Saturday, April 25, 2015

80 years ago – April 14, 1935 – Black Sunday – Dust Bowl by Kaye Spencer

Library of Congress - "The Winds of the Dust Bowl..."
April 14th, 1935, went down in American history as “Black Sunday”. A dust storm that people later described as a black blizzard swept over the Oklahoma Panhandle area in the afternoon and made it to Amarillo, Texas that same evening. People who left the region later gained the name, 'exodusters'. That the dust bowl years coincided with the Great Depression made the entire decade one of extreme hardship for a large population (estimates of upwards of 2.5 million people) of the United States.

Ken Burns made an outstanding PBS documentary in 2012 about the Black Sunday storm, and author Timothy Eagan compiled a book of memories from people living in the dust bowl region. Eagan's book, The Worst Hard Time, is an interesting read of anecdotal stories told by people who lived through the Dust Bowl years or who had heard stories handed down to them by family members.

The dust bowl years were roughly 1931 through 1939 with the worst of the drought between the years 1934 to 1937. The map shows the general area of the United States that was affected the most and labeled the ‘dust bowl’ region. I added the black arrow/line to the map to show where I live, which is right smack dab in the bowl itself.

The dirt blew from a combination of prolonged drought and that grasslands had been plowed and planted to wheat and/or over-grazed, which proved to be a poor agricultural endeavor for the particular time and place. So because of this, the top soil was unprotected and vegetation roots were so shallow, that the winds simply scooped up the dirt as it blew along.

For people who lived through the “Dirty ‘30s”, dust and dirt became a nearly permanent yellow-brown haze in the atmosphere or it was a series of rolling walls of black dirt depending upon your location. People breathed dust and dirt. It sifted through walls. It found its way into the ice boxes. It settled in bedding. It garnished your meal. People walked in it. Livestock died from dust pneumonia. Children wore dust masks when playing outside and when they walked to and from school. Even when you were inside your house, when the dirt blew, you wore a wet bandana tied over your mouth and nose to keep from choking on the dust. Crops blew away, and farmers were helpless to do anything to intervene. Women hung set sheets and blankets over windows and doorways in futile attempts to stop the dirt and dust from coming into the house. In some areas, dirt that was fine as sifted powdered sugar would pile in drifts just like snow drifts. The constant presence of dust literally drove people mad. If you read/watched James Michener's Centennial, you'll recall the part in which the mother killed her family because the dirt had driven her over the edge.

In May 2014, this article appeared in Forbes: Drought Worse Than Dust Bowl In Some States The opening reads:

Three years of relentless and severe drought has made large parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Texas are drier than they were during Dust Bowl in the 1930s. In the Texas panhandle, Amarillo is about 10% drier now than the 42 months that ended April 30, 1936 and drier than the state’s record drought in the 1950s, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor…

Here is an except from this article, Dust Bowl Revisited, that was published in November 2012:

On October 18, 2012, the Associated Press reported that “a massive dust storm swirling reddish-brown clouds over northern Oklahoma triggered a multi-vehicle accident along a major interstate…forcing police to shut down the heavily traveled roadway amid near blackout conditions.” Farmers in the region had recently plowed fields to plant winter wheat. The bare soil—desiccated by the relentless drought that smothered nearly two-thirds of the continental United States during the summer and still persists over the Great Plains—was easily lifted by the passing strong winds, darkening skies from southern Nebraska, through Kansas, and into Oklahoma...

Significant time has passed since both of those articles were published, but the drought conditions here in southeastern Colorado have not improved. We’ve already experienced several ‘dirty’ days this spring, and we've had not appreciable precipitation nor do we expect rain any time soon.

While this picture doesn't do justice to the amount of dirt that accompanied these tumbleweeds, it does illustrate the dry and windy conditions here. The tumbleweeds were every bit as thick, or worse, in the spring of 2014.

Back in 2013, I drove into the first of the several dust storms that hit our area that year. To show you a comparison of the Dust Bowl Then and Now, here is a collage I made of ‘history repeating itself’ using images from 1935 and the ones I took in 2013. It makes me shudder to think how much *things* haven't improved in 80 years.

So just in case you don’t have enough sand in your craw from reading about dirt and dust, I’ll leave you with the dust storm scene from the movie, Hidalgo.

 Current articles commemorating the 80th Anniversary of Black Sunday:

 Links for resources in this blog post:

Until next time,



  1. When I was writing my paper on Karol Smith, I researched some of the information you write about. It was a devastating time, and I do fear a return of an even worse scenario. Here is to doing a 'rain dance'. Thank you for an educational look at the past-present and possible future. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

    1. Doris,

      *fingers crossed* The current weather report predicts rain for us beginning Sunday and lasting through Monday. I'll definitely be doing the happy rain dance if that really happens. (trying not to get my hopes up -- darn, but I hate disappointment) lol

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Kaye,

    It was a terrible and tragic time in American history, making the Great Depression even worse.

    How terrible to contemplate that this all could happen over again, given that we are currently printing money with NOTHING to back up our economic policies.

    Mother Nature and man can both be horribly destructive

    1. Charlie,

      During my growing up years, I didn't realize the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression were separate events. When my family members talked about what it was like living back then, they never made a distinction between them.

  3. Kaye,
    Thank you for the grim reminder that weather is cyclical and we are headed for some dark days. Agree with Charlie about the relentless printing of money and its ultimate effect. Enjoyed this and thought if you haven't seen it, others might too.

    1. Janet,

      "Grim" is a good word choice in this instance. The weather was grim. The outlook for a better life any time soon was grim. Prospects were grim. I don't know if 'hope' can be grim, but hope was probably what kept them going when nothing else could.

  4. Sorry Kaye,
    Wrong link to the Woody Guthrie song,

    1. Janet,

      This is a great compilation of Depression Era images set against Woody's song.

      Another great bit of music for the times, albeit it smacks of governmental propaganda, is Virgil Thompson's, The Plow that Broke the Plains.

  5. Thank you for this post, Kaye. The awesome force of nature.

  6. Keith,

    The power of love and the power of nature--two unstoppable forces.