"And then the dispossessed were drawn west- from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless - restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land." Excerpt from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

What can one say about the Dust Bowl, the inspiration behind the aforementioned Grapes of Wrath, the cause of the migration of thousands upon thousands of farmers and families who left their homes in search of a means to survive or for that matter, those who stuck through the lean years and managed to eke out a living when there was no living to be had? The largest internal migration in the history of the United States? Well, there's lots I guess. First of all....

When Was It?

If there is any truth to the old saying that "timing is everything", then I guess the conditions leading up to the Dust Bowl couldn’t have occurred at a worse time for those who were forced to endure it. Just as the United States was suffering through the Great Depression, certain climatic and human factors joined forces and caused what is known as “the Dust Bowl”. Generally, conditions attributing to the cause of the Dust Bowl lasted from 19301940 however the impact on the country lasted much longer.

Where Was It?

As Mr. Steinbeck so eloquently describes, the Dust Bowl was mainly centered in the Midwestern States and Southern Plains. All in all about 50 million acres of farmland were affected. Effects of the Dust Bowl were experienced nationwide.

What Caused It?

There were many factors that caused the Dust Bowl, some natural, some not. Poor agricultural practices that resulted in soil erosion, extreme drought , record high temperatures and the prevailing winds were all contributed to the conditions that became known as the Dust Bowl. Let’s take a look at each one.

The main crop that was grown in the area known as the Dust Bowl was wheat. When conditions were such that the wheat wouldn’t grow, farmers dug up their failing crops and tried to replace them with hardier ones. When that failed, they dug them up once again …and again… and again. All of this digging resulted in a lack of ground cover and any protection that the soil might have had soon vanished.

The extreme drought conditions actually came in four waves .They were 1930–31, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40 . In the drought of 1934, at least 75% of the United States was affected. At least 27 states claimed that they were “severely affected” by the lack of rainfall.

The next factor was the record high temperatures. In 1936 alone, 15 states recorded their highest daytime temperatures since measurement began in 1895. How hot was it?

Idaho – 118F on July 28th 1934
Indiana – 116F on July 14th 1936
Iowa – 118F on July 20th 1934
Kansas – 121F on July 24th 1936
Kentucky – 114F on July 28th 1930
Louisiana – 114F on August 10th 1936
Mississippi – 115F on July 29th 1930
Montana – 117F on July 5th 1937
Nebraska – 118F on July 24 1936
New Mexico – 116F on July 14th 1934
North Dakota – 121F on July 6th 1936
Tennessee – 113F on August 9th 1930
Texas – 120F on August 7, 1936

Many of these records still stand today…

Last but not least, you have the dry prevailing winds. The soil is now dry and not being held down by ground cover, the heat is oppressive, there is no rain to speak of . All the conditions are ripe for….

Dust Storms

Also known as the Black Blizzard or Black Rollers. These storms usually occurred when the wind speed exceeded 30 miles per hour and the dust was lifted into the air. At its worst, tens of thousands of tons of dust was swept into the air at speeds exceeding 60 miles per hour and reached heights of up to 7000 – 8000 feet. Visibility was reduced to zero. The effects of one such storm were felt as far away as Chicago when in May of 1934 an estimated 12 million tons of dust fell like snow in the city. That was about 4 pounds of dust for every person living there.

Here’s a list of the storms that occurred throughout the Dust Bowl when visibility was reduced to less than a mile, courtesy of the Soil Conservation Service.

  • 1933- 38 storms
  • 1934- 22 storms
  • 1935- 40 storms
  • 1936- 68 storms
  • 1937- 72 storms
  • 1938- 61 storms
  • 1939- 30 storms
  • 1940- 17 storms
  • 1941- 17 storms

Can It Happen Again?

To some degree yes, but probably not to the extreme conditions experienced throughout the 30’s. This is due to better land management, crop rotation and contour farming methods all put in place in order to conserve the soil and keep it on the ground.

And now I’d like to close with a song by a child of the Dust Bowl, the one and only Woody Guthrie

Dust Bowl Refugee

I'm a dust bowl refugee,
Just a dust bowl refugee,
From that dust bowl to the peach bowl,
Now that peach fuzz is a-killin' me. 'Cross the mountains to the sea
Come the wife and kids and me.
It's a hot old dusty highway
For a dust bowl refugee. Hard, it's always been that way,
Here today and on our way
Down that mountain, 'cross the desert,
Just a dust bowl refugee. We are ramblers, so they say,
We are only here today,
Then we travel with the seasons,
We're the dust bowl refugees. From the south land and the drought land,
Come the wife and kids and me,
And this old world is a hard world
For a dust bowl refugee. Yes, we ramble and we roam
And the highway that's our home,
It's a never-ending highway
For a dust bowl refugee. Yes, we wander and we work
In your crops and in your fruit,
Like the whirlwinds on the desert
That's the dust bowl refugees. I'm a dust bowl refugee,
I'm a dust bowl refugee,
And I wonder will I always
Be a dust bowl refugee?

www.usd.edu/anth/epa/dust.html
www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/dustbowl/timeline
http://students.sunysuffolk.edu/~nicoj00/index1.html