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July 26, 1935
"DUST TO EAST," TO HENRY A. WALLANCE, SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE
Who has given me to this sweet
And given my brother dust to eat?
And when will his wage come in?
[. . .]
For twenty-seven years this little spot on the vast expanses of the great plains
has been the center of all our thought and hope and effort. And marvelous are the
changes that we have seen in which we have participated.
The almost unbroken buffalo grass sod has given way to cultivated fields. The
small rude huts or dugouts of the early days have been replaced by reasonably
comfortable homes. The old trails have become wide graded highways. Railways have
been built, reducing our journey to market from thirty miles to fifteen and later to two and
a half. Little towns have sprung up with attractive homes, trees, flowers, schools,
churches, and hospitals. Automobiles and trucks, tractors and combines have
revolutionized methods of farm work and manner of living. The wonderful crop of 1926
when our country alone produced 10,000,000 bushels of wheat--more, it was said, than
any other equal area in the world--revealed the possibilities of our productive soil and
under modern methods of farming. I can shut my eyes and feel yet the rush of an
almost painful thankfulness when we looked out over our fields that summer and
watched our ripening grain bending, rising, bending again in golden waves swept on
interminably by the restless wind. It seemed as if at last our dreams were coming
true. . . .
Yet now our daily physical torture, confusion of mind, gradual wearing down of
courage, seem to make that long continued hope look like a vanishing dream. For we
are in the worst of the dust storm area where William Vaughn Moody's expression, "dust
to eat" is not merely a figure of speech as he intended, but the phrasing of a bitter
reality, increasing in seriousness with each passing day. Any attempt to suggest the
violent discomfort of these storms is likely to be vain except to those who have already
experienced them. . . .
To many old-timers like ourselves who have for twenty-five years or more
wrought the persistent effort of bodies and minds into the soil of this now barren land,
the greatest cause of anxiety is the fear that our county may yet be designated as
"submarginal" land and included in the areas now being purchased for public domain. A
fourth year of failure such as now seems probable would give added weight to the
arguments for such a procedure. Repossession of our land by the federal government
and a general migration to more favored localities may be the best way to meet the
present disheartening situation. Yet the problem is not one that admits of a simple, offhand solution. . . . It involves the interests not only of farm people but of the many small
towns which have sprung up as trading centers throughout the plans region. . . .
Yet common sense suggests that the regions which are no longer entirely selfsupporting cannot rely indefinitely upon government aid. So the problem remands and
the one satisfactory solution is beyond all human control. Some of our neighbors with
small children, fearing the effects upon their health, have left temporarily "until it rains."
Others have left permanently, thinking doubtless that nothing could be worse. Thus far
we and most of our friends seem held--for better or for worse--by memory and hope. I
can look backward and see our covered wagon drawn up by the door of the cabin in the
early light of that May morning long ago, can feel again the sweet fresh breath of the
untrodden prairie, and recall for a moment the proud confidence of our youth. But when
I try to see the wagon--or the Model T truck--headed in the opposite direction, away
from our home and all our cherished hopes, I can not see it at all. Perhaps it is only
because the dust is too dense and blinding.
Meanwhile the longing for rain has become almost an obsession. We remember
the gentle all-night rains that used to make a grateful music on the shingles close above
our heads, or the showers that came just in time to save a dying crop. We recall the
torrents that occasionally burst upon us in sudden storms, making our level farm a
temporary lake where only the ducks felt at home. We dream of the faint gurgling sound
of dry soil sucking in the grateful moisture of the early or the later rains; of the fresh
green of sprouting wheat or barley, the reddish bronze of springing rye. But we waken to
another day of wind and dust and hopes deferred, of attempts to use to the utmost
every small resource, to care for the stock and poultry as well as we can with our scanty
supplies, to keep our balance and to trust that upon some happier day our wage may
even yet come in.
Source: Caroline Henderson’s letter to Henry A. Wallace, sent July 26, 1935.
Document B: Svobida Account (Original)
In January a foot of snow fell, but that was all the moisture we had, and it was not
enough to make a crop. Some of my wheat came up, but it was thin, sickly-looking stuff,
with only two or three leaves to a plant. I drove to the irrigated district fifteen miles
northwest of Garden City and by paying almost double the price quoted on the open
market, I obtained some seed barley, which I proceeded to drill into the land where I had
no hope of a wheat crop. This meant extra labor and expense, but I was bound to get
from my land what it could be made to yield. New varieties of disaster awaited my every
Most of my remaining wheat fell an easy prey to the first gales of February, and
none of the wheat that was up in the region could long withstand the succeeding gales,
which first chopped off the plants even with the ground, then proceeded to take the roots
out. They did not stop there. They blew away the rich topsoil, leaving the subsoil
exposed; and then kept sweeping away at the "hard-pan," which is almost as hard as
This was something new and different from anything I had ever experienced
before--a destroying force beyond my wildest imaginings. When some of my own fields
started blowing, I was utterly bewildered.
