The Dust Bowl Years

Robert Geiger, an Associated Press reporter who was a sports aficionado, coined the name Dust Bowl, referring to the dust blown lands of the Great Plains. He was familiar with the Rose Bowl, other similar sports arenas in existence at that time, and in the scooped-out windswept regions of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, saw a tongue-in cheek slight physical similarity. The name hit the public fancy and remained in the American lexicon.

It was darkness at noon-impenetrable clouds of red, or yellow, or brown gritty dust swirling across the countryside, carrying with it topsoil, seed, and the hope of the Great Plains farmers. It was inescapable heat in mid-summer; it was parching drought, furnace-like winds. It was the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. Whereas the Great Depression of the early 1930's affected almost all Americans in one way or another, the Dust Bowl years that followed were the affliction of the Great Plains, a phenomenon peculiar to that geographic area. That the people were able to survive the twin calamities of the Depression, then the Dust Bowl, is a measure of their vigor, tenacity, and strength.

Some of the beginnings of the Dust Bowl went back to the time of World War 1, when marginal land was plowed to produce $2 wheat, for in years to come when the rains stopped, that land lay bare, despoiled, and eroded. But most of the origins of the Dust Bowl years came from the geological and climatically characteristics of the vast inland area bounded by the Gulf of Mexico on the south, the Rocky Mountains on the west, and what geographic barriers existed on the east and north. The land of high winds and sun, intense temperature extremes, and cyclical patterns of rainfall had known dust storms before; archeological excavations show that almost 500 years earlier, a heavy mantle of dust had driven off the semi-nomadic people who then populated the area. In the early 1930s, drought, heat, and high winds combined in such a way as to produce a similar dramatic natural catastrophe. Although the semi-arid region had known drought and heat before, when seeds could not germinate or develop, and had known wind for most of its existence, it was the coming together of several forces that created the incessant dust storms of the 1930s

Although Nebraska was not the center of the Dust bowl area--southwest Kansas and Panhandle Oklahoma were far more drastically affected--and Adams County was not hit so drastically as counties farther southwest in Nebraska, still the harsh years of the Dust Bowl created psychological scars that exist in Adams County people even now, almost a half-century later. Drought and heat and crop failure the people had known before, but never before had the land itself been imperiled, the topsoil blowing away. Land had always been the one stable element in an environment where everything else was a gamble.

Although there were sporadic bursts of dust in the spring of 1932 and 1933, it was not until 1934 that overwhelming clouds of dust blew, swirling in huge black blizzards, swooping across the countryside in menacing gales.

"I remember that first bad dust storm," Clara Lutkemeier recalls. "The birds fluttered, the rabbits ran, and the sky turned black. We thought it was a twister, and we took to the cave and stayed for about an hour. When we got back to the house, the dust lay so thick in the back bedroom we just moved the mattress into the middle room so we could sleep."

Lester Woods says that his family thought the cloud was a cyclone, and also took to the storm cellar. When they returned to the house, they discovered a coating of grit over everything. "We cleaned up with a vacuum sweeper later, " he said, describing the hand-powered equipment in the days before electricity. It was a heavy sort of bellows which had to be pumped by hand, requiring tremendous muscular effort, to clean up the veneer of dust that lay over the entire house, including dishes on the table, curtains, sills, floors, bed-coverings, cupboards.

Another person recalling that mealtime storm said that the only food edible after the storm, when they returned to the kitchen, was a plate of biscuits the mother had inadvertently left in the oven; all the food on the table was so covered with dirt it could not be eaten.

The storms came with regularity after that, and when the dirt was not blowing in clouds, it settled down as fine silt, seeping constantly under the doors, window ledges, any openings in the houses. No matter the amount of sweeping, mopping, beating of carpets, even vacuuming, there was always grit in the air, settling on people as well as on furniture.

After heavy blizzards of dirt, road-graders went out to scoop the roads, Ruby Lightner recalls, for the soil drifted into the bar-pits and across the road as if it were snow, but it wouldn't melt. "You couldn't see where the roads were," she said. Helen Watson recalls being in a Model T Ford during a dust-storm, when the motor clogged with grit and the passengers had to take refuge in a school yard; relatives looking for them later followed a barbed-wire fence, found the family still huddled in the car. Another time, she said, the car sat outside during a storm and got so much dirt in the motor that on Sunday morning when her husband started the car, dust blew out in such a cloud that the family had to go back into the house to change clothing before they could go to church. The grit was abrasive, acting as sandpaper, often taking off car paint.

