An eerie darkness enveloped the city of Chicago on the afternoon of November 12, 1933. The previous day this darkness had been a massive black cloud blowing across the Great Plains; the darkness continued across the eastern United States and out to sea. Although this filthy black cloud and similar storms of biblical proportions grabbed the headlines, the worst part of the 1930’s dust storms was not the magnitude of certain storms but the relentless, constancy of these disasters — they raged throughout the decade. So ravaged were the Great Plains, that one name has come to describe the cataclysm — the Dust Bowl.
The 1862 Homestead Act brought thousands of farmers to the Great Plains; after the Civil War the railroads enticed more farmers. But bad farming practices combined with overgrazing by cattlemen created soil susceptible to powdering during a drought and then blowing away in heavy winds. The rain stopped falling in 1931.
In January 1932 the winds began to blow. One day that month, winds exceeding sixty miles per hour swept across the Texas panhandle raising a dirt cloud ten thousand feet high. Although most of 1932’s storms were local, blowing away only the sandiest top soil, the increased winds and continued drought in the spring of 1933 began to cause massive damage in an area covering western Kansas and southern Nebraska, eastern Colorado and New Mexico, western Texas and Oklahoma — the heart of the Dust Bowl.
In May 1934 the mid-western drought became the worst on record. The continued wind blew the top soil down to the plowing level. The storms, now known as “black blizzards,” reduced visibility to zero. The American Heritage History of the 1920s & 1930s described the horrors of a dust storm: “It drifted in the lee of fences; it seeped through the cracks in windows and doors, defying the frantic defenses of farm wives and powdering kitchens and bedrooms and front parlors with a nasty, omnipresent black grit; it killed livestock, buried farm machinery, and made it necessary to turn on car headlights and street lights at noon.”
Nineteen thirty-five brought more drought and continued winds. In March and April of that year Amarillo, Texas suffered twenty-eight dust days; Dodge City, Kansas recorded twenty-six. One Kansas housewife described her family sitting in the living room: “All we could do was just sit in our dusty chairs and gaze at each other through the fog that filled the room and watch the fog settle slowly and silently, covering everything. Our faces were as dirty as if we had rolled in the dirt; our hair was gray and stiff and we ground dirt between our teeth.”
The drought and the winds persisted through 1936 and 1937. Goodwell, Oklahoma recorded 137 “dirty days” in the first nine months of 1937. When it did rain it rained mud balls. In the spring of that year prevailing winds carried the dust as far as the middle Atlantic and Gulf states.
One Oklahoma farmer well described the economic suffering: “We stuck it out here. We scratched, literally scratched, to live. We’d come to town to sell sour cream for nine cents a pound… eggs at ten cents a dozen. Despite all the dust and the wind we were putting in crops and barely living out of barnyard products only. We made five crop failures in five years.” Although this Oklahoma farmer stuck it out, others, such as the fictional Joad family of John Steinbeck’s (i)The Grapes of Wrath(/i), packed everything they owned and headed west to California, creating a sad new group of Americans known as the “Okies.”
Although autumn 1937 saw half the normal rain fall, the end of the great disaster was near. Rain and snow in February 1938 presaged the beginning of the end. Above average rain fell on most of the Dust Bowl in May 1938. Heavy dust storms continued to blow, but the worst was over. As the 1930s ended, the twin sorrows of drought and economic depression left the American stage together.