The Dust Bowl: Primary Accounts

The primary sources available in regards to the Dust Bowl are numerous and descriptive. Articles describing the storms, notes and studies describing the workers, and music describing the personal experiences all amount to a colorful tale of what the Dust Bowl looked and felt like.

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. (Wunder 83) Despite the five hours of dust reported in New York, health issues were not a problem for the residents of the city. (Wunder 84) Those from the Great Plains had a different story to tell, however. Dust storms were much more frequent, 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. (Wunder 89) Production was already being cut dramatically, but the wheat fields becoming barren overnight led to levels of devastation that affected every other part of farmers’ lives. They had no crop to sell or feed their livestock, which quickly began to starve due to a poor diet of essentially weeds. They started to fall behind in mortgage payments. They were forced to move out of their homes, give up their land, and move West. (Wunder 91-93)

The refugees from the Dust Bowl faced many hardships upon arriving in western states, especially California. One of the government relief workers running camps for refugees called California’s resistance to┬ámigration “fascist” and an attempt at creating a “Jim-Crowism for the worker.” (Babb 60) Refugee children were only begrudgingly accepted into schools because of the requirements of the law, although relief workers were desperate to ensure that the children would not know only the migratory camps and shelters they faced. (Babb 61)

The same government worker identified three types of camps in California: government camps, of which there were only seven; grower camps, which were run by employers for migrant workers and failed to offer much in sanitation; and squatter camps, which were the most numerous – amounting roughly to 2,000 in California – and the least sanitary. (Babb 65-66) Many of the camps were often described as clean and well-kept, despite diseases like measles running rampant through some areas. Men were reluctant to receive relief checks and assistance despite having no other way to feed their families. (Babb 74-75)

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) did a survey of the workers who would inhabit such camps and depended on relief for 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 (“transient unemployed”). (Webb xv) 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. (Webb 103) The solutions 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. (Webb 108) The WPA could not find a solution to monitoring and consistently employing migratory-casual workers to ensure they are paid well and can sustain themselves throughout the year. (Webb 105) 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.

Another angle that shone through research was the discovery of Woody Guthrie’s music, which details the events of the Dust Bowl storms and the refugees fleeing West through personal experience and folksy music. His songs put the experience into a perspective that is much more tangible than written accounts.