The Dust Bowl refers to the region of the United States that was greatly affected by drought in the 1930’s. From Texas to New York, Americans saw little to no rainfall, intense winds, and un-arable soil. Drought loosened the root system making it easy for the wind to whip up the topsoil. Intense wind lead to incessant dust storms made farming next to inmpossible, choked cattle, and effectively killed the livelihood of farmers. Driven by the American dream and heavy dependence on an agricultural economy, many farmers set out to make a profit by raising and selling cattle and growing crops. One farming family recorded their struggle in depression-ridden America as they fought to keep their livelihood in the extreme climate.A farmer named Will Henderson had settled in Oklahoma with his wife and daughter. For the duration of the drought Mrs. Henderson wrote to her friends about their struggle with the land. Henderson’s Letters from the Dust Bowl reveal the difficulties presented by the environment as well as governmental and economic pressure which made it difficult to turn a profit while sustaininga family.
The extreme conditions brought on by the drought and dust storms made it increasingly difficult to work the land and raise cattle. On June 30, 1935 Henderson describes their 640-acre lot as having “no grass” saying “everything is covered lagain) with a silt like deposit.” She later likens their grassless land to their kitchen floor.” Without the main portion of their cattle’s diet the Henderson’s were unable to provide adequately for the animals. Henderson describes their decision to send twenty-seven heads of cattle to feed on the little grass left in the state. Shipping charges reached forty-six dollars while they also paid per head for the pasture. It was a risky investment but the Henderson’s had little choice. The same day they sent the cattle they received the “first effective moisture in many months” however she remarked that all hope for their wheat crop had disappeared a few months prior.’ Later letters reveal there may be hope for their wheat crop yet and show the Henderson’s losing hope in regards to their cattle.
On January 8, 1936 Henderson remarks that shipping the cattle “wasa disastrous mistake”.” The investment had not paid off standing to show as yet another example of the economic pressure made heavier by the environment. As the cost of caring for their cattle rose steadily, the Henderson family faced other challenges with their livelihood. After throwing much of their money into saving the cattle they had little left to care for their crops. Mrs. Henderson wrote to her friend Henry Wallace saying, “Now we are facing a fourth year of failure..in spite of al our careful and expensive work.” The pastures and fields had become permanently marred. The effects of the harsh environment almost entirely erased any evidence that the soil had been tilled other than the scarred surface of the earth.
Besides the immense pressure from the economy, political factors added more weight to the shoulders of farmers such as the Henderson’s. Programs meant to help often impeded. One such program was a soil erosion program implemented by the United States government. On January 8, 1936, Mrs. Henderson remarked that the Soil Erosion Control programs offered new planting methods however the new methods resulted in a small harvest. Henderson further complains about the crops stating, “These crops of roughage have little to no market value.” Aid came in small amounts or not at all. Expenses of war drew the attention and resources of the government. Henderson touches on this in a letter from June 30h where she writes, “We farmers here in the United States might as well recognize that we area minority group, and that the prevailing interest of the nation as a whole is no longer agriculture. As the dust continued to cover Oklahoma so did desperation.
As her letters continued, Henderson shared her growing frustration with the government offered programs. The Agricultural Adjustment Act was implemented to even the balance of supply and demand for farmers. The act raised the prices of farm commodities to mimic scarcity. A noticeable contrast to crop prices in 1931 which Henderson described as “hopelessly low”/ In 1936 the Supreme Court stopped most of the AAA aid to farmers. Mrs. Henderson showed her frustration when she wrote, “Farmers are not asking for special favors. They ask only an even chance as compared with other workers. But people don’t understand.”
Among failed government programs, Henderson spoke somewhat favorably on one program called the “wheat acreage control program”. A remainder of the AAA program, it provided farmers with rental checks. “In our own section, the largest amount of direct ash benefit has come through the rental checks…”These checks were the result of a government attempt to raise the prices of crops by limiting the supply. Henderson remarked that any farmer would gladly use every resource they had. Farmers on this program could have easily sustained themselves on these funds alone, however the demand for crops was too great. The thought of living comfortably was still far off. Their living conditions were dependent on how far they could make the checks stretch.
The pressure to provide for the government and family was only intensified. In her final letters, Henderson’s words to her friend describe how their plight continued. She remarked that their prospects for a wheat crop harvest were “extremely doubtful” In conclusion, the declining economy along with extenuating political factors worsened the effects of the drought on farmers like the Henderson. Failed government programs, an unstable economy, and the distraction of war made it difficult for farmers to turn a profit let alone maintain their crops and cattle. Fluctuating crop prices created a fragile market even though the Great Depression left few with money to spend. The cost of maintaining a farm rose and resources became scarcer. Between fighting for the viability of their family and livelihood, the only thing to push the Henderson family forward was the determination of the American Spirit.