In nearby Buffalo county, Mrs. Van Miller was caught on Highway 30 during a dust-storm, collided head-on with another car in the dense cloud, and in the crash her three young children were killed. John Crowley tells the story of driving to Grand Island, being caught in a dust storm so heavy he could not see the road, and having to have a friend walk ahead of the car to feel out the roadway, a step at a time, so that the driver, following slowly behind with lights on, would not slide into the ditch.

A train near Campbell was stopped by dust drifts on the tracks; work crews were called out to scoop the tracks, but by the time the train came along, the tracks were clogged again by dust, so heavy was the fall that day.

The wind piled dust across fences, covering them so that horses and cows could climb over them and wander away. In other places, it blew dirt out form under the posts, leaving them waving in the air. Some wags said that prairie dogs now were able to tunnel upward several feet from the ground. If water barrels at the corners of houses were not covered, the dirt blew in to create undrinkable mud. What shallow steams in Adams county still had trickles of water in them during the hot, dry years were covered with silt, so much that fish died.

Some of the dirt was red; connoisseurs recognized that as emanating from Oklahoma. Other dust was yellow, some other colors. Before long, people could tell what part of the Great Plains was sailing past that day, for the winds came form the north, bringing Montana or the Dakotas with them, or the south, bringing a different assortment of soils with each change of wind. Since most of the dust storms blew up in the spring, after farmers had planted what seed they could afford, sometimes the dirt carried seed as a bonus, but unfortunately the seed that traveled the most readily seemed to be that of weeds. In the half-century since the Dust Bowl days, agronomists have discovered that some weeds now considered endemic to Adams County, for instance, were not known here before the 1930s.

Annual precipitation in Adams County of 25.71 inches is considered normal. In all of 1934, the total moisture in Hastings from rain and snow alike measured 15.57 inches. Throughout the rest of the Great Plains, similar shortages were measured; the drought, which had started earlier, was real.

On Wednesday and Thursday, May 9 and 10, 1934, the rest of the world began to know at first hand about the dust storms of the Great Plains. "A gigantic cloud of dust, 1,500 miles long, 900 miles across and two miles high, buffeted and smothered almost one-third of the nation today, " a United Press story in the Hastings Tribune of May 11 reported. "For more than 36 hours arid winds from the plains of western Canada swirled tons of sand and grit eastward... " The news story said, blaming the Canadian plains rather than the American ones. "In Chicago, St. Louis, Des Moines, Kansas City, St. Paul and Minneapolis--everywhere under the grimy blanket--the sun was obscured and visibility limited to less than a mile. Pilots of commercial airlines climbed to heights of almost 15,000 feet to reach clear air...States in the full path of this and other recent dust storms were Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, northern Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and portions of West Virginia and. Pennsylvania. " The Hastings Tribune, which otherwise never printed a single story, most especially one with a local dateline, about dust storms, did not print a later version which said that the brown dirt had in truth started in Montana and Wyoming, had picked up more along the way as it moved, and that it swirled over Washington, New York City and Boston, Atlanta and Savannah, and even into ships three hundred miles in the Atlantic, before it finally dissipated on May 12. Data in the Monthly Weather Review, published in February, l935, estimated that 350 million tons of dirt rode that storm, twelve million tons of dust falling over Chicago alone.

Dramatic though that storm was, it was the day-by-day battles with dust that tried the souls of persons living in the Great Plains. Housewives used dampened towels, rags, tape, to try to seal the windows and other openings against the dust that seeped in constantly. Occasionally, when kerosene lanterns flickered, families discovered that they had sealed the rooms so thoroughly that there was little air circulating. Marietta Kauf Vollweiler, then a teacher in the Hastings Public Schools, recalls that Superintendent A.H. Staley, a firm believer in fresh air in the classrooms, one time ripped off the rags that sealed the windows of a room, then discovered that the dust that blew in was far unhealthier for the children than stale air. E. Leon Kearney, teaching in rural schools during that period, says that at times he had to light lanterns in the classroom so that the children could see to recite, and that on occasion he and the children stayed in the schoolhouse all night to keep out of the black blizzard raging outside.

