Farmers across the Great Plains longed for rain during the spring of 1934. But day after day, the weather offered no relief, only intense sun, wind, drought, more sun, then gale-force winds. On April 14, massive clouds of dust blotted out the sun over western Kansas. At first the wind raced along the surface, tearing at the stunted wheat and licking up the topsoil. Then the dust thickened into low, heavy, dirt-laden clouds. From a distance, the storm had the appearance of a cumulus cloud, but it was black, not white, and it seemed to eat its way along ith a rolling, churning motion. As the storm swept toward Oklahoma and Texas, the black clouds engulfed the landscape. For those at the storm center there was an eerie sensaton of silence and darkness. There waslitte or no Visibility, and wind velocity hit 40 to 50 miles per hour. The next month was exceedingly hot with a temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. On May 10, the gales returned, this time from the west. Unlike the previous storm, these winds whipped up a formless, light-brown fog that spread over an area 900 miles wide and 1500 miles long. The next day an estimated 12 million tons of soil fell on Chicago, linois, and dust darkened the skies over Cleveland, Ohio. On May 12, dust hung like a shadow over the entire easten seaboard. By the time they were over, these two storms alone blew 650 million tons of topsoil off the Great Plains.
The Dust Bowl covered 300,000 square miles of territory located in Kansas, Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, and New Mexico. In the hardest-hit areas, agriculture virtually ceased. With successive storms, the wind and the flying dust cut off wheat stalks at ground level and tore out the roots. Blowing dirt shifted from one field to another, burying crops not yet carried away from the Wind. Cattle tried to eat the dust-laden grass and filled their stomachs with fatal “mud balls.” The dust banked against houses and tarm buildings like snow, and burned rences up to the post tops. Dirt penetrated into automobile engines and clogged the vital parts. Housewives fought vainly to keep it Out of their homes, but it seeped in thrOugh cracks and crevices, through wet blankets hung over Windows, through oiled cloths and tape, covering everything with grit. Hospitals reported hundreds of patients suffering from “dust pneumonia.” The black blizzards struck so suddenly that many farmers became lost in their Own fields and suffocated, some literally within yards of shelter. More than 350,000 people fled the Great Plains during the 1930s. These “Okies loaded their meager household goods and struck out along famous highway Route 66 for Califonia. Fifty years earlier, a strong. protective carpet of butfalo grass had covered the Great Plains.
The grass held moisture in the soil and kept the soil from blowing away. In dry years, the wind blew out huge craters, later mistakenly called “buffalo wallowS, but as long as the turf remained, the land could recover. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, farmers began staking out homesteads in regions once considered too arid for anything other than range. Wherever they went, farmers plowed under the buffalo grass. During World War (1914-1918) the demand for wheat, along with the invention of the tractor, meant plowing larger areas of the Virgin grassland. Between 1914 and 1917, the area of wheat planted increased to 27 million acres, much of which (more than 40 percent) had never been plowed before. After the war, the ploWing continued. Larger tractors and combines, new machines that could harvest and thresh grain in one operation, inaugurated the age of the wheat kings. By 1930, there were almost three times as many acres in wheat production as there had been a decade earlier, and that number was steadily increasing. The plow exposed the land to rain, wind, and sun. By 1932, the earth on the plains was ready to blow away.
The Dust Bowl sped the development of long-range federal programs in the new field of soil conservation. A veteran conservationist, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) in late 1933, created the Soil Erosion Service, later the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), with Hugh Bennett as its head. The SCs’s task was to supply technical asSistance and leadership, while local soil conservation districts carried out Bennett’s program of strip crops, contour plowing, stubble-mulch farming, and terracing. More dramatically, the Forest sService under Ferdinand A. SilcOx in 1934 started planting a “shelter belt” of trees, within a 100-mile wide zone, from Canada to the Texas Panhandle. Ten years later, more than 200 million cottonwoods and other varieties of trees were serving as windbreaks and helping to conserve moisture. In 1936, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), directed by Chester Davies, adopted soil conservation as a subterfuge to get around an unfavorable Supreme Court decision; but on the Great Plains, soil conservation was a legitimate part of the AAA program. Farmers received government checks for both acreage reductions and wind control practices.
After 1936, the New Deal added little to its conservation program. Roosevelt did appoint two special committees under the chairmanship of Morris L. Cooke, one to study Dust Bowl conditions and the other to recommend specific legislation. Congress passed a water storage bill along the lines that the latter committee had suggested, but did little else. In 1939 Harlan H. Barrows reported for the Committee on the Northern Great Plains but again, little was done. Although it achieved less than it might have, the New Deal did much to hasten recovery in the Dust Bow; more importantly, the rains began anew. As the buffalo grass spread again, the bowl area rapidly shrank from 8.727 million acres in 1938 to 1.2 million in 1939. Yet there remained the danger that farmers would forget the terrible lessons from the drought and that the Dust Bowl would once again reappear