• Wed. Jun 29th, 2022

A memory of the dust storm of 1930

ByElla E. Kidwell

May 31, 2022

With the fear of climate change (or global warming) returning, I remembered what my grandmothers told me about Kansas dust storms in the 1930s. My dad’s mom said that she didn’t need to travel outside of central Kansas, since she could just go out on the porch and watch the States go by. The silt that filtered under the closed windows was building up in layers, each layer a different color. My mother’s mother wrote a description of a storm in Winona, western Kansas, which a friend submitted to the Topeka Capitol:

“If you want change, come west. Here, at least, people don’t have time to stagnate. Now, Thursday, for example, began with a perfect spring morning, mild and damp. But around 11:45 p.m., the children, who were taking their “six-week exam,” exclaimed, “Look out the window, Mrs. Doane! I did, and such a sight I have never seen before – beautiful, awful and scary. Clouds, rolling like smoke from the horizon high in the heavens, interspersed with sheets of dark blue, were being pushed by a horrible force towards us, while no breeze was yet blowing here.

“I let the children go to the windows and watch, while I went to call one of the male teachers and urge him to go home to his wife, a new mother, who was alone in their house with their baby. Ten minutes later, everyone was hurrying, some were white with fear. It was now noon, but it was dark as midnight. We couldn’t see anything from the windows. It looked like a dark red curtain had been drawn over them. The teachers watched their students. Some had first been fired before being allowed to return home, but now it was necessary to ensure that they did not leave.

“Then the storm hit us. The dust was so thick we could barely breathe and the wind was howling around the building. The storm raged until 2:30 p.m. when the bus drivers decided it was safe to make their journeys, so we dismissed at that time, the male teachers dividing their numbers between the buses so that each group children have a supervising teacher in addition to the regular driver, who generally drives alone.

We now know that these storms came from a combination of years of drought that happened every few years and poor farming practices. The two causes were linked, in that farmers had been lured to the Great Plains for years when the rains reliably arrived at the right time, and then followed eastern deep-tillage practices. This had happened before, in the 1880s and 90s, but this example had been forgotten by 1930.

The storms ended when the weather returned to “normal” and after many farmers abandoned their homes and moved away, leaving their land to return to the grass. In addition, windbreaks of trees and shrubs protected many fields, and new crops kept fields covered when the heat was greatest. Corn and animal feed replaced wheat, pushing the harvest back into the fall, and wheat stubble was not immediately plowed under.

It was not a permanent cure. I remember the 1950s in Oklahoma, with dust so thick that during football practice we couldn’t see the bleachers. My serious asthma problem probably started then, worsening after decades of exposure to chalk dust in classrooms. Eisenhower, who had grown up in Kansas, persuaded Congress to pass a Land Bank Act, in which farmers would be paid for re-grassing farmland.

It was almost a deathblow for small towns, as sharecroppers lost their farms. When they migrated to cities, it left small businesses struggling to survive. We know how it works, when well-meaning laws have consequences we didn’t foresee. But there might not have been a better alternative – there wasn’t enough water to sustain big cities or industry, so there was nowhere for farmers to go in the first place. unemployment.

Our small minority population also disappeared, but because rural schools had trained them better than similar schools in the South had prepared their students, most were better qualified to work in a still largely segregated nation. In any case, it is unlikely that they were able to survive economically, as their farms were small and no one could get loans. Grain prices were low and herders had to settle for enjoying the lifestyle.

There could only be two to three cattle per acre anyway, as more would eat the grass cover, and sheep (once universal) were inclined to pull grass rather than simply graze. Prairie fires were common, but they were necessary to maintain the natural order.

William Urban is Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies at Monmouth College.