The Dust Bowl and Black Sunday
“The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face,” Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. “People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk. . . . The nightmare is deepest during the storms. But on the occasional bright day and the usual gray day we cannot shake from it. We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real. The poetic uplift of spring fades into a phantom of the storied past. The nightmare is becoming life.”
The Dust Bowl, or the Dirty Thirties, has been called the worst natural disaster in recorded history. It lasted a tortuous decade, from 1930 to 1939 and destroyed farms and lives througout Canada, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. Some of the severest dust storms reached the eastern coast and blanketed eastern cities such as Chicago and New York in “black snow”.
The Drought and its causes
The drought began in 1930 and progressed throughout the decade. During 1932 there were an estimated 14 severe dust storms. A year later there were 38 major storms and 100 million acres had been lost. The conditions continued to decline at a rapid pace for 7 more years causing additional agricultural damage and loss of life.
The cause of the dust bowl era was actually induced by Man – severe drought, coupled with decades of extensive farming without crop rotation or other techniques to prevent erosion, and the deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains, which killed the natural grasses. These grasses normally kept the soil in place and trapped the moisture even during periods of drought and high winds. For instance, cotton farmers left their fields bare over the winter months when the winds in the High Plains were at their highest which caused erosion of the soil.
In addition, World War I drove up prices for grains which inspired farmers to increase their yield, further depleting the plains of their natural foliage. The Homestead Act that encouraged western expansion, caused people to settle in areas that were not meant for high yield agriculture. And of course, technological improvements made it easier for farmers to cultivate more of the land. To make matters even worse, the dust storms themselves magnified the effects of the drought. Rainclouds could not form with dust blocking much of the solar energy that was required to set off the chain reaction that occurs when rainclouds are formed.
The lack of rain was well documented and the statistics tell the story. Normally, the state of Nebraska averages around 20 inches of rainfall a year. In 1930, Nebraska received 22 inches of rain, and the state’s corn crop averaged 25 bushels per acre. In 1934, Nebraska saw the driest year on record with only 14.5 inches of rainfall. The state’s corn crop dropped even more to only 6.2 bushels per acre. Between 1930 and 1934 rainfall dropped 27.5 percent, and as a result corn crop yields dropped over 75 percent.
The Affect on People’s Lives
Lola Crum noted how the dust storms affected their lives, “At first, when it got pretty bad, they’d cancel school everywhere, if it got real bad, they’d send the kids home. And if they thought it’d be real bad, they’d announce there wasn’t going to be any school. But, you know it happened every day and every day, and you couldn’t just let school out. So they just went ahead and had school, if you could get there at all.”
The impact of the prolonged natural disaster was tremendous. Farmers would seal their homes the best they could. They would glue shut windows and doorways and drape sheets and blankets around the openings. Still, the dust penetrated the structure and left a thick blanked of dirt caked on their floors, bedding, and furniture. Dust pneumonia, a form of lung disease, was rampant and many died as they slowly and painfully suffocated from the dirt caked in their lungs. And the physics of the swirling dust caused static electricity to build up on fences, cars, and windmills. The resulting voltage was powerful enough that a shock from them would knock you unconscious.
The changing ecosystem brought about animal plagues of biblical proportions – rabbits, spiders, centipedes, grasshoppers and crickets permeated the area. With no natural predators to keep the critter populations in check, one family noted that they would sweep up enough centipedes to fill up several buckets. Rabbits killed off what little vegetation remained. To counter this, the townspeople herded the rabbits into fenced in pens by the thousands and then clubbed them to death (one man noted that the sight of that was the proverbial “final straw” that forced him to leave the area for good). Many persons were killed by poisonous spider bites. Crickets and grasshoppers ate everything in sight including farm equipment. One man told how the grasshoppers ate all the wooden handles on their shovels until nothing was left but the metal shovel head.
