Red Dust from Oklahoma
The soil in the northern Great Plains is black, rich with organic material and humus that makes it a good medium for growing plants. And so, you’d expect the dust in the air to be the same basic color, black or gray.
But in the 1930s, people all over the country saw red dust blanketing their homes, towns and farms.
Millie Opitz remembers the red dust rolling in. She learned later that it came from Oklahoma. And trying to clean it up left her rags red.
The dust was red because the soils in Oklahoma – particularly in the panhandle of western Oklahoma – contain a lot of iron in them. Iron minerals, like hematite and ferrihydrite, will oxidize or rust, particularly in dry climates. That oxidation produces the distinctive red color of the soil and of the dust storms.
Dust from Oklahoma was blown as far north as Canada and as far East as the Atlantic Ocean. Delbert and Alvin Apetz remember the red dust and how tumbleweeds blew into fencerows, catching dust drifts behind them and threatening to cover the fences.
Helen Bolton remembers how hot it got in the middle of those summers. Temperatures soared to over 100° F day after day. Night after night, it would still be in the 80s well into the evening, making it uncomfortable to sleep – especially in the days before air conditioning. Farm families didn’t even have electricity so they could run fans at night. Some people moved outdoors or into a basement, if they were lucky enough to have one. Others, like Helen Bolton, hung wet sheets around the bed in the hopes that the water evaporating from the sheets would cool the room.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.