The economic depression of the 1930s was longer and harder than any other in American history because
it was followed by one of the longest and hardest droughts on record. There are cycles of drought, but this was one of the worst ever recorded. The decade started with dry years in 1930 and 1931 especially in the East. Then, 1934 recorded extremely dry conditions over almost 80 percent of the United States. Extreme drought conditions returned in 1936, 1939 and 1940. Walter Schmitt calls this the “double whammy” of drought and depression.
The drought made the Depression worse, especially in the Great Plains. The “Great” Depression was a national and international disaster, but the Plains were hardest hit. In 1933, the average person living in North Dakota earned only $145 a year. That compared with a national average of $375, over twice as much.
With no rain, farmers couldn’t grow any crops. No crops meant that the wind blew bare soil high in the air creating dust storms. School was canceled because of dust storms, not snowstorms. Some farmers, in trouble because of the bad economy, were forced to give up and move out of the plains looking for work.
The New Deal worked frantically to provide relief and to get farmers to conserve their soil.
New scientific evidence suggests that the drought of the 1930s was the worst in North America in the last 300 years, but it may pale in comparison with droughts in prehistoric times. The data suggests that droughts may have lasted decades or even longer, much longer than the seven years between 1933 and 1940. Which leaves farmers wondering how and when they might have to cope with another drought.
But despite the Depression some farmers borrowed or scrapped together enough money to install new technologies – especially irrigation. So the 1930s was a decade of tremendous stress that still produced amazing technological progress.
LeRoy Hankel remembers the dry years and what it did to his crops. He says, “We was praying for rain. But it just wouldn’t rain.” Yet, he also remembers that people, “just took everything in stride,” despite what were really hard times.
During these dry times, people were desperate to predict when it might rain. But it would not be until the late 1940s before the very first weather radar system was invented and not until the 1960s before the first weather satellite was launched. So, as former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser notes in his poem, folks thought they had figured out different ways “How to Foretell a Change in the Weather.” Ted has been collecting these folklore examples for years and says folks look to cattle, sheep, dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, peacocks, guinea fowl, sparrows and toads – among others – for early warning weather systems.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.