As the crops declined and dried up, money tightened in the area. Banks began to foreclose on houses. In many instances, towns would meet before the auction and agree to bid low so the person losing their home could buy it back. In some instances, the farmers were able to buy back their homes for a nickel. Still, 500,000 people were eventually left homeless and were forced to live in “tent camps” that had sprouted up throughout the region.
Black Sunday Arrives
When they thought it could get no worse, April 14, 1935 showed the area residents how much worse it could get.
“On a Sunday in April, and I was, it was Sunday afternoon and I was grading papers; sitting at our Kitchen window, the window faced the North…or I was sitting at the Kitchen table facing the window which was in the north. And I looked up and there was the blackest cloud you ever saw just about a third of the way from the horizon. My mother and brother had gone down to my grandmother’s about half a mile east, so they weren’t home. But my dad was asleep on the bed in the bedroom, so I hollered at him, “Pop, come here and look at this cloud.” Well, by the time he got awake and got out on the porch, which was quite quick because I was yelling. I was scared and he, didn’t take him long to get out there. We looked at that and here it was, just two-thirds of a way up from the horizon, just almost to up to the, well, about two-thirds, and, so we went back into the house right quick. And of course, in those days, your light was a lamp, a coal oil lamp. And I reached, by the time I got into the Kitchen, halfway across the Kitchen; to reach for the matchbox, I couldn’t see the matchbox. That dirt hit that quickly, and it just engulfed you, it just covered everything, and you couldn’t see, you couldn’t see anything. Now, if you wake up in the night, you can see where the window is, you couldn’t tell where the window was. It was that, dense. And, well, I lit the lamp, and you know, it wasn’t any time between, until it seemed foggy in there. The dust had come into the room with the window shut and the doors shut.”
The “Black Blizzard” arrived on a clear, sunny day. After weeks of severe dust storms, the weather had cleared and the area residents had moved outside to take advantage of the pleasant weather. In less than 10 minutes, the temperature dropped and the birds grew silent. Winds kicked up to over 60 miles per hour and visibility dropped to zero.
Those on the road had to try to beat the storm home. Some, like Ed and Ada Phillips of Boise City, and their six-year-old daughter, had to stop on their way to seek shelter in an abandoned adobe hut. There they joined ten other people already huddled in the two-room ruin, sitting for four hours in the dark, fearing that they would be smothered by the choking dust.
Cattle dealer Raymond Ellsaesser tells how he almost lost his wife when her car was shorted out by the static electricity and she decided to walk the three-quarters of a mile home. As her daughter ran ahead to get help, Ellsaesser’s wife wandered off the road in the blinding dust. The moving headlights of her husband’s truck, visible as he frantically drove back and forth along the road, eventually led her back to the road.
One teenager was caught outside and fell to the ground on his belly in a vain attempt to crawl back to the house. Dust got under his eyelids. He covered his head, closed his eyes and waited it out. When his parents found him his eyes were caked closed with dust. He was blinded in both eyes and would never see again.
Cattle would not know what to do and would run around in circles. Eventually the dirt would accumulate in their lungs and they would collapse and die with their lungs full of mud. Roosters would die because it became so dark they thought it was night and went to sleep.
Clayton Hall remembered the day well. ”One nice Sunday afternoon, why we was down there, a bunch of us, playing tag on the fences and we got tired of that, so, one guy says, “Hall”, says, “Why don’t you go home and get our baseball bat and we’ll have a baseball game.” We had a pasture between the stockyards and our house. And so I said, “I will”. And I just got the baseball stuff, and started out of the house, and it hit, the dust hit. Well, I just got in the middle of the road, which was less than a block away from the stockyards, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t see. I though, well I just got some dust in my eyes. I rubbed my eyes, and it didn’t do any good, I finally got down on the ground and stuck my nose on the ground, and I still couldn’t see. Well, one of my buddies lived up across town, and he crawled in a rancher’s pick-up truck and he swears to this day, that he could not tell the difference between he windows and the metal on the cab; there was absolutely no light. And I done same thing, I got down, but there was the highway around the place and I was afraid I’d be walking’ out on the highway. Well, I got down and looked, put my nose to the ground, seen no more light. It was totally just like being in a salt mine or a coal mine. It lasted about 20 minutes that way.”
