The “Dust Bowl” was an environmental disaster that hit the Midwest in the 1930s. A combination of a severe water shortage and harsh farming techniques caused the disaster. Some scientists believe it was the worst drought in North America in 300 years. The lack of rain killed the crops that kept the soil in place. When winds blew, they raised enormous clouds of dust. It deposited mounds of dirt on everything, even covering houses. With the Dust Bow came the failure of many farms in the Midwest, and the people had no choice but to move, in order to find a way to make a living.
I suppose that the invasion that followed might have been similar to the current refugees. It wasn’t just one family that moved, but hundreds of families. Los Angeles Police Chief James E. Davis, seeking to halt the “invasion” of dust-bowl Depression refugees in February, 1936, declared a “Bum Blockade” to stop the mass emigration of poverty stricken families fleeing from the dust-torn states of the Midwest. These days, he would have met with severe criticism, not so much for the blockade, as for the name of the blockade.
By 1934, 75% of the United States was severely affected by this terrible drought. The region most affected was the Great Plains, and included more than 100 million acres, centered in Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, Kansas, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico. These millions of acres of farmland became useless and soon, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Many of these destitute families packed up their belongings and migrated west, hoping to find work and a better life, about 200,000 of which were California bound. Instead of finding the promised land of their dreams, however, they found that the available labor pool was vastly disproportionate to the number of job openings that could be filled. Migrants who found employment soon learned that this surplus of workers caused a significant reduction in the going wage rate, and even when the entire family worked, they were unable to support themselves.
Many set up “ditchbank” camps along irrigation canals in the farmers’ fields, which brought with them poor sanitary conditions and created a public health problem. And, of those who could find work in agriculture, it did not put an end to their travels. Instead, their lives were characterized by transience, if they wanted to maintain a steady income, which required them to follow the various harvests around the state. In the meantime, California was overwhelmed, trying to figure out how to absorb as many as 6,000 migrants crossing its borders daily. Also feeling the effects of the Depression, California infrastructures were already overburdened, and the steady stream of newly arriving migrants was more than the system could bear. Though these refugees came from a number of states, Californians often lumped them together as “Okies” or “Arkies,” who became the butt of derogatory jokes and the focus of political campaigns in which candidates made them the scapegoat for a shattered economy. They were accused of many crimes, as well as shiftlessness, lack of ambition, school overcrowding and stealing jobs from native Californians.
California’s Indigent Act was passed in 1933, which made it a crime to bring indigent persons into the state, Davis contended that his men needed no special approval because “any officer has the authority to enforce the state law.” Asking border-county sheriffs to deputize his officers, most complied. However, some refused, including Modoc County, who forced 14 LAPD officers to leave after they turned away local residents trying to return home. On August 24, 1935, the Los Angeles Herald-Express ran an article warning emigrants to stay away from California. It read: Stay Away From California: Warning To Transient Hordes. Those days were very different from the California of today, and not in a good way. I don’t agree with derogatory name calling, but common sense tells us that sometimes you have to try to stop a flood, even if it’s a flood of people.
In the late 19th century, America was growing. The pioneers headed west, because many couldn’t resist the lure of the tall grassy land in the midwestern and southern plains of the United States. They planned to settled there to farm. The next few decades were prosperous, but when the 1930s rolled in, so did strong winds, drought, and clouds of dust that plagued nearly 75 percent of the United States between 1931 and 1939. The Dust Bowl, as it was known, had arrived. The problem likely began in the early 1920s, when a post-World War I recession led farmers to try new mechanized farming techniques as a way to increase profits. Many bought plows and other farming equipment, and between 1925 and 1930 more than 5 million acres of previously unfarmed land was plowed. With the help of mechanized farming, farmers produced record crops during the 1931 season. However, overproduction of wheat coupled with the Great Depression led to severely reduced market prices. The wheat market was flooded, and people were too poor to buy. Farmers were unable to earn back their production costs and expanded their fields in an effort to turn a profit. The prairie was covered with wheat in place of the natural drought-resistant grasses, and to add to the problem, they left any unused fields bare. With the drought leaving much of the country severely dry, no natural grasses to hold the dirt in place, the higher than normal temperatures, and increasingly strong winds, the country was hit with what many called Black Blizzards, which were rolling dust storms driven by high winds.