I took counsel with some of my neighbors who had had greater experience, but
received little in the way of encouragement. According to their information, there was
little hope of saving a crop once the land had started blowing; and the only known
method of checking the movement of the soil was the practice of strip listing. This meant
running deep parallel furrows twenty or thirty feet apart, in an east and west direction,
across the path of the prevailing winds. This tends to check the force of the wind along
the ground, and allows the fine silt like dust to fall into the open furrows.
Everyone in the region grasped at this slim chance to save a crop.
Railroads with land grants to dispose of, states with land scrip to sell, the Federal
Government with its homestead policy, speculators, and barbed wire, all combined to
restrict and eventually to abolish most of the free range, but cattle and horse raising
continued to be the most important industry over a large part of the Great Plains until
Here had been overgrazing before the coming of the settlers and the invasion of
barbed wire, but the death knell of the Plains was sounded and the birth of the Great
American Desert was inaugurated with the introduction and rapid improvement of power
farming. Tractors and combines made of the Great Plains region a new wheat empire,
but in doing so they disturbed nature's balance, and nature is taking revenge.
From newspaper stories, garbled from Government reports, it is easy to get an
impression of the Dust Bowl farmers as an impoverished lot of submarginal people
eking out a miserable existence on a submarginal land. On the contrary, most of these
people are of the finest American stock, the descendants of pioneers from New
England, descendants of cattlemen, and newcomers from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa,
eastern Kansas, and Nebraska. When the sod was broken to the plow on a large scale,
the job called for capital, and capital was oared in without stint. So also were ambition,
intelligence, energy, and enthusiasm.
Source: Lawrence Svobida, Farming the Dust Bowl: A First-Hand Account from
Kansas, first published in 1940.
Document C: Government Report (Original)
Personal and Confidential From Morris Cooke
August 27, 1936 The President
The White House Washington, D. C.
Dear Mr. President:
We have the honor to submit herewith our report on the essentials of a long time
program looking towards betterment of economic conditions in the Great Plains Drought
The Nature of the Problem
In accordance with the responsibility entrusted to it on July 22nd the Committee has
made a preliminary study of drought conditions in the Great Plains area with the hope of
outlining a long term program which would render future droughts less disastrous. We
have consulted the accessible records, have enlisted the aid of authorities and agencies
already working in this field, and have just completed a trip of inspection and
conferences through the areas most seriously affected.
The time at our disposal has been brief, but we have fortunately been able to draw on
the experience of the Resettlement Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the
Works Progress Administration, the Agriculture Adjustment Administration, the Soil
Conservation Service, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Weather Bureau, the
Geological Survey, and other government agencies, old and new, Federal and State,
which over a considerable period have been dealing with the problems of our semi arid
lands. The degree of attention which this subject has already received is indicated by
the fact that the Federal agencies alone have spent in the Great Plains region, as
defined later, since January 1, 1933, on works related to conservation of physical
assets, about $140,000,000, not including grants, loans and relief disbursements
amounting to approximately $335,000,000.
We put forward our recommendations with the more confidence, therefore, because of
the mass of material generously placed at our disposal by those who have pioneered
this field. We are summarizing conclusions which are the growth of years of experiment
and investigation. We offer a basic program at this time because we believe that there is
general agreement as to the main facts among those most familiar with the situation,
and because we are convinced that activities for permanent rehabilitation and
reconstruction already undertaken must be speeded up and expanded if the Great
Plains area is to avoid a worse disaster than has yet befallen it.
We have been mindful of your request, made in appointing this Committee, that we look
toward "the most efficient utilization of the natural resources of the Great Plains area,
and especially toward practicable measures for remedying the conditions which have
brought widespread losses and distress to many inhabitants of the Missouri, Platte and
Arkansas Valleys, the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, and contiguous areas."
Particular attention has been given to the suggestion in your letter of July 22nd, as
"We have supposed that the modes of settlement and of development which have been
prevalent represented the ordinary course of civilization.
But perhaps in this area of relatively little rain, practices brought from the more humid
part of the country are not most suitable under the prevailing natural conditions."
A trip through the drought area, supplementing data already on record, makes it evident
that we are not confronted merely with a short term problem of relief, already being
dealt with by several agencies of the Federal Government, but with a long term problem
of readjustment and reorganization.
