Black Sunday: I think my mother thought it was the end of the world, really.
August 26, 2007 5:56 PM   Subscribe

"The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne on that day."
Black Sunday. April 14, 1935. Timeline, Oral Histories (Kansas, Nebraska), Dust Bowl Movie (part I, part II), Black Sunday photos (1, 2, 3, 4). [previous dust on mefi: iraq, texas, africa, china]
posted by jessamyn (17 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Rangeboy at 6:06 PM on August 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

An excellent book about the Dust Bowl, including Black Sunday: The Worst Hard Time.
posted by beagle at 6:11 PM on August 26, 2007

Woody Guthrie wrote about being in the middle of it:
LOMAX: Well, what happened the night that dust storm hit? Do you remember just exactly what you people did and what you said?

GUTHRIE: Well, you see the big picture here. It shows you the big dust storm coming up and uh, you know, just to see a thing of that kind coming towards you -- wouldn't know exactly what it was because it's a freak looking thing. You never saw anything like it before. But we all sat there, we had seen dust storms of every other different color, labor, description, style, fashion, shade, design, model. (more)

"It fell across our city
Like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgment
We thought it was our doom."
—Woody Guthrie, Dust Storm Disaster
posted by Sailormom at 6:20 PM on August 26, 2007

beagle: that is actually the book I am reading right now that inspired this post. It's great so far.
posted by jessamyn at 6:27 PM on August 26, 2007

seconding beagle.
posted by vronsky at 6:29 PM on August 26, 2007

Fine post, jessamyn. And, invoking Woody once again:

I'm a dust bowl refugee,
I'm a dust bowl refugee,
And I wonder will I always
Be a dust bowl refugee?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:36 PM on August 26, 2007

My Missouri family fled for Washington state that summer. They always said it wasn't the storm, but the whole economy of the region was so completely destroyed, from the river to the mountains, one third of the continent, that I understand the storm to be the, er, precipitating event in the migration both specifically and generally.
posted by mwhybark at 7:02 PM on August 26, 2007

I was about to chastise jessamyn for the lack of Dust Bowl Ballads by Woodie Guthrie, but Sailormom & flapjax have addressed that.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:09 PM on August 26, 2007

Also: The American Experience, Surviving the Dust Bowl.
posted by mwhybark at 7:10 PM on August 26, 2007

Great post. My grandparents used to talk about Dust Bowl memories. I can't even imagine how frightening it must have felt to see a dust storm rolling across the prairie, and how suffocating and claustrophobic it must have been to be engulfed by one.

The Kansas State Historical Society has an interesting article with a picture of a "Dust Storm" woodcut by Herschel Logan, who carved it from his own Dust Bowl memories.
posted by amyms at 7:14 PM on August 26, 2007

Phoenix haboob July 2007.
posted by netbros at 7:24 PM on August 26, 2007

I grew up in one of the two counties in New Mexico that account for 80% the state's farming, just west of the Texas border and exactly 90 miles from both Amarillo and Lubbuck.

On the High Plains, the Llano Estacado which accounts for probably a third of the Dust Bowl area, it really is good farming but there's not a lot of rainfall (these days they are pumping dry the largest aquifer in North America, the Ogalalla, to irrigate these farms). And the wind does blow. I often think that one of the things I am happiest not to have to live with is that damn wind. In fact, I think that Amarillo is the windiest city in the US, much windier than Chicago.

My family isn't from that area, however. My maternal grandmother was born in Oklahoma and that's where my great-grandparents were from (great-grandmother from Oklahoma and great-grandfather from north and west Texas), but they had moved west to Quemado in western New Mexico where they homestead in the middle-twenties. They later moved to Albuquerque. My father's family moved to Albuquerque from Wisconsin in the 50s. So I don't really have any relatives that described the Dust Bowl era to me.

