Revisiting the Dust Bowl’s Devastation


by Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor


LUBBOCK, Texas (DTN) — “If you would like to have your heart broken, just come out here,” wrote Scripps Howard correspondent Ernie Pyle when traveling the Southern Plains in the 1930s. “This is the dust-storm country. It is the saddest land I have ever seen.”


Pyle offered just a small glimpse of the 1930s Dust Bowl, which has been long forgotten or never actually understood by much of the country. The latest Ken Burns' PBS documentary “The Dust Bowl” offers a four-hour examination of what the film calls the “worst man-made ecological disaster in U.S. history.” The documentary premieres on PBS stations Nov. 18-19.


“Our film is about both Mother Nature and human nature,” said Dayton Duncan, who wrote and co-produced the film. “It is about the relationship with the land that sustains us.”


As Duncan wrote in the movie script, after decades of plowing up millions of acres of grassland to grow wheat, the land people depended on eventually turned against them with a lethal vengeance.


Duncan is a long-time colleague of Burns and both live and work in a small New Hampshire town. Duncan was a former chief of staff to a New Hampshire governor and worked on Democratic presidential campaigns in the 1980s before becoming a writer and documentary filmmaker. In 1997, Duncan wrote and produced “Lewis & Clark,” one of PBS' highest-rated documentaries.


Duncan spoke about “The Dust Bowl” to members of the Society of Environmental Journalists last month in Lubbock.


While the droughts of the 1930s led to dust storms in the Plains and prairies, the film focuses on families who settled in the area around the Oklahoma Panhandle, early on often called a “No Man's Land.” The film includes interviews from 26 people who lucidly remember how their childhoods changed from the farm boom times of the 1920s to the drought, financial ruin and years of constant dust storms in the 1930s. Duncan said the movie captures human perseverance.


“Our basic interest was, here in the Southern Plains, how did this catastrophe happen? What was it like? How on Earth did people survive it? And what lessons can we learn?” Duncan said.


World War I brought a global demand for wheat, prompting many to settle unclaimed, marginal lands in the southern prairies. In a region where most counties generally got less than 20 inches of rain, salesmen assured buyers that the chancellor at the University of Kansas had promised the land was undergoing a permanent climate change that would increase precipitation. The act of plowing actually brought the rains, people were told.




The frenzy of wheat production exposed a mass of sod-busted grassland as big as Ohio to high wind erosion. As prices declined, farmers responded by trying to farm twice as much land as they had the year before. Production increases continued right up until it simply stopped raining.


People like to look for a villain in a morality tale, Duncan said. “But all of the things their parents did was try to make a better life for their family,” he said. “We can look back and say that was a really stupid thing to plow up the buffalo grass. But wheat prices were good and there was this cheap soil. When prices went down, they compensated by plowing up more land.”


The movie brings out a heavy dose of emotion and grief from those folks sharing experiences of their childhoods. The filmmakers spent months advertising in small-town papers and visiting area senior centers to talk to people about their childhoods. People described how scared they became when those dust storms rolled in. For example, the voice of an elderly storyteller trembled when recalling the pain of losing a toddler sister to “dust pneumonia.”


“Something that retains that vividness for somebody over 75 years is a powerful event and it's an event that we knew we had to get on camera telling it themselves rather than me trying to provide narration,” Duncan said. “We wanted to let them have as much a center stage as we could.”


A 1934 storm dropped dirt from Nebraska and North Dakota not only on Chicago and New York, but also on ships 300 miles out on the Atlantic Ocean.


An Associated Press reporter happened to be in Guymon, Okla., during the April 1935 storm called “Black Sunday” and wrote an article that said the three most common words used by farmers were “if it rains …” Instead, people grabbed hold of three other words in the story's first paragraph: “the dust bowl.” The label obviously stuck.




Trying to cull animals that had nothing to eat, the federal government paid ranchers $15 a head for cattle healthy enough to be shipped off and slaughtered for food. Cattle not healthy enough were worth as little as a dollar a head, but ranchers had to bury the animals. Some of those interviewed as kids broke down crying as they remembered their parents having to wipe out the cattle stock.


“Daddy could hardly … I'm sorry, but he could hardly do that,” said Pauline Robertson, who grew up on a New Mexico ranch. “I'll never forget my brother and I standing there watching them kill those calves. We could hardly stand it, but that's what they did.”


It was a very successful farm program. They did the same thing with hogs.


Many tenant farmers were also displaced because of the dynamics of the economic collapse. The federal government paid people not to farm, so landlords just kicked people out. That was much of the premise of books such as John Steinbeck's “Grapes of Wrath.”


People with mortgages or those who owned the land were more determined to stick it out rather than head to California. They didn't want to give it up. In many areas, the out-migration averaged 25{8a1275384cb93b18aa3d41af404144e37302a793dec468d70d54c97b65cfac05} of the local population. In some cases, it was higher as people with young children left to protect their kids from pneumonia.


There are parallels in history. The 1920s production boom was spurred by government policy and a speculative bubble. That's similar to the more recent housing boom and the crash that happened, Duncan said. There were real-estate scams that sent people to prison.


“I hear mistakes we as people and as Americans make all the time,” Duncan said. “We get attracted to the short-term gain. Whatever is moving up, we want to get part of that. We think if everything is doing better, it is going to continue doing that. We continue to ignore, you know, common sense sometimes or at least warnings that this is not the right path to follow. We think we're above nature instead of part of nature. Then something like this happens. They see how it starts, but as soon as it's over, people want to forget all about it and start over right again. “


The movie notes how agriculture in the region changed in the 1950s as farmers began to aggressively use groundwater irrigation. Duncan questioned the long-term sustainability of that irrigation in the future.


“When the Ogallala (Aquifer) runs out — and it will run out, it's just a question of when — what will we be doing then?” Duncan said. “There's no other rabbit I know they can pull out of the hat. So they have to really change again, or we are back to where we were when this whole thing happened.”



© Copyright 2012 DTN/The Progressive Farmer, A Telvent Brand. All rights reserved.

Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp



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