Back in the 1800's, the Great Plains were covered by prairie grass which the buffalo would graze on. However, as pioneers pushed the frontier further west, they settled the land, and plowed the fields. During World War I, the demand for wheat skyrocketed and by the 1920's, American wheat production increased by 300%, thanks in large part to the newly invented tractors.
In 1931, the Great Plains was hit by a severe drought. In 1932, fourteen dust storms raged across the prairies. By 1933, the total number of storms had doubled to 28. Although the dust storms decreased in number the following year, they increased in intensity. As migrants from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico headed west to California to look for work picking fruit, the dust headed east. Three hundred and fifty million tons of silt landed on major cities like New York, Boston and Atlanta.
The great dust storm of May 11, 1934 was a reminder to the city dwellers that their country cousins were not fairing so well. Hugh Bennett, a soil conservation advocate employed by the government, was in a meeting in Washington D.C. that day, pleading with United States Senators to support his plan to preserve the soil. At first, he got little support; however, by midday, a massive wind whipped up and the sky turned black. To rest his case, Mr. Bennett pointed out the window, saying: "There goes Oklahoma!" Finally, in 1935, President Roosevelt had federal regulations passed to ensure crop rotation, grass-seeding and new plowing methods be used by American farmers. However, it would not be until the Fall of 1939, with the end of the drought, that America would find true relief.
Photo of dust storm in Oklahoma in the 1930's courtesy http://static.ddmcdn.com.