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Dust bowl; Grapes of Wrath

Updated on March 28, 2017

Herman Goertzen remembers his chickens going to roost in the middle of the day because the dust storms made it look so dark, the chickens though it was night. America's farm families of the 1930's overused their land to meet the high demands of agriculture, however, the lack of conservation practices combined with the harsh drought, eventually set themselves up for a decade-long disaster unlike any the nation had ever seen before; creating the need for emergency plans and actions by the government to take charge of the industry as opposed to their own trial and error traditions. During World War I, golden wheat flourished throughout the great plains. Farming and agriculture had always promised a solid way to provide for one’s family, and make enough surplus crop to keep their heads above water. Forcing soil into mass production left soil vulnerable to erosion, at the time of the war. The lack of conservation became evident the year the rains stopped but the sun warmed the land, changing the landscape of farming for years to come.

Before 1930, the midwestern United States saw generally about twenty inches of rainfall or less per year. During the time of the Great Depression, rain did not fall. Deemed worthless, millions of acres of farmland became barren. Because of this, absolutely no soil conservation practices even entered the mind of mid-western crop producers, until the rain they had depended on for so long, ceased. Enormous dust clouds started to form due to dry grounds. For months at a time dust hovered like fog; covering everything. It cheated itself into the cracks and crevices of even the tightest spaces. Not even soaking wet bed sheets over windows and doors helped. Although the temperature rose to blistering heats, the sun did not reach the ground; unable to radiate between the dense, and impenetrable billow of soot. Dark and depressing issues lasted for almost a decade. Uncertainty was everywhere (PBS.org).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office as president in 1933. Franklin Roosevelt entered into the presidency at the depth of the Great Depression. The democrat overcame polio, won as senator, and also governor of New York before running for president. Out of all four elected terms, his first "100 days" in office had the most significant impact. During this time, he established Social Security, setup the FDIC program, and declared a federal bank holiday. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal provided ample relief to millions of unemployed American citizens. One part of the New Deal included the Taylor Grazing Act and later, the Soil Conservation Service. These laws prevented overgrazing and further injury to the overwrought soil. This program created many jobs, but millions of people remained unemployed. A multitude of farmers had to flee the plains and search for work elsewhere.

Westward expansion flourished in the United States once again. The “Okies”or migrators from the midwest, as they became referred to as by the Cali-Natives, were rejected by most employers. If they could find a job, it provided meager wages with harsh conditions. During this time, mass amounts of hobos emerged. A hobo defines as, a migratory worker who illegally rides the rail cars in search of employment. Numerous women and girls went into prostitution. These women did all they could to make any money. Farmers, specialized in just that, farming. Every farmer seemed unskilled and unqualified in anything other than farm work, which made finding a job even harder. This was the last huge settlement of the West Coast. Even though not everyone found great jobs, people stayed. They held out until the dust bowl subsided. California became their last hope.

Those who chose to stay on their homeland had to undergo a decade long nightmare. The black blizzards. They became so atrocious that at least a single layer of dirt covered over seventy five percent of the country. Despite all efforts to stay healthy, everybody developed asthma or another respiratory illness. Masks no longer did any good. No one could breathe and no one could see. With poor visibility, children had to stay at school overnight to find their way back home the next day. Simple, everyday tasks became dangerous.

Static electricity: stationary, electric charge build up on insulating material. So much of it gathered in the air; a simple handshake could knock men to the ground. If and when people drove their cars, they drove slow to avoid stirring up any dust, and attached metal chains to the back of their vehicles to "ground" them. This tactic prevented shortage of radios and car engines. Besides the dangers of automobiles, blue sparks leapt from fences; starting fires out of nowhere. Anyone walking amidst the airborne dust became an exposed conductor.

It seemed far from it at the time, but World War II was a blessing in disguise. The war brought the country out of its despair, providing a job opportunity to those who struggled and barely pulled through the decade. Although new practices and regulations aided in the Great Depression, the only thing capable of stopping the dust bowl itself came from the mysterious, unpredictable sky in the form of rain. Rain is something so natural and familiar. As people have learned, studied, and become accustomed to a pattern of precipitation. Rain gets taken for granted until the time comes when it is no longer there; and one of the most eminent, highly regarded accounts of the time period comes from John Steinbeck's novel 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." (Steinbeck,1939). History has a tendency to repeat itself. In spite of all natural disasters, farming traditions continue, only with different attitudes and customs. When exuberant wheat started to grow once again and the homesteaders of the Midwest finally overcame hardship; everything changed.

(Steinbeck, 1939) "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."

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