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Dusting off our roots: The Dirty 30s.


The Dow Jones Industrial Average is at its highest level in history. Unemployment is near the lowest. Almost 70% of Americans today own their own homes--more than at any time in the last century. The number of millionaires has doubled, to about eight million, in the past 10 years, and countless others have become wealthy through the stock market and/or the increase in the value of their homes. Life is good.

So why look back on the Depression of the 1930s, now?

One good reason is that those were very interesting times, in homestead terms. It was the time when "modern" homesteading was born, and to the best of our knowledge, that story has never been told. It should be inspiring, and educational, to anyone with an interest in country living, and others as well.

The "educational" part includes how America went from the days of the Homestead Act to the Roaring Twenties and on to modern homesteading. It includes recipes and other ideas people made use of when they had to "make something out of nothing," an accomplishment valued by many homesteaders today.

And for those interested in the homestead movement--the culture beyond their own gardens and barns--this study provides some insights into when and how it developed, and where it might be going today. This should be of special benefit to those just starting out, against what often appear to be great odds. They aren't just struggling against high land prices and mortgage lenders: they are struggling against history. Knowing that history can ease the struggle.

The "inspiration" ranges from brief visits with people who maintained their dignity and sense of humor during a time of troubles; words from some who escaped the worst of it, and how they managed that; to some of the silly jokes of the period.

In brief, 21st century homesteaders can learn a lot from the Dirty Thirties.

The Depression has always interested a certain segment of COUNTRYSIDE's readers. The attraction of people who want to be self-sufficient to those who had to be self-sufficient is understandable. When we talk about cooking, or gardening, or food preservation or animal husbandry using modern methods, equipment and supplies, younger people who want to lessen their dependence on the system frequently ask, "How did they do it back then?" We'll provide a few answers.

On the other hand, some people who lived through the Dirty Thirties can't understand that attitude ... or for that matter, why anyone would want to be self-sufficient in the first place! One common refrain goes like this: "Why do they call it the Great Depression? There was nothing great about it! I would never want to go back to living like that, and anybody who says they would has no idea what it was really like."

Although this misses the point--modern homesteaders want to recapture the values of a simple life, not participate in a depression--it also reminds us that the Depression, and the Dust Bowl that was a major part of it for many Americans, didn't affect everyone equally. Donald Worster, author of Dust Bowl, spoke to Helen Meairs, a widow whose farm family survived the Thirties in western Kansas, the center of the drought and wind erosion. By 1977 her two sons were running the farm, and were "rich enough to lose $1 million in cattle speculation and still come out solvent. She has considerable money herself, which she spends on trips to Singapore and Zurich." Worster asked her if she was happier now than she was during the Depression years.

"Well, that was the most happiest time of my life," she replied. "We had the children, you know, and each other. Of course I don't believe in `the good old days.' We've got things really nice around here today."

Many people who survived that period would echo both of those sentiments. It was the best of times, and the worst of times. Many people, especially in the big cities, missed out on the good part. It's easy to see why their memories are bitter.

What made the hard times more tolerable for many, and in some ways even "good," is certainly worth examining today, for city and country people alike.

Depressions aren't democratic

It's important to remember that hard times didn't affect everyone equally. Many farm families were spared the devastation the 1929 stock market crash caused so many others. There had already been a farm depression during most of the 1920s, and few farmers owned stocks. In fact, most of those who suffered--and suffered most--from that event did not own stocks: they simply lost their jobs, their savings, and sometimes their homes. By the spring of 1930, more than three million people were out of work. In the next two years that soared to more than 12 million. Many of those people and their dependents had no place to live, no way to buy food.

By comparison, most farmers were far better off. They had their homes, and a food supply. Most were also self-sufficient in terms of energy, because fossil fuel mechanization was rare and electrical power had not yet reached most of the countryside. As always, there were exceptions. Tenants were frequently displaced, and farmers who had gone into debt for land or machinery often lost it all. But in general, farm life was much better than city life.

But then too, the disparity between city and country had been very large. The Roaring Twenties that had brought washing machines and motor cars, silk stockings and radios and other signs of giddy affluence to the larger towns and cities had barely affected most farm families. Many rural Americans still lived like they did in the 1800s.

So when the banks closed and the soup kitchens opened, those self-sufficient people went about their lives with very little change. It wasn't that they were so well-off. It was that many city people who had become accustomed to having more than most farm people now had less than most farm people. This relativity is often described by older people today: "We were poor, but we didn't know it, because everybody else was poor too."

Most importantly, most farm families had community--a sense of place and belonging. They had neighbors, church, clubs, and most of all, family. In addition they had their land and livestock, their daily chores and routines that provided both physical and spiritual nourishment, and an anchor. (Again, not all of them: we'll look at tenants and "farm workers," both products of industrial agriculture, later.)

Back to the land

This relative rural prosperity--or lack of poverty--drew many people back to the countryside. They left during the 1920s because of lack of opportunities in the country and an abundance of them in the cities. They returned because the rules changed. So drastically had the balance shifted that even city people with no farm background became "homesteaders."

Although several people have scoffed at our use of the word today as "pretentious," it appeared in the modern sense in a book published in 1934: A Living From the Land, by William B. Duryee (Whittlesey House, New York). He also used the phrase "back to the land" for people who had never been there, another usage which became common 30-40 years later. The book's preface is worth quoting at length:

"Homesteading days are here again. The present movement of people back to the land is of a different type and has different objectives from those which prevailed when a continent was to be conquered and exploited. Today we know that many urban industries will operate on a seasonal basis and we know too that periods of unemployment and shorter working days will provide more leisure and probably lower incomes for hundreds of thousands of families. The utilization of this leisure time to supplement incomes, to raise the standards of living and of health, and to attain some measure of economic security will tend more and more to settlement on the land."

Talk about rose-colored glasses! Businesses were going under like nightcrawlers in a flashlight beam, and he solemnly intones that "we know that (they) will operate on a seasonal basis." And those 12 million unemployed who we think of today as selling apples and pencils on street corners weren't as destitute as we picture them: they only had shorter working days ... and more leisure! (We'll see a lot more gilding the lily before we're finished here. I point this out not to knock people with an upbeat outlook, but to call attention to the importance of having enough information to read between the lines. This hasn't changed in 70 years.)

Also note the words "a continent to be conquered and exploited" and "standard of living." We'll come back to those, too, because of their impact on homestead mentality, philosophy, and culture.

Five Acres and Independence

Duryee continues in a vein we can more easily take at face value today. "This book is prepared primarily for the family that is inexperienced in country living and in soil culture. Such a family should know about the nature of the soil on which it lives, how to make it serve the family's purposes, what to do, and what to avoid in order that success may be attained and failure averted."

In that regard, this might have been the first of a long line of homestead books (and magazines) that continues to this day. One of the first, and much better known than A Living From the Land, (perhaps because of its catchier title), was Michael Kains's Five Acres and Independence, which was published a year later, in 1935. That one is still in print (Dover). Ralph Borsodi, Scott Nearing, and others who made their mark during this period are still widely considered homestead gurus.

But one of the things we're interested in for our present purposes is why such a book was even necessary. What had caused so many people to leave the land in the first place, and what brought them (or their children) back again? What was behind the rural exodus, the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the back-to-the-land movement?

The answers to these and many other questions about the role of modern homesteading will require a quick review of history in a way it isn't taught in very many textbooks or schools that we're aware of. It begins with a look at the real causes of the Depression, and especially the Dust Bowl. It concerns two factors that homesteaders are well aware of, and are generally uncomfortable with yet today, and which COUNTRYSIDE accordingly mentions frequently: the importance of living in tune with nature; and the effects of the producer-consumer society (or the industrial society or capitalism), on individuals and civilization.

Dust Bowl and Depression

Most people are aware that the Dust Bowl was caused by plowing virgin prairies, and a subsequent drought. Plowing destroyed the soil-anchoring sod and grasses, drought dried that soil, and wind blew it away.

