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Americans View Their Dust Bowl Experience
By JOHN R. WUNDER, FRANCES W. KAYE, VERNON CARSTENSEN
University Press of Colorado Copyright © 1999 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
John R. Wunder
The Dust Bowl experience was a seminal event for at least two generations of Americans, whose lives it shaped or reshaped. The experience was felt especially by those directly involved in agriculture in portions of the Mississippi Valley—the farmers of Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Arkansas—and it deeply touched the farmers and ranchers of the American Great Plains—the agriculturalists of North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, Nebraska and Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma, and New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle. The 1930s in the heartland were difficult times.
This book is about those Americans of the Dust Bowl. The book seeks to foster an understanding of the physical and mental dimensions of the disaster. Through original documents of the times, it of fers a glimpse into the human response to the Dust Bowl. The first section of the book includes contemporary accounts of the plight of farmers. Dust Bowl distress and anger, farmer strikes, and the farmers' march on Washington are captured in memoirs and news reports of the times. The human response to this environmental catastrophe is next observed in letters of self-doubt, attempts to find solutions in science, and reflections on religious faith.
This volume also includes analyses of the Dust Bowl by historians, and they, too, focus on the human dimension of this environmental disaster. The first articles concern the personal responses of men, women, and children to their predicaments. The different ways men and women sought to cope with the Dust Bowl, the fact that some farmers had to pursue extralegal activities, and the way religion tried to explain the disaster are probed. The history of farmer strikes, the Farm Holiday Movement, and the United Farmers League are described; the use of the media to provide political explanations is also discussed. Finally, three historiographical articles explain the different dimensions of the Dust Bowl and the farm revolts during the 1930s. Thus, both the documents and the articles search for explanations and answers to such basic questions as why did the Dust Bowl happen, why did Americans react as they did, and how did the Dust Bowl affect those who actually witnessed it, as well as their children and grandchildren.
The first inkling of trouble came in the late 1920s. Prices for farm products steadily dropped. When drought conditions began to appear in several areas, many farmers had little, if any, capital reserves. Some farmers, such as a Harrisburg, Arkansas, family of five who slept on the floor of a one-room shanty, battled starvation. They survived on rabbits or by stealing a neighbor's hog. Others were very angry about the economic squeeze and the seeming government indifference.
Indeed, the government sometimes appeared to make the problems worse. Take Iowan Sam Krotter's difficulties, for example. In spite of his observation that "the most hopeful animal in the world" is the farmer, even Krotter began to doubt whether he could survive. Iowa and federal laws requiring tuberculin tests for milk cows were steadily resisted by Iowa farmers. Krotter's jersey calf had been subjected to a test, and the calf became sick and, eventually, worthless. Farmers saw themselves as being shafted; if their herds were deemed infected by the test—a test most farmers saw as defective—they suffered a loss of two-thirds of their investment.
The cow war emerged from this distrust and from a showdown between farmers and government agents at William Butterbrodt's farm near West Branch, Iowa, the birthplace of President Herbert Hoover. In a show of force, organized farmers threw veterinarians and the sheriff off the Butterbrodt homestead. The cow war accelerated.
As is the ease with social upheavals and unexpected events, people who in normal times appear abnormal suddenly seem rational. Take the ease of Norman Baker, hypnotist, cancer curer, and manufacturer of calliopes, who took to the radio to defend the farmers in the cow war. Baker stirred up the pot of confusion, anger, and frustration. A frightened Governor Dan Turner called out the National Guard, around 1,400 strong. Everyone—1,000 farmers, the National Guard troops, and the Bakerites—converged on the Eversman farm a few miles north of Burlington, Iowa. It was a standoff. Vaccinations occurred, but the farmers rubbed the cows' lumps so they couldn't be detected, and Iowans paid $100,000 for the National Guard's holiday. This situation was an omen in 1932.
The next two years were complicated by extreme drought, government paralysis, and farmer panic. Milo Reno organized the Farmers' Holiday Association, which spread throughout the northern Plains and the Midwest. Farmers took a manifesto and agreed to hold their products off the market until prices rose to cover production costs and to protect each other from those who would confiscate their land, equipment, animals, crops, and belongings.
Farmers went on strike in Plymouth County, Iowa. Milk trucks became a focal point because they carried milk produced by farmers who were not honoring the strike. The strike had little effect on the market and only increased farmers' frustrations. Some farmers broke off from the Farmers' Holiday Association and other farmers' organizations and started their own local groups, which favored immediate direct action. In Nebraska, trucks seized from a farmer by a Newman Grove company were forcefully taken back by a group of farmers. When a tenant farmer near Petersburg died and his $400 mortgage was not paid by his two sons, the bank foreclosed and ordered an auction of the farm and the equipment. Farmers marched on the farm and intimidated those at the sale so that only a total of $7.10 was bid at the entire auction.
Committees of Action throughout Nebraska experienced some short-term successes and generated a great deal of reaction. They were called the "Soviets" of Nebraska, and the state was compared to 1917 Communist Russia. Businesspeople and the Catholic Church were prominent in their opposition to the farmers; on at least one occasion they used force to drive out farmers intent on rigging an auction. Above all, farmers wanted to avoid being "put on the road," losing everything to a bank or creditor. Banding together seemed to help soothe and sometimes placate those fears.