The agricultural economy of the Great Plains will become increasingly unstable and
unsafe, in view of the impossibility of permanent increase in the amount of rainfall,
unless over cropping, over grazing and improper farm methods are prevented. There is
no reason to believe that the primary factors of climate temperature, precipitation and
winds in the Great Plains region have undergone any fundamental change. The future
of the region must depend, therefore, on the degree to which farming practices conform
to natural conditions. Because the situation has now passed out of the individual
farmer's control, the reorganization of farming practices demands the cooperation of
many agencies, including the local, State and Federal governments.
We wish to make it plain that nothing we here propose is expected or intended to impair
the independence of the individual farmer in the Great Plains area. Our proposals will
look toward the greatest possible degree of stabilization of the region's economy, a
higher and more secure income for each family, the spreading of the shock of inevitable
droughts so that they will not be crushing in their effects, the conservation of land and
water, a steadily diminishing dependence on public grants and subsidies, the restoration
of the credit of individuals and of local and State governments, and a thorough going
consideration of how great a population, and in what areas, the Great Plains can
These objectives are not now attainable by individual action, but we believe they will
restore an individual independence which has been lost. Mistaken public policies have
been largely responsible for the situation now existing. That responsibility must be
liquidated by new policies. The Federal Government must do its full share in remedying
the damage caused by a mistaken homesteading policy, by the stimulation of war time
demands which led to over cropping and over grazing, and by encouragement of a
system of agriculture which could not be both permanent and prosperous.
In many measures the Federal Government must take the initiative, particularly in
furnishing leadership and guidance, and in participating to a substantial extent in the
construction or financing of the needed public works. Through existing agencies it will
be able to employ many of the residents of the region. In other measures the State and
local governments must take the initiative. The emphasis of the program should be on
coordination and cooperation, with each agency and each group undertaking the
functions it is best able to perform. There need not be, and should not be, conflict of
interest or jurisdiction between State and local agencies on the one hand and Federal
agencies on the other, There need not be, and should not be, impairment of local and
There must be, on the other hand, continuous and sustained joint efforts on the part of
all agencies concerned. The problem of the Great Plains is not the product of a single
act of nature, of a single year or even of a series of exceptionally bad years. It has come
into being over a considerable period of time, and time will be required to deal with it.
The steps taken must be continuous, non intermittent and patiently followed. A
reasonably stable agricultural economy must be established, maintained and handed on
to the children of this generation.
Source: Excerpt from the Report of the Great Plains Drought Area Committee, sent to
President Roosevelt on August 27, 1936.
Document D: Historian, Professor Donald Worster
The Dust Bowl was the darkest moment in the twentieth-century life of the
southern plains. The name suggests a place --a region whose borders are as inexact
and shifting as a sand dune. But it was also an event of national, even planetary,
significance. A widely respected authority on world food problems, George Borgstrom,
has ranked the creation of the Dust Bowl as one of the three worst ecological blunders
in history. The other two are the deforestation of China's uplands about 3000 B.C.,
which produced centuries of silting and flooding, and the destruction of the
Mediterranean vegetation by livestock, which left once fertile lands eroded and
impoverished. Unlike either of those events, however, the Dust Bowl took only 50 years
to accomplish. It cannot be blamed on illiteracy or overpopulation or social disorder. It
came about because the culture was operating in precisely the way it was supposed to.
Americans blazed their way across a richly endowed continent with a ruthless,
devastating efficiency unmatched by any people anywhere. When the white men came
to the plains, they talked expansively of "busting" and "breaking" the land. And that is
exactly what they did. Some environmental catastrophes are nature's work, others are
the slowly accumulating effects of ignorance or poverty. The Dust Bowl, in contrast, was
the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately, self-consciously, set itself that task
of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth.
The Dust Bowl came into being during the 1930s, as fulvous dirt began to blow
all the way from the plains to the East Coast and beyond. That was also the age of the
Great Depression. Coincidence, some might say, that the two traumas should come at
the same time. Few who have written on either affair have noticed any connection
between them. My argument, however, is that there was in fact a close link between the
Dust Bowl and the Depression--that the same society produced them, and for similar
reasons. Both events revealed fundamental weaknesses in the traditional culture of
America, the one in ecological terms, the other in economic. Both offered a reason, and
an opportunity, for substantial reform of that culture.
That the thirties were a time of great crisis in American, indeed, in world,
capitalism has long been an obvious fact. The Dust Bowl, I believe, was part of that
same crisis. It came about because the expansionary energy of the United States had
finally encountered a volatile, marginal land, destroying the delicate ecological balance
that had evolved there. We speak of farmers and plows on the plains and the damage
they did, but the language is inadequate. What brought them to the region was a social
system, a set of values, an economic order. There is no word that so fully sums up
those elements as "capitalism." It is of course a common epithet, often undefined and
pejorative; but if the historian eschews the word, to paraphrase R.H. Tawney, he may
also ignore the fact. That is what has usually happened in writings about Americans and
the land, and, indeed, in much of our historical literature. If I seem to exaggerate in this
case, it is only because the arguments have been so gingerly stepped around by others.
