The Great Dust Bowl

I grew up hearing stories of the famous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, immortalized in song by Woody Guthrie who chronicled the people and events of his time, as well as in the literature of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. On top of the crippling economic conditions of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl simply devastated much of the American Plains and heavily impacted the nation as a whole.

The farmers in the High Plains had turned over too much soil too fast, leaving over 100 million acres stripped of its native Buffalo Grass and barren of any crop. This was combined with one of the driest summers on record and the results were catastrophic. The impacts of the Dust Bowl were felt for decades, and in many ways still resound today.

During a particularly bad storm on May 9, 1934, over three tons of dust for every American alive at the time traveled from west to east across the country. The dust blanketed Chicago, New York, Atlanta and other urban centers. It darkened the skies and choked those who ventured in it hundreds of miles from its source. The storm spanned 1,800 miles, spreading 350 million tons of dust across the nation.

The worst storm of the Dust Bowl, however, occurred on April 14, 1935, known as Black Sunday. Carrying dust up to 200 miles out into the Atlantic coast, the storm blackened cities and traveled at over 100 miles per hour. Animals and insects fled south and those that couldn’t get out of the way of the storm often perished.

A single dust storm could generate enough static electricity to short circuit radios and cars. Blue flames would often be seen erupting from barbed wire fences during dust storms, the result of the static charge created by the friction of the sand moving at high speeds through the air. The electrical charges were so strong that full grown men were knocked off their feet if they accidentally touched something that was filled the static, or even if they shook hands with another person. People dragged chains around, making contact with the ground, in order to offset the static electricity. On Black Sunday alone, enough static electricity was produced to power New York City.

When a storm blew in, people were never safe. Dust particles would find their way through cracks in walls and windows and around doors. Dust clogged people’s ears, noses, and mouths. The buildup of this dust in the lungs caused what came to be known as “dust pneumonia,” which is a lot like Silicosis, a serious occupational respiratory disease. Every person, young or old, living in the High Plains during that era suffered at least moderately from dust pneumonia, and many died from it or suffered health conditions for decades afterward.

To find out more, there is an excellent book in print about the Dust Bowl, called The Worst of Times by Timothy Egan. There is also a documentary made during the actual era called The Plow That Broke the Plains. It illustrates the causes and effects of the woeful agricultural policies that led to the Dust Bowl. It is the only peace time film ever commercially produced by the United States Government, and has been preserved in the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance.

 

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