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Memories of the dust bowl: for people of the Southern Plains, the 1930s were hard and bitter. When the land turned to dust, so did their dreams.

In 1931, rain stopped falling on the Midwestern and Southern Plains. The soil was already in bad shape. Farmers had cleared, plowed, and overplanted great stretches of land. Ranchers had allowed livestock to overgraze. Without grasses or trees to hold in moisture, the soil was dry. As the drought grew worse, winds whipped the powder-dry soil into huge storms of dust. The area soon became known as the Dust Bowl.

The United States was already suffering from the Great Depression. In 1929, the worst economic collapse in U.S. history had plunged millions of Americans into sudden and severe poverty. By 1932, about a third of the workforce was jobless.

For "Dust Bowlers," conditions were desperate. They heard that

California was everything their dust-covered farms were not. It was a place of lush farmland and acres upon acres of groves bursting with oranges and other produce. Stay or go? Those who went found that things were different--but not always better.

What was life like for people of the Dust Bowl? Historians can tell us by studying primary sources--written and oral accounts of people who lived through a historical event. Following are recollections from individuals who experienced the Dust Bowl years (1931-1940) firsthand.

"The Dust Got So Bad"

In 1933, Alvin Bryan Laird started his own farm in Oklahoma, growing cotton. Times were hard--but soon turned much worse. Looking back, Laird said:

[I] made a little money in 1933--had a good crop.... Then in 1934 I farmed again, but had a drought. If you never lived in that country, you don't know what a drought means. We got hall in June. It hailed the cotton out, and we had to plant it over and didn't see another drop of rain--not a sprinkle--until in September.

When Oklahoman Clara Beddo Davis was 12, her father's savings were wiped out in the Depression. They were penniless, and there were 12 children to feed. Then, Davis remembered, came the dust storms.

That dust came in from Kansas through northern Oklahoma and the sky was just as red as it could be.... The dust got so bad that you couldn't even see the houses across the street, and it would come in through the windows and everywhere.

The worst dust storm was the massive "black blizzard" of April 14, 1935. It swept across the Plains with dust clouds so dense, they blotted out the sun. Many people in stricken areas got "dust pneumonia" from inhaling windblown soil. Some people and livestock suffocated to death. Survivors, including Viola Lillian Maxwell Mitchell, found ways to protect themselves.

I put a wet rag over my face to keep from breathing it down my lungs. The rag would be muddy on top,' just like you put mud on it. It was terrible. And all the crops would blow out, and dirt would pile real high up against your house.

"We Sold Everything We Had"

Mitchell was one of the countless Dust Bowlers driven from home by drought and dust storms. In April 1935, her family headed for California.

We sold everything we had and got in this old Model-T Ford truck that my brother had, and 16 of us started out. There was my mother and dad, their seven children, the man that lived with my parents, and my husband and I and our four babies.

Many Dust Bowlers traveled old Route 66 (see map), which crossed long stretches of desert. Engines overheated, tires went flat, and gas tanks ran dry. Finding odd jobs along the way to pay for food and fuel was tough, as Jack Bryant discovered. These verses ate from a song that Bryant wrote about the experience.

"Hungry and Desperate"

Dust Bowlers poured into California by the thousands. Trying to stem the tide, state officials tightened the borders. Talmage Lee Collins said of his crossing:

We had to go through a border check. Back in them days, they were quite fussy. They checked all of your clothing.... Crossing the border from Arizona into California was actually more severe then than crossing the border into old Mexico.

Some Dust Bowlers found low-paying jobs picking crops. But a flash flood or cold snap could take even that away. In March 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange visited a pea-pickers' camp about 175 miles north of Los Angeles.

I saw and approached [a] hungry and desperate mother.... She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables [ruined by a cold snap] from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.... The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen, and there was no work for anybody.

California life was tougher than Dust Bowlers had expected. Their poverty and twangy accents were hard to hide. No matter where they were from, people called them 0kies. Some people shouted "0kies go home!" or posted "No 0kies Allowed" signs. Mildred Lenora Morris Ward recalled the prejudice.

[At first] I was glad to be here [in California] because at that time I thought that it would be so easy to work. All you had to do was just go and ask for it, and you'd get the work. I didn't realize what it was really like.... [In Oklahoma] we were kind a looked up to and at least respected. [Then to] come out here to this, where we were nothing.

"Times Got Better"

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal, a government program to help Americans during the Depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of the new agencies. Besides providing jobs, the CCC helped Dust Bowlers plant trees and establish ways to protect and enrich the soil. Late in 1939, it rained at last.

For Dust Bowlers and other Americans, things began to turn around. Talmage Lee Collins, for one, finally found peace in Bakersfield, California.

Progressively, times got better.... I'm very well satisfied with myself as far as my fitting into a lifestyle and everything. I haven't set the world on tire, but I started with nothing, and [now] I've got a comfortable home and a comfortable living coming in.

Your Turn


1. What, besides drought, led to the Dust Bowl?

2. Write a poem describing a dust storm.


We started to California But our money, it didn't last long

I want to be in Oklahoma Be back in my old home. A way out on the desert Where water is hard to find It's a hundred miles to Tempe And the wind blows all the time. You will burn up in the daytime Yet you're cold when the sun goes down I wanna be in Oklahoma Be back in my hometown. </pre> <p>LAIRD, DAVIS, MITCHELL, COLLINS, AND WARD EXCERPTS REPRINTED FROM THE ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS OF THE DUST BOWL MIGRATION DIGITAL ARCHIVES. COPYRIGHT[R] 2004 BY CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, BAKERSFIELD.

* OBJECTIVE Students should understand

* the consequences of economic collapse and severe weather for thousands of Americans.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was a series of federal initiatives (1933-1941) to help Americans recover from the Great Depression. Congress established many new agencies, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration, Public Works Administration, and Work Projects Administration, which hired people to perform useful tasks. The Depression ended when the U.S. entered World War II (1941), as industries produced ships, planes, and military supplies.


FINDING CAUSES: Why did many Dust Bowlers go to California? (Many were farmers who heard that soil was rich and crops lush.) RECOGNIZING PARALLELS: In what ways were the experiences of Dust Bowlers and Katrina evacuees similar? (In both cases, severe weather forced them far from home; they lost all they had; some had family of friends to go to, others struggled to find homes and jobs; some met prejudice; other answers acceptable.)


PRIMARY SOURCES 1: Find some oral history interviews of people who experienced the Dust Bowl firsthand. (See the books and sites at right, or do a Google search for "oral history" and "dust bowl.") Print out passages to read and discuss. How would students have felt in those situations? Why?

PRIMARY SOURCES 2: For audio of Jack Bryant singing the song excerpted on p. 14, of to read the complete lyrics, visit:



* People, places, and environments: How poor farming rnethods and severe drought displaced thousands of people.

* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How individual suffering led to a mass migration, and how government aid eased people's plights.



* Cooper, Michael, Dust to Eat (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). Grades 5-7.

* Stanley, Jerry, Children of the DustBowl(Crown Books, 1993). Grades 6-12.


* Dust Bowl (video)

* Stories From the Dust Bowl

* Voices of the Dust Bowl (audio)

* Use a word, name, or phrase from this list to correctly complete each sentence.

Californies, desert, Dust Bowl, Gokies, Good Deal, Great Depression, Great Drought, Great Impression, Hokies, Mexico, New Deal, No Deal, oceans, Okies, Oklahoma, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Route 66

16. The worst economic collapse in U.S. and world history was called the--

17. People who escaped from Dust Bowl cenditiens by going to other areas were nicknamed--

18. On their westward journey, many Dust Bowlers traveled this road:

19. The government program that in 1933 began creating agencies to provide jobs and aid was known as the--

20. The President who launched federal programs to help Dust Bowlers and others in need was--

16. Great Depression

17. Okies

18. Route 66

19. New Deal

20. Franklin D. Roosevelt
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Author:Wilmore, Kathy
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Date:Apr 10, 2006
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