When wheat prices rose during World War I, homesteaders descended on the southern Great Plains and began plowing up the native grasses that had historically held the soil in place. Spurred on by land speculators, who outrageously claimed that “rain follows the plow” and that dust could be used as mulch to hold in moisture, they were at first able to reap big harvests. The good times continued throughout the wet years of the 1920s. But when the Great Depression hit, wheat prices collapsed. To make matters worse, it essentially stopped raining in 1931, the beginning of a drought that would last for the rest of the decade. Suddenly, farms were going under, livestock were starving and enormous quantities of dried-out topsoil were being blown up into the air.
According to one federal agency, which counted only the largest of these dust storms, or “black blizzards,” 14 hit in 1932, followed by 38 in 1933. That was nothing, though, compared to what came later. “Farmers were still trying to plant a crop and in many respects making it worse,” said R. Douglas Hurt, head of the history department at Purdue University who has published more than 20 books on American agriculture. Although the northern Great Plains did not escape punishment, the worst effects came further south in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Residents there tried to protect themselves by rubbing Vaseline into their nostrils, wearing respiratory masks, sealing their windows and hanging wet sheets over their doorways. But the constant inhalation of harmful dust particles killed hundreds of people anyway and sickened thousands of others.
In 1934, which researchers now call the single worst drought year of the last millennium in North America, temperatures soared, exceeding 100 degrees everyday for weeks on much of the Southern Plains. “Things really dried out,” said Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a history professor at Iowa State University and the author of “Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas.” “So when spring of 1935 rolled around, there was a whole lot more baked dirt to throw up in the air than there had been in previous years.” After months of brutal conditions, the skies finally cleared by the morning of April 14, 1935, and the winds died down, a rarity on the nearly treeless landscape. Residents came outside to do much-needed chores, to hang out in the sunshine or to go to church. Optimism abounded, with one Oklahoma minister declaring that a few good rainstorms would make the land fertile again.
Alas, it was not to be. That morning, a cold front moving down from Canada clashed with warm air sitting over the Dakotas. In just a couple of hours, temperatures fell more than 30 degrees and the wind whipped into a frenzy, creating a dust cloud that grew to hundreds of miles wide and thousands of feet high as it headed south. Reaching its full fury in southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, it turned a sunny day totally dark. Drivers were forced to take refuge in their cars, while other residents hunkered down in basements, barns, fire stations and tornado shelters, as well as under beds. Folksinger Woody Guthrie, then 22, who sat out the storm at his Pampa, Texas, home, recalled that “you couldn’t see your hand before your face.” Inspired by proclamations from some of his companions that the end of the world was at hand, he composed a song titled “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” Guthrie would also write other tunes about Black Sunday, including “Dust Storm Disaster.”
As the storm dragged on for hours, panic set in. One woman reportedly even contemplated killing her baby rather than have it face Armageddon. It’s unclear whether anyone died, but among those injured was a man who went blind. Other people couldn’t stop coughing. Birds, mice and jackrabbits fled for their lives; many didn’t make it. By all accounts it was the worst black blizzard of the Dust Bowl, lasting longer than the others and covering more ground. Later estimates placed the amount of displaced topsoil at 300,000 tons, some of which flew as far away as the East Coast. “Everybody remembered where they were on Black Sunday,” Riney-Kehrberg said. “For people on the Southern Plains, it was one of those defining experiences, like Pearl Harbor or Kennedy’s assassination.”
The next day, as the remnants of the storm blew out into the Gulf of Mexico, an Associated Press reporter filed a story in which he referred to “life in the dust bowl of the continent.” Quickly thereafter, the term Dust Bowl became part of the national lexicon. Inspired by the myriad tales of suffering that proliferated in Black Sunday’s wake, the federal government began paying farmers to take marginal lands out of production. It also incentivized improved agricultural practices, such as contour plowing and crop rotation, which reduced soil loss roughly 65 percent. By then, however, many families had given up hope. “[Black Sunday] really discourages an enormous number of people,” Riney-Kehrberg explained. “For some, it’s the tipping point that tells them it’s time to go.” Overall, one-quarter to one-third of the most affected people are believed to have fled the Southern Plains during the 1930s. Since then, no large-scale black blizzards have returned to blight the region. Yet because intensive agriculture still predominates, some experts fear that Dust Bowl-like conditions could one day return.