The Rest of the Country Takes Notice
The populous eastern seaboard, the business capital of the country, ignored the problem for a long time. It was during the depression era and they had other, more important things to worry about. When the Black Sunday storm reached the east coast – New York and Washington D.C. -0 this brought the problem directly to their doorstep. They began acknowledging that they had a very serious problem on their hands. The day after the storm, a reporter used the term “dust bowl” for the first time. The phrase caught on and news spread throughout the country. Many of the pictures we have of the era were from government sponsored photographers who were sent out to document the terrible conditions in order to drum up support from people in other parts of the country.
Franklin D. Roosevelt began implementation of government programs in a valiant effort to correct the problems. The administration began to educate farmers on soil conservation and anti-erosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing and other beneficial farming practices. Government programs were put into place whereby the government began buying the starving cattle to slaughter them reducing the supply and driving up the prices. What little meat was realized from the cattle slaughter was given back to the farmers.
Brandon Case told how the government stepped in to assist. “The Government would buy ‘em for twenty-five dollars a head; I remember we sold most of ‘em to the Government. I remember we had, the fields, we would have dust accumulated out quite a ways; I don’t know how far, but, but just totally cover up the grass. ‘Course, the grass up there was Buffalo grass, which is a very fine, a very fine grass for stock and Buffalo originally. And so it didn’t take a lot of dirt to cover that I guess, but uh…. So, the Government came out with a program to buy cattle that the people had because they just couldn’t raise anything to feed ‘em.”
Hope kept the farmers going. “Well ‘course you always had hope that things would be better next year; that’s what keeps farmers going. And so the farmers all, all hoping that next year would be a better year. And you know in those days, young people that were fortunate enough to go to college, pride themselves; and you tried to get an education. Kids in high school you know, they earned degrees of pride themselves, but they tried to learn. You didn’t have anybody that uh didn’t want an education like it seems to be the case with some of the minority kids today, in the cities anyhow, they don’t want to get an education. And uh so you did the best you could and tried to improve yourself.’
From the Ochiltree County Herald, Perryton, Texas, April 18, 1935
Black Blizzard Breaks All Records
Visibility Goes to Zero; Many Are Caught On Highways and on Picnic Parties
Was Worst in History
Worst Duster in History Followed Ideal Spring Day; Hit Here About Five o’clock
The worst dust storm in the memory of the oldest inhabitants of this section of the country hit Perryton at five o’clock Sunday afternoon, catching hundreds of people away from their homes, at the theatre, on the highways, or on picnic parties. The storm came up suddenly, following a perfect spring day.
In just a few minutes after the first bank appeared in the north, the fury of the black blizzard was upon us, turning the bright sunshine of a perfect day into the murky inkiness of the blackest night. Many hurried to storm cellars, remembering the cyclone of July, two years ago, which followed a similar duster.
Without question, this storm put the finishing touch of destruction to what faint hopes this area had for a wheat crop. Business houses and homes were literally filled with the fine dirt and silt driven in by this fifty mile an hour gale.
The storm started in the Dakotas and carried through with diminishing fury into Old Mexico. Borger reported the storm struck there at 6:15 p.m.; Amarillo at 7:20 p.m.; Boise City, Oklahoma, at 5:35 p.m.; and Dalhart at 5:15 p.m.
From the Liberal News, Liberal, Kansas, April 15, 1935
Southwest was Plunged into Inky Blackness Yesterday with Only Few Minutes Warning
Some People Thought the End of the World was at Hand when Every Trace of Daylight was Obliterated at 4:00 p.m.
