I was cruising the Net the other day and stumbled across some stories about recent dust storms out west. It seems that the drought in Texas, Arizona, and up into Colorado, among other places, coupled with recent extreme climate change is resulting in some fierce dust storms that are uncomfortably reminiscent of what we think of as the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
Actually, dust storms started ravaging the western Midwest long before the 1930s, as drought and poor farming practices combined to create a problem that got much worse before it ever got better.
My dad was born and raised on a Kansas farm just south of Emporia. He was about 18, a sometime cowboy and oil field roustabout, in 1919, he recalled, when he woke up one morning and discovered dust had drifted against the back door during the night, blocking it shut. He said that was the day he decided Kansas was a good place to be from, and headed east to Illinois.
After a brief stint steeplejacking, he returned to farming and married my mother in 1930, just in time to live through the depths of the Great Depression with her.
Because by late 1933, local farmers were in serious trouble. The price of corn had collapsed to just 14 cents a bushel, less than it cost to haul it from farm to market. Providing they had any corn to sell in the first place, that is. A brutal drought had gripped the Midwest that summer, wiping out some crops, and badly damaging the gardens and orchards farm families depended on for so much of their food.
Then came the plague of chinch bugs, a voracious living tide moving from field to field, starting with the small grains, and destroying everything in their path. My dad could hardly believe his bad luck. He told me many years later he’d hoped after leaving Kansas that he’d never see another chinch bug the rest of his life. But there they were. At least he knew what to do about them, unlike farmers here in northern Illinois.
In mid-June, the Kendall County Farm Bureau strongly recommended that fields should be protected with chinch bug barriers, but most local farmers simply didn’t understand what they were facing. By early July, the Kendall County Record reported: “All the farmer families are talking chinch bugs, which have invaded this area as never before. They ruined much of the wheat and barley and some oats and are now entering the cornfields…Later and more reports are coming in of the destruction of whole fields of small grain and the entering of cornfields by the chinch bug. Perhaps Illinois farm folks never realized before this hot, dry year how much they have had for which to be thankful.”
But Mother Nature wasn’t done wreaking devastation yet. The year also saw a procession of strong weather systems that brought sharp temperature changes, drought, and strong winds. For instance, on June 10, the thermometer stood at 100 degrees at noon, but within minutes, the wind had swung round to the north and the temperature dropped by 20 degrees.
But despite the wild temperature swings and strong winds, the weather fronts brought little rain, and the drought only deepened. It was hard here in Kendall County, but farther west, on the high plains of Kansas, the Dakotas, and Montana, it was catastrophic. Farmers had been lured to the intermountain west in large numbers in the late 1800s and early 1900s with cheap land during a period of relatively high rainfall. They plowed and planted the fragile shortgrass prairie, destroying the root systems that held the region’s topsoil in place. Then immediately after World War I, a crippling drought struck that was destined to last for years. By 1933, conditions were ripe for a disaster, and it came on Veterans Day.
That Saturday, Nov. 11, a violent windstorm hit South Dakota, sweeping up tons of dust, blotting out the sun. As it moved east, carrying its load, it picked up more as it went. When it reached Manson, in western Iowa, the dust “turned daylight into darkness at 3 p.m.”
By Sunday, Nov. 12, the storm and the dust it carried reached Kendall County. As the Record reported in their Nov. 15 edition: “The dust storm Sunday night was one of the worst dust storms experienced in this vicinity in many years. It was just too bad for all the good housekeepers who had finished their fall housecleaning. Even in the homes with doors and windows tightly closed the dust-laden air was disagreeable to breathe. The dust is said to have been blown here from as far away as the Dakotas, where a 70-mile-an-hour wind did considerable damage.”
From Illinois, the storm—dubbed the “Great Black Blizzard”—moved east, continuing to pick up and drop dust and blot out the sun all the way to the Atlantic coast.
It wasn’t the first dust storm to hit Middle America, but it was the worst—so far. And Hugh Hammond Bennett, who had been appointed the first head of the new Soil Erosion Service about a month before the great storm struck, lost no time in using the $5 million in emergency employment funds Congress had appropriated to begin badly needed conservation efforts. But too much of the arid high plains had already been stripped of its shortgrass prairie plants.
So the next spring, the general drought and dust storms continued. In early April 1934, a huge storm hit the central U.S. Then later in the month, frustrated Kendall County housewives and worried farmers again watched the skies darken and the wind pick up. The Record reported on April 25: “Even old timers say they never remember such wind and dust storms as are being experienced this spring. The ditches along some roads are filling up with dirt as they fill with snow in the wintertime. The farmers and their teams in the fields are choked with dust; the housewives, especially those who house-cleaned early are desperate; the dust sifts in everywhere.”
With the dust, drought, voracious insects, and the nation’s desperate finances, it’s no wonder times were so difficult.
Gradually, some rain returned to the center of the country and frantic conservation efforts on the part of government at the local, state, and federal levels began to have an effect on the land.
During the last 80 years, we’ve managed to forget a lot about the Great Depression, from the destructive financial practices that caused the nation’s economy to crash to the common-sense soil conservation measures that brought the center of the nation back from the brink of destruction to become the world’s breadbasket. So we eliminated the financial safety valves installed during the 1930s and even began ignoring soil conservation practices learned the hard way during the Dust Bowl years.
Now the Great Wheel of History seems to have revolved around once again at a time when learning from historical mistakes seems like a Utopian ideal instead of the way things really ought to be. George Santayana once wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But these days, the Internet Corollary to Santayana seems much more appropriate: “Those who remember the past are condemned to watch others repeat it.”