Capitalism, it is my contention, has been the decisive factor in this nation's use of
nature. To understand that use more fully we must explain how and why the Dust Bowl
happened, just as we have analyzed our financial and industrial development in the light
of the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing factory shutdowns.
Source: Excerpt from Professor Donald Worster’s book titled, Dust Bowl: The Southern
Plain in the 1930s, published in 1979.
Document E: Historian, Professor Douglas Hurt
Between 1909 and 1914, there were fifty-six reports of drifting soil in Oklahoma.
Near Hooker, in 1909, some farmers lost two-thirds of their wheat crop because of wind
erosion while others in western Oklahoma abandoned their lands. By 1910 most of
western Oklahoma was farm land, except for the extreme west end of the panhandle
which remained principally in grass. Here as elsewhere in the south-central Plains,
farmers did not practice soil conservation. Planting and cultivation of wheat, cotton, and
corn invariably left the soil exposed to wind and water erosion part of the time. As the
sandy soils became pulverized from plowing, the land became more susceptible to
blowing. Consequently, less than forty years after the opening of the Oklahoma Territory
for settlement, a serious soil erosion problem developed. Indeed, the newly settled farm
land of Oklahoma was one of the most seriously eroded sections in the nation.
In retrospect, dust storms in the southern Great Plains, and indeed, in the Plains
as a whole, were not unique to the 1930s. Drought, lack of vegetation, and wind have
caused the dust to move since the formation of the Plains. The elimination of any one
causal element, though, will significantly reduce or eliminate dust storms. During the
early nineteenth century and before, when buffalo were the primary occupants of the
Plains, drought and prairie fires destroyed the native grass and exposed the soil to wind
erosion. Later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, other factors
contributed to dust storms--notably man's inhabitation of the southern Plains and the
adoption of a new agricultural technology. . . .
Still, the wind erosion problem of the southern Great Plains did not occur
because farmers grew too much wheat, but because the drought prevented them from
growing hardly any wheat at all from 1932 to 1940. During the years of normal
precipitation, the extensive root system of the wheat plants held the soil and offered
excellent protection against wind erosion. In the droughty thirties, however, the
inadequate moisture supply prevented a suitable growth of ground cover in the early
spring "blow season" of February, March, and April. The drought then began a chain of
events, the first of which was crop failure. Abandonment of land without a protective soil
cover in turn allowed the nearly constant winds to begin erosion. The dust storms that
followed drifted the loose soil, ruined additional land, and contributed to more crop
failure. Wind erosion worsened during 1933, when an insufficient and poorly distributed
rainfall together with winds of above average velocity brought widespread damage to
the southern Great Plains. By August 10, Goodwell, Oklahoma had experienced more
than thirty dust storms. In May 1934 the drought was the most severe on record, and
the erosion problem steadily worsened as the wind stripped the top soil to the depth of
the plowing in many parts of the Great Plains.
In retrospect, many factors contributed to the creation of the Dust Bowl--soils
subject to wind erosion, drought which killed the soil-holding vegetation, the incessant
wind, and technological improvements which facilitated the rapid breaking of the native
sod. The nature of the southern Plains soils and the periodic influence of drought could
not be changed, but the technological abuse of the land could have been stopped. This
is not to say that mechanized agriculture irreparably damaged the land--it did not. New
and improved implements such as tractors, one-way disk plows, grain drills, and
combines reduced plowing, planting, and harvesting costs and increased agricultural
productivity. However, the new technology also had negative effects. Increased
productivity caused prices to fall, and farmers compensated by breaking more sod for
wheat. At the same time, farmers gave little thought to using their new technology in
ways that would conserve the soil.
In 1931, a bumper wheat crop accompanied by drought brought economic
disaster to the southern Great Plains. In the Dust Bowl states, the price of wheat fell
from an average of $.99 per bushel in 1929 to $.34 in 1931. As the price of wheat
plummeted, good farmers could no longer afford to practice soil conservation
techniques such as listing, terracing, or strip cropping. Even minimal soil exposure
began to contribute to soil blowing, and some of the worst dust storms came from areas
where less than half of the acreage had been planted in wheat. Although a wind of thirty
miles per hour was often necessary to start soil movement on the best lands, once it
began to blow, a wind velocity of less than half that figure could easily stir the soil into
Source: Excerpt from Professor R. Douglas Hurt’s book titled, The Dust Bowl: An
Agricultural and Social History, published in 1981.
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