Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Dust Bowl

I finally watched The Dust Bowl" on PBS. Ken Burns did his usual thorough job in bringing us this story of heartbreak and perseverance in the area around Oklahoma and Texas during the Depression-era Thirties. The tale was a remarkable one that told of how farmers, encouraged by the government, plowed up the natural grasslands to grow wheat. At first things went well and families made a lot of money selling their crops. Then came a years-long drought of Biblical proportions that figuratively and literally turned things black. With no moisture, the dried up ground became airborne, covering the area with choking dust storms that often buried cars and houses.

Many farmers understandably lost heart and moved west, mainly to California, to work as migrant fruit pickers. The story of these "Okies" was told brilliantly by John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath". Remarkably, many families, despite the lack of crops to sell and the risk of losing their farms to foreclosure, stayed and continued to hope for the best. They were referred to by locals as the "Next Year" people because they always held out hope that next year would be better. It wasn't. Years of drought were followed by plagues of grasshoppers that ate everything in sight including fence posts!

As usual with Ken Burns productions the best moments, besides the stunning video footage of the dust storms, were the interviews with folks who had lived through these troubling times. They came from independent, proud families who asked for nothing from the government and wanted no interference with their ability to make a living. When things got so bad that they were starving, they swallowed their pride and took the food the government made available to them. It was sad listening to one woman describe how her hard-working father deteriorated as he watched his dreams go up in black dust. Ironically, it was help from the government that finally pulled these desperate farmers out of the hole. 

FDR's administration provided paying jobs through the Civilian Conservation Corps and also introduced agricultural practices to help combat soil erosion gradually restoring the western plains to productive farmland again. Unfortunately they also began a practice that just seems to go against the grain of what America is all about: with dust storms still prevalent and overproduction of wheat driving prices down, the government began paying farmers not to grow crops. These federal subsidies persist to this day, and once proud farmers who wanted no part of government help were now more than happy to take their money for doing nothing.

Human nature never ceases to amaze me. In the 1950s, with the drought in check and wheat prices rising, farmers again began to plow up previously restored grasslands and plant wheat. The very behavior that caused all their problems in the 1930s was being repeated when it appeared there was a buck to be made. Luckily, smarter conservation policies helped prevent a repeat of the Dust Bowl disaster although some damage was again done to the land. I guess what impressed me most about this part of our history was the resilience of the people. How they managed to stay year after year in conditions that would surely defeat most modern-day Americans is a testament to their fighting spirit and refusal to quit.

The toughness that got America through World Wars, the Great Depression, and natural disasters like the Dust Bowl have always been the hallmarks of the American character. I wonder how today's younger generations who have known nothing but prosperity might fare if forced to cope with such events. 


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1 comment:

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I too saw that documentary by Ken Burns. I think that it should be used as a tool in all American History courses, it is so well done and very informative!