Tough land, tougher people
By Ken Root
Growing up in Oklahoma, we re-lived the Dust Bowl every time it was dry and windy. Documentaries have been done about its devastation in every decade. When the Dust Bowl program produced by Ken Burns was broadcast, I avoided watching it for a few weeks just because I felt it would rub the same old wounds and draw the same tired conclusions. I finally sat down on Sunday morning and quietly assimilated as much as possible in a single viewing. I cried and I laughed. When it was over, I sat there with deep thought about my ancestors and the many countrymen who were players in this great American tragedy. Burns puts a liberal slant on his productions but he did an amazingly good job of capturing the spirit of the people as well as the fury of nature that they stirred up in the years leading up to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. I was pleased with the tenor and the content. It took a very difficult period in American history and looked at it from the aspect of man's actions in an unforgiving landscape followed by man's realization of his mistakes and determination to stay.
As the youngest son of a family scarred by that period, I had heard the stories from my parents and older siblings. You can drive across the Panhandle of Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern Colorado and southwest Kansas and see the physical outcome of plowing the plains, but the stories of the people who lived there are far more interesting and inspiring.
Only one more aspect would have been appreciated and that was how the settlers wound up there in the first place. They came from all over in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and generally had very little other than their health and hope for better times. It was politically expedient for the government to let people settle the plains and displace the native population. The land held promise for a new population of settlers who were looking for opportunity. No matter their origin, they settled into a landscape that had great beauty and potential for agricultural productivity but had characteristics of drought with fragile soils that they disregarded in their need to produce crops and provide a livelihood for their families. It must have been fascinating to be the first generation to occupy a land that had no written history and to watch each season unfold.
If the farmers had been schooled agronomists, they would have known their land would blow away and that the crops they planted would deplete its fertility. It is easy to see that they were ignorant of the consequences of their actions. "Poor folks have poor ways" was my father's quote each time he explained something that was expedient in the short term but destructive in the longer. In viewing the Dust Bowl program I kept asking myself what are we doing today to which we are ignorant of the outcome and only expedient in our execution.
There was a "cascade" effect that brought the world down on the people of the plains in the 1930s. They had seen good times in the 1920s as evidenced by the dress clothes that many of the families wore in their photographs. There was the promise of growth and better times so investment was made in land and machinery. They had tractors that could pull a moldboard plow through the light soil to completely bury all vegetation. Then Mother Nature added drought and wind and that began to unravel everything.
My mentor in broadcasting, Russell Pierson, soon to be 101 years old, told of being a young county agricultural agent in southwest Oklahoma when the first dust storm came through. "We saw a black cloud and thought we would get some rain but it took a long time to get there. We were at a baseball game and it came across the outfield like a curtain. The outfielders went out of sight and began to run toward us. In just a moment we were all enveloped in dirt and the times were never the same again."
Remarkably, only 25 percent of the people left. They were independent, hard-working people. They didn't want to leave and they saw no other option than to stay and let the dirt blow over them. Some lost their health, some lost their minds. Responsibility fell on teenage sons and daughters who took over the farm or put the family in the car and headed for California. There were more people who made that trek in the Dirty Thirties than the number that went to Oregon in the 1850s. One man said they did it in shame. "There is no marker for the California Trail that we traveled."
The story may not have a happy ending but there is satisfaction to know that the families who survived the Dust Bowl and the Depression are still there and farming the land. They learned how to co-exist with nature and they exploited other resources--water and oil--to survive and prosper.
It also showed that people need a government that is prudent and protective of its people and its resources. To open up the plains it first had to disenfranchise the native population then it gave land to settlers who would homestead to gain a deed. It provided no guidance on farming practices to preserve the soil and it initially gave no comfort to the refugees who fell out of the landscape with nothing to show for their years of toil and suffering.
The Roosevelt administration began to construct farm support programs that still remain in effect, nine decades later. I believe that the Dust Bowl caused an awakening of this country as it concluded its westward expansion. The last region to be opened up for farming was too fragile and the people were too valuable to allow them to destroy their own land. We found that we are independent yet we are dependent. We learn slowly but, hopefully, we do learn.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.