I have had several requests recently about the Dust Bowl, so that got me to thinking it would be a good topic for the blog. I want to focus on one particular day which affected Western Kansas and the region in ways that we probably cannot imagine today. Last year was the 75th anniversary of that dark day in our region’s history.
I found an article that tells the background into how and why the Dust Bowl occurred. The Reader’s Companion to American History says the following about the Dust Bowl:
The Dust Bowl was the name given to the Great Plains region devastated by drought in 1930s depression-ridden America. The 150,000-square-mile area, encompassing the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and neighboring sections of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, has little rainfall, light soil, and high winds, a potentially destructive combination. Ranchers and farmers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, driven by the American agricultural ethos of expansion and a sense of autonomy from nature, aggressively exploited the land and set up the region for ecological disaster. Most early settlers used the land for livestock grazing until agricultural mechanization combined with high grain prices during World War I enticed farmers to plow up millions of acres of natural grass cover to plant wheat. When drought struck from 1934 to 1937, the soil lacked the stronger root system of grass as an anchor, so the winds easily picked up the loose topsoil and swirled it into dense dust clouds, called “black blizzards.” Recurrent dust storms wreaked havoc, choking cattle and pasture lands and driving 60 percent of the population from the region. Most of these “exodusters” went to agricultural areas first and then to cities, especially in the Far West.
In response, the federal government mobilized several New Deal agencies, principally the Soil Conservation Service formed in 1935, to promote farm rehabilitation. Working on the local level, the government instructed farmers to plant trees and grass to anchor the soil, to plow and terrace in contour patterns to hold rainwater, and to allow portions of farmland to lie fallow each year so the soil could regenerate. The government also purchased 11.3 million acres of submarginal land to keep it out of production. By 1941 much of the land was rehabilitated, but the region repeated its mistakes during World War II as farmers again plowed up grassland to plant wheat when grain prices rose. Drought threatened another disaster in the 1950s, prompting Congress to subsidize farmers in restoring millions of acres of wheat back to grassland.
The Dust Bowl prompted a cultural response from artists like Dorothea Lange, Woody Guthrie, and John Steinbeck, who lamented the American economic ethos that had created the disaster. To them, the Dust Bowl signified the final destruction of the old Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian harmony with nature.
The residents of the Great Plains had been dealing with dust storms for several years, but none were like the one that struck on April 14, 1935. It was Palm Sunday that year, but it became known as Black Sunday after a massive front with winds of up to 60 mph came through the Great Plains. The winds scooped up the loose top soil which became dust clouds hundreds of feet high.
“People hurried home, for to be caught outside could mean suffocation and death. The dust and darkness halted all forms of transportation and the fine silt sifting through any crack or joint forced the closure of hospitals, flour mills, schools and businesses.” – Kansaspedia
Here is another description of what people were doing that day:
“By 24 March  southeastern Colorado and western Kansas had seen twelve consecutive days of dust storms, but there was worse to come. Near the end of March a new duster swept across the southern plains, destroying one-half the wheat crop in Kansas, one-quarter of it in Oklahoma, and all of it in Nebraska—5 million acres blown out. The storm carried away from the plains twice as much earth as men and machines had scooped out to make the Panama Canal, depositing it once again over the East Coast states and the Atlantic Ocean. Then the wind slackened off a bit, gathering strength, as it were, for the spectacular finale of that unusual spring season—Black Sunday, 14 April.
Dawn came clear and rosy all across the plains that day. By noon the skies were so fresh and blue that people could not remain indoors; they remembered how many jobs they had been postponing, and with a revived spirit they rushed outside to get them done. They went on picnics, planted gardens, repaired henhouses, attended funerals, drove to the neighbors for a visit. In mid-afternoon the summery air rapidly turned colder, falling as many as 50 degrees in a few hours, and the people noticed then that the yards were full of birds nervously fluttering and chattering—and more were arriving every moment, as though fleeing from some unseen enemy. Suddenly there appeared on the northern horizon a black blizzard, moving toward them; there was no sound, no wind, nothing but an immense “boogery” cloud.” – Dust Bowl : The Southern Plains in the 1930s
It was this black day that gave a name to this particular era.
As the nation had become aware of the dust storms, journalists such as Associated Press staff writer Robert Geiger were in Guymon [Oklahoma] writing a series of articles. In his April 15 release for the Washington, D.C., Evening Star he wrote: “Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer’s tongue rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent. If it rains. . . .”
Geiger used the term “dust bowl” for the first time in print. Within three months “dust bowl” was being used throughout the nation. He specifically referred to “the western third of Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, and northeastern New Mexico.” That area is almost identical to the Dust Bowl boundary as formally designated in 1939 by the Soil Conservation Service as the geographical extent of the severe wind damage by 1939. – Dust Bowl Lore
The library has a number of books on the Dust Bowl, so look in the online catalog for titles. There are also a number of web sites on the Internet that provide good sources. I have listed below some primary and seccondary sources about Black Sunday. Oral histories, written essays, and photographs are included within these links.
Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of History & Culture – http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/d/du012.html
National Weather Service – http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/?n=blacksunday
Living History Farm, York, Nebraska – http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_02.html
Dust Bowl Oral History Project, Ford County Historical Society, Dodge City, Kansas – http://www.skyways.org/orgs/fordco/dustbowl/
PBS Series: American Experience – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/dustbowl-black-sunday/
Kansas Memory – http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/211072
Wind Erosion Research at KSU – http://www.weru.ksu.edu/new_weru/multimedia/dustbowl/dustbowlpics.html
Field and Stream Magazine – http://www.fieldandstream.com/blogs/hunting/2010/04/how-black-sunday-shaped-future-hunting-and-fishing
History.net – http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-major-dust-bowl-storm-strikes
Logsdon, Guy. “Dust Bowl Lore.” Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of History & Culture. 16 March 2011 <http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/d/du012.html>.
“Reader’s Companion to American History.” 1991. Credo Reference. Houghton Mifflin. 16 March 2011 <http://www.credoreference.com/entry/rcah/dust_bowl>.
Society, Kansas State Historical. “Kansapedia.” Kansas State Historical Society. 16 March 2011 <http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/dust-bowl/12040>.
Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl : The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Picture is from http://www.weru.ksu.edu/new_weru/multimedia/dustbowl/big/dust103.gif