The drought hit first in the eastern part of the country in 1930. In 1931, it moved toward the west. By 1934 it had turned the Great Plains into a desert. “If you would like to have your heart broken, just come out here,” wrote Ernie Pyle, a roving reporter in Kansas, just north of the Oklahoma border, in June of 1936. “This is the dust-storm country. It is the saddest land I have ever seen.”
The Dust Bowl got its name on April 15, 1935, the day after Black Sunday. Robert Geiger, a reporter for the Associated Press, traveled through the region and wrote the following: “Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer’s tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – if it rains.” The term stuck, spreading to radio broadcasts and publications, in private letters and public speeches.
The Soil Conservation Service used the term on their maps to describe “the western third of Kansas, Southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, and northeastern New Mexico.” The SCS Dust Bowl region included some surrounding area, to cover one-third of the Great Plains, close to 100 million acres, 500 miles by 300 miles. It is thought that Geiger was referring to an earlier image of the plains coined by William Gilpin, who had compared the Great Plains to a fertile bowl, rimmed by mountains. Residents hated the label, which was thought to play a part in diminishing property values and business prospects in the region.
The Drought alone did not cause the black blizzards. Although dry spells are unavoidable in the region, occurring roughly every 25 years, it was the combination of drought and misuse of the land that led to the incredible devastation of the Dust Bowl years. Originally covered with grasses that held the fine soil in place, the land of the southern plains was plowed by settlers who brought their farming techniques with them when they homesteaded the area. Wheat crops, in high demand during World War I, exhausted the topsoil. Overgrazing by cattle and sheep herds stripped the western plains of their cover. When the drought hit, the land just blew away in the wind.
A letter from an Oklahoma woman, later published in Reader’s Digest magazine, recalls June of 1935. “In the dust-covered desolation of our No Man’s Land here, wearing our shade hats, with handkerchiefs tied over our faces and Vaseline in our nostrils, we have been trying to rescue our home from the wind-blown dust which penetrates wherever air can go. It is almost a hopeless task, for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over. 'Visibility’ approaches zero and everything is covered again with a silt-like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on the kitchen floor.”
Beginning in 1935, federal conservation programs were created to rehabilitate the Dust Bowl, changing the basic farming methods of the region by seeding areas with grass, rotating crops, and using contour plowing, strip plowing, and planting “shelter belts” of trees to break the wind. Farmers were defensive when outsiders criticized their farming methods. Only when they were paid did they begin to put the new farming techniques into practice. The dollar per acre they earned often meant the difference between being able to stay a bit longer or having to abandon their land. As historian Robert Worster wrote, “The ultimate meaning of the dust storms of the 1930s was that America as a whole, not just the plains, was badly out of balance with its natural environment. Unbounded optimism about the future, careless disregard of nature’s limits and uncertainties, uncritical faith in Providence, devotion to self-aggrandizement – all these were national as well as regional characteristics.”