Droughts, of course, are completely natural, and cyclical, but had the native grasses been left in place on undisturbed soil, the Dirty Thirties wouldn't have taken place.

This is true as far as it goes, but it's an oversimplification. What was the nature of those soils, and how should they have been handled? Why were they abused the way they were? Why did a major drought "just happen" to strike during a major economic depression?

The last frontier

The Great Plains region was a true frontier for neo-Americans. They were not familiar with the soils, the climate, or the weather. And when "the West was opened" in the 1870s, "ecology" was unheard of. That wouldn't get much notice until after the Black Blizzards of the 1930s.

The plains had been an ancient sea bed. Fossils of dinosaurs and huge redwood-like trees have been found there, indicating a moist, warm climate. Tectonic forces thrust up the Rocky Mountains that helped form these soils both by cutting off moisture on the leeward side and through erosion from the mountains themselves. Glaciation was followed by flooding of biblical proportions, followed in turn by wind erosion that must have made the Dust Bowl look like a dust devil in a Wal-Mart parking lot by comparison: loess (windborne soil) deposits covered 13,500 square miles of what is now the Nebraska Sandhills, as much as 26 feet deep, and reached Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

The climate was deceptive. Yes, droughts are normal, but those of the Great Plains are quite different from those of the Eastern Seaboard or New England, or Europe, which the pioneer farmers were familiar with. One year the weather can be almost Midwestern, encouraging high hopes and speculative planting. The next two can be almost desertic, with high temperatures and evaporating winds. The climate is dominated by air masses that flow over--and are dried out by--the Rocky Mountains. But occasionally a moist system flows north from the Gulf of Mexico. There is no "average" for weather like this, but if there were it would be below the threshold for conventional farming.

Such weather, combined with the fragile soils, almost assured disaster from the beginning. By the 1930s, after barely 40 years of farming, the region had suffered as much erosion as some parts of the United States that had been farmed for 300 years.

Add to this the agribusiness mentality--the profit mandate--and the stage was set for unprecedented ecological, and economic, disaster.

The natural ecology

The native vegetation adapted to this environment over the millennia since the last glaciation. The eastern prairie, with 25-30 inches of rainfall a year, was home to the tall grasses: big bluestem, switch grass, and Indian grass, some eight feet tall with roots six feet deep. Where rainfall was less than 20 inches a year, the short grasses thrived. Grama-buffalo grass, wirestem, bluestem-bunch grass and sand grass/sand sage comprised the four main plant associations depending on soil and precipitation, but many other plants were found in each sub-region.

This vegetation supported a host of animal life: bison, of course, and pronghorn antelope, but also blacktailed jackrabbits, prairie dogs, kangaroo rats, and many others. The prairie was also home to hundreds of species of grasshoppers and locusts, but despite their voracious appetites, they never caused the destruction they did later, during the Dust Bowl years. Their numbers were kept under control by insectivorous mammals and snakes, and birds of every description. It has been said that a two-acre swarm of grasshoppers could eat as much as a buffalo, but the natural system of ecological balance made that of no importance ... until the coming of the plow and the first silent springs.

The arrival of humans

There is archeological evidence that humans lived in the area as long as 40,000 years ago, perhaps hunting such animals as ground sloths and mastodons, whose bones have been found. The well-known discovery of flint points and the bones of a giant now-extinct bison was made at Folsom, New Mexico, in 1926.

Most human inhabitants of the plains, however, probably survived on a diet of berries, seeds, roots, and small animals. Even without considering his vastly smaller numbers (there could have been 20 million buffalo on the short grass prairies alone), man's impact on the environment was less than that of a colony of grasshoppers.

Much more telling were later incursions by more "advanced" peoples--those who built wood and stone structures instead of living in skin tents, and who farmed. "These early farmers," wrote Waldo Wedel of the Smithsonian, "apparently ventured far out into the Great Plains in favorable times only to withdraw when droughts set in." Nature ruled, but its lesson was lost.

European settlers

By 1876 the Plains Indians, who had lived lightly on the land by learning to live with its fragile environment, were a broken, defeated people, pushed onto reservations. The 20 million bison were all but extinct. Their disappearance from the Plains was due not to drought or Nature, but to the U.S. Army.

The army's avowed purpose was to support American citizens--people who wanted to "own" the land, who wanted farms and fences and deeds, as well as towns and roads and railroads--and the railroads and other businesses that encouraged, made possible, and profited from that ownership.

Worster notes, "Against this land hunger the plains had little defense. In the war over possession between whites and Indians, the bison became innocent victims; they were viewed as `the Indians' commissary' and therefore required extermination. As they disappeared, so did the predators they supported, including the red man. In a very few years the plains went through more profound changes than it had known in 40 millennia, and more sudden ones than it had ever passed through before, even during the geologic revolutions of the past. Changes now were to be measured in decades, not epochs."

For 10 years after 1876 the change was only slightly noticeable. The buffalo wallows and footprints of Indian moccasins were soon covered with grasses, and the white settlers who arrived often marveled at the beauty of the land, bedecked with flowers. The flowers, the grasses, the birds, the beauty--the land itself--were not to endure for long.

The plow

In the late 1870s homesteaders swarmed into the region like locusts. The Homestead Act of 1862 played a role, but the encouragement and promise of the railroads was just as important. In addition, there was a good market and price for wheat.

It is perhaps ironic that until then, wheat production had centered on Wisconsin, but the land there had become too "worn out" to produce satisfactory crops. "Wear it out and move on" was the endless frontier mentality. It had been so since cotton and tobacco "wore out" the soils of the South. It wouldn't end until man learned that even the bottomless oceans could be destroyed by over-fishing and garbage ... and some people didn't learn even then.

False optimism

The final thrust was added by abnormally generous rainfall for 10 years, from 1877 to 1886. This led many to conclude that the climate had changed: the rain belt had moved westward, and the formerly dry plains would become a Garden of Eden.

The confidence instilled by the good wheat market and apparent climate change led to unbridled optimism. This resulted in wild speculation and a rise in land prices, fueling still more optimism, much like the stock market of 1999. Goaded by these illusions, settlers went into debt to make improvements on their farms and small-town leaders dreamed of prodigious growth, authorizing bond issues for the public improvements they were certain would soon be needed.

Nature took the punch bowl away from the party in 1886. It began with a catastrophic January blizzard that killed thousands of head of cattle and virtually wiped out that industry on the open range. Then the rains failed to come. The summer was hot and dry, and crops were poor. And then, as if orchestrated by some malign force with an evil sense of mischief, the price of wheat slid.

By the fall of 1887 some recent settlers were already moving out. But the drought lasted for 10 long years. Well before then, the "new Gardens of Eden" in western Kansas and Nebraska were all but deserted. Even where the drought had less impact, wheat farmers were discouraged by low prices.

Cattle barons and cowboys

The role of cattle in the opening of the west is well-known, but exaggerated in the public's mind. The era of the frontier cowboy was much shorter in reality than it has been in the movies. While the effect of cattle on the ecology should have been less severe than that of the farmer, it wasn't.

By 1877 there were close to 5 million Longhorns in Texas alone. More than 650,000 were driven north to Abilene, Kansas, and other railheads. By 1880 prices had soared from $3 per animal to $60.

Two members of the British Parliament toured the plains and found 33.3% annual returns on investment. When this was reported back home, English, Irish and Scottish investors threw money at the plains like their later counterparts waving cash at dotcom IPOs. One ranch in the Texas panhandle claimed over 3 million acres and 150,000 head of cattle.

Like all booms, it couldn't last.

First came overexpansion. Some call it greed. The Longhorns--and the land--were nothing more than moneymaking machines. To that end, both were pushed to the limit. Some ranches ran four times as many cattle as the land could carry, but few worried about killing the goose that laid golden eggs.

In 1870 a steer could fatten on five acres of shortgrass. By 1880, it required 50 acres.

Then came the winter of 1885-86. It was the worst in the known history of the region. Thousands of cattle died. One report claims that on some ranches, 85% perished.