Animals in the fields had no place for refuge. Cattle became blinded during dust storms and ran around in circles, inhaling dust, until they fell and died, their lungs caked with dust and mud. Newborn calves suffocated. Carcasses of jackrabbits, small birds, and field mice lay along roadsides by the hundreds after a dust storm. With no forage growing in the pastures, livestock subsisted on Russian thistles; sometimes the farmers harvested the tumbleweeds and sprinkled them with molasses to make them more palatable, but often they left the tumbleweeds in the field for the cattle to grub out themselves, risking dust pneumonia as they rooted deep to get even the long, tough taproots.

In time, too, people fell prey to dust-caused diseases, chief among them dust pneumonia. Clara Lutkemeier's first-born, a son, died as a newborn of dust pneumonia; many others, particularly the elderly and those suffering from respiratory diseases, also succumbed. There are no health department records, however, to indicate the numbers of dust-provoked pneumonia deaths in Adams County during this period. A few years later, when civilian workers at the NAD in Hastings or the Harvard Air Base had to get routine chest X-rays, many of them learned they had spots on their lungs. Glade Paulus remembers that the doctor laughed and said that anybody in this section of Nebraska had those dust spots. They did not indicate tuberculosis or anything else than just dust, mementos of the dust bowl years.

Another dust-caused ailment of the period was ruptured appendixes. Country doctors who encountered a rash of them, were unable to perform even kitchen-table surgery while the dust blew, but without sophisticated help developed their own, drastic, simple procedures for coping. Rather than operating to remove the infected organs, they simply inserted drains so that the pus could run out. Their survival rates were phenomenally high in the pre-antibiotic era when a ruptured appendix ordinarily was a death warrant. Medical journals published later, when the doctors had time to write up their findings, describe the new procedures developed out of desperation. Another ailment of the dust bowl years was measles, epidemics springing up in communities throughout the dusty region. In Hastings alone in early February, 1935, when the spring storms were just beginning to get into full swing, one hundred homes were placarded, or isolated, because of the disease; more were added later. Other communities reported similar outbreaks. Whether the measles would have erupted even had there been no dust storms, whether the germs were dust-born, nobody knows.

Bad though 1934 had been, the next year was even worse, with more dust, more wind. Because the local newspapers did not print stories about dust storms, only temperature and rainfall statistics, it is hard to document the number of days that Adams county lay under a pall of dust. Between March 15 and April 15, 1935, there were 19 dust storms recorded by weather bureaus in Kansas, although not all of those storms reached Adams county, still the dust was percolating in the air, sifting down even though it did not necessarily blow in. By the end of March, all of the wheat crop in Nebraska was gone, along with half of that in Kansas, a quarter of the Oklahoma acreage, a total of five million acres blown out. Later in the year, there was no corn; Adams county was designated as a drought area, one of the two hardest-struck counties in the state.

The day of April 10 started out with another yellow dust storm in Hastings, and then a few vagrant raindrops turned the dust to mud which thudded to the ground, and finally the sprinkles turned to a few snowflakes. But not enough to help. The dust was back the next day, Sunday April 14, 1935, is still known as Black Sunday in southwestern Kansas because of the intensity of that dust storm, although in Hastings it seemed not sufficiently different from other days to have been noticed. The week after Arbor Day was bad in Adams county with almost constant blowing of dust. A month later rains came, pelting with such intensity that they caused the Republican River Flood of 1935 which left more than one hundred persons drowned; the rain came so hard that it did little good to the parched farmland.

Helen Watson recalls that the ground was so dust-covered that her husband had to use a spade to scoop it so that he could then drive his horse-drawn two-row lister into the field. Although there had been no vegetation on his place the fall before, he still went out into the field, tried to farm. Mary Entreneer remembers that when she went out to the barn to milk, the cows were so caked with dust she used a curry comb to clean the dust out of their hair before she began to milk. By the time she carried the tightly-covered milk cans to the house, there was dust in the milk, but she strained it through several thicknesses of cloth to get enough milk to use for the family. On black days when the dust was heavy enough that the family had to light the lamps at noon, the chickens would go to roost--and wouldn't lay eggs. She also said that the dust lay so thick on the ground that neighbors who had a root-cave had to shovel to find the door.

