History: America’s Dust Bowl

Reproduced with permission from the neOnbubble Learn You Some History series of student learning guides.

This is a concise guide to the 1930s’ Dust Bowl that occurred on the prairies of America using photographs from the Library of Congress.


America faced a problem in the 1930s. The Great Depression meant that average people couldn’t afford to buy foodstuffs that were grown by farmers throughout the states of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado. This in turn left the farmers with a surplus of crops but no means of selling enough to pay for the luxuries to which they’d become accustomed: champagne, personal dirigibles, butlers, etc. Insanity threatened the farmers’ existence and some took to synchronised vegetable-picking much to the embarrassment of the wider American public.


An ingenious plan was enacted by Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace to encourage farmers to grow a different sort of crop, one that would be free to the people of America and would give the unemployed something to do. That crop was dust. The idea was that by distributing dust freely people would be obliged to clean up a bit more giving them essential training for farmers’ butler and maid roles when the economy picked up. The farmers would be compensated for the new crop from federal coffers. Roy Kimmel of Texas coordinated the efforts.


Prairie farmers quickly adapted their land to grow the new dust, often producing far more than they could reasonably store in sheds.


New farming techniques needed to be learnt too. Tractors and dirigible-drawn ploughs were of no use in dust farming, the work requiring more manual labour. Farmers needed to wait for the right height of dust build-up before harvesting which led to booming business for the Oklahoma Measuring Stick Company, one of the few success stories of that period in America’s history.


Dust distribution was highly successful, managing to blot out the sun when released in storms and culminating in huge amounts of cleaning throughout much of the midwest of America. The area soon became known as the Dust Bowl.


Despite the apparent successes, however, it emerged in 1935 that there was a serious side effect to the dust crop. Physical disabilities of the young started to increase within the affected regions. In particular, Cranium Gigantism emerged mostly in boys leading to the adoption of oversized headwear.


Dust Bowl farmers were reluctant to alter their farming techniques again even with the removal of the subsidy. The American government was forced to intervene in late 1937 and used its weather machine located in St Louis to drench the area and destroy the remaining crops. The production of so much mud generated a swathe of new problems. The skill of car maintenance was suddenly acquired by a large percentage of the population.


America’s relationship with dust had lasted for around a decade but the country’s economy still wasn’t strong enough to support mass purchasing of standard farm produce such as wheat, barley, and caviar. Farming insanity returned to the community. In one well-reported instance a Kansas farmer built a nest in a tree and lived there until death from exposure to the elements.


Not every farmer succumbed to madness, of course, and some proved to be particularly hardy. Gloria Bell, who had seen her 700 acres of land transformed from wheat to dust to mud and then back to wheat managed to fashion out a new career as a modern artist. Her seminal piece – a tent adorned with the names of every butler she had slept with – would influence British artist Tracey Emin many decades later.


Finally, America entered the war (widespread car maintenance skills would prove invaluable as manufacturing was ramped up) and prosperity came to the country. Farming became a viable lifestyle choice once again. The scars of the Dust Bowl era still existed, however, and it would be many decades before some of its victims – Cranium Gigantism sufferers, for instance – would be compensated.

Author: Mark

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