In the 1930s, the United States faced a decade of financial hardship. Across the country, individuals and families suffered from lost income, hunger, and even homelessness. No place felt the devastation of the times more than the people whose lives were directly impacted by the ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl. As one of the first major examples of humanity’s destructive impact on the environment, this period in U.S. history would spark many changes in farming and land management.
The Dust Bowl era, also known as the Dirty Thirties, was a period of extreme drought and dust storms in the Great Plains during the Great Depression. The dust storms were a frightening and destructive experience that would blanket the land and everything on it with dirt. Even the interior of people’s homes could not escape the layers of dust produced by these aggressive storms. Ultimately, it would cause the displacement of millions of tons of topsoil.
- The Dust Bowl
- The Dust Bowl of Oklahoma
- The Black Sunday Dust Storm of April 14, 1935
- The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal: What Was the Dust Bowl?
- The Great Depression and New Deal
The cause of the Dust Bowl includes many factors, starting with the Homestead Act of 1862 and several other federal land acts. These laws encouraged people to move westward and settle on open lands, including those of the Great Plains. Many turned to farming, but without sufficient knowledge of the land or appropriate farming practices, people began plowing under native prairie grass to create room for wheat and other crops. People thought that their agricultural efforts would somehow influence the climate in the area and bring rain to support their farming effort. This belief and Europe’s rising demand for wheat during World War I resulted in the plowing of even more acres of prairie grasses to create even more room for crops. Unfortunately, people did not realize the importance of the prairie grass, which had deep roots that held the soil in place. When drought hit, the heat from the sun and lack of water dried out the crops and left the soil susceptible to wind erosion.
- The Dust Bowl
- What Caused the Dust Bowl?
- The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression
- The Multiple Causes of the Dust Bowl
- Dust Bowl (c. 1930-40)
Drought and windstorms made farming impossible. Farmers could not raise crops because of the lack of water and the high heat. These conditions also made it difficult to feed livestock, as there was no grass and little ground cover to graze on. Cows and other livestock would often succumb to dust storms by either suffocating or dying of thirst. Because they could not grow or sell anything, farmers couldn’t turn a profit, which left them unable to pay their mortgages. As a result, many lost their farms to the bank. Others who could hold on to their farms stayed and tried new techniques taught by the government and universities to help conserve the soil, such as contour plowing and terraces.
- What the Dust Bowl of the 1930s Can Teach Us About the Origins of a Looming Megadrought
- The Dust Bowl: A Wake-Up Call in Environmental Practices
- Raising What You Can
- The Dust Bowl Years
The return of rain during the fall of 1939 brought an end to the drought and the Dust Bowl. Before the rains, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had taken steps to help reduce the amount of soil displaced by dust storms. One of these efforts was the creation of the Shelterbelt Project in 1934. This was a project that involved the planting of native trees along 100-mile-wide zones of various lengths in the six states of the Great Plains. The purpose of the trees, the first of which was planted in 1935, was to serve as a windbreak that would help keep winds from blowing away the soil. In 1937, after much government debate over funding, Roosevelt added the program to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which had both the labor force and the necessary funds. The Civilian Conservation Corps also aided the program.
- Shelterbelt Project (1934)
- FDR and the Dust Bowl
- March 1935: The Shelterbelt
- The Dust Bowl: Coping and Recovering
The Dust Bowl had a tremendous impact on not only the Great Plains but the country. It intensified the economic hardship of the Great Depression and was the major cause of the massive migration of approximately 2.5 million people who had lost their homes and livelihood. California bore much of the strain from this migration. An estimated 250,000 people went to the Golden State with dreams of prosperity and employment, with many coming from Oklahoma and Arizona. From Oklahoma, for example, 440,000 people migrated westward, with more than half of them migrating to California, only to find that there were few jobs available.
Many new programs were born under the New Deal to help encourage and educate farmers to use better farming methods. The Dust Bowl helped to bring attention to ongoing soil erosion concerns. Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett had made the public aware of the problem of soil erosion by water and wind and the impact it had on agriculture in the late 1920s, but it wasn’t until the dust storms started that he found significant support for legislative change. A dust storm took place during hearings on a proposed soil conservation law, and subsequently, President Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act. The Soil Conservation Service, now known as the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), was created from this law.