Monday, May 12, 2014

MAY 11 The Dustbowl Hits Washington D.C.

"Bennett took his case to law- makers on Capitol Hill. As he was about to testify, he learned that a great dust storm was heading towards the east coast. The storm had already deposited 12 million pounds of dust on Chicago — four pounds for each person in the city — and was poised to descend on the nation’s capital. Bennett used every stalling tactic he could, managing to keep the committee in session until the dark gloom settled on Washington. 'This, gentleman,' he announced, 'is what I have been talking about.' For the first time Easterners smelled, breathed, and tasted the dust blowing off the Southern Plains."

- From "Surviving the Dustbowl", PBS, 1998.

On today's date, May 11 in 1934, a huge storm sent millions of tons of topsoil flying from across the dry and parched Great Plains region of the United States into the eastern cities of the country and right into Washington DC as Hugh Bennet was trying to make Congress see the necessity of soil conservation legislation to save the "Dustbowl" areas of the the United States.  It couldn't have been better timed.

The "Garden of Eden" Turns to Dust 

The land of the Great Plains was covered by miles upon miles of prairie grass, when it was settled by Americans in the mid 1800's.  This seemingly rich and fertile land held moisture in the earth and kept most of the soil from blowing away even during the many dry spells through which the region would suffer.  But by the 20'th Century much of that grass land had been plowed under, and the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 created a huge demand for wheat. Farmers began to push their fields to their limit, plowing under more and more grassland with the newly invented tractor, which chewed up huge amounts of land at unheard of rates as compared to what the horse drawn plows had been able to manage. Still advertisements for land painted the picture of a veritable "Garden of Eden", able to produce endless amounts of grain into an endless future of prosperity. Farmers did not realize that this fertile period was just part of a centuries-old cycle of rain and drought.  During the 1920s, wheat production increased by 300 percent, causing a glut in the market by 1931. But in 1931, the drought cycle began as a severe dry-spell spread across the region. As crops died, wind began to carry dust from the over-plowed and over-grazed lands, which could no longer hold steady to the land from which it had been plowed. The number of dust storms reported jumped from 14 in 1932 to 28 in 1933.  Huge black clouds of dust would rage across the plains for days on end, swallowing up entire farms and leaving the once fertile fields a mass of parched dry and lifeless clay.

"It kept getting worse and worse, and kept getting darker and darker.  The whole house was vibrating like it was going to blow away.  And I started trying to see my hand, and bringing my hand up closer and closer and closer.... I finally touched the end of my nose, and I still couldn't see my hand! That's how black it was."

- Melt White (above), Dalhart, Texas.

"The Dustbowl" Uproots Families Over Five States 

The drought encompassed roughly a five state area running from the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles up to western Kansas and eastern Colorado and New Mexico.  A newsman travelling through the area surveyed the damage which the dust storms had wrought and dubbed the area "the Dustbowl". The dust storms forced thousands of families from these areas to uproot and migrate to California, where they were derisively called "Okies"-- regardless of what state they were from. In fact their plight became the subject of the best selling novel, "the Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. These transplants (one of whom, Florence Thompson, is pictured at the top of this posting in an iconic photo from the Dustbowl by photographer Bill Ganzel) found life out West to be just about as difficult as what they had left. In many ways it was worse, as jobs were scarce and pay was very low during these, the worst years of the Great Depression. It was during this darkest period of the drought that Hugh Bennet and a huge storm created the perfect storm to force action to be taken in Washington DC to save the soil and to bring relief to the suffering farmers of the great Plains.

Hugh Bennet and the Perfect Storm

In 1933 Bennett (left) was made director of the newly formed Soil Erosion Service, which was working to fight the erosion caused by dust storms primarily by changing farming methods. “...Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race or people, barbaric or civilized,” he said, adding that there was a need  for “a tremendous national awakening to the need for action in bettering our agricultural practices.”  Bennet's criticisms of Dust Bowl farming techniques raised the ire of farmers, but he saw his reforms as absolutely necessary to save the topsoil of the area and to avoid similar problems with future cultivation efforts. The storms had been decreasing in frequency but increased in intensity, culminating in the most severe storm yet in May 1934. Over a period of two days, high-level winds caught and carried some 350 million tons of silt all the way from the northern Great Plains to the eastern seaboard.  Bennett gained the support of Congress with the help of this perfectly timed storm from the plains that hit Washington, D.C. on today's date, May 11 of 1934, while he was testifying before a congressional committee, resulting in the events described at the beginning of this posting. Having to experience a debilitating dust storm first hand in the Capital clarified the situation for the legislators. Congress put its weight behind the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, which focused on improving farming techniques. This Act began the enforce federal regulation of farming methods, including crop rotation, grass-seeding and new plowing methods. This worked to a point, reducing dust storms by up to 65%.  Still the drought continued:

"The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face," Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. "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."  

It was only with the arrival of more sustained relief in the form of regular rain showers in the Fall of 1939 that the long and terrible chapter of "The Dustbowl" finally drew to a close.

"There’d be lightning back in the Northwest, you’d see flickering lightning and Dad would say, 'That’ll be in here about 2 o’clock in the morning.' But the rain was so welcome and they smelt so good I’d lay and listen to them pitter patter on the side of the old house at night and we’d really sleep. Cause it was a wonderful feeling."

- Melt White

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  1. my dad talked about it being dry in KY in 1930; would that be part of this?

    1. It might very well be... I'm afraid that I don't know. But the timeline does seem to be about right.