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From the Farm

Things you didn't know about the Dust Bowl

May 20, 2011
By Kerry Hoffman , The Journal

Wednesday after morning chores, I chose to ride along in the tractor with Steve while he dug up 80 acres to the north of our farm. (It was supposed to be a short ride; turned out to be several hours.)

As we drove the tractor to the west, I was reminded of the book I am reading. It's about the Dust Bowl and all the dust swirling around the tractor made me wonder what it was like to live in the High Plains and constantly be surrounded by swirling dust.

The book is (ital)The Worst Hard Time(unital) by Timothy Egan. It's historical non-fiction and tells the story of several families that lived through that tough environment during the early 1930s. It's historically accurate and includes stories from survivors that are still alive today.

Article Photos

Kerry Hoffman

It's an awesome read, if you like history. It shares fine points that a person never gets taught in school.

It explains how the United States' government wanted to promote "the last frontier of agriculture." In their effort to encourage people to settle into an area known as No-Man's Land roughly one million acres covering northern portions of Texas, the pan-handle area of Oklahoma, much of Kansas and small sections of Nebraska and Colorado and New Mexico the government promised any legal settler 160 acres of public land. If that settler lived on and improved the land for five years he or she would receive the title.

People headed to the High Plains by the thousands to start working the land and prospering. Wheat grew like mad in that area. Settlers from Germany, Russia, Wales and other areas traveled great distances to stake their claim. And the settlers did prosper, for a few years anyway.

They grew more wheat than it was thought possible for that time. Because the wheat grew and grew and grew, the farmers dug and dug and dug, eventually turning over millions of acres of prairie grasses well suited for buffalo and cattle.

Then the drought started, which some people actually blamed on the farmers staking their claims. In four years, just only a few inches of rain fell from the sky.

The book explains how difficult it was to not only feed a family, but livestock as well.

The author shares stories of how babies and elderly developed dust pneumonia and consequently died. A person never thinks of sand containing silica and the effects on one's health from breathing it in every day.

During the Dust Bowl, it was rare to have two consecutive days with no sand and soil blowing in the air. The worst year was 1937 when 134 dust storms ravaged the area. That one every third day!

I did learn one disturbing fact regarding the control of the rabbit population.

They held Rabbit Drives. Residents would gather in a section of town and "herd" the rascally rabbits into a corner. They would then bludgeon the animals to death. At first the rabbits were disposed of, but as things gradually became worse and people were hungry, the rabbits were saved and the meat canned.

I also found it interesting that people attached chains to the backs of their vehicles. This was done to provide an electrical ground. Apparently, because dust is so fine, it created a bit of static electricity, which could short out your car.

One resident recalls how, on Black Sunday, as the darkest and dirtiest storm blew through, he could hear the static electricity popping in the air.

The nation started to realize that farmers cannot just till up every speck of land in an attempt to grow crops, and this led to the practice of conservation farming. I thought that started in the 1970s, but it goes much farther back than that.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whom I still believe to be the greatest United States President of all time) was finally able to find a way to help the farmers of the High Plains. I am not going to share with you how it was accomplished, but the man was genius.

If you're interested in history and learning unknown facts, this book is a good read.

For questions, or comments, e-mail me at



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