Thursday, December 17, 2009

The dirty 30's

I just finished reading the above I have to spell out the title, or can you figure it out for yourselves?

Growing up, I frequently heard the phrase "in the 30's, we..." or "during the depression, we didn't..." even "we were poor, but so was everyone, so we didn't know we were poor."

My Woodruff Grandparents were in their 20's and 30's during the depression, raising 6 of their 7 children (my dad was born in 1943). My Berend's grandparents were growing up during the 30's. (Yes, my Woodruff Grandparents were old enough to be the parents of my Berends grandparents.) Anyway...I heard the '30's referenced quite often. I even asked my Woodruff Grandparents if they remembered "Black Sunday." They did, they were at Church when the storm hit. But...somehow, we never got around to what they did during that dust storm...

I heard stories about no money, sleeping together in one bed to stay warm during the winter months, eating wonderful concoctions like onion gravy. Having nothing to eat but eggs, having two pair of pants to wear, etc. I know my Grandad W. left home for a while to work with the CCC, leaving Grandma at home with the kids. I'm sure if I think about it, I can probably remember more stories because I loved listening to my elders tell stories about when they were young. I still do love hearing people's stories.

But, the 30's in Western Kansas and Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle were worse than what was even shared with me. Worst Hard Time tells about the settlement of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, and concentrates primarily on Cimarron County Oklahoma and the Texas town of Dalhart, both in some of the hardest hit areas. Both are further west and south of my home stomping grounds.

The book starts out explaining the settlement of this area at the turn of the 20th century. Until then, it had been left to the Indians and cattle ranchers. West of the 100th meridian, this area averages 16 inches of rain each year. Not prime farm country. And yet, farmers came to the area, plowed up the native prairie and planted wheat. The twenties were wet years, and farmers plowed up more and more ground to make more and more money. And then, the price dropped and they couldn't sell their crops, and then a drought hit. A 10 year drought. Droughts are not that uncommon, but with the ground plowed up, there was nothing to hold the dirt down when the wind blew --and it did. A couple of storms blew the dirt clear to the East coast.

Washington didn't do much to help the "dusters" until 1936. They did buy up livestock prior to that, starving livestock, but no one tried to stop the dust storms until late in the 30's. Then, people started plowing differently and the CCC came out to plant trees--shelter belts--to try to protect the land. Soil Conservation began in the late 30's. The government also bought out many farmers in the far western regions and planted grass to try to restore the prairie. (The Cimarron National Grasslands is a reserve made up of former farms in far Southwest Kansas and Eastern Colorado.) Some ground is still sterile in parts of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles. No one knew what to do with this environment.

I didn't know that people actually died from the dust. They'd get lost in dust storms--just like they would in blizzards. Instead of freezing, they'd choke on the dust. Dust pneumonia was a common cause of death for babies and the elderly. Eventually, folks had to leave. Most who left the Panhandle areas did not go to California. They tended to go east.

I have to say, that I really enjoyed reading this book--yes, it's non fiction, but it's very entertaining reading. The author tells a story and he doesn't bog it down with facts and statistics or even footnotes. (Yes, there are notes in the back of the book, and yes, there's a good bibliography, but the book reads almost like a novel.)

Dust storms didn't disappear after the 30's. This is a photo I took at our place in Colby of a dust storm coming in. It was May, 2004. Once the storm hit, it got pitch black outside and was dusky for about an hour or so. This was a little storm, lasting a couple of hours. We were in a drought. And, as well built as our house was, we had our share of fine dust and silt in the house.

An older couple (in their late 80's, early 90's) stopped at our house when they saw the storm coming. They said it was just like what they had day after day after day in the 30's. And, visiting with them, I knew that they were remembering their youth when they fought to survive during the 30's, and I knew that their experiences were something foreign to me.

After reading this book, it's an experience I hope no one had to endure ever again. Pick it up--I think you'll find it a good read.

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