From the mid-1800s, homesteaders and farmers in the Mid-West had plowed and worked the flat, treeless prairie land. Most of them had no understanding of the need to rest or restore the soil by adding compost, planting trees, or rotating crops. Slowly the soil lost the organic material that made it rich and fertile. Then, from 1933 to 1936, a huge drought came, turning the lifeless soil to dust.
- After World War I, wheat prices rose and people flooded to the plains area to begin farming. Native grasses were stripped as the fields were plowed for crops. Investors urged farmers to plant more and more crops, with no regard to good farming practices designed to protect the soil.
- When the Great Depression hit, wheat prices fell, yet farmers kept planting crops as they tried to make a living.
- In 1934, almost no rainfall fell in the region and temperatures regularly rose above 100 degrees. The dusty soil baked in the heat. Dust storms became a common occurrence. These “black blizzards” lifted the topsoil into the air, turning the day to night. Animals and even people were smothered in the storms. Homes were filled with a constant layer of dust.
- On April 14, 1935, people woke to blue skies. After several weeks of dust storms, they hoped that the weather would finally improve. But late in the afternoon, a cold front blew winds from Canada, raising dust from North Dakota all the way to Texas in the worst dust storm yet. On this day, known as “Black Sunday,” over 300 million tons of top soil blew all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
- For many, Black Sunday was the final straw. People from North Dakota to New Mexico were affected, although Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado were the hardest hit.
- Over one million people left their homes. Many of them headed west to work on farms in California. These migrant workers lived in tents or shacks, moving from place to place as farmers needed labor.
- Dorothea Lange was a photographer living in San Francisco. After watching hungry people stand in breadlines waiting for food, she began photographing those who had come from the Dust Bowl, as the area was called. Her photos were published in newspapers around the country and created an awareness of the suffering these people endured.
- Writer, John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath, also helped Americans understand the tragedy of the Dust Bowl. Folk singer, Woodie Guthrie, who lived through Black Sunday, wrote songs about the ordeal.
- Compost: a rich soil builder made from decomposed plant material and animal waste
- Migrant worker: one who moves from place to place for work, typically farm work
- Drought: a period with no rain
Questions and Answers
Question: Could a dust bowl happen again?
Answer: Most of the country’s farms are now owned by large corporations, rather than small farmers. These corporations should use good farming practices, but if they overuse the soil, a dust bowl could occur again.
Visit Scholastic to watch a video about the Dust Bowl.