Now, if you have ever been in a Haboob (Arabic meaning, blasting), which is a type of intense dust storm carried on a weather front, you have a pretty good idea of what the Dust Bowl was like, except that instead of lasting a few hours, the Dust Bowl storms continued to occur from 1931 to 1939. Now imagine 8 plus years of dust blowing everywhere!! It was in their hair, in their eyes, in their houses, and in the food. They couldn’t get away from it, and since 75 percent of the United States was in the grip of the Dust Bowl, moving didn’t help either…not to mention the fact that no one could afford to anyway. It was a disgusting situation, and it was about to get much worse. By 1932, 14 Black Blizzards were reported, and in just one year, the number increased to nearly 40. It seemed that no end was in sight, but still, the worst was yet to come.
On the afternoon of April 14, 1935, the residents of the Plains States were forced to take cover as a Black Blizzard, blew through the region. The storm hit the Oklahoma Panhandle and Northwestern Oklahoma first, moving south for the remainder of the day. It hit Beaver around 4:00 pm, Boise City around 5:15 pm, and Amarillo, Texas, at 7:20 pm. The conditions were the most severe in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, but the storm’s effects were felt in other surrounding areas. The day would forever be labeled Black Sunday. It was one of the worst dust storms in American history and it caused immense economic and agricultural damage. It is estimated to have displaced 300 million tons of topsoil from the prairie area of the United States. The storm was so harsh because of the high winds that hit the area that day. The combination of drought, erosion, bare soil, and winds caused the dust to fly freely and at high speeds. The loose dust flying around was enough to inhale, and many people suffocated with the dust filling their lungs. The day was a black day for more reasons than one. It is hard to contemplate a dust storm that was so severe that people couldn’t breathe…to the point of death! Nevertheless, that was exactly what Black Sunday was like.
Following the horrible Black Blizzards of 1935, and the massive amount of damage caused by these storms, Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act, which established the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency of the USDA. The SCS was created in an attempt to provide guidance for land owners and land users to reduce soil erosion, improve forest and field land, and conserve and develop natural resources. It was the hope that the United States could prevent another Dust Bowl, and while small areas have a tendency to have dust storms, there has never been another era like the Dust Bowl era that the United States citizens suffered in the 1930s.
Drought…anywhere and at any time, is a perilous situation. Crops can’t grow, and food prices go up. But when a drought happens in the middle of an economic depression, it is catastrophic. The Dust Bowl, which was also known as the Dirty Thirties, was a period of severe dust storms during the 1930s. Mistakes were made during this drought…mistakes like a failure to implement dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion caused the Dust Bowl. The drought came in three waves…1934, 1936, and 1939–40, but some regions of the high plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years. The people had no real understanding of the ecology of the plains. The farmers had plowed deep into the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains during the previous decade. This displacement of the native, deep-rooted grasses that normally trapped soil and moisture even during periods of drought and high winds were gone. During the drought of the 1930s, the unanchored soil turned to dust, which the prevailing winds blew away in huge clouds that sometimes blackened the sky. These choking clouds of dust…named “black blizzards” or “black rollers” traveled cross country. The Dust Bowl forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms.
The drought, along with the already depressed economy, caused many people to have very little money. It was during this time that people had to get creative to meet their needs. Enter the flour sack…say what!! Yes, the flour sack. When the people didn’t have money for fabric to make clothing, they began to use the cloth flour sacks as material for clothing. Then, some industrious flour distributor somewhere decided to assist the people. The flour sacks began to have pretty designs on them. Just because the people were going to use the sacks for clothing, didn’t mean that they had to look like they were wearing a flour sack. It didn’t matter that everyone knew it was a flour sack either. It looked pretty, and that really helped with morale. In reality, cloth is cloth, but I suppose the flour sacks were not of the normal dress quality. Still, when that was all you had, you did what you had to do. When you are given lemons, make lemonade, and all…right.
As the flour sacks began to be prettier, the dresses became quite fashionable, and looking back on some of the dresses that were made, I doubt that most people would know the difference between a flour sack dress and any other dress…had they not been told. The people of those times really got quite creative in meeting the needs of the family…clothing, furniture, or even their houses…people persevered. Of course, food was a little bit more difficult in those days, because if the crops wouldn’t grow, you simply had to find something else to eat. I’m sure there were a lot of people who were pretty skinny in those days…as well as pretty hungry. Nevertheless, with the help of creative mothers, and industrious flour distributors, the girls looked very nice, and quite fashionable.