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"The horizon was black" Dust Bowl spread misery, advanced conservation

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, April 6, 2010, at 12:02 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, at 2 p.m.

John White of Andover, now 80, remembers being in kindergarten in Ellsworth when one of the dust storms of the Dirty Thirties hit.

"When the kindergarten teacher saw the dust clouds she turned us loose to go home," White said. "My buddy and I were walking home when the dust hit. It was so bad, we couldn't see and kept walking into trees."

They holed up in the culvert where the two boys sometimes fished for crawdads.

"My dad figured out where we were and came and found us," White said. "I remember dad carrying me into the house. The other boy passed away."

His lungs had filled with dust.

Like clockwork, winds of 30 to 40 mph come to Kansas every March and April, making it the windiest and dustiest time of year.

Last Friday, a storm system came out of the southern Rockies with 40 mph winds, kicked up dirt in western Texas and deposited it in Wichita on Saturday morning.

Changes in soil conservation practices made 75 years ago, after the dust storms of the 1930s, make the air breathable even on the windiest day.

With the changes in farming practices and the irrigation systems installed, it's unlikely that dust storms could happen again on such a large scale, said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita.

"But the potential is still there," he said.

"It would take extreme events over the greater part of a decade and conditions would have to be awfully dry," said Kevin Darmofal, meteorologist with the Wichita office.

Problems mount

In the late 1920s, rural America was in the midst of an economic depression.

Grain prices had plunged and farmers tried to stay afloat by growing more wheat.

Then came the drought and wind.

A series of dust storms that hit the Great Plains over the next decade gave the era the nickname The Dirty Thirties. The worst of the storms fell on April 14, 1935, Palm Sunday, known as Black Sunday.

The survivors — now in their 80s and 90s — talk about dust so thick and fine it would find its way inside houses, despite wet sheets and towels hung around closed doors and windows.

Dust so intense it would collect on rafters in attics, causing roofs to collapse.

Dust that drifted like snow, filling ditches, covering farm implements and threatening the very lives of those who breathed it in.

Lucian Doll remembers being 14 and living on his family farm six miles north of Ellinwood when the storm hit.

He was in a field working with a team of horses.

"I had four horses pulling a harrow and I can see the horizon was black," said Doll, now 89 and living in Wichita. "When I get to the end of the row, I turned around to face it. It must have been a half mile from me — just a boiling wall of dirt coming at me."

He unhooked the horses and ran the animals a quarter mile back to the barn.

"By the time I put the horses in the stable and stepped out of the barn, I could not see the house 50 yards a way."

The swirling clouds of red dust — topsoil from thousands of farms from Oklahoma, Texas, eastern Colorado and western Kansas — blocked the sun, stalled vehicles and uprooted rural Americans by the thousands.

But Doll especially remembers the aftermath, when he walked his family's stubble fields and saw all the wild animals that had died in the storm and dead cattle standing upright, surrounded by the drifts of sand and dirt, their lungs filled with dirt.

"I thought the world was coming to an end. It was that terrible," he said.

The dust storms of the 1930's rank nationally among the most significant events of the 20th century, according to the National Weather Service.

Iconic books and songs would be written, such as John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and Woody Guthrie's "Dust Pneumonia Blues."

Conservation enacted

The years 1934 through 1936 were marked by periods of extreme heat and drought, according to Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita.

The Black Sunday storm carried dust from the Plains states to New York and Washington, D.C., allowing politicians to see first-hand how the farmers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas had been living.

One of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's advisers, Hugh Hammond Bennett, was speaking before Congress about the need for soil conservation legislation when the dust settled in Washington, D.C.

"This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about," Hammond told the legislators.

On April 27, 1935, Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act, prompting conservation practices such as crop rotations, terraces, waterways, windbreaks, wetlands, no-till farming, buffers, watershed dams, rangeland management, ponds and nutrient and pest management.

The survivors

The Eagle asked readers to tell their own stories of Black Sunday and the Dust Bowl. More than 200 replied.

The 75th anniversary marks the last major anniversary for many survivors to tell their stories.

Leon Torline was 7 years old living on a farm near Windhorst in western Kansas.

The Ford County farmer remembers the chickens going to roost during midday, Russian thistles blowing up and clogging fences and seeing nothing growing for miles.

Wichitan Betty Marshall, now 81, was a child living in Rooks County when the storms hit.

Her mother would sit in a chair holding her through the night. "She thought I might not be able to breathe properly if I was lying down," Marshall said.

"These were things that influenced our lives forever," she said. "We had lots of farmland. I remember Grandpa driving us around to look at the fields and seeing dust piled up so high we might not see the fences. Crops were nonexistent."

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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