History: The Dust Bowl

Scene from The Grapes of Wrath

Scene from The Grapes of Wrath

The Dust Bowl refers to the Great Plains (mainly its southern region), a name stemming from the land’s barrenness of the 1930s. The Dust Bowl formed due to storms that began to blow across America shortly after the start of the Great Depression. The most memorable point of the Dust Bowl storms was in 1935, when they began to pick up into hours-long blackouts from walls of dust.[1] While these storms weren’t too frequent, a constant dusting of smaller storms swept across the region. These didn’t start dying down until after 1939, when the worst of it finally blew through and crops could start growing again.[2]

The US government, still in the throes of Great Depression, began working toward improving farm conditions even before the Dust Bowl became a huge problem. In 1933, the first act to improve the use of the Great Plains formed in order to fight off the onset drought. This act, and its subsequent forms, encouraged farmers to shift from growing wheat to developing livestock.[3] Wheat was lucrative at the time, however, so farmers refused the offer. The government also tried to buy land from smaller, self-sufficient farmers in order to bring it under stricter control, but their offers were too low to be appealing to most farmers.[4] Eventually, as the dust storms grew worse and worse, the government stopped relief efforts for the small farmers, becoming in part the catalyst for the mass migration West and the consolidation of land under larger-scale farms.[5]

"A farmer holds out his hand to represent how high the wheat should be in a field. Grant County, North Dakota. July 1936." Credits: Arthur Rothstein; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

“A farmer holds out his hand to represent how high the wheat should be in a field. Grant County, North Dakota. July 1936.”
Credits: Arthur Rothstein; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

The Dust Bowl storms began to severely strip farms in 1934, meriting several newspaper accounts of the dust clouds moving from Missouri and the Mississippi River regions to Chicago and New York.[6] Dust storms were constant in the Great Plains, perpetually covering every aspect of farmers’ and Midwesterners’ lives. Once the storms in 1934 stripped fields of their wheat crops, the Agricultural Adjustment Act received a great deal of criticism for trying to reduce wheat production.[7] Because of the previous reduction, and the overnight stripping of fields across the entire region, farmers began to suffer even more losses. They had no crop to sell or even to feed their livestock, which quickly began to starve due to a poor diet of essentially weeds. Farmers started to fall behind in paying their share to landowners and were forced to leave their homes, give up their land, and move West.[8]

This does not account for every farmer or Midwesterner; in fact, most farmers stayed on their lands and waited out the drought and storms.[9] Much to their relief, their determination paid off in 1939, when the storms faded out and crops finally began to grow again.[10]

Those farmers who left became known as “Okies” or “exodusters” in the West, especially California.[11] In many cases, they were met with hostility by the residents of places they went to find work, but larger farms took them in as cheap labor, housing them in what was barely more than shantytowns. Their wages were half of what California considered livable, but the system was so large that no inspector could check all of the farms’ conditions. Due to the hectic situation and desperation, the workers could not organize to demand better wages or conditions, nor often did they want to.[12]

Difficulties were not born solely from the landowners of large farms; California’s public was aggressively against refugees, trying to turn them away at the edges of towns and threatening their makeshift homes with raids and fires. One of the government relief workers running camps for refugees, Sanora Babb, called California’s resistance to migration “fascist” and an attempt at creating a “Jim-Crowism for the worker.”[13] Refugee children were only begrudgingly accepted into schools the law required it. Relief workers were desperate to ensure that the children would know more than the migratory camps and shelters they faced.[14] Men were reluctant to receive relief checks and assistance despite having no other way to feed their families, and women scrambled to keep together some semblance of a decent home.[15]

"Migrant Mother series. Woman with children in a tent. Nipomo, California. 1936." Credits: Dorothea Lange; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

“Migrant Mother series. Woman with children in a tent. Nipomo, California. 1936.”
Credits: Dorothea Lange; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) did a survey of the workers who would inhabit government-run camps and depended on relief as their main source of income. While its sample was relatively small (only 500 men), it looked at the people who had become “migratory-casual workers” as opposed to refugees, which they called “transient unemployed.”[16] The survey looked at all aspects of the workers’ history, method, and purpose in working seasonally. It concluded that, while the workers took pride in being employed and independent, they still did not earn enough to sustain themselves.[17] The solutions the WPA document presented essentially promoted public works programs to reduce the surplus in the migratory-casual work field until the economy was sustainable enough to let the men return to more stable occupations.[18] The WPA could dismissed any potential solution that involved monitoring and consistently employing migratory-casual workers in order to ensure they were paid well and could sustain themselves throughout the year, claiming the work was too inconsistent to manage.[19] This decision likely aided in perpetuating an issue of hard agricultural labor for little pay, which still plagues the migrant workers of today. Of course, the only real difference is that today’s migrant workers are not white.

"A group of migrants waiting for relief checks outside of building. Calipatria, California. February 1937." Credits: Dorothea Lange; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

“A group of migrants waiting for relief checks outside of building. Calipatria, California. February 1937.”
Credits: Dorothea Lange; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

That sort of issue is not new, however. Dust Bowl refugees replaced the Mexican migrant workers who were restricted by the government in 1929. The farm owners who had depended on this type of labor were glad to have the refugees at peak seasons.[20] Despite the harsh conditions that the refugees faced, little was done to protect migrant workers in a larger sense after the Great Depression.[21] Still other refugees couldn’t even find work. They ended up staying in shantytowns by the roads, trying to make as comfortable a living as they could manage. They were forced to move along often and without the security of having anywhere else to go.[22] Relief efforts in California began reaching out to the refugees. Government workers set up camps to house those who could not find work, provided care for the sick, educated children, and helped workers find jobs and opportunities for better wages.[23] Despite these efforts, only seven government-run camps existed in the entire state at the height of the refugee crisis.[24]

The refugees who left their homes eventually found relief after the 1930s. Government aid improved, workers found better jobs, and World War II gave thousands the opportunities necessary to earn the money necessary to improve the lives of their families.[25] The wartime economy that kicked in saved refugees from continuing the perpetual rut of migrant labor, but it also prevented the use of Progressive Era tactics to give workers more power over their jobs, an idea that John Steinbeck, writer of The Grapes of Wrath, encouraged wholeheartedly.

 

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  1. Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 18.
  2. Ibid., 15-16.
  3. Mathew Paul Bonnifield, The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979), 121.
  4. Ibid., 148.
  5. Ibid., 170-171.
  6. John R. Wunder, Frances W. Kaye, and Vernon Carstensen, eds., Americans View Their Dust Bowl Experience (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1999), 83.
  7. Ibid., 89.
  8. Ibid., 91-93.
  9. Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 10.
  10. Bonnifield,107.
  11. Worster, 44-45.
  12. Worster, 45; Charles J. Shindo, Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination, Rural America (Lawrence, Kan.) (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 4.
  13. Sanora Babb, Dorothy Wixson, Dorothy Babb, and Douglas C. Wixson, On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps, 1st ed., Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Imprint Series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 60.
  14. Ibid., 61.
  15. Ibid., 74-75.
  16. John N. Webb, The Migratory-Casual Worker (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1937), xv.
  17. Ibid., 103.
  18. Ibid., 108.
  19. Ibid., 105.
  20. Worster, 52; Babb, 11-12.
  21. Babb, 13-14.
  22. Worster, 51.
  23. Babb, 22.
  24. Ibid., 65.
  25. Ibid., 36.