The Dust Bowl or the dirty thirties was a period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to American and Canadian prairie lands from 1930 to 1936 (in some areas until 1940). It was caused by severe drought, coupled with decades of extensive farming without crop rotation or other techniques to prevent erosion, and the deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains, which killed the natural grasses. These grasses normally kept the soil in place and trapped the moisture even during periods of drought and high winds.
During the drought of the 1930s, with the grasses destroyed, the soil dried, turned to dust, and blew away eastwards and southwards in large dark clouds. At times the clouds blackened the sky, reaching all the way to East Coast cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. Much of the soil ended up deposited in the Atlantic Ocean. The Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres (400,000 km2), centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.
The storms of the Dust Bowl were given names such as Black Blizzard and Black Roller because visibility was reduced to a few feet (around a meter). The Dust Bowl was an ecological and human disaster. It was caused by misuse of land and years of sustained drought. Millions of acres of farmland became useless, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Hundreds of thousands of families from the Dust Bowl (often known as "Okies", since so many came from Oklahoma) traveled to California and other states, where they found conditions little better than those they had left. Owning no land, many traveled from farm to farm picking fruit and other crops at starvation wages. John Steinbeck later wrote the classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath and also Of Mice and Men about such people.
Agricultural and settlement history
During early European and American exploration of the Great Plains, the region in which the Dust Bowl occurred was thought unsuitable for agriculture; indeed, the region was known as the Great American Desert. The lack of surface water and timber made the region less attractive for pioneer settlement and agriculture. However, following the Civil War, settlement in the area increased, encouraged by the Homestead Act and westward expansion. An unusually wet period in the Great Plains led settlers and government to believe that "rain follows the plow" and that the climate of the region had changed permanently. The initial agricultural endeavors were primarily cattle ranching with some cultivation; however, a series of harsh winters beginning in 1886, coupled with overgrazing followed by a short drought in 1890, led to an expansion of land under cultivation.
Immigration began again at the beginning of the 20th century. A return of unusually wet weather confirmed the previously held opinion that the "formerly" semi-arid area could support large-scale agriculture. Technological improvements led to increased automation, which allowed for cultivation on an ever greater scale. World War I increased agricultural prices, which also encouraged farmers to drastically increase cultivation. In the Llano Estacado, farmland area doubled between 1900 and 1920, and land under cultivation more than tripled between 1925 and 1930. Finally, farmers used agricultural practices that encouraged erosion. For example, cotton farmers left fields bare over winter months, when winds in the High Plains are highest, and burned their wheat stubble, which deprived the soil of organic matter and increased exposure to erosion.
This increased exposure to erosion was displayed when an unusually severe drought struck the Great Plains in 1934. The grass covering the prairie lands for centuries held the soil in place and maintained moisture. With deep plowing from increased farming, the grass holding the soil was eliminated. Combined with the drought, the soil became very dry and loose and was simply carried away by wind making dust clouds which further prevented rainfall. It was not until the government promoted soil conservation programs that the area began to become rehabilitated.
The catastrophe, which began as the economic effects of the Great Depression were intensifying, caused an exodus from Texas, Oklahoma, and the surrounding Great Plains, with more than 500,000 Americans left homeless. One storm caused 356 houses to be torn down. Many Americans migrated west looking for work, while many Canadians fled to urban areas such as Toronto. Two-thirds of farmers in "Palliser's Triangle", in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, had to rely on government aid. This was due mainly to drought, hailstorms, and erratic weather rather than to dust storms such as those occurring on the U.S. Great Plains. Some residents of the Plains, especially in Kansas and Oklahoma, fell ill and died from dust pneumonia and malnutrition.
The Dust Bowl area lies principally west of the 100th meridian on the High Plains, characterized by plains which vary from rolling in the north to flat in the Llano Estacado. Elevation ranges from 2,500 feet (760 m) in the east to 6,000 feet (1,800 m) at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The area is semi-arid, receiving less than 20 inches (510 mm) of rain annually; this rainfall supports the Shortgrass prairie biome originally present in the area. The region is also prone to extended drought, alternating with unusual wetness of equivalent duration. During wet years, the rich soil provides bountiful agricultural output, but crops fail during dry years. Furthermore, the region is subject to winds higher than any region except coastal regions.
Drought and dust storms
The unusually wet period, which encouraged increased settlement and cultivation in the Great Plains, ended in 1930. This was the year in which an extended and severe drought began. The drought caused crops to fail, leaving the plowed fields exposed to wind erosion. The fine soil of the Great Plains was easily eroded and carried east by strong continental winds.
On November 11, 1933, a very strong dust storm stripped topsoil from desiccated South Dakota farmlands in just one of a series of bad dust storms that year. Then, beginning on May 9, 1934, a strong two-day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago where dirt fell like snow. Two days later, the same storm reached cities in the east, such as Buffalo, Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. That winter, red snow fell on New England.
On April 14, 1935, known as "Black Sunday", twenty of the worst "Black Blizzards" occurred throughout the Dust Bowl, causing extensive damage and turning the day to night. Witnesses reported that they could not see five feet in front of them at certain points. The dust storms were so bad that often roosters thought that it was night instead of day and went to sleep during them.
The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history within a short period of time. The second wave of the Great Migration by African Americans from the South to the North was larger, involving more than 5 million people, but it took place over decades, from 1940-1970. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200,000 moved to California. With their land barren and homes seized in foreclosure, many farm families were forced to leave. Migrants left farms in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico, but all were generally referred to as "Okies". The plight of Dust Bowl migrants became widely known from the novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
When James N. Gregory examined the Census Bureau statistics as well as other surveys, he discovered some surprising percentages. For example, in 1939 the Bureau of Agricultural Economics surveyed the occupations of about 116,000 families who had come to California in the 1930s. It showed that only 43 percent of southwesterners were doing farmwork immediately before they migrated. Nearly one-third of all migrants were professional or white collar workers.
During President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days in 1933, governmental programs designed to conserve soil and restore the ecological balance of the nation were implemented. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes established the Soil Erosion Service in August 1933 under Hugh Hammond Bennett. It was later reorganized and renamed the Soil Conservation Service in 1935, and is now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Additionally, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation was created after over six million pigs were slaughtered and went to waste in order to stabilize prices. The FSRC diverted agricultural commodities to relief organizations. Apples, beans, canned beef, flour and pork products were distributed through local relief channels. Cotton goods were eventually included to clothe the needy as well.
In 1935, the federal government formed a Drought Relief Service to coordinate relief activities. The DRS bought cattle in counties that were designated emergency areas, for $14 to $20 a head. Those unfit for human consumption - more than 50 percent at the beginning of the program - were destroyed. The remaining cattle were given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation to be used in food distribution to families nationwide. Although it was difficult for farmers to give up their herds, the cattle slaughter program helped many of them avoid bankruptcy. "The government cattle buying program was a God-send to many farmers, as they could not afford to keep their cattle, and the government paid a better price than they could obtain in local markets."
President Roosevelt ordered that the Civilian Conservation Corps plant a huge belt of more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene, Texas, to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place. The administration also began to educate farmers on soil conservation and anti-erosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing and other beneficial farming practices.
In 1937, the federal government began an aggressive campaign to encourage Dust Bowlers to adopt planting and plowing methods that conserve the soil. The government paid the reluctant farmers a dollar an acre to practice one of the new methods. By 1938, the massive conservation effort had reduced the amount of blowing soil by 65 percent. Nevertheless, the land failed to yield a decent living.
In the fall of 1939, after nearly a decade of dirt and dust, rain finally came.