The most visible evidence of how dry the 1930s became was the dust storm. Tons of topsoil were blown off barren fields and carried in storm clouds for hundreds of miles. Technically, the driest region of the Plains – southeastern Colorado, southwest Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas – became known as the Dust Bowl, and many dust storms started there. But the entire region, and eventually the entire country, was affected.
The Dust Bowl got its name after Black Sunday, April 14, 1935. More and more dust storms had been blowing up in the years leading up to that day. In 1932, 14 dust storms were recorded on the Plains. In 1933, there were 38 storms. By 1934, it was estimated that 100 million acres of farmland had lost all or most of the topsoil to the winds. By April 1935, there had been weeks of dust storms, but the cloud that appeared on the horizon that Sunday was the worst. Winds were clocked at 60 mph. Then it hit.
“The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face,” Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. “People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk… We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real.”
The day after Black Sunday, an Associated Press reporter used the term “Dust Bowl” for the first time. “Three little words achingly familiar on the Western farmer’s tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – if it rains.” The term stuck and was used by radio reporters and writers, in private letters and public speeches.
In the central and northern plains, dust was everywhere.
|Herman Goertzen remembers chickens going to roost in the middle of the day because the dust storm made it so dark the chickens thought it was night.|
|LeRoy Hankel remembers a wind blowing so hard that a truck was blown 30 to 40 feet down a street.|
|Elroy Hoffman remembers winds blowing seeds out of the ground.|
Stan Jensen remembers how it was impossible to keep houses clean.
Walter Schmitt remembers how the winds blew tumbleweeds into fences. Then the dust drifted up behind the tumbleweeds, covering the fencerows.
|Harvey Pickrel tried to buy a tractor – the only trick was he would have to dig it out of the dust before he could take it home.|
The impact of the Dust Bowl was felt all over the U.S. During the same April as Black Sunday, 1935, one of FDR’s advisors, Hugh Hammond Bennett, was in Washington D.C. on his way to testify before Congress about the need for soil conservation legislation. A dust storm arrived in Washington all the way from the Great Plains. As a dusty gloom spread over the nation’s capital and blotted out the sun, Bennett explained, “This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about.” Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act that same year.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.