The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

January 28, 2011

America: Braving the ‘Dirty 30s’

“A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder; It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under; Blocked out the traffic and blocked out the sun, Straight for home all the people did run, Singin’: So long, it’s been good to know yuh ...”  — Woody Guthrie

                                

While growing up, I’m sure each of us remember images our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents imparted to us, of first-hand experiences with the good and the bad from their pasts.

The stories I most remember are of my dad and his parents enduring the Great Depression of the 1930s.

It seems they lived right in the heart of the Dust Bowl as it savaged the Southern Plains, making the Great Depression all the more overwhelming for those who endured.

Stories of great, black blizzards of dirt filled my dad’s memories of the “Dirty 30s.” He told of one Sunday, which history has tagged the “Black Sunday” dust storm of April 14, 1935. That dust storm left an indelible mark on my dad — who was 9 at the time — and millions of Americans like him.

He said the wind was howling that day while he and my grandparents were living in Erick, a small southwest Oklahoma town in Beckham County near the Texas Panhandle border.

His most vivid recollection was the frightening black cloud of dirt that devoured sky and light as it rolled into town, carrying black topsoil from southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas, mixed with the red-tinged soils of Oklahoma and Texas. Winds were clocked at up to 60 mph.

The Dust Bowl had been ongoing long before that bitter, black day in spring 1935.

Following on the heels of the stock market crash of “Black Tuesday” — Oct. 29, 1929 — the Dust Bowl had been coming for some time in our corner of the world, as bone-dry, rainless conditions began to plague the Southern Plains.

These were the days of plowing fencerow to fencerow, before soil conservation practices such as contour farming, crop rotation and shelterbelts, which studded the landscape across western Oklahoma in subsequent years.

But these practices generally were not in existence in the early 1930s. Throw in a seven-year drought and it spelled disaster.

As the worst drought to hit the U.S. savaged America’s breadbasket, typically gusting winds of late winter and early spring in this section of the nation churned and suspended the unprotected earth skyward.

The impact of the Dust Bowl, although devastating for our area of the country, was felt across the nation. One of President Franklin Roosevelt’s advisers, Hugh Hammond Bennett, was in Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress on the need for soil conservation legislation. The great Black Sunday dust storm arrived in the nation’s capital from the Plains, spreading a dusty gloom and blotting out the Virginia sun.

“This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about,” Bennett is quoted as saying to Congress. The Soil Conservation Act of 1935 passed later that year.

My dad used to talk about waking up following the Black Sunday dust storm, and seeing the outline of his head on his pillow, and of having a thick film of dirt everywhere in my grandparents’ house — of the all-encompassing feeling of grit in and on everything.

“The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face,” Avis D. Carlson wrote in an article in New Republic on the dust storms. “People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk. ... We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming real.”

In places around this state, even in this county, you still can see tiny vestiges of the old shelter belts — remnants of the three rows of tightly packed, differing height trees and thick undergrowth used to break up the wind to lessen topsoil erosion in turned fields.

Officially, some 30,233 shelter belts were planted from 1934 to 1942 across America’s heartland, encompassing an estimated 220 million trees.

The Dirty 30s are a fading memory for the oldest generation still living in this nation — pages in the dusty book of history. These folks endured the weight of the Great Depression’s 25 percent unemployment and a destructive drought. It tested their faith in God and country.

Yet, I like to think it helped steel an entire generation of Americans, a hard-edged handling of trial and tribulation, which eventually would see them through a world at war.

Christy is news editor at the News & Eagle and can be reached at davidc@enidnews.com

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