October 2002

The Dust Bowl*

The dry summer of 2002, the driest on record in some places, caused some people to talk about a return to the Dust Bowl. The big difference between this summer’s drought and the Dirty Thirties is duration. Let’s hope that next year brings rain. One Dust Bowl is enough.

In February 1985 the Center for Great Plains Studies here at Emporia State University held a seminar on the Dust Bowl. The purpose of the workshop was to focus on four topics–the literary response to the phenomenon, the social effects, the political effects, and the geological and climatic causes. The workshop was, for all participants, a real learning experience. Reading and hearing the stories of the survivors brought to life the rollers that swept in like black blizzards in the thirties.

“Roller” was the term used for the worst of the storms, the huge, towering, billowing clouds of dust that covered enormous areas. Weather personnel at Amarillo classified dusters into two types, the southwestern and the northern. The first filled the air with dust, but it was the second type that brought in the black blizzards. The Kansas Academy of Science recognized seven classes of dust storms, ranging from relatively minor “sand blows” to the awe-inspiring “funnel storms” that would lift dust into the air as high as four miles and carry it as far away as two or three thousand miles.

The most famous roller of all struck “On the fourteenth day of April, in nineteen-thirty-five,” in the words of one of Woody Guthrie’s dust bowl ballads. Guthrie was in Pampa, Texas, at the time, and he, like many others, had some definite intimations of mortality when that Sunday afternoon suddenly turned into night. Earlier the storm had put a sudden end to a big rabbit drive at Hooker, Oklahoma. Still earlier, as Dodge City was being engulfed, a postcard photographer recorded the scene. A large number of the best dust bowl photographs are from the studio of this Dodge City entrepreneur.

Another thing that makes this particular storm so memorable is that it is the one that gave the era its name. A storm describing the roller, filed by AP stringer Robert Geiger out of Guymon, Oklahoma, contained this line: “Three little words–achingly familiar on a western farmer’s tongue–rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent... ‘if it rains.’” The papers back east picked up the phrase and soon it was, and will remain forever, a part of the vocabulary of the nation.

The most popular part of the seminar was the first hand accounts by a panel of ESU faculty members. David Travis lived in Bloom, Kansas, and remembered that April 14, 1935 was a quiet and beautiful day, but the huge cloud of dust, looking like the end of the world, came in very quickly. Literally he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face; it was the most eerie, frightening dark he had ever experienced. A kerosene lamp, lit during the storm, shone no brighter than a dimly flickering match. Gene Crawford, who lived in Dodge City, said that it looked like a “giant rolling pin–a two or three thousand foot high rolling cloud of black dust.” His mother got through the storm to their house by wrapping a wet towel completely around her head (she couldn’t see anything anyway) and walking with one foot on the sidewalk and one on the ground until she hit–physically–the cinder block fence around their yard. After one storm, she swept up the dirt that had drifted around only one taped window and carried it to the grocery store scales–twelve pounds of dust. Tom Bridge remembered that he rather liked the dust storms–they blew the top soil off and he could find all sorts of arrowheads and spear points. He also remembered seeing a yucca plant standing straight up in the air on some six feet of exposed root, the surrounding dirt completely blown away.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s may have been the worst experience in Kansas history. Temperatures of 117o, prolonged drought, and high winds that blew topsoil to the Atlantic Ocean tested the spirit of Kansans. A dry sense of humor helped them survive. The Hays Daily News reported that because of record high temperatures “Natives in central Kansas counties have been taking boiled catfish out of the streams.” Animals as well as humans had to adjust to drought, and the paper informed its readers that “snakes in the northern counties have been trying to tap the maple trees for a drink.” As hot and dry as it was, these stories exaggerate only slightly.

The Dust Bowl provides numerous opportunities for classroom learning activities. We are including in this issue of Tales Out of School, ideas for the classroom, some web sites that provide additional information and a list of books. We hope that these ideas provide you and your students with as enriching a learning experience as the 1985 seminar did for our participants.

* Dust Bowl stories are from Hoy and Isern, Plainsfolk II: The Romance of the Landscape, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).

Classroom/Student activities:

A. Geography activities

1. Locating the five states most affected by the Dust Bowl–northern Texas, northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and the Oklahoma panhandle.

2. Finding out what the general landscape of the area is.

3. Selecting one county or town in the Dust Bowl region and finding out what the normal rainfall and normal temperatures are for each month of the year.

4. Finding out what the rainfall and temperatures were for each month in the years 1931-1939.

5. Finding out what the rainfall and temperatures were for each month in 2001 and 2002.

B. Language Arts activities

1. Interviewing someone who lived through the Dust Bowl and writing a summary of the conversation. Formulating questions could be a classroom activity directed by the teacher.

2. Reading an appropriate book about the Dust Bowl and writing a report.

3. Writing a skit about living and coping during the Dust Bowl that could be performed for the class.

4. Writing an essay about how our lives would change if we were to have a recurrence of the Dust Bowl today.

C. Social Studies/History

1. Learning about government programs that were started during the Dust Bowl.

2. Picking one Dust Bowl date, researching the news of the day and writing a newscast to be delivered to the whole class.

3. Finding reports (humorous or serious) about the drought and Dust Bowl in 1930s newspapers.

D. Math

1. Plotting a graph showing normal rainfall and temperatures for a city or county and then plotting the actual numbers for the Dust Bowl era.

2. Preparing a population table for states affected by the Dust Bowl showing in or out migration during the era

Web Sites to visit:











Books about the Dust Bowl:

Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp by Jerry Stanley, Ages 9-12

Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards by Katelan Janke, Ages 9-12

The Dust Bowl by David Booth, Karen Reczuch, Ages 4-8

The Journal of C. J. Jackson, A Dust Bowl Migrant, Oklahoma to California, 1935 by William Durbin, Ages 9-12

Farming the Dust Bowl: A First-Hand Account from Kansas by Lawrence Svobida, R. Douglas Hurt

Dust Bowl Diary by Ann Marie Low

Dust Bowl: Instant Social Studies Activities, Grades 4-8; Published by Scholastic Professional Book Division

Driven from the Land: The Story of the Dust Bowl (Great Journeys) by Milton Meltzer

The Dust Bowl (Great Disasters: Reforms and Ramifications) by Therese DeAngelis, Gina DeAngelis

Life in the Dust Bowl (Picture the Past) by Sally Senzell Isaacs, Ages 4-8

Waiting on the Bounty: The Dust Bowl Diary of Mary Knackstedt Dyck edited by Pamela Riney-Kehrberg