ENID — The dust seemed to rise and hang in the air like floating death. Dirt where crops could be raised blew away, suffocated livestock and brought “dust pneumonia” to people trying to eke out a living on Oklahoma farms.
The “Dirty Thirties” are not remembered fondly by those who lived through them. Hundreds of Oklahomans moved from the state where their livelihoods blew away with the wind, and many settled in California.
From 1934 to 1938, nature’s severe drought and the Great Depression nearly brought the nation to its knees.
Poor farming practices had resulted in over-farming and overgrazing the land, and when the rain stopped, the dirt began to blow away. Oklahoma was part of a multistate area of the Midwestern and Southern Plains that were devastated by the drought and wind. In 1932, the number of storms were increasing — 14 were reported that year. In 1933, there were 38. Some say 1936 was the worst year of all.
‘Find our way home’
Enid’s George Hutchinson was a student at Longfellow Junior High School in 1936, a year which he recalls as very hot and dusty.
“I remember one day, the school closed about noon so we could find our way home. Once I thought they should have closed, but they didn’t — you couldn’t see down the hall. Everyone went home while they could still get there,” Hutchinson said. “That was a mess.”
The dust and wind were so bad, Hutchinson remembers his grandfather telling him he saw a prairie dog trying to dig a hole — 10 feet in the air.
“It was lighter with your eyes closed,” he said.
Hutchinson said the wind was equally harsh. His grandfather lived at Carrier and placed a chain across his fence for a gate. The chain would not stretch completely across the opening, and his grandfather told people he looked at the chain to see if the wind was blowing, Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson does not recall how long the drought lasted, but remembers 1936 as very hot.
“The year 1936 was the hottest dadgum summer in the world, and I was out in it. I was 12 years old. By midnight, it was still too hot to sleep. I went out in the yard with a blanket and slept. We had one fan in the house, and it was a small one. And I didn’t get it,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said the beds were sometimes too toasty to sleep on.
Hutchinson’s father was an attorney and a member of the Oklahoma Legislature. He was running for Congress in 1936, and the family helped him campaign all summer. He lost by 34 votes, Hutchinson said.
“I would sit in the backseat of the car and talk into a microphone and say, ‘Vote for my dad.’ It was so hot it was ridiculous,” he said.
‘It dimmed the sun’
Dale Miller recalls being in grade school at Free Home, which was west of Enid’s Glenwood Elementary School. Free Home was a one-room country school.
“I saw clouds, and it turned dark. It was coming in from the west and northwest, and it dimmed the sun,” said Miller, 86.
The weather had been very dry for two or three years before the dust storms, and animal feed was minimal on their farm. There was little grass, and his family used hay and cottonseed cake as animal feed.
Dirt filled the air, and his family draped wet towels or a cloth around their noses to help keep out the dust. They also placed towels around the house to try to keep the dust out. Miller said his family was one of the lucky ones that managed to stay on the farm.
“My father worked three or four quarters, and we worked pretty hard to keep the money rolling. He figured he would die in debt, and he sure did,” Miller said.
In 1931, when the drought started, his father had enough cattle in the feed lot to build a new house. So he built a new brick home, but by the time the cattle were ready to sell, he could not pay for it. They managed to keep the house in the family, and Miller’s brother lives there today.
During the Dust Bowl, his mother swept the windowsills off every day. Miller does not know how she kept the dust out of the cooking pans. He recalled the government paying farmers to kill livestock because they couldn’t support them.
“We didn’t have a windmill and pumped water for cattle by hand,” he said.
‘We got out of there’
The late Milford Robertson was born on a homestead in Harper County. Robertson died between the time he was interviewed for this story and the date of publication.
His family moved to Stillwater in 1919, so the kids could go to school. At 96, Robertson remembered when they lived on the farm they had an orchard, garden, a deep well and horses.
“Thank goodness we got out of there before the dust storms,” he said.
As a student at Oklahoma A&M, he saw the Dust Bowl and said it was “terrible.”
“It was not a little incident,” he said. “We lived on a farm at Stillwater, but we didn’t get the dust that was experienced in western Oklahoma.”
Even though they did not get the same type of dust as western Oklahoma, the family still had problems. Robertson said he walked four miles from their farm to school, and there was dust in the air. His family had to dust and sweep every day.
“You could see in the north and south, the dust was quite evident,” Robertson said. “There was dust all day long and into the night and next day like it wouldn’t end. It was a plague. I don’t know how people survived.”
‘8 rooms and a path’
Eva McClanahan was raised two miles north of Drummond on a farm where it was hot and dry.
“We had eight rooms and a path. Mom hung a towel over some windows,” she said. “The dust was so thick, you could not see in front of you.”
Her father bought horses and sold them in Arkansas for money. They drove a horse and buggy to school.
“It was terrible hot in the summer, plus the dust. You saw a big, dark cloud in the northwest and knew another dust storm was coming. They were very frequent, though not every day,” she said.
She recalled the summer of 1936 as being extremely hot, and does not remember if they had a wheat crop that year.
McClanahan said throughout the period, her family did not think they were any different from anyone else.
“Everyone was poor,” she said.
In 1939, the rains came again and much of the agricultural land had been placed in conservation districts. With the approach of World War II, America began to come out of the decade-long Depression.
Many Oklahomans who left the state never returned. But there was another movement in the country, one that did not involve people moving out of the state. Rather, this new movement reclaimed the land and taught people how to farm it in a different way that protected the soil for future harvests. The new soil conservation movement had begun, and was starting to catch on in rural America.
Timothy Egan, author of “The Worst Hard Time,” considers the Dust Bowl story a parable of sorts, according to a readers’ guide by publisher Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. Looking back, the story of the Dust Bowl was about what happens when people push the land and do not care for it properly.
McClanahan and Miller said that is a lesson of the Dust Bowl — learning a new way of farming and a new way of caring for the land.
The Associated Press