Two Red Cross nurses in Hastings, Martha Wicker and Laura Inhoff, made dust masks from patterns designed by the national Red Cross workers and showed other people how to create them; the masks served as filters to keep people from breathing in dust. Fred Spady, on the road in a side-car motorcycle delivering Hastings Tribunes in southwestern Nebraska, wore a respirator for protection.

Everywhere they went. people came in contact with dust. Ruth Mullen remembers always carrying a dust cloth to church to wipe off the pew before she sat down; no matter how soon before the service began the seats had been cleaned, there was always dust on them.

But people learned to cope. And even to smile at their fate. "The plains people, however, then as now, were a tough-minded, leather skinned folk, not easily discouraged," wrote Donald Worster in his book Dust Bowl. Even in 1935 they managed to laugh a bit at their misfortunes. They told about the farmer who fainted when a drop of water struck him in the face and had to be revived by having three buckets of sand thrown over him. They also passed around the one about the motorist who came upon a ten gallon hat resting on a dust drift. Under it he found a head looking at him. "Can I help you in some way?" the motorist asked. "Give you a ride into town, maybe?" "Thanks, but I'll make it on my own," was the reply. "I'm on a horse." Will Rogers, America's favorite humorist, pointed out that only highly advanced civilizations, like ancient Mesopotamia, were ever covered by dirt, and that California would never qualify. (Nebraska guffawed at that one, perhaps somewhat wryly. Thousands of their compatriots, driven from their farms by dust, drought, and unpaid mortgages, were on their way to California.)

The dust continued through 1936, through 1937, and began to abate a little in 1938. By that time, it seemed a way of life. Housewives realized that a dusty house was no reflection on their housekeeping ability. When they set their tables, they automatically put the plates and glasses upside down to keep dust from landing on the eating surfaces. When they were about to do the family wash, they checked the skies not for rain--that seldom came--but for dust, for wet laundry flapping on the line during a dust storm was a liability. The spring of the year was always the dustiest season, although from time to time, there were dust storms in the fall as well.

In addition to the dust, there were other almost unbearable problems. The first was heat, days on end of 100 degrees or more, particularly stifling when the dust was blowing so hard that no one could open windows or doors for air. In Nebraska in 1934, one official reading was 118 degrees, the highest on record. There was no relief even at night. Always in Adams county, the earth cools off at night because of the altitude, but during the mid-1930s, the heat rolled in at midnight almost as much as at noon. There was no air-conditioning, even in town where homes were equipped with electricity; the best that townspeople could do was run electric fans which stirred up the hot air but provided no coolness whatsoever. Few rural homes had electricity and therefore had no access to electric fans.

Housewives learned to hang driping-wet towels through the house so that evaporation would bring a little coolness. But when the dirt was blowing, the towels attracted dust and by the time they were dry, they were stiff and black. needing to be laundered before they could be hung up again to drip. At night, people sometimes went to bed under wet sheets in the hopes of cooling off enough that they could sleep, but often by morning the sheets were stiff from the dust that had drifted in overnight, the sheets sometimes bearing the imprint, as though they were art rubbings, of the persons who had slept on or under them. Families with basements or cellars slept in them to take advantage of what coolness they could find underground, or below grade, as it was called. Other people took to the out-of-doors to escape the trapped heat inside their homes, sleeping on porches, in backyards, on lawns, even in parks; when the winds blew in carrying topsoil they scurried back inside their stifling houses.

Although 1934 was the hottest summer of the 1930s others were almost as bad. In 1935, after several days of unrelenting temperatures of more than 100 degrees, a 23-year-old farmer near Hastings dropped dead in the field. The next year, Newsweek magazine called the Great Plains "a vast simmering cauldron" because of the constant heat. On both July 17 and July 24, 1936 the temperature in Hastings reached 116 degrees, and by July 30, when the heat finally broke, there had been three weeks of heat so intense that the stunted cornstalks had cooked in the field.

