparent when a drought in the 1970s proved far less damaging to the region.

Conservation Districts

The formation of conservation districts, which began in 1937 to guide introduction of soil conservation practices, was one of the few grassroots approaches implemented by a New Deal program. It also proved to be one of the most successful. By 2001 nearly three thousand conservation districts existed, one in almost every county in the nation.

Besides addressing soil conservation, the districts also assisted farmers in water, forest, wildlife, and other natural resource issues. The districts go by various titles including "soil and water conservation districts," "natural resource districts," "resource conservation districts," and others. The main goal is to develop local solutions to natural resource problems affecting over 778 million acres of private land across the nation. Over fifteen thousand volunteers serve in elected and appointed positions on district governing boards.

In 1946 the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) was formed to represent the districts on the national level. The NACD develops national conservation policies and lobbies state and national lawmakers. The NACD also promotes sharing of ideas among the districts.

Notable People

Hugh H. Bennett (1881–1960). Known as the "father of soil conservation," Bennett was named director of the newly established Soil Erosion Service (SES) in 1933 and later the Soil Conservation Service in 1935. Bennett had worked for the Department of Agriculture since the early 1900s. He combated the commonly accepted notion by the federal government and the public that soil was an indestructible resource that could not be exhausted.

In 1928 he co-authored an agency bulletin entitled Soil Erosion: A National Menace. Bennett also published numerous articles on soil conservation in popular and scientific journals. The mission of the SES was to reform farming methods so as to stop the erosion caused by dust storms. Bennett promoted the position that the farmers' agricultural practices were more to blame for soil erosion than the natural forces. This unpopular position was initially not well received by farmers and others.

In a rather odd twist of fate, just as Bennett was testifying before a congressional committee in Washington, DC, on April 2, 1935, a major dust storm blew into the city from the Plains. Bennett dramatically threw back the committee room's curtains to reveal a dust-filled, blackened sky. It was the first time that a dust cloud had made it that far east. It had dropped 12 million pounds of dust in Chicago on its way.

This was the first occasion for millions of citizens in the East to experience a dust storm. Due to Bennett's efforts Congress declared soil and water conservation an urgent national priority. The legislature passed the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, designed to improve farming techniques. Bennett led the charge in returning a large part of the Great Plains to natural grasslands.

Lynn Frazier (1874–1947). Lynn Frazier was born near Medford, Minnesota in 1874. He moved to the Dakota Territory, which would become North Dakota, with his family in 1881. He graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1901 and pursued agriculture as a career. In 1917 he was elected Governor of North Dakota and served until 1921. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1922 and served from 1923 to 1941. While in the Senate he introduced two bills, both of which passed, to assist farmers struggling due to the Depression and the effects of the Dust Bowl. Both bills were introduced with William Lemke, a North Dakota congressman. The first bill, which became the Frazier-Lemke Bankruptcy Act, was declared unconstitutional. The Farm Mortgage Moratorium Act, meant to help the same people as the Frazier-Lemke Act, was passed and upheld by the Supreme Court. Frazier was the sole author of the Farm Mortgage Moratorium Act. Frazier left the Senate in 1941 and returned to agriculture. He died in 1947 in Maryland.

William Lemke (1878–1950). William Lemke was born in Albany, Minnesota to a farmer and his wife. Lemke graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1902 and Yale University in 1905. Lemke studied law at both the University of North Dakota and Georgetown, and was admitted to the bar in 1905. He began practicing in Fargo, North Dakota. In 1921 and 1922 he served as attorney general of North Dakota. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1932 and served until 1941.

Known as the "Prairie Rebel" for his staunch support for agrarian relief despite opposition, Lemke cosponsored a bill with North Dakota Senator Lynn Frazier to provide relief for farmers by protecting farms from being foreclosed on during difficult times. The Frazier-Lemke Bankruptcy Act was passed, but President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was opposed to the act. It was later found unconstitutional, but Lemke assisted Frazier in the introduction of a bill to take the place of the Frazier-Lemke Act. The Farm Mortgage Moratorium Act was passed in 1935 and upheld as constitutional in 1937. Lemke was disillusioned by Roosevelt's opposition to the Frazier-Lemke Bankruptcy Act and ran against him in the 1936 presidential election as the Union party candidate. He lost and continued to serve in the House until 1941 when he returned to his law practice. He was again elected to Congress in 1943 and served until his death in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1950.

Primary Sources

No Place To Go

Dust Bowl refugees arriving in California were not welcomed with open arms. The following account, from a Collier's magazine article by Walter Davenport entitled "California, Here We Come" (August 10, 1935), describes an exchange at the California border between a California border official and a Dust Bowl refugee:

They straggled in across the Yuma bridge down in the southeast corner of the state looking much like war-zone refugees. There were a number of disconcerted Californians there, official and otherwise, engaged in the wholly futile business of shooing them off …

But far more active at deploring was a young man with downy, blond mustache. We took turns guessing what he represented. He was dressed in nicely fitting khaki, long trousers, (and) a stiff-brim campaign hat … Very erect and primly severe, [a man] addressed the slumped driver of a rolling wreck that screamed from every hinge, bearing and coupling. 'California's relief rolls are overcrowded now. No use to come farther,' he cried.

The half-collapsed driver ignored him—merely turned his head to be sure his numerous family was still with him. They were so tightly wedged in, that escape was impossible. 'There really is nothing for you here,' the neat trooperish young man went on. 'Nothing, really nothing.'

