On May 11, 1934, an enormous dust storm hit the Great Plains, blowing tons of topsoil as far east as Boston.
A Great Storm
When the Great Plains region was settled in the mid-1800s, prairie grass covered the area, retained moisture and held the soil in place. As the years wore on, however, farmers began plowing under large swaths of land to make crop fields.
When the United States became involved with World War I, wheat was in great demand and the farmers pushed their land to its limits. Overgrazing and the destruction of prairie grasses by farmers caused considerable damage to the land. The region was already windy, which set the stage for more trouble.
In 1931, a drought hit the region. Crops died and because the ground cover keeping the soil in place was gone, wind began whipping dust everywhere. Dust storms were becoming a problem.
But the storm on May 11, 1934, was big. During a two-day period, 350 million tons of silt was blown from the Great Plains as far east as New York and Atlanta. History.com states that “even ships some 300 miles offshore saw dust collect on their decks.”
Author Timothy Egan writes in his book, “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” that there were “three tons of dust for every American alive.”
George Will writes in The Washington Post, “By morning, the storm was 1,800 miles wide—‘a great rectangle of dust’ weighing 350 million tons—and was depositing the surface of the Great Plains on New York City, where commerce stopped in the semi-darkness.”
Dust storms were tough to endure, and making a living was difficult at best for some families. They deserted their homes to move further west in hopes of a better life.
Author John Steinbeck compared the thousands and thousands of people who left to ants “scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food.”
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Panhandle experienced the worst of the Dust Bowl drought. During a storm, visibility was sometimes nonexistent “and everything was covered in dirt.” According to America’s Library, “No matter how tightly Oklahomans sealed their homes, they could not keep the dirt from entering.”
The government tried to help change the farming practices that had so damaged the Great Plains, but the Dust Bowl still lasted about 10 years. The situation also prolonged the Great Depression.
Effects of Dust Storms
The region known as the Dust Bowl didn’t actually receive that moniker until several months after the May 11 storm. On April 14, 1935, known as “Black Sunday,” weeks of dust storms culminated in the worst dust cloud the region had seen, with 60-mile-per-hour winds throwing soil everywhere.
Sources in this Story
- History.com: Dust storm sweeps from Great Plains across Eastern states
- The Washington Post: When the Skies Filled With Dust
- Library of Congress: Great Depression And World War II, 1929-1945: The Dust Bowl
- America’s Library: The Dust Bowl of Oklahoma
- Wessels Living History Farm: The Dust Bowl
- North Carolina State University: Department of Soil Science: Hugh Hammond Bennett: the Father of Soil Conservation
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act
“The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face,” wrote Avis D. Carlson in The New Republic. “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 poetic uplift of spring fades into a phantom of the storied past. The nightmare is becoming life.”
An Associated Press reporter coined the term Dust Bowl the next day. The phrase took, with people around the country adopting the term.
A month earlier, Roosevelt advisor Hugh Hammond Bennett testifed to Congress about the need for soil conservation legislation when a Great Plains dust storm reached Washington. Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act that April.
Resources for Learning About the Dust Bowl
The Library of Congress’ “Voices From the Dust Bowl” collection documents the lives of Dust Bowl migrants in California through interviews, questionnaires, photographs and other documents.
The PBS American Experience documentary “Surviving the Dust Bowl” is viewable in its entirety online. The Web site also includes biographies, explanations of events, and teacher’s guides.
The Depression and the Dust Bowl were hard for many people, but they had a friend in folk musician Woody Guthrie. Born in Oklahoma with a fondness for “everyday folk,” Guthrie knew the faces of the Dust Bowl inhabitants well. The “Dust Bowl Ballads” became popular as his form of blues music.