For many in middle America, the period of the Great Depression was exacerbated by the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.
Widespread deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains over many years had removed much of the natural vegetation that trapped moisture during dry periods and high winds. In large swaths of of the plains, the natural grasses that had held the soil in place for tens of thousands of years were gone.
Wheat was in high demand during World War 1 and extensive wheat farming further exhausted the topsoil. Overgrazing stripped other parts of the plains of virtually all other vegetation.
At the end of October, 1929, a devastating collapse of stock market prices signal and economic downturn that became the Great Depression. Along with the economic troubles, a severe drought began in the agricultural heartland of the United States and Canada in 1930.
The soil dried up and turned to dust.
In the Great Plains, “the wind blows harder and more constantly that it does in any other portion of the United States, save on the seashore. The average wind velocity on the Plains is equal to that on the seashore. ‘Does the wind blow this way here all the time?’ asked the ranch visitor in the West. “ ‘No, Mister,’ answered the cowboy; ‘it’ll blow this way for a week or ten days, and then it’ll take a change and blow like hell for a while.’” 1
Without it’s natural anchors, the dried soil began to be picked up by the wind. Sometimes there was so much in the air that the dust clouds blackened the sky, at times reaching the east coast. Much of the soil lost, carried by prevailing winds, ended up in the ocean.
“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 accumulations of 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. They help just a little to retard or collect the dust. Some seal the windows with the gummed-paper strips used in wrapping parcels, but no method is fully effective. We buy what appears to be red cedar sawdust with oil added to use in sweeping our floors, and do our best to avoid inhaling the irritating dusts.”2
With the bad economic conditions and millions of damaged acres of farmland, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Migrating to California and other states, they found economic conditions little better than what they had left. Many ended up as migrant farm workers, picking crops at starvation wages.
1 The Great Plains by Walter Prscott Webb, 1931
2 from Henderson, Caroline A. “Letters from the Dustbowl.” Atlantic Monthly, May 1936, pp 540-51.
Images (from top to bottom)
- Dust storm. It was conditions of this sort which forced many farmers to abandon the area. Spring 1935. New Mexico; Photo by Dorothea Lange, April 1935. Library of Congress image.
- This abandoned farmstead stands in ruin from blasting winds which have shifted top soil from field to cover the house and improvement. The old turning plow in foreground was left at the end of row in the field. Bacca County, Colorado; 1935; Photographer: B. C. McLean; USDA photo archives
- Dust is too much for this farmer’s son in Cimarron County, Oklahoma; photo by Arthur Rothstein, April, 1936; Library of Congress image.
- Baca County, Colorado. April 14, 1935. Dust storm. Colorado; photo by J.H. Ward; Library of Congress image.