The winter weather and the lack of forage resulting from overgrazing was exacerbated by drought. Cattle barons scooped up their profits, abandoned the rotting carcasses and abused land, and went in search of their next bonanza.

The cattle boom lasted a scant two decades.

The Oklahoma Land Rush

But opportunity--and greed--could overrule common sense then, as it does today. When the central part of what is now Oklahoma was opened to settlement in April, 1889, an army of 100,000 eager farmers rushed in to claim their homesteads. This was the wave that built sod houses. But the drought continued for another six years. The era of the sod house vanished even more quickly than the era of the Longhorn cattle barons.

In 1907, Oklahoma became a state. The frontier was closed. Nature had been conquered. But it wasn't over yet.

The attitudes of the white man differed markedly from that of the red. Most noticeable in how each regarded and treated nature, it was rooted in how they regarded life, and economics: their culture.

For the Indian, enough was sufficient. They regarded the Earth as a mother who will provide for the needs of all, not a piece of property to be divided by competition and jealously guarded by deeds and fences.

For the white man, enough was never sufficient. As one said as late as the 1970s, "Nature is a bitch, and must be conquered." That attitude defines the westward expansion, the Industrial Age, and indeed, American thought and society.

Charles Dana Wilber, a Nebraska "town builder," explained it almost as a religious mission, claiming that God never intended that any part of the Earth be perpetual desert (the religious and economic views of Australian aborigines and others who have learned to live in harmony with nature, even in the desert, notwithstanding). Wherever man "has been aggressive" he has made the land suitable for farming, "so that in reality there is no desert anywhere except by man's permission or neglect." If the plains were not now a Garden of Eden, man could remedy their deficiencies. Rain would follow the plow. That was how the Creator expected men to think. Turn the grasses under and the skies would fill with clouds. There was no restriction in nature man must observe: on the contrary, all ecological limits were simply challenges to be overcome by human energy.

Shortly after this pronouncement, as if on cue, another drought arrived, emptying some regions of as much as 90 percent of their human population. If it were true that God did indeed promise that the rain would follow the plow, then it was equally true, some said, that there was no god west of Salina.

In an 1878 publication, Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States, John Wesley Powell of the U.S. Geological Survey offered a plan for the arid west. It was based on simple logic: beyond the 100th meridian there was not enough rainfall for conventional farming; therefore, the conventional 160-acre homestead could not support a family; ergo, the land should be parceled into units large enough to support a family. These units he called "pasturage farms," with a suggested area of 2,560 acres, or four square miles.

Lacking mechanized farming equipment they would, of course, be cattle ranches, but the term "pasturage farm" was an obvious marketing ploy: it was more politically correct, avoiding the aristocratic "ranch," and gave the plan a better chance of acceptance.

The American standard of living

This might have avoided the Dust Bowl, although the land exploitation through overgrazing seen during the cattle baron period probably would have occurred anyway. But the plan found almost no supporters at the time (although his report was re-examined later, particularly during the 1930s, and was republished as recently as 1962 by Harvard University Press).

When it was first circulated, an offended public found it "flagrantly restrictive, undemocratic, and too pessimistic about the carrying capacity of the region." Worst of all, it would have made rural homes for only one-sixteenth as many families as the Homestead Act had. Nature, and reality, be damned: this was America!

Donald Worster examines this with a great deal of insight. He notes that nature did not "demand" 2,560 acres per family. That was a human artifice, arrived at by economic reverse engineering: the "American Standard of Living" is thus, which will require X acres of dryland prairie to provide X = 2,560.

Worster suggests that the flaw is in the premise of what constitutes a standard of living. Clearly, the Indian economy wasn't considered. But neither was the 3 million-acre XIT ranch in Texas, which obviously had much higher "standards." (Y2K isn't as modern a term as you might think: XIT stood for "10 Counties in Texas.") On the other hand, for some plains farmers--particularly Amish and Mennonites--160 acres was sufficient for a comfortable and rewarding life in 1878, and it still was in 1935.

As more farms became more mechanized the small-scale operations became more and more "Old World anomalies in progressive America," Worster says. "For most plainsmen who survived the 1890s, the unending escalation of wants brought a cutthroat competition for scarcer and scarcer resources that has lasted through the 20th century. If there was one factor that would defeat broadly diffused, democratic tenure in the region, it was precisely the demand for ever higher living standards ... From the beginning, Americans were on a hopeless ecological course: there would never be enough land to satisfy everyone's demands, especially if those demands were constantly growing."

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Let's pause here for a moment to put this into the perspective of the 21st century homesteader. You might have become too engrossed in the story to follow the thread, or maybe you aren't familiar enough with COUNTRYSIDE or homesteading to see the thread.

Most homesteaders today, especially those who are just starting out or are still in the dreaming stages, feel a vague (and often not so vague) sense of dissatisfaction with conventional modern life. Even the poorest among us possess far more material goods and comforts than the average sodbuster, or even medieval royalty. Yet, something's missing ...

The typical diet of the sodbusters consisted of cornmeal and molasses, baking soda biscuits, and coffee made from roasted rye. But then, one family is said to have arrived in Kansas with "nine children and eleven cents." One wonders what they ate.

Obviously, not all of these people were "happy." And yet, in the numerous letters and journals of that period that survive, mostly written by farm wives, there is a great sense of peace, perhaps pride, and if not happiness at least a satisfaction approaching it. This certainly wasn't provided by worldly possessions or comforts. So we must ask ourselves, where did this contentment come from? Was it vested in the family, a close-knit interdependent community? A sense of accomplishment, perhaps from participating in the new American frontier, or from being in charge of one's own life and surviving despite the odds? Was it hope, the promise of a better life to come once the homestead was established, or when the nearest town grew enough to provide amenities, and when the crops produced enough profit to purchase town-made goods?

For the 21st century homesteader, this is worth some musing, because it can weigh heavily in decision-making ... including making a commitment to land and animals that might not even be a part of the happiness factor.

Happiness is seldom a voiced, perhaps not even a conscious concern of most of the people who write to COUNTRYSIDE. Perhaps they feel it will arrive as a natural consequence of becoming a homesteader, in which case some musing on the above is all the more important.

Getting started

Usually a more immediate and practical concern is, "How can I get started?" A 21st century homesteader looking at land costing thousands of dollars an acre might feel a twinge of envy towards those who got land for little or nothing.

There is no more "homestead" land in the sense of the period we're looking at here. Much worse, there is hardly any affordable land for establishing a homestead, especially for those who are already burdened with debt and lack credit. If all of your income goes to pay current expenses and past debt, you can't afford to purchase the homestead that could free you from those debt burdens. It's a vicious circle, but not the only one.

Even without such debts, the homestead is most often mortgaged, adding greatly to its cost. If this means more "off-farm" work for one or more family members, proportionately less is accomplished on the homestead.

And then, even if everything else falls into place, there is the final indignity: homesteading doesn't "pay," but even homesteaders can't live without money. What you produce on the homestead could be purchased, probably for less than it costs the homesteader to produce it. It could be sold the same way: for less than the cost of production. With very few exceptions, no smallholder is going to compete, in the same markets, with agribusiness. This first became glaringly apparent in the period we're looking at here.

There are ways to make money on a homestead, obviously, but they don't involve farming. They might involve marketing farm products, or processing them in some way, but that's a different business altogether.

The homesteaders of a hundred years ago had problems, but these weren't among them.

From the first European settlements in the East, until the early 1900s in the West, land was available for little or nothing. By the 1950s getting started was becoming more difficult, as post-war mechanized and chemical farming took hold. Farms became larger, and getting started required far more capital than a few years previously. And by the end of the century most people who hadn't already made a lot of money found those hurdles almost insurmountable.

Examining the past, as we are, doesn't provide any real solutions. But it does provide explanations. What went wrong (in the eyes of people who yearn for simple living)? And why doesn't the majority even suspect that anything is wrong?

