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The Dust Bowl & The Era of Arid Air

In U.S. History, there have been major events and phenomena that have had a great impact on history and the course of the nation. Some of these events have been the result of nature, while others have been caused by mankind. Additionally, there are some occurrences that can claim both nature and humanity as reasons for their existence. One such phenomenon occurred during a period in time known as the Dust Bowl, which took place in the midst of the Great Depression. It was the greatest natural disaster of its time, and it destroyed lands, altered farming practices, and caused the migration of hundreds of thousands of people.

The Dust Bowl started in the 1930s and lasted nearly ten years. It was a period in history that was marked by drought, dust storms, and poverty. Although the problems of the Dust Bowl period occurred during these years, the makings of this economic and ecological disaster began generations before that time. In order to understand what occurred, it is necessary to look back to those generations that led up to it. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, families moved into the southern plains area that was known for receiving too little rain and being overly dry. Years of good rainfall, however, convinced many that farming practices had improved the weather conditions. During this period, farming was good. During World War I, the demand for wheat rose, and as a result, farmers began to aggressively plow the land in order to make way for more wheat crops. In doing this, they removed great amounts of the protective sod from the soil. Sod was critical, as it helped retain moisture in the soil during times of high heat and drought.

With the Great Depression, the supply of wheat quickly outgrew the demand for it, as people were often too poor to buy it. This created problems for farmers who were unable to sell enough of their crops. In addition, starting in 1930, rains that had been deceptively plentiful came to a stop and years of drought set in. Farmers were unable to grow crops despite their best efforts. Because of their past poor farming methods, they had removed all of the sod, or topsoil, that had historically protected the land from drought. High winds further contributed to the erosion of the soil, and as a result, dust was lifted into the air, where it would gather and build in strength, creating dangerous storm clouds of dust. These dust storms would soon be referred to as "black blizzards." The storms occurred the most frequently, and had the greatest impact, in certain parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico; however, they were not limited to these areas only. During these dust storms, which took place from 1932 to 1941, with the worst occurring between 1935 and 1938, the billowing clouds of dust would temporarily block out the sun. People were forced indoors in order to protect themselves; however, even then, they were unable to completely escape the dust, which would often make its way into the home to cover furniture and dishes with a fine layer of dirt. The storms would cause illness such as dust pneumonia if it got into people's lungs. Cattle often perished during the dust storms, and farmers would discover that the animals' bellies were filled with dust. This loss of livestock only further contributed to the poverty that farmers were faced with at the time. In 1934, giant clouds of dust traveled to Chicago and then New York, removing an estimated 300 million tons of dirt from the Great Plains region.

The Dust Bowl period also created a dilemma that forced the migration of many who lived in the areas that were affected the most. Farmers could stay and attempt to work their farms or leave in search of work. For many, the inability to pay their rent left them with no other choice but to migrate. Eventually, a quarter of the farmers fled the area, with many headed toward California, where they believed they would find plentiful work and better conditions. Unfortunately, upon arriving in California, they found this to be false. There were already plenty of workers on farms in the state, and most often, work was not available. When work was found, it typically paid very little and had poor working and living conditions. With no place to go and no jobs available to them, those refugees, who were now referred to by many as "Okies," began to create camps of makeshift homes. Their numbers grew to such a degree that signs and guards were set up along the border to keep new refugees out. The lives of people who made this journey to California from the southern plains were immortalized in the works of John Steinbeck, who wrote "The Grapes of Wrath," which depicted life during this period.

As this was occurring, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt started taking measures to end the depression and create a better and more prosperous America. This included helping out the farmers in the Dust Bowl. He created the New Deal programs, which were meant to deal with the poverty associated with these conditions. For instance, the Soil Conservation Act, which passed in 1935, was enacted in order to assist farmers in the rehabilitation of their farm lands through financial aid and education. They were advised and educated in ways to improve soil condition through better farming practices, such as planting trees and grass. The Soil Conservation Act in 1935 and the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936 resulted in a significant drop in soil erosion by as early as 1939.