Haunting Photos of the Dust Bowl That Remain with Us to This Day

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During the peak of the Great Depression, the central agricultural region of the United States suffered from severe drought and a series of devastating dust storms that devastated crops and destroyed farms. It uprooted the lives and livelihoods of many. This catastrophe resulted in hundreds of thousands of families being displaced and searching for a more stable environment. In states like Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, more than one-third of the population was compelled to migrate to regions less affected by the calamity or relocate to other states altogether. Many of these families, known as “Okies,” eventually settled in California.

The Beginning of the Dust Storms

While dust storms were a persistent issue in the Midwest during the 1930s, the most severe years were 1934, 1936, and 1939-40. 1936 was characterized by an extremely cold winter, followed by a scorching heatwave that ravaged crops and vegetation, which could have otherwise stabilized the soil. The windstorms, exacerbated by the heat, transformed entire states into near-barren wastelands. The dust, carried away from the Midwest, blanketed the entire eastern region of the United States, reaching as far as Cleveland, New York City, and Boston.

“Black Sunday”

The dust storms that occurred during the 1930s resulted from abnormal weather conditions in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The jet stream, which typically carries moisture from the Gulf into the southern Great Plains, was affected by a combination of cooler temperatures than usual in the Pacific and warmer temperatures than usual in the Gulf of Mexico. This resulted in a shift that caused the dust storms. On April 14, 1935, more than twenty dust storms coincided throughout the Great Plains, causing the catastrophic “Black Sunday,” which involved a sequence of dust blizzards that engulfed the region spanning from the Dakotas to Texas.

The Damage of the Dust

The aftermath of the dust storms was marked by devastation, with the accumulation of extensive heaps of fine, airborne dust that decimated crops, buried buildings, and damaged machinery. Farmers, who were already grappling with low crop prices and onerous mortgage and property tax obligations, could not carry on with their agricultural operations after losing their harvests. The devastation was exacerbated by farming methods that involved the removal of grass and cover crops from farmland and deep plowing techniques that eliminated weeds and loosened the soil. As a result, when dry weather conditions merged with high winds, no vegetation was present to keep the soil from being blown away.

People Were Forced To Abandon Their Homes

The extensive destruction of farms and farming communities compelled hundreds of thousands of families to relocate in search of a fresh start. During the Great Depression, job opportunities were scarce, and living conditions were harsh. Even minor setbacks could rapidly become a significant crisis for impoverished families migrating from the Midwest. The massive migration imposed significant pressure on both charitable and government organizations tasked with aiding the destitute. Numerous towns refused to accept migrants, displaying signs indicating that there were no employment opportunities and that they could not assist their own impoverished citizens, let alone the migrants.

Displaced Families Must Find New Work

Numerous farming families, who had previously been landowners with their own farms prior to the Dust Bowl, were compelled to become tenants, sharecroppers, or migrant laborers who traveled from south to north following crop harvests each year. Displaced families found job opportunities in California, which had labor-intensive fruit and vegetable farms and orchards. At the time when the photo was captured, Florence undertook odd jobs in hospitals and restaurants and followed crops across California and Arizona. She harvested between 400 and 500 pounds of cotton from sunrise until nightfall in the cotton fields. She later recounted, “I did a bit of everything to support my children.” After her husband succumbed to tuberculosis in 1931, she became the sole provider for her family.

The Migrant Camps

The living conditions in the migrant camps were often harsh for families who had previously lived in comfortable farmhouses just weeks or months before. Makeshift trailers made from odd pieces of sheet metal and furnished with basic wood stoves were home to parents and multiple small children. Shanty towns for migrant workers also sprang up near fields in many California towns. The piece’s original title, “Dirty Children,” highlights the unsanitary and filthy conditions prevalent in such camps. However, much of the problem stemmed from the lack of running water or proper sanitation facilities. Most of the farms the migrants left would have had windmill-operated pumps that provided ample water for washing and bathing.

Making A Living in California

The migrant camps had a significant impact on their surrounding environment, which was already struggling due to the pressure of drought and dust storms. Though California was not as severely affected by the Dust Bowl as the Great Plains, the influx of migrants led to the overuse of local resources and water supplies, which in turn degraded the land around the camps. Despite the challenges, many migrants chose to stay in California, and with the advent of World War II, the state provided ample job opportunities in various industries. However, this influx of people also led to increased land use and urban sprawl, which further strained resources and exacerbated issues like traffic and water scarcity in a state already grappling with aridity. Despite these challenges, California remains a popular destination for people seeking a better life.

Soil Conservation

Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act in response to the Dust Bowl, aided by a witness who testified before a Congressional committee after a dust storm hit Washington DC in 1935. The Soil Conservation Service, which became part of the Agriculture Department, was established. The Civilian Conservation Corps began efforts to restore native vegetation in the Great Plains. Farm productivity resumed after the climate cycle changed, and World War II restored profitability for many farmers. Mechanization led to larger farm operations, and families did not necessarily return to their old farmsteads.

The Dust Bowl in Popular Culture

The Dust Bowl’s impact on American culture is evident in popular culture, literature, and art. John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” depicted the struggles of families migrating to California in search of a better life. Even in 1969, the musical “110 in the Shade” by Tom Jones and Richard Schmidt reflected on this period. Paintings from the era, such as Thomas Hart Benton’s “Prodigal Son,” captured the despair of the time. The son returned too late in the painting to find his home farm destroyed by dust.

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