In 1932, farmers' groups decided to march on Washington, D.C., to explain their plight to Congress. Other groups had recently marched on Washington, with very mixed results. A contingency of Western farmers was to meet in Madison County, Nebraska, and go on to Washington. Not related but called at the same time were a hunger march by the Communist Party and a renewal of the Bonus Army March by unemployed veterans in the East. Washington, D.C., girded itself for confrontation.
There were problems along the way. The marchers were harassed in many ways. Housing and food were denied. In Wilmington, Delaware, police violently attacked the marchers, and Washington, D.C., proved an inhospitable host. The farmers' march broke up, an unmitigated failure.
If they could not petition the government, what remained for the desperate farmers? Violence? Extralegal activities? The violence came in short, unexpected bursts. Chicago schoolteachers set the stage in April 1933 by demanding back salaries and storming City Council headquarters and the banks. In Le Mars, Iowa, District Judge Charles C. Bradley was dragged from his courtroom and nearly hung by a mob because he refused to stop foreclosures on farms. Violence occurred at an auction in Primghar, Iowa, and at a foreclosure near Denison, Iowa. Iowa Governor Clyde Herring blamed hoodlums and urban Communists for these activities, and Iowa's farmers laughed.
The weather, however, was no laughing matter. Drought, heat waves, and dust storms converged on the Great Plains. In April 1931, a dust storm reached the Pacific Ocean, and an even greater dust storm extended to the Atlantic Ocean in May 1934. New Yorkers saw some of the 300 million tons of Plains topsoil that was airborne drift past their windows; the dust was so thick that streetlamps had to be lit during the daytime. As one weatherman commented, it was an amazing time of "opacity." The Deutschland, a German ship off the Canadian coast, reported a dust storm at sea.
Farmers were in despair. They joked in macabre fashion about taking their Vitamin K—dust—each morning. They were forced to harvest thistles to feed their cattle. Even photographers, like Margaret Bourke-White, found dust a formidable foe. The dust storms caused deaths, including a young Hays, Kansas, boy found suffocated after he had been lost in the dust. Still a resilient lot, farmers, like Caroline Henderson of the Oklahoma Panhandle, persisted. She wrote of the dust everywhere, of how she thought she was supposed to pretend things were okay, and of wanting to be optimistic. But there were ominous signs. People in her community were leaving, even the wealthy, long-term settlers. There were simply no crops and no markets. She realized that farmers were a minority and concluded that the country no longer eared about them.
Henderson remained committed to farming. She and her husband, Will, changed their farming habits and accepted government conservation efforts. They experimented with livestock and crops. They resisted taking relief while worrying about their loss of individualism. And they tried to contain their anger at those farmers who gave up or who refused to try new ways to solve the problems created by the Dust Bowl.
Through it all, what was desperately needed was rain. Farmers tried machines, offered prayers, and fought to retain a faith in America, their religion, and their land. The new U.S. president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, visited North Dakota and admitted his ignorance about the problems caused by the lack of rain. He promised to try to help solve the farming dilemma, and, miraculously, he brought rain.
So, in the end, the evolution of new farming sciences, a renewed American economy secured by federal government intervention, and a means of sustaining the life blood of the farmer—water—ended the greatest crisis those in the heartland had experienced in the twentieth century.
Any historical assessment of the Dust Bowl must consider the human factors. Gender is an important differentiation. Many women in Nebraska and South Dakota, for example, responded to the crisis with innovations, such as producing new farm products and taking new jobs, and by limiting their child bearing. Many men and some women in Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas became politically radicalized. Their desperation dictated a political response.
Prior to the 1930s, troubles on the Plains had led farmers to be attracted to Populism, the Socialist Party, and the Non-Partisan League. The 1930s brought a renewal of the Non-Partisan League, the Farmers' Union, the Farmers' Holiday Association, the United Farmers League, the Communist Party, the Farmers National Committee for Action, and the Farmer-Labor Party. Even the Ku Klux Klan entered the political fray.
Throughout the economic, environmental, and political turmoil, answers were sought: Why had this crisis happened? The media had explanations. Radical newspapers, such as the Producers News of Plentywood, Montana, described business leaders as "greedy Kaisers" and farmers as "selfless patriots," and its publishers eventually touted communism as the solution. The federal government under Roosevelt sought to explain the crisis to the American people through film. The Plow That Broke the Plains offered the controversial explanation that the government itself was primarily to blame because it had encouraged new farmers to attack the unbroken sod of the interior Plains as if another world war necessitated doing so.
Historians do not agree about why the Dust Bowl occurred. Explanations range from viewing the Dust Bowl as a purely natural disaster or as the product of farmers' ignorance about the environment and their misuse of technology to the theory that the application of environmentally unsound capitalism destroyed the farmers' traditional relationship to the land or that failed federal government policies and the happenstance combination of the right kinds of soils, new dryland farming techniques, world economic incentives, and a migratory labor force converged at one place during one time—the Great Plains in the 1930s.
There is probably no clearcut answer, although some possibilities ring more true than others. One can state with certainty that there are no simple solutions to prevent future Dust Bowls. Given the nature of the delicate Plains environment, it is crucial that the lessons learned from the Dust Bowl experience be absorbed by all, lest we be destined to repeat one of the world's worst environmental calamities.
Excerpted from Americans View Their Dust Bowl Experience by JOHN R. WUNDER, FRANCES W. KAYE, VERNON CARSTENSEN. Copyright © 1999 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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