Refer back to the accounts of cattlemen exploiting the short grass prairies: they overgrazed the land until it was destroyed, but they got rich! The very desire for 40 acres and a mule was quite reasonable and even modest by WASP standards, but that too led to exploitation of the land. Powell's belief that the amount of land a family needs is determined by working back from the standard of living they "need" was hooted down as un-American. Even if that standard were inflated, the notion was much too restrictive for a culture and people that wanted not just a sufficiency, but just as much as they could grab, and then some.

This is a partial explanation of how we arrived at where we are today. An unbridled lust for material possessions and comforts has led to the exploitation of nature, and people, and the destruction of resources. Some people called that progress. Simpler people called it greed. By any name, it became institutionalized. You are born to produce for others, and to consume what they produce. There is no escape. Even homesteading can only buffer and disguise that fact, but you have to play the game first in order to even become a homesteader.

Coupled first with industrial, and later electronic information technology, the point of "enough" was never reached. It was like pouring slop into a rubber hog trough: the more slop, the bigger the trough became.

What this translates into for today's beginning--and already established--homesteaders is that the initial investment in a homestead demands obtaining cash from another source, and the continuing costs entailed in homesteading demand a continuation of that outside income as well. This is arguably the primary distinction of the modern homesteader. Some people are able to distance themselves from that system to a much greater degree than others, but the underlying truth remains.

This leaves many questions. If such great changes have taken place in the past 50 years, what will the next 50 bring? Will homesteading become impossible altogether? Or will some yet-unseen force reverse the trend, and make it easier?

And of broader concern, even to nonhomesteaders: will the growth/ greed ever end, and if so, when and how? Are there limits to growth? Can we really conquer nature?

Most important of all, can individuals who are so inclined swim against the current of materialism and live more simply despite the institutional roadblocks, and if so, how?

Let's continue to look ahead by looking back.

The Industrial Age of Farming

Since the beginnings of farming in some forest clearing or meadow only dimly lit by history, the tools and techniques changed but little until the Industrial Age. The ground was tilled, seeds planted, crops harvested, animals confined and cared for and slaughtered, with only negligible differences over tens of thousands of generations. Improvements such as the animal-drawn plow, the oxen yoke (the first plows were attached to their tails), the wheeled cart and the horse collar appeared only at great intervals. They spread only as fast as a horse or sailing ship could carry them, and then not often or far. Few people moved or traveled, and there was no commerce in such tools or ideas.

The Industrial Revolution changed that. The plow, the grain drill, the reaper, wood and metal formed into countless variations of other tools by farmers and blacksmiths, both common and esoteric, followed in rapid succession. And they were rapidly and widely disseminated as travel and migration increased, steamboats and railroads proliferated, and the printing press made its mark.

Then came the traction engine, which an advertising writer shortened to "tractor." The first steam engines were quickly replaced by internal combustion.

Forty acres and a mule had been a standard because 40 acres was about all one man and his mule could cultivate. A horse could do more. Some farmers had many horses, or even many teams. (This didn't become widespread until the 1920s.) Each required a man--who often was not a landowner nor even a farmer, but a laborer.

The tractor could do much more work than a horse, with less labor. The tractor didn't require land for feed, so that land could be used for a profit-producing crop. And the tractor didn't need fuel or care when it wasn't working, as horses and mules did.

The expense--in terms of operating capital, natural resources, and human resources--was not considered. Agriculture was simply following the example set by the manufacturing industries, which had proved that these expenses didn't matter, as long as they contributed to profits.

The Great Plains--flat, open, and huge--were perfect for tractors. In addition to their other attributes, tractors could more easily, and thoroughly, "bust the sod" than horses could. They were also more efficient in that setting. In 1830 one acre of wheat required 58 hours of a farmer's time. In 1930 that had dropped to 18 hours in locations such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania, six hours nationally, and less than three hours in the progressive sections of the Great Plains.

Tractors (and agitation from dry-land farmers who owned or planned to own them) resulted in the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. This doubled the size of each settlers' claim, from 160 to 320 acres. It followed the Oklahoma Land Rush by 20 years. In 1912 the "proving-up" time was reduced from five to three years. The West saw another surge of immigrants.

But it was to be the last one, as the combination of increased population, the tractor, the now-customary land exploitation--and the inevitable drought--set the stage for the Dust Bowl.

It should be noted that the Homestead Act, the Enlarged Homestead Act, and its amendment, each of which placed certain restrictions on land ownership in the interests of democratic land distribution, had little effect in that regard. Instead of 160 or 320 acres, the average farm in the region had 520 acres in 1910, 771 acres in 1920, and 813 in 1930. And in some places such as Colorado, less than 20 percent of the filings resulted in permanent farms.

Former homestead land was being sold. With prices as low as $13 an acre, midwestern farmers sold out at $150 an acre and started over, often with more land than they could cultivate efficiently at the time.

Clearly, the Homestead Acts did not create homesteads as we usually think of them today. "Homesteaders" were no longer content only to raise food for their families. The goal wasn't self-sufficiency, or even sufficiency: the goal was to make as much money as possible. The resulting farms were essentially the beginning of industrial agriculture or factory farming, euphemistically called agribusiness.

Boom times

History has an odd sense of timing. The sod-busting and tractors were encouraged by expanding markets for wheat. U.S. population was soaring. Immigration was at its peak between 1901 and 1910, with 8,705,000 people entering the country: 10.4 percent of the entire population. In the next decade another 5,736,000 arrived. Growing exports also entered the picture at this time. Demand drove the price of wheat up to $1.04 a bushel.

The real plum arrived in wheat country when, during World War I, the Turks cut off wheat from the world's leading wheat producer and exporter, Russia. American farmers were only too happy to step in, not only to make money, but as a patriotic gesture. When America entered the war in 1917, the cry from Washington became "Plant more wheat! Wheat will win the war!" Under the wartime Food Control Act of 1917, the government guaranteed a price of $2 a bushel. By 1919 wheat exceeded that. The boom was to continue for a while after that.

The plow and combine

Tractors by themselves cannot produce a crop, and tractors couldn't bust the sod by themselves. That was left to the one-way disk plow.

The relatively new (on the scale of agricultural history) moldboard plow, perfected and manufactured by John Deere in 1868, was inefficient on the tough sod of the prairies. With tractor power, the moldboard was replaced by the one-way disk plow. Utilizing a series of concave plates, or disks, mounted vertically, this tool was much faster, killed more weeds, and was capable of grinding the soil into a fine powder. Some people lay the blame for the Dust Bowl on the disk plow.

This tractor-plow combination allowed one man to farm as much land as 20 could a century before, but it wasn't the only tool of industrial farming. The combined harvester-thresher, later shortened to "combine," replaced another dozen or so workers, and considering the speed of the machine, many more.

The bust

There was a price to pay.

The dust was yet to come. The displaced laborers were most often absorbed into other booming industries (whether or not they really wanted to be farmers, or even homesteaders). But the machines and their operation cost money. This was acceptable as long as they made money, which they did when yields were good and prices were high. That was not to last.

After the war, wheat prices plummeted. At the average price of $1.03 during the 1920s, some farmers could break even. Those who went heavily into debt to buy land or machinery often did not. Yet, when they sold out, they had little trouble finding buyers.

In fact, some of the larger growers welcomed the shakeout. When marginal farmers threw in the towel, the more enterprising growers increased their holdings, their production, and their profits. This was an earlier version of the "Get big or get out" taunt of Earl Butz in the 1970s. In a scenario reminiscent of later years, the 1920s were a boom for a few, but a bust for many.

And again, this Was a magnet for outside, non-farm investors. They were fired up with enthusiasm for the example set by Henry Ford's revolutionary production line. Hickman Price was a Hollywood mogul, not a farmer. But he owned 34,500 acres--54 square miles. He said, "Only through large-scale, collective, group, specialized, departmentalized activity has modern prosperity, with the accompanying high standards of living, become possible." People like Price were the dotcom investors of their day, while many small farmers trekked to the cities to eke out a living in smokestack industries.

