During most of the 1930s, the Great Plains region of the United States was devastated by drought and high winds. This area became known as the “Dust Bowl”. Howling winds also whipped up the topsoil of over-farmed land creating “black blizzards” that were so thick and blinding that daylight seemed more like dusk. It is estimated that these “black blizzards” displaced over 300 million tons of topsoil from the prairie area. These horrendous storms also forced 2.5 million people to migrate west only to encounter extreme disappointment and discrimination.
Why did these storms happen?
The U.S. Government during WWI encouraged farmers to support the war effort by planting wheat to feed the soldiers overseas. In order to increase food production, farmers in the Midwest dug up the buffalo grasses that had held down the prairie soil for thousands of years through their extensive root systems.
With the invention of the farm tractor, farmers could plow up thousands of acres of grassland and plant wheat. Livestock grazed on the rest of the land destroying the natural system that had preserved soil on the prairies.
When a drought occurred, the deep roots grounding the prairie grass, were gone.
One powerful windstorm after another swept across the “Dust Bowl”. The dry topsoil rose in towering clouds and rolled across the land, blotting out the sun sometimes for days at a time. These “black blizzards” made life almost unbearable.
People developed “dust pneumonia” and suffered with pain and difficulty breathing, causing many people to die. Dust drifted like snow so residents had to clear it with shovels. Sometimes people had to dig out their whole homes. It went through the cracks of even well-sealed houses, leaving a dusty coating on food, skin, and furniture. Dust and sand also damaged car engines and farm equipment.
Cows and other grazing animals ate the dust-coated grass which created “mud balls” in their stomachs leading to death.
One major “black blizzard” occurred on May 11, 1934. The storm was two miles high and traveled 2,000 miles to the East Coast blotting out views of the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. Capitol. Sailors 300 miles into the Atlantic Ocean reported dust ½ inch thick on the decks of their ships.
This nightmare lasted almost 10 years when, finally in 1939, the much needed rain came, bringing hope to the prairie. A federal program encouraged farmers to utilize new farming methods that would protect topsoil from eroding. Consequently, Americans should never have to experience the horror of “black blizzards” again.
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