The next curse to fall upon the Plainsmen was grasshoppers, plagues of them reminding the faithful of Biblical scriptures. Although some grasshoppers had showed up in 1935, they appeared in force in Adams county in 1936, with especially heavy flights on June 24, and July 1. They were so dense they clogged a combine near Kenesaw, causing it to break down; what grain was harvested elsewhere was so full of grasshoppers it was discounted at the elevators. The insects ate vegetable gardens, covered the air with the sight and sound of their activity. Farther south, into Kansas, the grasshoppers stripped foliage from evergreen trees, gnawed bark from young trees. Farmers used all sorts of remedies to try to control them, including the 80,000 pounds of bran and 400 pounds of sodium arsenate that W. E. Huff, county agricultural agent, distributed, but nothing worked. The grasshoppers stayed and laid eggs.

The next spring there seemed to be hope that the bugs were on the wane, for a rain on May 21, 1927, the first moisture of any consequence of the year, seemed to drown young grasshoppers, the Hastings Spotlight reported optimistically. But the bugs thrived, particularly when another shower, four days later, flooded several hundred pounds of grasshopper poison before it could be distributed. By June 30, farmers began cutting what wheat they had, working hard to keep ahead of the grasshoppers. By July 7, county farm officials estimated that grasshoppers had damaged the crop by a much as ten bushels an acre, more than half the yield. It was particularly discouraging because most of the farms had produced nothing the few years previously and there had been enough moisture at the right times this year that farmers thought they finally had a crop of sorts. They cut their small grain--barley, oats, wheat,--by headlights at night, working straight through in an effort to beat the grasshoppers; although they were frantic, it wasn't hard to work at night because during the day the temperatures got to more than 100 degrees. But despite their efforts, the small grain was sparse, and the corn crop in the fall equally dismal.

By 1938, the worst seemed to be over. Although there were still dust storms, the heat and drought abated, the general economy improved somewhat. And by 1939 the dust had settled and the years of depression and dust bowl seemed to be over. The people of Adams county could try to go back to living as they had earlier, before the black clouds of dust rolled in, the fields lay parched and cracked, the livestock dropped dead in the fields. Many farmers had lost their farms to mortgages or tax foreclosures, to be sure, and had moved away after the sheriff's sale, usually to town; many young people had not been able to lead the lives they would have otherwise. There were fewer marriages, for instance, during the 1930s than at any other time in the county's history, 7.3 per 1,000, and the fewest births of any decade between 1900 and 1960, 17.9 per 1,000.

But a recital of statistics does not tell the whole story. It cannot tell of the broken dreams and frustrations; the memories of families haunted by hunger and deprivation, recalling weeks of subsisting only on turnips or potatoes, of resoling shoes with worn-out automobile tires, of making children's clothing of curtains when there were no garments left to cut-down. Marguerite Dunmire tells of an experience she had as a teacher during the mid-1930s when she suggested to a student, a peaked little girl who was particularly wan and listless one day, that she go home to have a bite to eat and to rest; the youngster told her earnestly, "Oh, I can't do that. Today is my sister's turn to eat."

Had it not been for massive federal aid, in direct relief, work projects, and agricultural payments, many persons could not have survived. There are no figures to show the total federal dollars poured into Adams county during this period; some statistics are listed statewide, the accounting periods of agencies vary, and data from defunct agencies are sparse. Enough are available, however, to indicate the extent of the aid: from April 1933 to December 1935, direct relief to an average of 3,344 persons per month in Adams county amounted to $439,641, with $298,065 coming from the federal government, the rest from state and local sources. For the 5-year period from 1933 to 1938, federal work projects in Hastings alone amounted to almost a million dollars. There are no overall figures to indicate the amounts paid farmers for the myriads of projects that were developed for agricultural aid, including drought relief, cattle and hog purchases, payments for seed purchase and for soil conservation, farm loans, and scores of others.

The combined efforts of years of dust, heat, and prolonged drought flattened the area, affecting not only the farmers but townspeople as well for they are dependent upon the farm economy. But the people survived, finding pleasure in simple inexpensive entertainment, learning to make-do and improvise. The optimism, resilience, and vigor of the plainsmen were enough to sustain them, even in the face of the worst disaster in memory of man the region has known. 

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