Living in the Dust Bowl (1934, by Anne Marie Low)
LIVING IN THE DUST BOWL (1934, by Anne Marie Low)
The settlement of the Great Plains states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century provided the growing nation with agricultural riches and a bustling farm economy, but the rapid development of previously arid lands into massive wheat fields had a detrimental effect upon the land itself. Where buffalo grass had previously provided nutrients and kept soil anchored to the ground, the newly plowed wheat fields left the soil exposed to the elements. In the summer of 1934, with conditions exacerbated by a long drought, winds began to whip the sunbaked soil into thick, dark, low-riding clouds of dust. In April, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico were all hit with a devastating dust storm. The dust clouds assaulted everything, destroying crops, killing livestock, and suffocating settlers. It is estimated that in April and May of 1934, more than 650,000,000 tons of topsoil were blown off the plains. In this selection, Ann Marie Low, a young woman whose family farm was in North Dakota, writes in her diary about the dust storm. When we read that Low had to wash the washing machine before she could wash clothes, we begin to appreciate the extraordinary difficulties faced by those trying to survive the storm.
April 25, 1934, Wednesday
Last weekend was the worst dust storm we ever had. We've been having quite a bit of blowing dirt every year since the drought started, not only here, but all over the Great Plains. Many days this spring the air is just full of dirt coming, literally, for hundreds of miles. It sifts into everything. After we wash the dishes and put them away, so much dust sifts into the cupboards we must wash them again before the next meal. Clothes in the closets are covered with dust.
Last weekend no one was taking an automobile out for fear of ruining the motor. I rode Roany to Frank's place to return a gear. To find my way I had to ride right beside the fence, scarcely able to see from one fence post to the next.
Newspapers say the deaths of many babies and old people are attributed to breathing in so much dirt.
May 21, 1934, Monday
Saturday Dad, Bud, and I planted an acre of potatoes. There was so much dirt in the air I couldn't see Bud only a few feet in front of me. Even the air in the house was just a haze. In the evening the wind died down, and Cap came to take me to the movie. We joked about how hard it is to get cleaned up enough to go anywhere.
The newspapers report that on May 10 there was such a strong wind the experts in Chicago estimated 12,000,000 tons of Plains soil was dumped on that city. By the next day the sun was obscured in Washington, District of Columbia, and ships 300 miles out at sea reported dust settling on their decks.
Sunday the dust wasn't so bad. Dad and I drove cattle to the Big Pasture. Then I churned butter and baked a ham, bread, and cookies for the men, as no telling when Mama will be back.
May 30, 1934, Wednesday
Ethel got along fine, so Mama left her at the hospital and came to Jamestown by train Friday. Dad took us both home.
The mess was incredible! Dirt had blown into the house all week and lay inches deep on everything. Every towel and curtain was just black. There wasn't a clean dish or cooking utensil. There was no food. Oh, there were eggs and milk and one loaf left of the bread I baked the weekend before. I looked in the cooler box down the well (our refrigerator) and found a little ham and butter. It was late, so Mama and I cooked some ham and eggs for the men's supper because that was all we could fix in a hurry. It turned out they had been living on ham and eggs for two days.
Mama was very tired. After she had fixed starter for bread, I insisted she go to bed and I'd do all the dishes.
It took until 10 o'clock to wash all the dirty dishes. That's not wiping them—just washing them. The cupboards had to be washed out to have a clean place to put them.
Saturday was a busy day. Before starting breakfast I had to sweep and wash all the dirt off the kitchen and dining room floors, wash the stove, pancake griddle, and dining room table and chairs. There was cooking, baking, and churning to be done for those hungry men. Dad is 6 feet 4 inches tall, with a big frame. Bud is 6 feet 3 inches and almost as big-boned as Dad. We say feeding them is like filling a silo.
Mama couldn't make bread until I carried water to wash the bread mixer. I couldn't churn until the churn was washed and scalded. We just couldn't do anything until something was washed first. Every room had to have dirt almost shoveled out of it before we could wash floors and furniture.
We had no time to wash clothes, but it was necessary. I had to wash out the boiler, wash tubs, and the washing machine before we could use them. Then every towel, curtain, piece of bedding, and garment had to be taken outdoors to have as much dust as possible shaken out before washing. The cistern is dry, so I had to carry all the water we needed from the well.
That evening Cap came to take me to the movie, as usual. Ixnay. I'm sorry I snapped at Cap. It isn't his fault, or anyone's fault, but I was tired and cross. Life in what the newspapers call "the Dust Bowl" is becoming a gritty nightmare.
SOURCE: Low, Ann Marie. Dust Bowl Diary. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.