There was even the equivalent of day-traders. Many speculators, called "suitcase farmers," were "city bankers, druggists, or teachers," Worster said. "They put in their seed, went back to their regular work, and waited to see what would happen to the Chicago grain futures. In a year of high prices they might make a killing, paying for an entire farm with one crop, then sell the land at a tidy sum to another fast-buck chaser ... The machine made possible, and common, an exploitive relationship with the Earth; a bond that was strictly commercial, so that the land became nothing more than a form of capital that must be made to pay as much as possible."

During this period an additional 5,260,000 acres of native grasses were eradicated by the disk plow.

Placing blame

It would be easy to point fingers, to lay blame for the human activities that laid waste to the plains, destroying its indigenous people, wildlife, grasses, and eventually the land itself, as well as its toll on small farmers. An anti-technology Luddite might blame the tractor and plow; someone of a political bent might see government policies (the tariff was hotly debated}; an anti-capitalist could focus on the greed of agribusiness; and an environmentalist could maintain that the land should have remained a vast buffalo range, with no interference from man.

A homesteader of today might suspect that all of these played a role, to one degree or another, but that they were only strands of a web. The web itself is stronger than ever today, even though few people understand that or even notice it. The homesteader is in constant struggle with it. Its name is Culture. Specifically, the culture of what we have often referred to as the Industrial System.

The Industrial Culture

What can account for the drive to farm more land, raise bigger crops, to build taller buildings and larger factories, to acquire more goods, and money?

Some say greed and materialism are human nature and can only be held in check, not eliminated. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge are also human traits. So is the desire to put knowledge to practical use, often to accumulate more, in an attempt to satisfy both greed and a desire for security. But these have always been human nature. What was different about America?

A number of events, discoveries, situations and opportunities allowed the "Protestant work ethic" to not only become the dominant western culture, but so institutionalized as to be virtually transparent. Some people, with homestead inclinations, have an uneasy feeling that something isn't quite right, but they can't put their finger on it. Opting out of the system by homesteading "feels" like a solution, but that isn't even possible to any serious degree for most people. One reason is the need for cash: the need to produce something for others to consume, which in turn requires consuming what others produce, in what becomes a vicious circle that's impossible to escape.

A more insidious reason is that most people want to be caught in that trap. They would rather have material goods and comforts, and security, than do without, and being in a trap is a small price to pay.

But most likely they don't even realize they're trapped, or what the options are, or how it all came about.

Man's ties to the land

During the Age of Agriculture humanity was tied to the land. Life itself depended on the soil, seeds, rain and sun; on nature and the cycles of nature. Greed and the other uglier aspects of human nature were kept in check not only by religions and governments, but by limitations placed by Nature. "Conquering" Nature was unthinkable, not only because of man's dependence on it, but because it was an impossibility, with the tools available.

The Industrial Age changed that in several ways. Man was no longer tied to the land, or to nature or the seasons and cycles. People no longer spent their entire lives in one place, and they became more specialized, and so in the end had a narrower view of life.

Part of that narrowed vision transformed the goal of sufficiency into one of surplus. If a man only needs one loaf of bread, a second loaf will be of little benefit or value; but in an industrialized money economy, one can never have too much gold. And since there was no sense in buying more bread with money, and as continued mechanization and efficiencies freed up more and more labor, other goods were developed, produced, purchased, and eventually "needed" to maintain a "standard of living."

Nowhere were conditions as ripe as they were in America. Rapid population growth, along with rapid industrialization and mechanization of farming, along with seemingly limitless resources, combined to make it possible, for the first time, to "conquer Nature." The coal of Appalachia and the forests of the Great Lakes states and the iron of the Mesabi were put there for humanity's use, the thinking was, and humanity now had the need and desire, and the tools, to use them.

No one man or tribe or even nation seeking only sufficiency could have used all that coal and lumber and iron. That's why some people became extremely wealthy from them ... along with those who built the railroads, steel mills, factories and other businesses.

The culture no longer favored or even allowed self-sufficiency, and the end of simple sufficiency followed close behind. The culture no longer relied on nature. It's no accident that advertising--which turned "wants" into "needs"--and selling on credit, first flourished during this period.

The vicious circle expanded and continued to add rings and webs until today, Nature is no longer something to be subdued: for most Americans, it doesn't even exist, except in National Geographic specials. They are so enmeshed in the trap it's transparent to them.

The turning point came in the early 1900s. We, as homesteaders or individuals looking for a better way of life, can learn from that history. But will it tell us where we got off the path and, hopefully, how to get back on? Or will history simply shrug and say we blew it, it's too late, and we're stuck with what we created?

The Roaring 20s

America had changed dramatically in less than a generation. New arrivals had swollen the population from 76 million in 1900 to 105.7 million in 1920 and 122.7 million in 1930. The northern pine forests had been reduced to a moonscape of stumps that spanned several states, to build their homes. Railroads snaked across the countryside to carry them to new opportunities, and then to haul away what they produced while delivering new goods for their consumption. Roads were improved and expanded to accommodate the newfangled horseless carriage, and instead of a waste product from the production of kerosene, gasoline became the more valuable component. Tractors and other newly-invented farm machinery began to replace horses and mules. Building those machines required factories, iron ore, coal to smelt it, and workers living in close proximity to the billowing smokestacks. Cities blossomed, with some buildings so tall they were dubbed "skyscrapers." It was a "new era" of peace and prosperity, an era of flappers and chewing gum, prohibition and speakeasies, of jazz, talking pictures and radio. Radio Corporation of America, or RCA, was the darling of the stock market, the equivalent of today's or AOL. And the stock market epitomized the period, and the culture.

No need to get your hands dirty or to break a sweat: the stock market will make you rich. Even cab drivers and hotel doormen were investors, and ready with "hot tips." No need to produce a good or provide a useful service. Look at Al Capone.

As far as the Mississippi and a bit beyond, "civilization" had taken hold long before. But by the 1920s, even former self-sufficient homesteaders further west were not only drinking Coca Cola, driving Fords, ordering from the Monkey Wards catalog and buying other goods delivered by truck and rail: they were buying bread manufactured from wheat they had grown and shipped east. And of course they were buying tractors and other farm equipment.

Self-sufficiency was out. Even sufficiency was out. Consumerism was in. Independence meant a small diversified farm, sufficient for a family's needs, but not for their wants. So independence was also out. Interdependence--on the cities and factories, on trucks and trains, and even foreign markets--was in.

And why not? Even remote homesteads were no longer isolated. The entire country was unified by nationally distributed products such as Coca Cola, Wrigley's chewing gum, and Ford motorcars. Products were advertised in national magazines, and in catalogs such as Montgomery Wards. The Post Office delivered these, as well as letters from friends and relatives who had stayed in, or migrated to, the bright lights of the industrial areas. Even people in the hinterlands knew what was going on in Washington and Europe, with their radios, national magazines, and local newspapers. The media also alerted them to what they were missing by not living in metropolitan areas: electricity, washing machines, refrigeration and stylish clothing. Motion pictures reinforced the notion that if they didn't have certain amenities, they were missing out on the New American Standard of Living.

In a world made smaller by steamships and the telegraph, the United States had become a major force. It had become "the land of opportunity" not only because of its democratic ideals and form of government, but because of its vast, some said inexhaustible, natural resources. The fire in the bellies of those who felt suddenly freed from the old restraints of Nature and human limitations and aristocratic forms of government was given free rein. They created, and relished, the Roaring Twenties.

The whimpering side of the Twenties

There is no true democracy, no true equality. Often attributed to deficiencies in mental capacity or proclivity to work, often associated with race or national origin, some were left behind. This included the Native Americans, whose values were diametrically opposed and almost totally alien to the prevailing culture; and the small farmers who would have been satisfied with sufficiency had they been given the choice.

