Monday 23 May 2016

The Dust Bowl

Abandoned farm north of Dalhart, Texas circa 1938 courtesy

John Steinbeck wrote books about it.  Dorothy Lange photographed it.  Woody Guthrie wrote ballads about it.  It was the Great American Dust Bowl.  In the 1930's, the American west was struck by Black Blizzards. Dust choked people's lungs and blinded their eyes.  It invaded people's houses and destroyed their crops. It stopped automobiles and derailed freight trains.   The resulting drought drove tens of thousands of families from their farms.  You can read about the Dirty Thirties in Don Brown's picture book The Great American Dust Bowl (

Famous photo by Dorothea Lange courtesy

Ken Burns "The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man made ecological disaster in American history in which the frenzied Wheat Boom of the Great Plow Up, followed by a decade long drought during the 1930's nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation" (  

At the turn of the last century, European immigrants, as well as Americans, settled the Great Plains, a grasslands area that had not previously been farmed.  In the 1920's, these farmers enjoyed a wheat boom thanks to advanced technology and the thriving economy in the United States.  However, prices plummeted after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Rather than harvesting less wheat, farmers harvested more in an attempt to counteract the effects of the Great Depression.  Fields were left exposed and vulnerable to drought, which hit in 1932 (

Panic sets in on Wall Street in New York City after Stock Market Crash of 1929 courtesy 

The previously fertile soil turned into dirt.  The wind stirred it up and it accumulated into massive clouds called "black blizzards" ( The dust lodged itself in people's homes and in their lungs.  Many developped "dust pneumonia".  No longer able to farm, they joined the mass exodus of Okies headed to California to pick fruit, a journey so aptly illustrated by Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath (

Black Blizzard approaches Elkhart, Kansas circa 1937 courtesy

Ken Burns says that The Dust Bowl is also a story of perseverance. Burns interviewed 26 survivors and shared their stories.  His documentary chronicles the families who struggled to hold onto their land, New Deal programs which kept families afloat, and attempts by government and farmers to develop new strategies of farming and land conservation (

FDR talks to farmer and his son circa 1936 courtesy

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