A people who during the past two weeks thought they had experienced the worst that could come in the form of dirt storms, looked on in awe and many of them in terror yesterday afternoon when…a great black bank rolled in out of the northeast and in a twinkling when it struck Liberal plunged everything into inky blackness, worse than that on any midnight, when there is at least some starlight and outlines of objects can be seen.
When the storm struck it was impossible to see one’s hand before his face even two inches away. And it was several minutes before any trace of daylight whatsoever returned.
The day up to that time had been one of the few pleasant ones of the past several weeks. There had been no clouds in the sky. The temperature was unusually high and the day was one inviting people into the out of doors after day after day of dust.
Consequently many were caught out in the storm which came so suddenly that few realized it was even on the way until it was right upon them….
From the Amarillo Daily News, April 15, 1935
‘WORST’ DUSTER WHIPS ACROSS PANHANDLE
FARMERS PRAY FOR RAIN BUT WIND ANSWERS
NORTHER STRIKES SUNDAY TO BLOT OUT SUN, TURN DAY INTO NIGHT
SETS RECORD PACE
KANSAS GOVERNOR SAYS SOIL UNDAMAGED; STORM HITS SOUTH TEXAS
(By The Associated Press)
North winds whipped dust of the drought area to a new fury Sunday and old timers said the storm was the worst they’d seen. Farmers prayed through dust filmed lips for rain. A black duster—sun blotting cloud banks—raced over Southwest Kansas, the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, and foggy haze spread about other parts of the southwest. Easter services at Lindsborg, Kansas, opening with a chorus singing “The Messiah” were carried on in dust-laden air.
Makes Record Trip
The black duster made the 105 miles from Boise City, Okla., to Amarillo, Texas, in 1 hour 45 minutes. Hundreds of Sunday motorists lured to the highways by 90 degrees temperatures and crystal clear skies were caught by the storm. Farmers and agricultural officials of the dust area, Southwest Kansas, Southeast Colorado, Northeastern New Mexico and the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, reported the soil was not damaged and that crops could still be made this season if it would rain. Governor Alf M. Landon of Kansas pointed out top soil ranges from 10 to 30 feet deep at many points in the area.
STORM TURNS CITY INTO TOTAL DARKNESS
Blotting out every speck of light, the worst dust storm in the history of the Panhandle covered the entire region early last night. The billowing black cloud struck Amarillo at 7:20 o’clock and visibility was zero for 12 minutes.
Gradually it cleared and Weatherman H. T. Collman said the storm would be over by morning. The black, ominous cloud rolled over the Panhandle from the north, an awe-inspiring spectacle.
Into Central Texas
The storm continued southward and had moved into Wichita Falls by 9:45 o’clock, the Associated Press reported. A large area west and southwest of Temple was reported feeling effects of the duster, which moved onward into South Texas.
Warning of the terrible storm reached Amarillo about 45 minutes before it struck. It came from a woman in Stinnett. The woman called Sheriff Bill Adams. He did not learn her name. “I feel that you people of Amarillo should know of the terrible dust storm which has struck here and probably will hit Amarillo,” the woman said, “I am sitting in my room and I cannot see the telephone.”
8,000 Feet High
A gentle, north breeze preceded 8,000-feet-high clouds of dust. As the midnight fog arrived, the streets were practically deserted. However, hundreds of people stood before their homes to watch the magnificent sight.
Darkness settled swiftly after the city had been enveloped in the stinking, stinging dust, carried by a 50-mile-an-hour wind. Despite closed windows and doors, the silt crept into buildings to deposit a dingy, gray film. Within two hours the dust was a quarter of an inch in thickness in homes and stores.
Reports from the north at 10:30 o’clock last night by the Santa Fe dispatcher said that the moon could be seen at Woodward, Okla., showing that the storm was clearing rapidly.
The weather forecast for today was partly cloudy and colder. The storm struck just before early twilight. All traffic was blocked and taxi companies reported that it was difficult to make calls for nearly 45 minutes. Street signal lights were invisible a few paces away. Lights in 10 and 12 story buildings could not be seen.