None of these had a choice. In a time warp preview of a much later Secretary of Agriculture's admonition to "get big or get out," these people were overwhelmed. They couldn't compete. During the Roaring Twenties they were forced to join the parade, or be ignored, and eventually, worse.

The Crash

In the summer of 1929 life couldn't have been better for those on the cutting edge of the new technologies, the new economy, the new era. And there was no end in sight.

"Everybody should be rich," trumpeted John J. Raskob, in an interview in Ladies' Home Journal. A failure to do so indicated a personality flaw. Greed was human nature, the Creator had made us that way, the fruit was there for the plucking, and anyone who didn't partake not only had only themselves to blame, but they weren't doing their duty to God or Country.

The proclamations of prosperity, and a "New Era" when the old laws of nature and economics had been repealed, used to be humorous to those of us of a certain age who studied history (and perhaps had twisted minds). Because a few months later, in some cases a few days later, came Black Thursday: the Crash of 1929.

While often considered the keystone of the Great Depression by those who observe history on the fly (or not at all), the Crash was only one facet of that epoch. Contrary to popular opinion, pedestrians in New York did not have to dodge bodies leaping from skyscraper windows. (According to some authorities on the subject, more people have already committed suicide and mayhem due to investments during the current stock market bubble than the total recorded in the Great Depression.) Many small farmers had already been in a depression. And not everyone had participated equally in the "new economy." Yet, the Crash of '29 serves as the focal point of a decade of a cold shower for the American Dream ... which ushered in a new era of modern homesteading.

Some stocks lost 90 percent of their former value, and many, 100 percent: the companies went out of business. Of the others, many didn't regain their former value for more than 20 years. People who had gambled their life's savings were wiped out. But you didn't have to participate in the stock market to feel the sting of its crash.

Businesses closed, leaving their workers unemployed. This left their suppliers without a market, and their customers without goods, filtering down to further unemployment. Lines formed at banks, at first because people needed their money, but then because the banks ran out of cash, creating a panic. The federal government declared a "bank holiday" and banks closed. Many never reopened. People who wouldn't have considered putting their savings in stocks lost them in bank deposits.

Washington, D. C., November 15, 1929

To the President:

Widespread drought during the growing season of 1929 dried up pastures and reduced crop yields below those of any recent year. The losses in production, however, were so evenly distributed for the country as a whole that no large area had either very bountiful or very short crops. Moreover, from the standpoint of the producers, reduced yields seemed likely to be more than offset by price advances. It is probable that the total income from the 1929-1930 crop year will equal, if not exceed, that of the 1928-1929 season.

Arthur M. Hyde Secretary of Agriculture (From the Yearbook of Agriculture, 1930.)

Washington D.C., November 15, 1930

To the President:

The worst drought ever recorded in this country prevailed during much of the 1930 crop-growing season and greatly reduced farm production. Widespread drought occurred in 1881, 1894, 1901, 1911, 1916 and 1924. These, however, did not equal the drought of the present year in duration, in the extent of the areas covered, in deficiency of precipitation, or in severity ...

Arthur M. Hyde Secretary of Agriculture (From the Yearbook of Agriculture, 1931.)

Washington D. C., November 14, 1931

To the President:

... Excluding the $10,000,000 set aside to organize new or to strengthen existing agricultural-credit corporations, the department had $57,000,000 available for drought relief. More than 385,000 applicants borrowed approximately $47,000,000 to purchase seed, fertilizer, feed for livestock and fuel and oil for power machinery, and for agricultural rehabilitation.

Widespread need resulted from the severe drought that prevailed during the 1930 crop-growing season ...

Statistics, however, give a poor impression of the human side of the drought situation. Tens of thousands of farm families had their savings swept away, and even their subsistence endangered. Usually when weather conditions reduce production prices rise. No such partial compensation came to the drought-stricken areas in 1930 because demand and prices declined under the impact of the world depression. For the little they had to sell, farm families got extremely low unit prices. Feeds had to be moved into deficit areas ...

Arthur M. Hyde Secretary of Agriculture (From the Yearbook of Agriculture, 1932.)

Washington D. C., November 15, 1933

To the President:

In the simpler days before the war when we were a debtor nation and foreign nations were willing to take all we could produce in satisfaction of our debt, we were not bothered by thoughts of economic planning ... The war and its consequence changed the situation utterly ...

The total value of farm real estate in the United States fell from $37,027,000,000 as of March, 1932 to $30,515,000,000 as of March, 1933. These values compare with $47,880,000,000 in 1930 and $66,316,000,000 in 1920.

... Forced sales of farms increased as a result of delinquency on taxes and debt service. For the year ended March 15, 1933, approximately 15.3 farms per 1,000 were sold for taxes. Approximately 38,8 per 1,000 farms were involved in transfers in settlement of debt ...

Henry A. Wallace Secretary of Agriculture (From the Yearbook of Agriculture, 1934.)

When the industrial regions began reeling, the farmers of the plains who had survived the '20s were prospering, and not only by comparison. From 1926 to 1930, Boise City, Oklahoma, averaged 19 inches of rain a year, a welcome two inches above the long-term average. This created not only prosperity, but the customary farmer overconfidence. Even the most marginal lands were planted, and by 1931 the acreage had doubled in six years. This optimism was rewarded with an average yield of 21.7 bushels per acre.

But in 1932 the precipitation cycle swung back. Only 12 inches were recorded that year, and in 1934, just nine. The harvest during the '30s averaged 0.9 bushels; sometimes the seed planted outweighed the harvest.

The native grasses that had held the soil in place were gone. Now, even the domesticated wheat plant offered no protection against the wind. The dust swirled in small eddies, then in layers, and eventually in voluminous black clouds of stinging particles that were carried as far as the Eastern seaboard and even into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Dust Bowl

In the spring and summer of 1930, extremely dry weather affected an area from Maryland and Virginia westward to Missouri and Arkansas, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Record low rainfall was recorded in 12 states, with Florida the only eastern state with above normal precipitation. An estimated 17 million people were affected.

By 1931 the drought had spread westward. Much of Montana and the Dakotas received less rain than the Sonoran Desert.

Droughts are normal. In most places, farmers expect a shortage of precipitation from time to time. What was not normal about this one was the vast area it covered, and its duration.

From 1930 to 1936, only two states, Maine and Vermont, escaped droughts, which by definition was a precipitation shortfall of at least 15% of the historical mean.

Record low rainfall was accompanied by record high temperatures. In the summer of 1934 the mercury reached 118 [degrees] in Nebraska, and on July 24 of that year, 109 [degrees] in Chicago, the Windy City.

And wind played a role, too. On May 9, 1934, soil from Montana and Wyoming was sucked into the air and transported eastward on the jet stream at 100 miles per hour. An estimated 350 million tons of earth became part of the sky in that one storm, on that one day. By the same evening, 12 million tons of it fell like snow on Chicago--four pounds for every person in the city.

By the next day the dust storm had reached Buffalo and points south, blotting out the sun and turning day into night. By the morning of May 11 the dust was settling on Boston, New York City, Washington and Atlanta, and on the 12th, Savannah.

And still more western soil was swept out to sea. Ships 300 miles from shore found dust on their decks a few days later.

This was not an isolated storm. At least 179 dust storms were reported in 1933 alone, one that, again, carried its load as far as New York. Dozens of major storms, those that cut visibility to less than a mile, occurred every year from 1932 to 1941. The Dirty Thirties brought brown snow to New Hampshire and dust-covered sidewalks to Houston and Corpus Christi. The effect on the land, and people, where the dust originated, is difficult to imagine today.

There are endless stories about how the dust was driven through even closed windows, coating everything and making it almost impossible to breathe. Sand dunes 20 and 30 feet high formed in former farm fields. Roads were blocked, fences were bur. led. Newspapers often compared the "black blizzards" to winter storms. (Remember Y2K?)

One reporter's widely reprinted observations were more detailed. "Uncorked jug placed on sidewalk two hours, found to be half filled with dust. Picture wires giving way due to excessive dust on frames. Irreparable loss in portraits anticipated. Lady Godiva could ride thru the streets without even the horse seeing her."