But you really don't have to look very hard to see how it happened. Not with the farming stuff—I don't know much about that. But the land is flat and there are miles and miles of farmland or scrub brush (no trees) and then there's a little depression or something and it's full of sand, sometimes dunes like our classic images of the desert. On the one hand, it's hard for me to imagine where I grew up looking like the Sahara. On the other hand, it's also sort of easy when I think about the dust and sand.

Reading the transcript, I also began to think that the folks that survived the Dust Bowl era and stayed were probably forever changed by it and, I think, it explains part of the personalities of the farmers in that region. They are pretty conservative, God-fearing, and very proud and stoic. And it's only within living memory that their families have taken up the plow in that land and made a life there, and then lived through and survived the Dust Bowl era.

I mentioned that these farmers are pumping the Ogallala dry. There's truth to that, but this story also explains a bit to me what has always seemed surprising to me in how these folks have actually been pretty good about changing their methods as the risk to the Ogallala has been increasingly recognized. When I was growing up, they switched to mostly downward spraying irrigation mechanisms to conserve water that would otherwise be lost to more evaporation. And they've been pretty good, I understand, about making some other improvements. So perhaps they did learn some hard lessons from those hard times in the 30s.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:26 PM on August 26, 2007

Great post! has some good Dust Bowl era fil, including New Deal films such as Plow that Broke the Plains and Rain for the Earth.

An excellent book about the Dust Bowl, including Black Sunday: The Worst Hard Time.

I dunno. I wanted to love that book because I love other things by Egan, particularly Breaking Blue. I did love the first 1/4 of The Worst Hard Time where
Egan writes wonderfully about the settlement of the southern plains and the policies that led to the Dust Bowl. Once he gets into the Dust Bowl years the story bogs down as Egan tries way too hard to wring every bit of emotional pathos out of the situation. There is such a thing as a pornography of suffering, and Egan dotes on the horrors of the Dust Bowl in a way that is downright creepy.

For instance there is a running story line (SPOILER ALERT) about a young couple. Egan describes how they marry despite the hard times and how they have a baby as a way to hold on to hope. By this point in the book the reader knows Egan well enough to realize that the baby is going to choke to death on the dust, slowly over several chapters. When the baby gets sick the mother and child relocate to eastern Kansas to get away from the dust. But is it in time? Of course it isn't! The panicked husband tries to drive across the dust storms to get to the hospital to hold his child one last time. Does he make it? No he does not. The couple spend the last of their resources to bring their dead child back for a proper burial. When Egan mentions that the day began clear, you just know a dust storm is going to hit the funeral procession. And it does, on the way fro the service to the cemetery the mourners end up diving under their cars as the black dust closes in on them and traps them on the endless plains in their funeral clothes and with their tiny coffin.

I stopped reading there. But I am pretty sure that they have to eat the baby.
posted by LarryC at 7:30 PM on August 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

And here am I starting the Grapes of Wrath yesterday.
posted by bystander at 8:02 PM on August 26, 2007

I can see the point of your criticism Larry C, and agree slightly, but I knew NOTHING about this period of Am history, so I found it fascinating.
posted by vronsky at 8:16 PM on August 26, 2007

The Grapes of Wrath, if you're in a screenplay-readin' mood. And a really nice historical analysis of same from the Ohio State University History Dept.

Literary Trivia Dept.: The literary Joads start out from Sallisaw, which is in the tree-covered extreme-eastern Oklahoma hill country, which wasn't directly affected by the dust storms. Sallisaw has a "Grapes of Wrath Days" festival in October anyway, because they're a small rural town in the middle of nowhere and they take what fame they can get. This article (pdf) mentions it, although the local 'hardscrabble hill-folk' don't seem to have clued the author in on the lack of Dust Bowl.
posted by ormondsacker at 9:52 PM on August 26, 2007

Thanks for such an excellent post, jessamyn. Now I'll be reading The Worst Hard Time, too.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:05 PM on August 26, 2007

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