The 1930s were times of tremendous hardship on the Great Plains. Settlers dealt not only with the Great Depression, but also with years of drought that plunged an already-suffering society into an onslaught of relentless dust storms for days and months on end. They were known as dirt storms, sand storms, black blizzards, and “dusters.” It seemed as if it could get no worse, but on Sunday, the 14th of April 1935, it got worse. The day is known in history as “Black Sunday,” when a mountain of blackness swept across the High Plains and instantly turned a warm, sunny afternoon into a horrible blackness that was darker than the darkest night. Famous songs were written about it, and on the following day, the world would hear the region referred to for the first time as “The Dust Bowl.”
The wall of blowing sand and dust first blasted into the eastern Oklahoma panhandle and far northwestern Oklahoma around 4 PM. It raced to the south and southeast across the main body of Oklahoma that evening, accompanied by heavy blowing dust, winds of 40 MPH or more, and rapidly falling temperatures. But the worst conditions were in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, where the rolling mass raced more toward the south-southwest – accompanied by a massive wall of blowing dust that resembled a land-based tsunami. Winds in the panhandle reached upwards of 60 MPH, and for at least a brief time, the blackness was so complete that one could not see their own hand in front of their face. It struck Beaver around 4 PM, Boise City around 5:15 PM, and Amarillo at 7:20 PM. (http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/?n=blacksunday)
Truth Large heavy-duty cardboard boxes of heirloom photo albums and dozens of 1920-30s spiral notebooks plastered with newspaper clippings presented much too great a temptation to flee from several years ago. So during a Nebraska visit, I drooled over my scanner for hours on end, day after day, salivating over documents which I think were eventually discarded by the owner. (I never leave home without my scanner and printer for a Nebraska visit.)
Treasures In my panning for the above family history gold nuggets, I discovered two 1935 postcards vividly illustrating Black Sunday. In addition, the following letter and editorial from The Golden New Era filled my gold pan even more.
My pan runneth over!
WRITES OF WESTERN KANSAS DUST STORM
Mrs. Mary Nevius this week received a letter from her sister-in-law, Mrs. Robert Beckett of Garden City, Kansas, which contains some interesting news concerning the dust storms they are having in that territory. Mrs. Beckett writes:
There is lots I could write about, the wind or rather the dust. Last Palm Sunday we were sitting at the table eating—the door open and the sun shining—when all at once a swirl of dust came around the house. Lee jumped to shut the door, and the next moment Lewis turned on the light. For eight minutes you could not see the porch pillar, and I have been told that two men were standing on a porch side by side, one lit a match and the other could not see the glare at all. The cars either did not go by during that time, or we could not see them. All afternoon, it was either darkness or else a dusky twilight, but never before nor since have we had zero darkness when you could not see your hand in front of your nose when in the darkness. The Monday before that storm, the dust began to come, and it never quit for four days. School let out after the first classes Wednesday and was dismissed for the remainder of the week. There was so much silt dropped down on us that all had to be cleaned off. You remember Mrs. Baugh who has the Ladies Ready to Wear store. Her husband worked the dirt from his yard as he took it off, and it weighed 19 tons. Mr. Nolan’s weighed 20 tons. Mr. Schulman took off seven tons and did not get it nearly clean. Lee did not weigh his but thinks it was at least ten tons. Lewis took off about 150 of his little express wagon loads off. Then a man came and worked all day. Relief workers are hauling it off. Lee said last night’s storm would have to be raked off before we can get water.
After the long storm, we took over three bushel baskets of dirt from in front of the dining room door on the porch. I weighed it as it came from the vacuum sweeper and all together we had fourteen and three-fours pounds, and all our windows are paper stripped around sashes, glasses, and casings except the upstairs bedrooms. It just comes in in spite of all you can do. Before I stripped the bottom casing of the windows, you could clean your house good, then hit the window and take up an extra pint of dirt that would sift down through the frame of the windows to the floor. Now we are very comfortable when it blows, but at first the rooms were a heavy fog, and we could not see the pattern of the rug or linoleum.
Ellen lives out in the middle of a wheat field, and her home is a large two-story house. They are hemmed in by great banks of silt on all sides of the house. She removed fifty pounds of dirt from her parlor in front of the north window. Upstairs she took seventy-four pounds from a hallway. She said the only living green thing on their place is a carrot which she planted inside a hole in a little rock under her kitchen window.
The drifts are over the fences in many places, and I have heard of a place where a man had a high board stock corral made of twelve-foot boards standing on end, and the dirt has made an incline on both sides and is entirely over the fence. This was told to me by a man who runs a gasoline truck and services the farmers. He also said he raised the lid of a wheat drill and found the seed box completely drifted full.
There is no danger for any of us as long as we do not become stalled somewhere on the road and have to stay out in the weather through a dirt storm. And here is really nothing for us to grumble about, except the added work, the lack of business, and the slight prospects for crops.
SHADOWS (by the editor)
“Man marks the earth with ruin, says Lord Byron. Only the sea remains inviolate. Such as creation’s dawn beheld thou rollest now.”
The dust storms of the West, bringing disaster locally and flinging discomfort afar, call our attention back to the original conditions of these vast prairies or American table lands, extending from Texas to Canada in a broad belt east of the Rockies. Not so long ago the Great Plains of the USA were exclusively a grazing territory, the chosen home of the antelope, prairie dog, jack rabbit, and buffalo. Millions of the American bison roamed the wilds and waxed fat on the buffalo grass which remained nutritious summer and winter. The hardy range animals pawed away the snow at times and obtained subsistence.
Unfortunately, the buffalo grass, once destroyed by the plow, could not be restored. Worse than that, winds of this high altitude carried the loose dirt in great clouds, stripping off the top soil in places and depositing it in great drifts elsewhere. Both the shifting and the drifting were disastrous to crops, and even to buildings and animal life. The Prairie, for a time, under favorable weather blooming as the rose, at least threatens to become a vast Sahara, barren and uninhabited.
We now realize that nature seldom errs, and when it placed the buffalo and the short grass upon the plateau of the West, it was doing well, and that arrangement never should have been disturbed.
Personal note: “I have nothing to complain about and am so very blessed. So what if I can write my name in the coffee table dust. My cup runneth over. Thank you, Lord.”