The Dust Bowl: A History

Much of the research I have done so far involves the Dust Bowl, a name for the Great Plains (mainly its southern region) stemming from the barrenness of the 1930s. The Dust Bowl occurred shortly after the stock market crash at the start of the Great Depression. The most memorable point of the Dust Bowl storms was in 1935, when the they began to pick up into hours-long blackouts from walls of dust. (Worster 18) While these weren’t insanely frequent, a constant dusting of smaller storms swept across the region. These storms didn’t start dying down until after 1939, when the worst of it finally blew through. (Worster 15-16)

Due to the poor farming conditions, the lack of government relief, and the increasing debt of small farm owners, many families packed up their belongings and headed West to California in search of work. These people were called “Okies” or “exodusters” due to their origin from the Dust Bowl. (Worster 44-45) In many cases, they were met with hostility by the residents of California, 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 workers’ conditions. Due to the hectic situation and desperation, the workers could not organize to demand better wages or conditions. (Worster 45)

These Okies replaced the Mexican migrant workers that were restricted by the government in 1929. The farm owners who used them were glad to have the cheap labor at peak seasons. (Worster 52, Babb 11-12) Despite the harsh conditions that these Okies faced, little was done to protect migrant workers in a larger sense after the Great Depression. (Babb 13-14)

Still other Okies 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. (Worster 51)

Relief efforts in California began reaching out to the refugees. They 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. (Babb 22)

The 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. (Bonnifield 121) Wheat was expensive 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 more land under government control, but their offers were too low to be appealing to most farmers. (Bonnifield 148) 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. (Bonnifield 170-171)

Many farms, towns, and cities in the southern plains remained, despite the devastating storms happening around them. The farmers who stayed were optimistic, waiting out the drought that had brought the storms through. Their patience rewarded them in 1939, when the last big storm finally died down and their lands became more usable. (Bonnifield 107)

The Okies who left also found relief after the 1930s. Government aid improved, workers found better jobs, and World War II gave many the opportunities necessary to earn enough money to improve the lives of their families. (Babb 36)