John L. McCarty, editor of the Dalhart Texan, of Dalhart, the center of the drought-stricken area of the Panhandle, called a few minutes before the storm arrived in Amarillo. The storm struck Dalhart about 85 minutes before it hit Amarillo and the city remained in total darkness for more than that length of time, he said.
Couldn’t See Light
“I went outside the house during the storm and could not see a lighted window of the house three feet away.” Mr. McCarty said. Borger, Perryton and other cities on the North Plains reported similar conditions, proving that the storm was becoming less vicious the farther south it moved.
Damage to the wheat crop, already half ruined by drought and wind, could not be learned last night, but several grainmen believed that the dust would cover even more of the crops.
The storm started yesterday when a high pressure area moved out of the Dakotas toward Wyoming, according to Mr. Collman. Most of the dust was from western Kansas and Oklahoma, he said.
A linotype operator, forced to stick to his post in a dusty shop appeared with a narrow strip of shoe shining cloth, lined with sheepskin, tied close to his nostrils. When dampened, he said, it made breathing normal.
A Santa Fe freight train, scheduled to depart from the South Plains about 8 o’clock, was held up nearly an hour waiting for the dust to subside. With improved visibility by 11 o’clock it was reported making good time, aided by a strong “tailwind.”
COULDN’T SEE HAND IN GUYMON DUST
GUYMON, Okla., April 14 (AP)—Another dust storm, even more severe than those which enveloped the Oklahoma Panhandle last week, turned daylight suddenly into darkness here late this afternoon. Earlier, worshipers had gathered in a church and prayed for rain. Clouds soon appeared, but quickly vanished.
Motorists who had taken advantage of a clear, pretty day to drive into the countryside were believed trapped in the deluge of silt, which rolled and boiled like the smoke from a gigantic oil fire.
At times, one could not see his hand before him on Main Street here. In the worst of the onslaught, lights could not be seen through the dirt-filled air. As the blinding cloud swept in from the north, motorists drove toward home at full speed. Breathing was extremely difficult out of doors, and it was impossible to find one’s way about. Outlines of buildings seen across the street, dim at best, would disappear at times, and the few business houses open were crowded with those lured into the open by a beautiful day. As alarm of the approaching storm spread through the town, hundreds of cameras were made ready and put to use when it struck.
CHURCH CROWD IN PANIC AS LIBERAL BECLOUDED
LIBERAL, Kans., April 14 (AP)—The worst dust storm in history brought premature and complete darkness to this city in mid afternoon today. The weather was delightful thirty minutes previous.
Swirling in suddenly from the Southwest, the storm struck during a funeral at a local church, putting the crowd into a panic. Three people fainted as the dust swept inside the church.
Long distance telephone wires are reported out of order and the weather turned colder tonight with the storm still raging.
[Photo caption] Leland Fox, 10, his step-sister, Corinne Weeden, 10, and their dog passed an entire night by this thistle and dust-clogged fence row in vicinity of their home near Hugoton, Kans. They became lost while hunting in a field for arrowheads. Some 100 persons joined in the searching party. After a night in the storm, punctuated by coyote howls, Leland made his way to aid.
WRITER CAUGHT IN DUST
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Of all types of soil blowing, the black duster provides the most awe-inspiring manifestation of the power of the prairie wind. It moves with express train speed and blots out the sun so darkness prevails at midday. Such a storm was that which swept over part of Southwest Sunday. An Associated Press correspondent caught in the cloud tells of the experience.)
by Robert Geiger
BOISE CITY, Okla., April 14 (AP)—Old timers say it’s the worst storm to his this part of the country, dust ridden though they’ve been in recent weeks.
The cloud caught us, Staff Photographer Harry Eisenhand and I, on the highway about six miles north of town.
We first noticed it about nine miles out. Rain seemed to be coming. Then it resolved into a dust formation.