And a woman quoted in the Kansas City Times was even more graphic. From Dust Bowl: "All we could do about it was just sit around in our dusty old chairs, gaze at each other through the fog that filled the room and watch that fog settle slowly and silently, covering everything--including ourselves--in a thick, brownish gray blanket. When we opened the door swirling whirlwinds of soil beat against us unmercifully ... The door and windows were all shut tightly, yet those tiny particles seemed to seep through the very walls. It got into cupboards and clothes closets; our faces were as dirty as if we had rolled in the dirt; our hair was gray and stiff and we ground dirt between our teeth."

Mothers placed damp cloths over their sleeping babies. They flapped wet dish towels in the air to collect the dust. When the wind died down they swept ... and sometimes shoveled ... dust out of their homes. But sometimes the wind didn't die down for days, blackening the pillows, the dinner plates, and the bread dough, making even eating and sleeping impossible.

Respiratory problems became pandemic, and 33 people died in just one Kansas county. The Red Cross sponsored a conference of health officers, and the Kansas Board of Health made a detailed study of the physiological impact of the dust storms. (From February 21 to April 30, 1935, the board counted 28 days of "dense" dust at Dodge City and only 13 days that were "dust free.")


Some of the comments and reactions were amusingly--or eerily, depending on your outlook--similar to some heard in 1999. Prophets cried out, "Watch for the Second Coming of Christ! God is wrathful!" A woman wrote in her journal, "This is ultimate darkness. So must come the end of the world."

At the other end of the spectrum, some newspaper editorial writers and chamber of commerce types were outraged by the sensational coverage the Eastern press gave the storms. They bristled, for example, at a 1937 Collier's article titled "Land Where Our Children Die." Its author found the Dust Bowl to be a place of "famine, violent death, private and public futility, insanity, and lost generations." What Easterners saw in newsreels, newspapers and magazines most often was a dramatic slice of reality, but that slice infuriated the region's promoters.

However, if the Eastern journalists were guilty of reporting the sensational and ignoring the rest, the businessmen who formed "truth squads" to counter them were equally guilty of the opposite.

A Texas editor who in 1933 published a grim but factual account of the devastation lost $1,000 in advertising, and learned the error of his ways. By 1936 he was writing instead about that "hare-brained individual" who "in an abortive fit" misnamed the plains the "Dust Bowl."

Worster relates that another Texas editor's style "was at its shoot-em-up best in his refutation of the Collier's article: `a vicious libel,' `compounded of lies and half-truths,' `bunk,' `more bunk,' `sissy.' The outrage lay not only in that outside critics were condemning `a group of courageous Americans for a six-year drouth cycle and national conditions beyond their control'; they were also destroying the property values, bank credit, and business prospects of the region."

By 1936, optimists announced that it was almost over. Their confidence didn't help. Dust masks continued to be used, trains continued to be derailed, and wheat fields remained barren for five more years. An Oklahoma agronomist estimated that a March 11, 1939 duster covering 100,000 square miles contained enough soil to cover five million acres one foot deep.

The jokers

In the middle, as always, there were those who could joke in the midst of disaster. Some Kansans called the dust their "vitamin K." They talked about the farmer who was so startled when a drop of water struck him in the face that he fainted: his wife had to throw three buckets of sand on him to revive him. And Will Rogers observed that only highly advanced civilizations, like Mesopotamia, were ever covered over with dirt, and that California would never qualify.

"When better dust storms are made, the Southwest will make them!" boasted the Dodge City Globe. A store proprietor posted a sign on his door, reading, "Free land; bring your own container." Jokes about prairie dogs tunneling upwards were common, but Worster repeats this more creative one:

A motorist came upon a ten-gallon hat resting on a dust drift. Under it he found a head looking at him. "Can I help you in some way?" the motorist asked. "Give you a ride into town, maybe?"

"Thanks, but I'll make it on my own," came the reply. "I'm on a horse."

The survivors

Donald Worster also relates the Dust Bowl experiences of one family that survived, and was still on the land when Dust Bowl was written in 1979. It was no homestead. But the homestead philosophy was apparent, and it got them through.

Julius Kohler left Germany at age 18, arrived in New York, took the train to Kansas, and worked as a windmill repairman. By 1901 he had saved enough to buy a small farm, where he raised cattle. As neighboring homesteaders gave up, he bought them out, eventually building up his holdings to 13,000 acres.

By 1935 the Kohler family was running mostly sheep. Dust was blowing in from the cultivated areas, but it, and their own soil, was held by the grasses. But the windblown soil and the drought devastated the grazing land, and 5,000 sheep were shipped in boxcars to greener pastures in south-central Oklahoma, as were many cattle. But cattle and sheep prices were both too low to justify the move. Most of the Kohler sheep were sold, to the government, for $2 a head.

Robert Kohler, one of Julius's four sons still running the ranch in 1979, then in his seventies, told Worster they "didn't know where to go to better theirselves" so they stayed put.

But they had plenty of meat, not for sale, but for sufficiency. They grew pinto beans down in the bottomland. They collected driftwood along the river to burn in their kitchen stove in winter.

They lost an occasional steer or lamb to hungry townsmen on midnight requisitions, and others hid whiskey stills in their remote canyons and arroyos in a free-enterprise effort to pay their bills. The Kohlers paid little attention to such infringements of their space and property. They had sufficient.

Part of their success was attributed to their lack of machinery. The only internal combustion engine was in an old Ford. For them, horsepower meant a team of Percherons. With no machinery bills, the land long paid for, homegrown food and scavenged fuel, they were temporarily out of the system. And with old country thrift and less erosion to contend with, they had no need or desire to join the thousands of Oklahomans who headed for California.

A few other ranchers were equally resourceful. Overgrazing in the boom period of the now-familiar bust-and-boom cycle saw almost twice as many sheep and cattle as the land could carry. But the early years of the Depression cut meat consumption by 20 percent, and cattle numbers were reduced. Then came the drought, and the chief concern was getting feed for the animals that remained. Russian thistle, better known as tumbleweed, was cut at an early stage of development and fed to starving cattle. Soapweed (yucca) was ground into feed, and spines were burned off prickly pear cactus for the same purpose.

In 1934 the federal government began buying cattle, distributing the meat free of charge to the unemployed. But in Oklahoma, 18 percent of the purchased starving cattle were condemned. One rancher recalls that a hundred of his father's scrawny steers were herded into a canyon and shot. Hungry townspeople then poked among the carcasses to salvage what they could.

The present

There is no end to this story, because there is no end to humanity's progress--and follies. The tapestry is still unfolding, sometimes, it seems, in an endless loop.

The Dust Bowl gave impetus (if not birth) to the science of ecology--a science elevated to an art by most "primitive" peoples. Yet, most Americans continue to ignore the lessons of that experience and what ecologists have learned since. Or they pay lip homage to "environmentalism" with little understanding or conviction.

Despite the closing of the last frontier and the clear signal that resources are not inexhaustible, the American standard of living has continued to soar. "Sufficiency" today cannot be had with 40 acres and a mule: it requires an annual income of some $35,000.

Despite the impressive demonstrations of Nature's awesome power, man continues his attempt to conquer those forces, with everything from nuclear energy to chemical fertilizers to genetic manipulation.

We haven't mentioned the Ogallala aquifer (and much more), and the diesel-powered pumps that bring water from as deep as 500 feet and more to the surface to irrigate crops. Water that has seeped into the Earth at a rate of half-an-inch or less per year is being used much faster than it can be replenished. In some places, was being used: many wells drilled in the drought years of the '50s and '60s have already gone dry, as the water table was lowered. Yes, the plains are green again, even though their sustainable ecology has been destroyed. And they are productive. But is this another example of the quick-profit attitudes that led to the Dust Bowl? Then, there were no more virgin lands to turn to. What will happen when the time comes, as it inevitably must, when the water table is destroyed like the native soils and grasses were?

