April 14th, 1935, went down in American history as “Black Sunday”. A dust storm that people later described as a black blizzard swept over the Oklahoma Panhandle area in the afternoon and made it to Amarillo, Texas that same evening. People who left the region later gained the name, 'exodusters'. That the dust bowl years coincided with the Great Depression made the entire decade one of extreme hardship for a large population (estimates of upwards of 2.5 million people) of the United States.
Ken Burns made a PBS documentary in 2012 about the Black Sunday storm, and author Timothy Eagan compiled a book of memories from people living in the dust bowl region. His book, The Worst Hard Time, is an interesting read of anecdotal stories told by people who lived through the Dust Bowl years or who had heard stories handed down to them by family members.
The dust bowl years were roughly 1931 through 1939 with the worst of the drought between the years 1934 to 1937. The map shows the general area of the United States that was affected the most and labeled the ‘dust bowl’ region. I added the green arrow to show where I live, which is smack dab in the bowl itself in the far southeastern corner of the state (30 miles from Oklahoma to the south and 30 miles from Kansas to the east).
(Google maps/Creative Commons): http://capita.wustl.edu/namaerosol/dust%20bowl%20map.htm
For people who lived through the "Dirty ‘30s", dust and dirt became a nearly permanent yellow-brown haze in the atmosphere or it was a series of rolling walls of black dirt depending upon your location. People breathed dust and dirt. It sifted through walls. It found its way into the ice boxes (pre-refrigerators). It settled in bedding. It garnished your meal. People walked in it. Livestock died from dust pneumonia. Children wore dust masks when playing outside and when they walked to and from school. Even when you were inside your house, when the dirt blew, you wore a wet bandana tied over your mouth and nose to keep from choking on the dust. Crops blew away, and farmers were helpless to do anything to intervene. Women hung set sheets and blankets over windows and doorways in futile attempts to stop the dirt and dust from coming into the house. In some areas, dirt that was fine as sifted powdered sugar would pile in drifts just like snow drifts. The constant presence of dust literally drove people mad.
Author James A. Michener depicted a woman's dust madness in his book, Centennial. Here is the television mini series of Centennial, Episode 11, The Winds of Death. The dust storm shows up toward the end of this episode. You can watch it here. Skip to 1:19:25.
The dirt blew from a combination of prolonged drought and that grasslands had been plowed and planted to wheat and/or over-grazed, which proved to be a poor agricultural endeavor for the particular time and place. So because of this, the top soil was unprotected and vegetation roots were so shallow, that the winds simply scooped up the dirt as it blew along.
In May 2014, this article appeared in Forbes: Drought Worse Than Dust Bowl In Some States: "Three years of relentless and severe drought has made large parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Texas are drier than they were during Dust Bowl in the 1930s. In the Texas panhandle, Amarillo is about 10% drier now than the 42 months that ended April 30, 1936 and drier than the state’s record drought in the 1950s, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor…" (http://www.forbes.com/sites/williampentland/2014/05/18/drought-worse-than-dust-bowl-in-some-states/)
Another article, Dust Bowl Revisited, was published in November 2012 (http://www.earth-policy.org/plan_b_updates/2012/update109 ): On October 18, 2012, the Associated Press reported that "a massive dust storm swirling reddish-brown clouds over northern Oklahoma triggered a multi-vehicle accident along a major interstate…forcing police to shut down the heavily traveled roadway amid near blackout conditions.” Farmers in the region had recently plowed fields to plant winter wheat. The bare soil—desiccated by the relentless drought that smothered nearly two-thirds of the continental United States during the summer and still persists over the Great Plains—was easily lifted by the passing strong winds, darkening skies from southern Nebraska, through Kansas, and into Oklahoma."
Time has passed since both of those articles were published, and though the drought conditions here in southeastern Colorado are improving at a snail's pace, we still have a long ways to go to leave our ongoing/current drought conditions. We still experience several ‘dirty’ days every year, and the spring season is typically the dirtiest.
Back in 2013, I encountered the first of the several dust storms that hit our area that year. 2014 and 2015 were tumbling tumbleweed years more than dust. I'll take the tumbleweeds over dust. Burning tumbleweeds is a lot more entertaining than vacuuming, sweeping, and shoveling dust and dirt. :-)
To show you a comparison of dust clouds Then and Now, here is a collage I made of ‘history repeating itself’.
Until next time,
Writing the West one romance at a time
The Comanchero's Bride is available on Amazon and where other fine books are sold.
Links to resources and further reading: