About The Dust Bowl Essay, Research Paper
The Dust Bowl
of the 1930s lasted about a decade. Its primary area of impact was on the southern Plains.
The northern Plains were not so badly effected, but nonetheless, the drought, windblown
dust and agricultural decline were no strangers to the north. In fact the agricultural
devastation helped to lengthen the Depression whose effects were felt worldwide. The
movement of people on the Plains was also profound.
As John Steinbeck wrote in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath: "And then
the dispossessed were drawn west- from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada
and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless
and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred
thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless – restless as ants,
scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut – anything, any
burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like
ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land."
Poor agricultural practices and years of sustained drought caused the Dust Bowl. Plains
grasslands had been deeply plowed and planted to wheat. During the years when there was
adequate rainfall, the land produced bountiful crops. But as the droughts of the early
1930s deepened, the farmers kept plowing and planting and nothing would grow. The ground
cover that held the soil in place was gone. The Plains winds whipped across the fields
raising billowing clouds of dust to the skys. The skys could darken for days, and even the
most well sealed homes could have a thick layer of dust on furniture. In some places the
dust would drift like snow, covering farmsteads.
Timeline of The Dust Bowl
Severe drought hits the midwestern and southern plains. As the crops die,
the ‘black blizzards" begin. Dust from the over-plowed and over-grazed land begins to
The number of dust storms is increasing. Fourteen are reported this year;
next year there will be 38.
March: When Franklin Roosevelt takes office, the country is in
desperate straits. He took quick steps to declare a four-day bank holiday, during which
time Congress came up with the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which stabilized the banking
industry and restored people’s faith in the banking system by putting the federal
government behind it.
May: The Emergency Farm Mortgage Act allots $200 million for
refinancing mortgages to help farmers facing foreclosure. The Farm Credit Act of 1933
established a local bank and set up local credit associations.
September: Over 6 million young pigs are slaughtered to
stabilize prices With most of the meat going to waste, public outcry led to the creation,
in October, of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. The FSRC diverted agricultural
commodities to relief organizations. Apples, beans, canned beef, flour and pork products
were distributed through local relief channels. Cotton goods were eventually included to
clothe the needy as well.
October: In California’s San Joaquin Valley, where many farmers
fleeing the plains have gone, seeking migrant farm work, the largest agricultural strike
in America’s history begins. More than 18,000 cotton workers with the Cannery and
Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) went on strike for 24 days. During the
strike, two men and one woman were killed and hundreds injured. In the settlement, the
union was recognized by growers, and workers were given a 25 percent raise.
May: Great dust storms spread from the Dust Bowl area. The
drought is the worst ever in U.S. history, covering more than 75 percent of the country
and affecting 27 states severely.
June: The Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act is approved. This
act restricted the ability of banks to dispossess farmers in times of distress. Originally
effective until 1938, the act was renewed four times until 1947, when it expired.
Roosevelt signs the Taylor Grazing Act, which allows him to take up to 140 million acres
of federally-owned land out of the public domain and establish grazing districts that will
be carefully monitored. One of many New Deal efforts to reverse the damage done to the
land by overuse, the program was able to arrest the deterioration, but couldn’t undo the
December: The "Yearbook of Agriculture" for 1934
announces, "Approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land have
essentially been destroyed for crop production. . . . 100 million acres now in crops have
lost all or most of the topsoil; 125 million acres of land now in crops are rapidly losing
topsoil. . . "
January 15: The federal government forms a Drought Relief
Service to coordinate relief activities. The DRS bought cattle in counties that were
designated emergency areas, for $14 to $20 a head. Those unfit for human consumption -
more than 50 percent at the beginning of the program – were destroyed. The remaining
cattle were given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation to be used in food
distribution to families nationwide. Although it was difficult for farmers to give up
their herds, the cattle slaughter program helped many of them avoid bankruptcy. "The
government cattle buying program was a God-send to many farmers, as they could not afford
to keep their cattle, and the government paid a better price than they could obtain in
April 8: FDR approves the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act,
which provides $525 million for drought relief, and authorizes creation of the Works
Progress Administration, which would employ 8.5 million people.
April 14: Black Sunday. The worst "black blizzard" of
the Dust Bowl occurs, causing extensive damage.
April 27: Congress declares soil erosion "a national
menace" in an act establishing the Soil Conservation Service in the Department of
Agriculture (formerly the Soil Erosion Service in the U.S. Department of Interior). Under
the direction of Hugh H. Bennett, the SCS developed extensive conservation programs that
retained topsoil and prevented irreparable damage to the land. Farming techniques such as
strip cropping, terracing, crop rotation, contour plowing, and cover crops were advocated.
Farmers were paid to practice soil-conserving farming techniques.
December: At a meeting in Pueblo, Colorado, experts estimate
that 850,000,000 tons of topsoil has blown off the Southern Plains during the course of
the year, and that if the drought continued, the total area affected would increase from
4,350,000 acres to 5,350,000 acres in the spring of 1936. C.H. Wilson of the Resettlement
Administration proposes buying up 2,250,000 acres and retiring it from cultivation.
February: Los Angeles Police Chief James E. Davis sends 125
policemen to patrol the borders of Arizona and Oregon to keep "undesirables"
out. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union sues the city.
May: The SCS publishes a soil conservation district law, which,
if passed by the states, allows farmers to set up their own districts to enforce soil
conservation practices for five-year periods. One of the few grassroots organizations set
up by the New Deal still in operation, the soil conservation district program recognized
that new farming methods needed to be accepted and enforced by the farmers on the land
rather than bureaucrats in Washington.
March: Roosevelt addresses the nation in his second inaugural
address, stating, "I see one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished
. . . the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who
have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
FDR’s Shelterbelt Project begins. The project called for large-scale planting of
trees across the Great Plains, stretching in a 100-mile wide zone from Canada to northern
Texas, to protect the land from erosion. Native trees, such as red cedar and green ash,
were planted along fence rows separating properties, and farmers were paid to plant and
cultivate them. The project was estimated to cost 75 million dollars over a period of 12
years. When disputes arose over funding sources (the project was considered to be a
long-term strategy, and therefore ineligible for emergency relief funds), FDR transferred
the program to the WPA, where the project had limited success.
The extensive work re-plowing the land into furrows, planting trees in shelterbelts,
and other conservation methods has resulted in a 65 percent reduction in the amount of
soil blowing. However, the drought continued.
In the fall, the rain comes, finally bringing an end to the drought. During the next
few years, with the coming of World War II, the country is pulled out of the Depression
and the plains once again become golden with wheat.
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