Thursday, October 1, 2009

About The Worst Hard Time

The American Dust Bowl of the 1930s is widely considered to be the worst man-made ecological disaster of our time. It was a calamity in the making before the Great Depression started in 1929. The Worst Hard Time tells the complete story of how it happened through the eyes of the people who settled the region before the term “Dust Bowl” entered our lexicon.

A vast majority of the settlers living in the southern portion of the High Plains were immigrants from Europe. George Ehrlich, a German from Russia, was there at the encouragement of the U.S. government. Some were not new to America at all. Bam White was an old cowhand looking for the next big thing after ranching. Ike Osteen was born and raised on the High Plains. Settlers came from different places, but they all had one thing in common. They had staked their families’ futures on their ability to make a living off the semi-arid land of the southern plains.

Rainfall was plentiful for a period of time in the 1920s. Working the land provided a good living for hard working families like the Ehrlichs. Agricultural good fortune turned small towns like Dalhart TX, Guymon OK, and Clayton NM into boomtowns. “Suitcase farmers” from the city brought wealth and optimism to the streets, but little concern for the prairie grassland that was being plowed up at a furious pace. These farmers planted wheat in leased fields in the springtime, returned to high paying jobs in the city, and returned for harvest to collect their profit.

In Dalhart, community booster John McCarty encouraged the practice of suitcase farming to spur growth, but by the early 1930s the price of wheat had plummeted. Worsening economic conditions throughout the nation sent speculators home and forced landowners to plow up even more of their land as they struggled to make ends meet.

By 1932 weather conditions turned grim. The 12 inches of rain that fell in 1932 was only half the minimum amount needed to grow a successful crop. The southern plains were entering a drought cycle. People started calling the brown clouds of dust that would occasionally roll across the plains, “dusters.” Soil conservationist Hugh Bennett warned of impending disaster, but his warnings fell on mostly deaf ears. On April 14, 1935, the disaster Bennett warned of became reality.

The day became forever known as Black Sunday. Families living in the path of the massive black blizzard had no warning. “The day began as smooth and light as the inside of an alabaster bowl,” Timothy Egan writes. Two people with good views of the developing storm were Associated Press reporter, Robert Geiger and his photographer, Harry Eisenhard. Eisenhard’s pictures of the 200 mile-wide, 25,000 foot-high storm became iconic images of the Dust Bowl.

Over the course of the next 24 hours the storm would lash the plains with hurricane force winds and deposit not rain, but millions of tons of dirt into people’s homes. From that day on, the areas hit hardest by the storm became collectively known throughout the country as, “the Dust Bowl.” Lives were destroyed and a way of life for many was ruined.

The next two years would see a great migration. It would be the story told in Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Ironically, of the quarter of a million people who trekked through the Dust Bowl region on their way to California, only 16,000 came from the dust bowl. Two thirds of the people who lived on the southern plains in the 1920s still lived there when the Dust Bowl era ended in 1937. The Worst Hard Time is their story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had never heard of the dust bowl until I saw the TV special that ran for 3 weeks. Tim Eagan may have hosted it. He did a reinaction of a dust storm using a shack, high powered fans, dust, the wet rags for the windows, and the safety rope that was attached from the barn to the house used to find your way back during a dust storm. Incredible. I don't see why the families stayed on. It was tragic for the government not to help or believe the facts. And worse yet, it can still happen again with global warming and water issues, and our government not taking it seriously again. Great research Mr. Eagan.
Cindy D., Bellevue, WA

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