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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

81 years ago – April 14, 1935 – Black Sunday – Dust Bowl by Kaye Spencer

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):

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…" (

Another article, Dust Bowl Revisited, was published in November 2012 ( ): 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’.

So just in case you don’t have enough grit in your craw from reading about dirt and dust, I’ll leave you with the dust storm scene from the movie, Hidalgo.

Until next time,


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  1. Kaye--last week during the Ten Memorable Books challenge, one of my list was The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. My book club read it one year and I was the only one who liked it. The others voted it "Dry as Dirt"..Haha. However, I was the only one who grew up in the fifties on the South Plains of Texas, just adjacent to the Panhandle of Texas. The fifties is on record as the worst drought of the 20th Century..and I grew up in sandstorm country. Of course, they were not as bad, but still I've seen rolling sand approaching our town of Levelland and head for home. Our house was more secure, but still I'd wake up in the mornings, and a fine red sand had drifted in and covered everything, including the bed covers, my face, and my hair. Honestly, we thought nothing of it--we were very innocent.
    Thanks for a great post. I could talk all day about sand storms, but it's redundant!

  2. Celia,

    I was born in the mid-fifties in northeastern Colorado. My parents have told me stories of the "Dirty Fifties". They, like you, said the dirt/dust wasn't as bad as the stories they'd been told of the 30s, but it was bad enough. I could talk "dirt" all day, too. *grin* Thanks for commenting.

  3. Kaye, thank you. I'd studied the effects of the dust, drought and depression when doing my paper on Karol W Smith who lived through that era in Florence Colorado. To say it was hearbreaking is an understatement. Thank you for adding to the information and here's sending you the rain I don't want in my basement ever again. It should help the drought. *smile* Doris

  4. Doris,

    It really was a terrible time for people, especially when combined with the awful economic problems.

    I feel your pain regarding the flooded basement. My basement flooded about a year before yours, and mine was backed-up sewer. (I know, too much information. Ewww...)

    So, I'll take your gift of rain and cross my fingers that it doesn't end up in my newly remodeled basement. *wink*

    Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I saw the Ken Burns film on the Dust Bowl and it was heart wrenching. As if the Great Depression wasn't enough, this tragic occurrence of poor farming practices and nature created one of the most unbearably miserable periods in American history.
    I remember reading Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH for a college term paper in English and feeling completely depressed by the time I finished. I can't imagine having to live through it.
    My parents didn't have to deal with the dust bowl tragedy because they lived in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, but they did live through the Great Depression and it had a profound affect on the rest of their lives. Just an odd little tidbit here. My dad said a neighbor who had a greenhouse elected to raise flowers instead of food. The town's folk thought he was foolish to do so in such dire economic circumstances. But the man prospered because people bought his flowers to raise their spirits. Ya just never really know what humans are going to do under stress.
    This article was filled with interesting details, Kaye. I loved the way you presented it and all the helpful graphics and videos.

  6. Sarah,

    I agree that THE GRAPES OF WRATH is historically important, which is why schools need to include it in the reading list for high school students, but it was an effort in sheer determination for me to use it year after year when I taught high school English and history. It is just too much reality for me. Wowzers.

    I really like your anecdote about the flowers. It is amazing how even the tiniest 'thing' can bring joy and lift spirits when everything looks hopeless.

    Thanks for sharing that story, and thanks for stopping by.

  7. My grandmothers told me a few stories that I wish I could now remember about the dust bowl.

    1. Jan,

      I, too, wish I had paid more attention to my grandparents when they told stories. My mom is 83, and she started jotting down family stories (more like snippets of stories) after my dad died three years ago. It's been therapeutic for her, and I'm grateful she's doing it.

      Thanks for commenting.