“What a swell picture,” Harry said. We stopped at a knoll, took several pictures, then turned the car around for flight.
The great cloud of dust rose a thousand feet into the air, blue gray. In front of it were six or seven whirling columns of dust, drifting up like cigar smoke.
We went down the road about 60 miles an hour to keep ahead of it. We had seen an old couple at a dilapidated farm house, and stopped there to warn them, but they had already gone.
Speeding on, the car was suddenly engulfed by a flank movement of the cloud. Momentarily the road glimmered ahead like a ribbon of light in a tunnel, then the dust closed it. It became absolutely black as night. We slammed on the brakes and turned on the car lights. Exploring by touch, we found the car in a dust drift.
Backing out and keeping a door open to watch the edge of the highway, we took two hours to move the remaining six miles into Boise City. En route we picked up Jack Atkins of Hunter, Colo., his wife and three children from their stalled car. “Without doubt,” said Atkins, “this is the worst blow that ever hit this section.”
Undoubtedly hundreds of cars were stalled throughout the area by the dust, seemingly semi-solid in the darkness.
Lights can barely be seen across the street. It took the storm just one hour 45 minutes to travel the 105 miles airline from Boise City to Amarillo, Texas.
The funeral procession of Mrs. Loumiza Lucas, enroute from Boise City to Texhoma, Okla., was caught eight miles out and forced to turn back. Mrs. Lucas was the mother of Fred Lucas, well known Texhoma rancher, and E..W. Lucas of Boise City.
Half a dozen small boys and girls sought by police as missing were found to have been lost on the way from their home—they started when skies were clear—to a drug store.
from Lubbock Evening Journal, April 15, 1935
ANOTHER DUST BLOW FELT
FOUR STATES STRUCK SUNDAY; TRAFFIC IS BADLY HAMPERED
By the Associated Press
Residents of the southwestern dust bowl marked up another black duster today and wondered how long it would be before another one came along. Already cheered by two days of clear skies and a respite from the choking silt and sand, they were enjoying what started out to be a balmy Sunday when the duster swept out of the north over western Kansas and eastern Colorado, and rushed on over the Oklahoma Panhandle and into Texas.
Motorists Are Caught
Hundreds of Sunday motorists were caught when the dense black cloud bore down upon them at a rate of 60 miles an hour. Some Oklahomans rushed for their storm cellars as day was turned into night. Many motorists who attempted to drive through the cloud of stinging gravel and sand, found that static electricity, generated by the dust particles, had disrupted the ignition systems of their engines.
Pictures and Photos from the Dust Bowl and Black Sunday Dust Storm
|Boy covers his face as he is caught in a dust storm|
|Rabbit plague – rabbits at the watering hole|
|Thousands of dead rabbits after a rabbit roundup|
|Dust storm blowing into town|
|Dust storm rolling into the plains|
|Car fleeing as dust storm rolls in|
|Dust storm rolling into a small community|
|Storm rolling into the plains of Colorado|
|Family in the High Plains|
|Black Sunday dust storm in Oklahoma|
|Erosion in the High Plains|
|Car fleeing as a dust storm is rolling in|
|Enormous black storm arrives in Kansas|
|Black Sunday storm|
|Dust storm in town|
|Huge black wall of dust – a Black Blizzard|
|Dust storm over town (rare color photograph)|
|Storm in Pampa Texas on April 14, 1935 – Black Sunday|
|Dust storm in Spearman Texas – Black Sunday|
|Dust storm in Eclhart Kansas in 1937|
|Family car packed up and leaving Oklahoma in 1938|
|Farmer making repairs|
|Farm buried in dust|
|Car and farm equipment covered in dirt|
|Tractor covered in dust|
|Farmer checking his crop|
|Family fleeing the storm|
|Farmer repairing the fence|
|Fenceline almost completely covered with dirt|
|Farm house buried under dirt|