Perhaps, as it has thus far, science and industry will continue to outpace rapacity. But if we examine the past, and Nature, do we want to take that chance? Is it even worth the effort? Or might we make those examinations and find a better way?

These are only a few of the difficult questions made much more difficult by politics, financial interests, scientific conflicts and countless other interrelated but often opposing views ... all related to the division of labor and subsequent lack of a comprehensive all-encompassing view and goal ... and all spawned by the culture for which mere sufficiency and limitations are only quaint, even radical, ideas.

We might not find the answers on our own. But Nature surely has them. And when they're revealed ...

What have we learned?

As you might suspect, this is merely a brief sketch of that turning point in world, American, and homestead history. Anyone who wants to learn more is encouraged to read Donald Worster's Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. (1979; Oxford University Press; ISBN 0-19-502550-4) It is richly annotated, leading to hundreds of other sources. There are many more than that--and even more covering the Depression itself, which is another part of this story.

But this outline must serve our purposes here: investigating the origins of modern homesteading; examining both the motivations and sources of difficulties involved in modern homesteading; reflecting on the often fascinating web of events, activities and situations that shape our world; and pondering what the future might have in store for us.

Only by understanding the past can we understand the present, and anticipate possible futures.

Almost 300,000 people moved to California during the second half of the 1930s. Only one-fourth came from Oklahoma, but once you crossed the Colorado River you were an "Okie." Although they drove wheezy dust-coated jalopies, piled high with whatever they could carry or considered useful, often with a bewildered goat caged and tied to the running board, they were not the most destitute. To get from Oklahoma--or Texas, Arkansas or Missouri--required a car, at least $10 for gas, and some food, a grubstake the poorest couldn't come up with. And most were young people from towns and cities, not farms. They became farm hands in California however, working for large growers. Although the Los Angeles police set up a "bum blockade"--no more Okies wanted--the growers were glad to see help to replace their former supply of cheap Mexican labor that had been cut off in 1929 by immigration restriction.

Compare the 1920s and the 1990s:

* When the stock market reached giddy heights, experts and authorities claimed it was a "new era." The old laws of economics had been repealed, and everlasting prosperity for all was assured.

* There was widespread prosperity, but also a growing gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots.

* Farm surpluses meant low prices meant hard times for many farmers.

* Large areas of the country experienced serious drought.

* Protective tariffs were hotly debated.

* Immigration was hotly debated.

* Many deplored crime and "loose morals."

* Then Mah Jong; today, Pokemon.

* Then: radio; now, the Internet.

* Then: RCA stock; now, any technology stock

* Experts scoffed at the idea that the leading technologies of the day presented any potential problems (Farm mechanization, computers).

* As problems appeared, optimists ignored them, or dismissed them as "mere inconveniences." (The Dust Bowl, Y2K)

* In the 1930s, those same optimists continued to play down the problems, as "not all that serious" (when they obviously were) or "almost over" (when they weren't even half over).

(The Dust Bowl) "represented the final destruction of the old Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian harmony with nature: a relationship that would nurture the land while drawing from it an enduring, widely shared security and independence for rural folk. The destruction of that dream was symbolized not only by the desolate Great Plains landscape, but also by the worried faces of its people ... (O)bservers read in their eyes the defeat of poor people everywhere. But they were also a warning to the rest of the nation that man's relation with the Earth had gone awry." -- Donald Worster, Dust Bowl

During the 1920s, 6 million people left farms and villages for the bright lights of the cities. During the 1930s the flow was reduced to 2 million, and in 1932 it actually went the other way. By 1935, 33 million Americans lived on farms--more than ever before. Nationally, the farm population rose 6.3% between 1930 and 1935. But in industrialized New England the growth was much higher. The rural population of Massachusetts and Rhode Island increased over 30%, while Connecticut racked up a stunning 87% gain.

Sociologists Edmund Brunner and Irving Lorge, in Rural Trends in Depression Years (1937) saw" a great, uncontrolled mass movement to the succoring breast of Mother Earth." Going back to the land was a way to cope with hard times, either by staying put or by a grim flight from industrial chaos, but in either case the pastoral life had become a more hopeful one, if only by contrast. (Worster.)

John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, published in 1938, dramatized the Dust Bowl--the event, and its effect on people--like nothing else. Its only competition on the best seller list was Gone With the Wind, it won both a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize, and was made into a classic movie (starring Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda as Ma and Tom Joad) a year later.

But it was banned in many places, for varied and interesting reasons. Oklahoma critics decried the Joads' language as "morbid" and "filthy," and as Worster said, "complained that the novel gave their state's fine, progressive people a degenerate reputation." Others were appalled at the book's sexual frankness.

Others were galled by its political views. They didn't like Steinbeck's explanation of why the Dust Bowl happened, and where the nation was heading as a result. That explanation was an indictment of industrial agriculture, and even capitalism itself.

Steinbeck believed that the migrants had come from "the prairies where industrialization never penetrated," a small-scale classless world of Jeffersonian democracy, to "a system of agriculture so industrialized that the man who plants a crop does not often see, let alone harvest, the fruit of his planting; where the migrant has no contact with the growing cycle." As Worster points out, this wasn't true: industrial agribusiness was rampant on the plains, too, and in fact was largely responsible for the Dust Bowl.

Nevertheless, as refugees from the dust, these people had become "a disenfranchised exploited class of workers, supporting with hard labor their rich, absentee masters."

Even the business magazine Fortune supported this view. Several months before Grapes of Wrath appeared, the magazine described the sorry conditions in the "Little Oklahoma" squatter camps, and California agribusiness. Ten percent of farms grew 50% of the crops, in "factories in the field." One-third of all American farms producing at least S30,000 worth of crops a year were in one state: California.

But it was an unstable business, with expensive irrigation costs, high taxes, and cutthroat competition. There was "speculative feverishness," a desire to beat out rivals, maximize profits, and grow even larger. This led to periodic overproduction which, as in the rest of industrialized America, led to cutting costs by cutting wages to the barest subsistence level. Donald Worster said "The migrants' desperate status, Fortune decided, was properly seen as the culmination of `the whole tragic history of American agriculture, dating from the earliest misuse of the soil.' Exploitation of the land through profit-seeking factory farming, directly connected to the exploitation of farm workers, was where the nation's farms long had been going, and now, at least in one state, where they had arrived."

John Steinbeck wanted to show that it wasn't the dust, or nature, that broke the Okies. It was agribusiness. It was the quest for a higher return on land investments led to the tractors that broke more sod, and the small farmers.

Some writers took it further. Carey McWilliams, in III Fares the Land (1942) said the displaced farmers were "the victims of grab and greed as much as dust and tractors."

None of this--the mechanization, the grab and greed, the exhaustion and even destruction of the land and the exploitation of people--was new in America in the 1930s. Nor was it peculiar to California or Oklahoma. It began with the cotton and tobbaco plantations, with slave labor, and then tenants and sharecroppers. It was evident in the treatment of Indians. It accounted for the "stump fields" from New England to Wisconsin and beyond. The goal was immediate personal gain. The rationale was the building of a great nation on democratic and capitalistic principles. The result was destroyed land and lives.

Few could protest. Most were convinced that the soil could never be destroyed. The water could never run out. The forests were only important as timber, not as ecological systems. The exploitation of the land was building great cities, a great culture, great wealth. This was The American Way.

This attitude prevailed more than a generation later, when anyone who wanted to save a tract of forest or a spotted owl; place limits on land destruction for nonfarm commercial uses; or even questioned the wisdom of genetic engineering for milk, seeds and plants, was easily dismissed as a misinformed antiradical.

"We are not husbandmen," one grower told University of California economist Paul Taylor in the 1930s. "We are not farmers. We are producing a product to sell." This became the national mantra in the 1970s when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz proclaimed that farming was no longer a way of life, but a business. "Get big or get out," Butz warned.

That wasn't advice: it was a threat. Many had no choice.
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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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