1931-1940: Dust, depression and baseball

01/29/2011 12:00 AM

06/08/2011 11:08 AM

In 1931, Kansas farmers raised a record 240 million bushels of wheat. But the price had fallen to 30 cents a bushel and farmers poured the grain out to their livestock, hoping to fatten and sell their cattle and hogs for better prices.

It was the beginning of a long decade — the Great Depression.

Small town banks were failing and dry winds were beginning to blow away the Kansas top soil.

But what helped pull Kansans through the 1930s was that one of the 20th century's most beloved Kansans was leading the state's government.

Alf Landon was governor from 1932 to 1936, when he won the Republican nomination for president.

As governor, he fought the Ku Klux Klan and championed fiscal responsibility in a time of severe drought and high unemployment.

He cut Kansas' debt by 22 percent.

When the state Legislature refused to cut his $5,000 salary, he returned his paychecks to the state treasury.

He also began a state water conservation program and cut taxes.

"The fundamental functions of a state are to administer justice, to educate the youth, to care for the poor and the unfortunate, to preserve the public health and to build roads," Landon told the Legislature in 1935.

The state, he said, must live within the means of its taxpayers.

On March 31, 1931, the nation reeled when popular Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne's plane crashed in the Kansas Flint Hills near the community of Bazaar; and, on July 2, 1937, when Kansas' favorite daughter Amelia Earhart disappeared on a flight around the world.

The 1930s were when Walter and Olive Ann Beech began Beech Aircraft Corporation, when Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow hung out in Kansas towns to avoid the law and when rural electric cooperatives began stringing wires across Kansas.

And the 1930s was the decade in which national baseball came to Wichita. Ray "Hap" Dumont helped get a new ball park built in 1935 near the Arkansas River in downtown. In order to make the first tournament work, Dumont brought in a star pitcher who turned out to be a big gate attraction: Satchel Paige, who became one of the greatest pitchers in Negro League baseball history.

But the era is best known for the dust storms that gave it the nickname the Dirty Thirties.

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

John White of Andover remembered being in kindergarten in Ellsworth.

"When the kindergarten teacher saw the dust clouds she turned us loose to go home," an 80-year-old White told The Eagle last year. "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.

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