Excerpt: Legacies of Dust

The following is an excerpt from Legacies of Dust: Land Use and Labor on the Colorado Plains by Douglas Sheflin (June 2019). 

The dust storm that gathered momentum on April 14, 1935, the day later named Black Sunday, was only the most visible example of the devastating storms that swept across the United States during the 1930s. The storms blew away hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil that had been loosened by scorching heat and plows driven by farmers more concerned with production and immediate economic gains than with conservation. Residents of Baca and Prowers Counties in southeastern Colorado, which sat at the center of the geographical region known as the Dust Bowl, witnessed these storms so frequently during the 1930s that they became almost commonplace. Every storm left residents fighting harder to hold on to their soil, water, families, and their sanity. Images of dilapidated and abandoned farms, clouds of dust enveloping entire towns, and movies like Pare Larentz’s The Plow That Broke the Plains captured America’s attention and brought an outpouring of support from the federal government.

Knowledge of the dust storms and of the residents’ suffering have become more prominent in the last decade thanks to popular renditions of the period in documentary films and an award-winning book on the subject by Timothy Egan. Such emphasis has been renewed, but it is not new. Indeed, Dorothea Lange made a name for herself with a picture long thought to capture the downtrodden and devastated visage of a migrant woman named Florence Owens Thompson, whom Lange photographed in a migrant camp in California. It has become almost synonymous with the Dust Bowl and the suffering that it caused. John Steinbeck’s treatment of the Dust Bowl in his canonical The Grapes of Wrath contributed to the growing awareness among Americans that residents on the Great Plains suffered a particular kind of misery. On the one hand, the recent increased attention to the plight of farmers and residents on the Great Plains signals an attempt to better understand their experience and sympathize with their challenges. On the other hand, however, we have, to this point, failed to really understand the Dust Bowl’s impact on American agriculture and the people of the Great Plains. It was destructive, scary, and even tragic. It was also transformational. The Dust Bowl inspired widespread change among farmers and policymakers on the fields of southeastern Colorado and in the halls of Washington dc, because it marked the moment at which most agriculturalists in the region came to terms with the challenges that accompanied farming on the arid High Plains. This book explains that shift and contends that the real legacies of the Dust Bowl only emerged well after the catastrophe had ended.

To put this another way, we cannot understand the Dust Bowl’s true impact unless we adopt new ways to recognize what the crisis produced. This requires that we adjust our chronology a bit to better contextualize the Dust Bowl years. The dominant narrative in the vast majority of books written about the crisis only attend to the 1930s and therefore fail to consider anything more than the temporary and immediate response to the calamity.3 We need to remember that the dust storms eventually stopped and farmers found themselves having to face the reality of trying to put the pieces back together. The worst years ran from about 1932 until about 1938, and those who stayed beyond that six-year period celebrated as rain returned to the countryside in 1939 and 1940. Once the weather turned, the Second World War began, and the Allies ate up everything that plains farmers offered. The war restored farmers’ economic stability, covered some of the scars left by drought and depression, and left southeastern Coloradans eager for the postwar world. Over the course of little more than a decade, farmers in southeastern Colorado faced such ecological distress that few could produce enough to live on without federal relief only to return to the same fields to meet unprecedented demand. They helped win the war and then expected the good times to continue. Unfortunately for farmers, they did not. Another drought and renewed dust storms again battered the region in the 1950s, producing the Filthy Fifties and again challenging farmers and policymakers to address the environmental challenges of farming on the arid plains. When the dust storms of the 1950s hit, farmers were better prepared, the government was more willing to help, and the landscape was able to withstand the abuse. In the face of that second series of dusty, drought-filled years, the real legacies of the Dust Bowl became clear.

By recognizing the connection between the 1930s and 1950s, and by attempting to draw that connection by evaluating the Dust Bowl’s long-term impact on both agricultural production and the people who fueled it, this book offers an entirely new interpretation of the Dust Bowl. It contributes to our understanding of the catastrophe itself, of environmental history and the history of the American West during the interwar period, and of the decline of family farms on the western Great Plains. It emphasizes  the agro-environmental aspects of the disaster by assessing how the disaster influenced land use regimes, namely, by showing how these adaptations played out in three distinct environmental contexts: land, water, and labor. In each case, the gravity of the ecological disaster, coupled with the severity of the economic devastation caused by the Great Depression, compelled farmers and the state to combine their efforts to achieve one primary goal: to keep farmers farming. Those who lived through the Dust Bowl would never forget it, and with the help of the government, they spent the rest of their lives trying to protect themselves from the vulnerability they experienced during the 1930s.

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