The Dust Bowl. An ecological disaster on the great plains during the great depression. The Dust Bowl .
An ecological disaster on the great plains during the great depression
During the 1930s, a long period of drought and poor soil conservation resulted in an ecological disaster on the great plains. Farmers who had plowed millions of acres of drought stricken land could only watch helplessly as the great plains, quite literally, blew away.
The worst areas of the Dust Bowl are pictured here – the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, the western reaches of Kansas, and the eastern portions of Colorado and New Mexico were essentially reduced to bedrock. Families were forced to migrate from the Great Plains just to survive.
This map illustrates the impact of the Dust Bowl on other regions – the dry soil literally blackened the skies. It covered the ground, smothering living things – plants, animals, and humans alike. Crops were destroyed by Dust Bowl storms from the plains of South Dakota to the Gulf Coast of Texas, and ships sailing across the Atlantic were coated in a thin filmy layer of dust from the atmosphere.
This image captures much of the problem – the land is arid to begin with, but years of drought reduced the soil to a fine silt, dusty and ready to take flight. When the winds picked up, clouds of dust lifted off, blotting out the sun.
Once profitable homesteads were now reduced to unproductive deserts. The families who lived on these farms slowly lost profits, had their homes foreclosed on by banks, and were forced to leave simply for the sake of survival.
Traveling over dirt roads, roads which were often difficult to navigate due to a lack of visibility and shifting dunes, many American families made there escape. The Dust Storms could stop travel – choking an engine the same way they choked American children on the Great Plains.
Those who decided to stay faced clouds of dust which literally darkened the sky – smothering plant life and making the air too dusty to inhale. Families were forced to head indoors or underground just to breathe. Many suffered from asthmatic attacks or lung disease afterwards.
Automobile engines were choked by clouds of dust lingering in the air, and small business in the Middle West was crippled as entire communities abandoned the area – migrating west to take menial jobs in the agriculture industry.
Dorothea Lange was a photographer hired by the Works Progress Administration to record the lives of ordinary Americans during an extraordinary times – The Great Depression. Her ability to capture the raw emotion – helplessness, despair, courage, and fortitude – makes her photography especially memorable.
The Harvest Gypsies - One of Steinbeck’s first works, this photo-essay dramatized the plight of American workers during the Great Depression
The Grapes of Wrath – Perhaps Steinbeck’s greatest work, this novel chronicles the migration of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression.
“…the dispossessed were drawn west – from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty-thousand and fifty thousand, and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless, restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut – anything, burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.”
As with all trying times, the Dust Bowl would come to an end. In the fall of 1939, the rains returned. Although efforts at soil conservation would take decades to succeed, much of the Dust Bowl region has become productive agricultural land again – thanks to American mechanization, fertilization, irrigation, hybrid crop experimentation, and good old fashioned work ethic.
What brought the Great Depression to an end is decidedly more complicated. Many historians give partial credit to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which inspired confidence in many Americans, revitalized the banks, and even restored productivity in certain markets. But even in the early 1940s, the USA was no where near the prosperity of the 1920s – and many New Deal programs failed to have the expected positive impact.
Everyone agrees on this point, though. The Great Depression came to an immediate end on December 7th, 1941 - the day the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. On December 8th, everyone in America had a job to do, and a new chapter in American History began.
Answers to the guided reading Activity
The novel The Grapes of Wrath, which described the fictional Joad family’s trials and tribulations during the Dust Bowl, gave many Americans a glimpse into the life of the so-called “Okies” who had been forced to abandon their homes.
2. Soil erosion
3. Wind storms
Together, these three factors would result in the transformation of prairies into deserts over the course of the decade.THE CAUSES OF THE DUST BOWL: POOR SOIL CONSERVATION METHODS, DROUGHT, & WIND
1. The Great Plains were destroyed by soil erosion, and drought. The land was no longer productive.
2. Farmers lost their land and were forced to emigrate from the Dust Bowl region.
3. In California, migrant workers were crowded out other groups of pickers: Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Filipino-Americans among others.
4. The health of the people – due to lung diseases and later due to malnutrition, pellagra, and communicable illnesses – was damaged.
5. Farmers learned new techniques of soil conservation and crop rotation.
Route 66 is the classic American highway which connected Chicago to Southern California during the early part of the 1930s. Most of the migrants who fled the Dust Bowl and headed west elected to pack up their jalopies and head west along this road. There were many who died along the way. Those who made it to California usually struggled for a long time before economic recovery was achieved. Often, families struggled until the World War II munitions jobs began to encourage recovery.