And the forlorn man on the moaning car looked at him, dull, emotionless, incredibly weary, and said: 'So? Well, you ought to see what they got where I come from.' And he drove right on, fearful perhaps, that once stopped his car would never start again.

The Skeptic

Many farmers resented government actions to restore the lands, just as many initially resisted efforts to apply soil conservation farming techniques. Ann Marie Low, born in 1912, made the following entry in her diary on August 1, 1934. She reflects on her family's history of trying to make a living on the Plains in southeastern North Dakota. She later published her writings in Dust Bowl Diary (1984):

The country is overrun with surveyors these days. The Missouri River Diversion Project has three automobiles full of them running around. Others are here about this game refuge idea, and some on a shelterbelt project. The Missouri D.P. people are going to turn this area into a huge lake. The game refuge people are going to let it revert to the wild. The shelterbelt people intend to put in a lot of trees to keep the wind from doing damage to the farms the other two outfits intend to eliminate …

GEE-EE-WHIZ! Each group is going contrary to the next. We seem to have a bunch of bureaucratic idiots running around at taxpayers' expense determined to ruin this area somehow.

Our bountiful and interfering government sometimes creates awful messes. When this region was opened to homesteaders, the government and railroads encouraged people to come in here for an almost free 160 aces. The broken lives and broken hearts that caused was criminal. People back East had no idea a 160-acre tract here does not make a viable farm.

Grandpa realized that. He started out with 480 acres and planned to get more. The drouth [sic] of the 1880's cost him his preemption and tree claim. The fire forced him to mortgage the remaining 160 acres. It was a man-killing struggle, but his family managed to hang on until the prosperous times after 1900.

Then during the war the government cried out for all the wheat it could get. People came in there, bought small farms on mortgages, and planted wheat on land which should never have been plowed. After the war, prices dropped drastically. These people have never been able to pay their mortgages. The government has never done a thing to protect them against terrible gouging of the wheat and cattle markets and of the railroads.

Now another prolonged drouth has struck at a time the whole country is suffering a severe depression. Men like Dad and the Holmes brothers, who have been here a long time, who have plenty of land and no mortgages, have a chance to hang on until better times come again. Better times will come.

The Approaching Cloud

Lawrence Svobida was a Kansas wheat farmer during the 1930s. He saw firsthand the storms and the resulting destruction around him. His observations and thoughts were published in his memoirs, Farming the Dust Bowl (1986). The following vividly describes the approach of a dust storm:

… At other times a cloud is seen to be approaching from a distance of many miles. Already it has the banked appearance of a cumulus cloud, but it is black instead of white and it hangs low, seeming to hug the earth. Instead of being slow to change its form, it appears to be rolling on itself from the crest downward. As it sweeps onward, the landscape is progressively blotted out. Birds fly in terror before the storm, and only those that are strong off wing may escape. The smaller birds fly until they are exhausted, then fall to the ground, to share the fate of the thousands of jack rabbits which perish from suffocation.

Suggested Research Topics

  • Identify the Dust Bowl region on maps and research information on the weather patterns, water sources, soils, natural vegetation, and terrain of the region.
  • If you were member of a farm family in the Dust Bowl during the 1930s, what would you choose to do? What would you be leaving if you chose to go to California or some other region?
  • Write a first-hand account of a person caught in a major dust storm and its effects on his or her farm and daily life. Discuss the health problems, effects on livestock, and impacts on the crops.
  • What relief programs were available to Dust Bowl residents, and what did they have to offer? How effective were the programs? What would have happened to the residents if the programs had not been available?



Bonnifield, 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.

Riney-Kehrbeg, Pamela. Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.

Shindo, Charles J. Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

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

Further Reading

Booth, David. The Dust Bowl. Kids Can Press, 1997. (for youth)

Brink, Wellington. Big Hugh: The Father of Soil Conservation. New York: MacMillan, 1951.

Davidson, James A. Patches on My Britches: Memories of Growing Up in the Dust Bowl. 1st Books Library, 1998.

Dyck, Mary K. Waiting on the Bounty: The Dust Bowl Diary of Mary Knackstedt Dyck. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Jennings, Walta S., and Nancy J. Shaver, eds. Poke Greens for Breakfast?: True Stories of Rural Arkansas, Oklahoma Dust Bowl Days, and South Dakota Sheep Wagon Tales. Writers Club Press, 1999.

Long, Philip S. Dreams, Dust and Depression. Calgary: Cypress Publishing, Inc., 1972.

Low, Ann Marie. Dust Bowl Diary. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Meltzer, Milton. Driven From the Land: The Story of the Dust Bowl. New York: Benchmark Books, 2000.

National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), [cited October 12, 2001] available from the World Wide Web at http://www.nacdnet.org.

National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), [cited October 12, 2001] available from the World Wide Web at http://www.nrcs.gov.

Rutland, Richard A. A Boyhood in the Dust Bowl, 1926–34. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch. New York: Crown Publishing, 1992.

Stein, Walter J. California and the Dust Bowl Migration. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1973.

Steinbeck, John. Their Blood Is Strong. San Francisco: The Simon J. Lubin Society, 1938.

Svobida, Lawrence. Farming in the Dust Bowl: A First-Hand Account From Kansas. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.

See Also

Farm Relief