The Dust Bowl was an area in the Midwest that suffered from drought during the 1930s and the Great Depression. The soil became so dry that it turned to dust. Farmers could no longer grow crops as the land turned into a desert. Areas of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico were all part of the Dust Bowl.
How did it get so dusty?
A number of factors contributed to the Dust Bowl. The first was a terrible drought (lack of rain) that lasted for many years. With so little rain the soil dried out. Also, much of the region had been plowed up by farmers to grow wheat or to graze cattle. The wheat did not anchor the soil or help hold moisture. After years of abuse, the topsoil was destroyed and turned into dust.
Dust Storm in Oklahoma Source: National Archives
With so much of the soil turned into dust, there were huge dust storms in the Midwest. The dust made it hard for people to breathe and piled up to the point where houses were buried. Some dust storms were so big that they carried dust all the way to the East Coast of the United States.
Giant dust storms were called "black blizzards." One of the worst dust storms occurred on Sunday April 14, 1935. High speed winds caused great walls of dust to engulf entire cities and regions. This dust storm was called "Black Sunday." It was said that the dust was so thick that people couldn't see their own hand in front of their face.
What did the farmers do?
Living in the Dust Bowl became nearly impossible. Dust got everywhere. The people spent much of their time trying to clean up the dust and keep it out of their houses. Many of the farmers had to move as they could not survive. Crops would not grow and livestock were often choked to death by the dust.
Many of the farmers and their families migrated to California where they had heard there were jobs. Jobs were hard to come by during the Great Depression. They were desperate for any work, even if they had to work long days just for enough food to survive. Poor farmers who moved from the Dust Bowl to California were called "Okies." The name was short for people from Oklahoma, but was used to refer to any poor person from the Dust Bowl looking for work.
Government Aid Programs
The federal government implemented programs to help the farmers that stayed in the Dust Bowl. They taught farmers proper farming practices to help preserve the soil. They also purchased some land to let it regenerate in order to prevent future dust storms. It took some time, but much of the land had recovered by the early 1940s.
Interesting Facts About the Dust Bowl
The state of California enacted a law that made it illegal to bring poor people into the state.
Author John Steinbeck wrote about a migrant family from the Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath.
Around 60% of the population left the region during the Dust Bowl.
Between 1934 and 1942, the federal government planted around 220 million trees from Canada to Texas in order to create a windbreak to protect the soil from wind evaporation and erosion.
The drought ended in most of the region when rain arrived in 1939.
Farmers would sometimes string clothesline between the house and the barn so they could find their way back through the dust.