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Dust Bowl

Herbert Hoover

Dust Bowl: Herbert Hoover was the 31st American President who served in office from March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1933. One of the important events during his presidency was the Dust Bowl.

Definition and Summary of the Dust Bowl
Summary and definition:
The Dust Bowl was a "decade-long disaster" and a series of droughts was one of the worst natural disaster in American history. The Dust Bowl disaster was caused by a series of devastating droughts in the 1930s, poor soil conservation techniques and over-farming.

The lack of rainfall and moisture in the air dried out the topsoil of the farming regions in the prairie states.

Dust Storms and 'Black Blizzards began in 1932 that ripped up the topsoil sweeping thousands of tons of dirt across America. 100 million acres of farming land was destroyed and many farmers were forced to migrate to California. The Dust Bowl saw plagues of centipedes, spiders, crickets, and grasshoppers and people suffered from numerous health problems, notably dust pneumonia. President Hoover was slow to respond to the crisis but various relief programs and agencies were initiated in President Roosevelt's 'New Deal'. 

What was the Dust Bowl? The Dust Bowl is a term that describes the massive area of farming land in the prairie states of America that literally turned to dust.

What date did the Dust Bowl start and when did it end? The Dust Bowl began with drought of 1930 and lasted a decade throughout the 1930s until the last drought of 1940.

What caused the Dust Bowl? The Dust Bowl was caused by a series of droughts, poor farming practices and over-farming.

What was the destination of most Dust Bowl migrants? The destination of most Dust Bowl migrants was California.

Dust Bowl Facts
The devastation caused by the Dust Bowl is reflected in the 1934 “Yearbook of Agriculture”, produced by the US Department of Agriculture. The 1934 “Yearbook of Agriculture” reviewed developments in agriculture over the previous year and stated that:

  • Approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land have essentially been destroyed for crop production

  • 100 million acres now in crops have lost all, or most, of the topsoil

  • 125 million acres of land now in crops are rapidly losing topsoil

Facts about Dust Bowl
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Dust Bowl.

There were 4 distinct droughts that hit the United States in the 1930s - 1930-1931, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940 which all contributed to the disaster.

What is a drought? A drought is a prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall, leading to a shortage of water that adversely affects the growing of crops, the lives of animals and the living conditions of people in the area.

Droughts occured regularly on the Great Plains, but most are not prolonged and extreme. An extreme drought might occur once every 20 years. The series of 1930s droughts were accompanied by wind erosion that caused terrible dust storms, which had never before been witnessed in American history.

Where was the Dust Bowl? The Dust Bowl extended across the prairie states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. The core of the Dust Bowl was located in Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico  (see Dust Bowl Map below).

By 1935 the Dust bowl covered 100 million acres. By 1940 the area had declined to 22 million acres and disappeared in the 1940s. Farming income, that supported between 25% - 30% of Americans, was devastated.

Dryland farming: Dryland farming is an agricultural technique used for lands without irrigation in regions of limited moisture. A typical crop is wheat. The nature of dryland farming is dependent on tapping into the moisture stored in soil to grow crops, rather than using irrigation or rainfall . Dryland farming makes the area particularly susceptible to wind erosion and makes the ground vulnerable to dust storms. Cattle farming and sheep ranching had left much of the states devoid of natural grass and shrubs to anchor the soil. Farmers of the period were ignorant of an efficient management system that led to over-farming and the desertification of the land.  Poor Dryland farming methods was a major cause of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

What is a Dust Storm? A dust storm is created by a strong, turbulent wind which carries clouds of fine dust, soil, dirt and sand over a large arid area. They were a terrifying phenomena that were sometimes accompanied by thunder and lightning or, even worse, by an eerie silence. There were basically two types of storms. Those referred to as "sand blows" left the sandy soils that drifted into dunes along walls, fences and ditches as shown in the above picture. The Black Blizzards were the massive, dark dust storms that ripped up the topsoil sweeping thousands of tons of dirt across the whole region.

The Dust Storms began in 1932 and would eventually cover more than 75% of the country and severely affect all of the prairie states. 

The Environmental effects of the Dust Bowl included:

  • 300 million tons of topsoil from the prairie states

  • Millions of aces of crops were lost and irreparable damage to the land

  • There were epic plagues of spiders, crickets, centipedes and grasshoppers

  • Cattle, sheep, roosters and wildlife died from suffocation

During the 1930’s, dust storms were commonly called “dusters”, “black blizzards” or “sand blows”.

The worst "Black Blizzard" of the Dust Bowl occured on Palm Sunday on April 14, 1935 - it was called 'Black Sunday'. The Black Blizzard is estimated to have displaced 300 million tons of topsoil from the prairie states of the US. The devastating "Black Sunday" blizzard was seen coming. The millions of tons of dirt formed massive black clouds, so terrifying that people believed that the world was coming to an end. Thousands of birds desperate to escape the ominous black clouds collapsed with exhaustion. Wildlife on the ground died of suffocation. No matter how families tried to seal their homes, the dust still got everywhere. Meals were eaten immediately after preparation; otherwise dust would completely cover the food.

The term "Dust Bowl" is believed to have originated from the events of Black Sunday when an Associated Press news article ran "Residents of the southwestern dust bowl marked up another black duster today...". The article was by journalist Robert Geiger, who had been caught in the Black Blizzard with photographer Harry Eisenhand. The headline appeared in the Lubbock Evening Journal on 15 April, 1935.

Dust pneumonia: The Black Blizzards resulted in many cases of dust pneumonia which caused when a thick layer of dust to settle deep in the lungs preventing them from functioning properly.

Migrants: The farmers of the prairies could not survive the disaster, they had no alternative but to start a new life somewhere else. People living in the Great Plains regions became unemployed and homeless which led to the forced migration of impoverished farmers.

The Great Depression: The Dust Bowl phenomenon coincided with the economic disaster referred to as the Great Depression during which time in 1 in 4 Americans were made unemployed, which resulted in high poverty levels - for additional facts refer to Poverty in the Great Depression. People were destitute and frightened by the events that were sweeping the nation and this made it extremely difficult for Dust Bowl migrants to start a new life in places like California.

The forced migration of farmers from the Dust Bowl to California brought significant behavior changes by the Californians triggered by fear, suspicion and attempts to deny access to their state. The famous author John Steinbeck described the social effects on the Dust Bowl migrants in "The Grapes of Wrath". California police established a border patrol, dubbed the "Bum Blockade," at all major rail and road crossings and local police repeatedly burned down the makeshift camps of the migrants. The photo shows a Dust Bowl Migrants Camp in the 1930's.

There were many migrants from Oklahoma and this resulted in all refugees from the Dust Bowl being dubbed as "Okies". Dust Bowl migrants, like Mexican workers, were treated like second class citizens.

The effects were profound, with serious social and environmental consequences. Some of the social consequences of the Dust Bowl can be found in Dust Bowl Life. The Social effects of the Dust Bowl included:

  • 3 million farmers were adversely effected due to unemployment

  • In 1930 - 1934 creditors foreclosed on nearly 1 million farms. Families were evicted and made homeless

  • The Dust Bowl coincided with the Great Depression. People were deprived of adequate clothing, food and nutrition

  • The forced migration of over 200,000 farmers desperately seeking a new life

  • The lives of children were severely effected and their education suffered

  • The dust caused many health problems including dust pneumonia

  • Farm equipment was buried in the dust and partially covered houses within dust dunes

  • Migrants, forced to move away from their homes, suffered from inadequate shelter, inadequate sanitation facilities and safe drinking water

  • Many migrants met with hostility when they reached their destinations

Farmers had suffered hard times throughout the 1920's, before the droughts and the Dust Bowl, due to falling prices for their crops. In 1932 desperate farmers, angered by President Hoover's failure to help in raising farm prices started to protest. Some frantic farmers began destroying their own crops trying to raise crop prices by reducing the supply. Others organized strikes, refusing to take their crops to market for weeks. They hoped these "farmers' holidays" would reduce the nation's supply of farm produce and raise prices. Grain growers in Nebraska burned their corn to heat their homes. Dairy farmers in Georgia stopped milk trucks and emptied cans of milk.

The "decade-long disaster" the Dust Bowl the Great Plains were torn by climatic extremes. In addition to the storms and black blizzards, people in the prairie states also suffered from such extreme weather conditions including twisters, droughts, earthquakes, and record high and low temperatures.

Republican President Herbert Hoover was slow to react to the Great Depression advocating the idea that every man should fend for himself and that government handouts to the unemployed did great damage to a persons self-esteem. There was no social 'safety net' of welfare or relief programs at the start of the Great Depression. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in March 1933 and began to implement various relief programs in his 'New Deal', some of which were aimed at relieving the impact of the Dust Bowl.

Dust Bowl Relief Measures: In May, the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act allotted $200 million for refinancing mortgages to help farmers facing foreclosure and established local banks and credit associations. The Agricultural Adjustment Act was signed into law establishing the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) that would pay farmers to limit crop production to get crop prices to rise.

Dust Bowl Relief Measures - Soil Erosion Camps: In June 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) opened the first soil erosion control camp and by September 1933 there were a total of 161 soil erosion camps in effect.

Dust Bowl Relief Measures: In June 1934 President Roosevelt signed the Taylor Grazing Act enabling the government to release 140 million acres of federally-owned land and establish new grazing districts.

Dust Bowl Relief Measures: In June 1934 the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act was passed as a temporary measure to restrict the ability of banks to dispossess farmers in times of distress. It was originally effective until 1938, but as the prolonged effects of the Dust Bowl continued the act was renewed four times until 1947, when it eventually expired.

Dust Bowl Relief Measures: In January 1935 the Drought Relief Service (DRS) was formed to coordinate relief activities with a government cattle buying program. Surplus cattle were given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) that had been established in October 1933 to divert agricultural commodities to relief organizations.

Dust Bowl Relief Measures: In April, 1935 the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act was passed providing $525 million for drought relief, and authorized the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA went on to employ 8.5 million people.

Following the events of Black Sunday and the worst “black blizzard” of the Dust Bowl (April 14, 1935) US Congress declared soil erosion “a national menace” and established the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in the Department of Agriculture on April 27, 1935. The SCS developed extensive conservation programs that aimed to retain topsoil and prevent irreparable damage to the land. Farmers were paid to practice soil conservation farming techniques such as crop rotation, strip cropping, terracing, contour plowing, and the use of cover crops.

Dust Bowl Relief Measures - The Shelterbelt Project: In March 1937 the long-term program called the Shelterbelt Project began. The goal of the Shelterbelt Project was to organize the large scale planting of trees across the Great Plains to protect the land from erosion. Unemployed workers workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were paid to plant and cultivate the trees.

By 1938 the massive conservation work of re-plowing the Dust Bowl land into furrows and planting trees in shelterbelts resulted in a 65% reduction in the amount of soil blowing and black blizzards. However, the drought conditions continued until 1939-1940 when at last the rains came.

The Dust Bowl that had begun with drought of 1930 had lasted a decade throughout the 1930s until the last drought of 1940. It was finally over.

US American History
1929-1945: Depression & WW2

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