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“Dust Bowl: Southern Plains in the 1930s” by Donald Worster gives an intriguing outlook on the plains during the Great Depression that was happening in the United States. Worster writes about the major dust storms and how people were affected by said storms during this disastrous time period. The Dust Bowl mainly affected five states, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Donald Worster goes into detail on how each part of the areas that were prone to the dust storms responded and any possible solutions that they may have come across.
The book starts off with the grim outlook of the United States. The Great Depression struck the nation. Even worse, the dust bowl arrives. Types of dust storms were labeled “sand blows” or “black blizzards.” The book brings us to the state of Kansas. Dust storms shrouding the area were destroying crops and sickening people that were caught in dusty winds. The dust storms were theorized to give people a new type of pneumonia. Many people volunteered at the Red Cross, making dust masks to give to people to protect during from dust. The Dust Bowl was not only a challenge to the people in Kansas, but a challenge to their will as well.
Worster takes a turn to the Okies and Exodusters. The Okies and Exodusters were refugees fleeing from the plains that were affected by the Dust Bowl. The dust destroyed the farmland, causing these people to travel westward. Migration from the farms increased dramatically as more and more people took to the cities for jobs. Droughts were also in effect. Many “Drought Survivors” fled as well. Such harsh effects that were going makes it clear why the Okies and Exodusters sought refuge somewhere else.
There were a few different reactions to the dust storms in the southern plains. As stated earlier, some people fled, hoping to find new opportunity. Others stayed and tried to survive everything that was coming to them. Out of the ones that stayed, some thought of the harsh weather as a test. They would stay and survive because they believed the Dust Bowl was “a drought, they were confident, and a drought alone”.
Worster goes into a little history of the geography of the southern plains. The land dealt with prehistoric wind erosion, which caused the formation of soil patterns. The southern plains do not get much rain, causing the land to suffer multiple droughts. The weather of the plains is claimed to be unpredictable. It is said to have “sharp extremes—heat and cold, floods and droughts, cyclones and blizzards” (Worster 70). With such a wild climate, a dust bowl sounds a little more likely to happen.
More history appears in the work. The plains have been home to the Apache Indians. The hunting of buffalo is an example of their full agricultural economy. When the Apaches obtained horses, it made their way of life easier. They used what the land has given them, adapted to the natural order, and showed restraint on the land when needed. The Apache life, and that of other plains Indians, came to an end when the United States expanded onto their land.
During the years before the Dust Bowl, farming techniques improved. One such technique is known as “dry farming.” Dry farming was used to prevent having to rely on more grass and cattle to get the job done. To help farming, “Congress passed an Enlarged Homestead Act, which gave each settler 320 acres of land”. Despite the assistance, the increased settlement may have contributed to the Dust Bowl. Another major technique was the invention of the machine. Machines created a new sod-busting type of farming. This technique created the wheat factory and the idea of farming a single crop.
The book takes the scene to Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. In Cimarron County, the people try to make the best out of their dire situation. Families that did not flee their homes would sell their livestock for what they could get to survive. They would also collect driftwood from nearby rivers. Others would set up illegal stills to sell whisky. The selling of cattle was still depended on for most families in Cimarron County. Finding feed for the animals was also a hard task due to the drought.
The people in Oklahoma had to ration what they had to survive. With the failure of crops, families had to rely on dairy products sold in town for other goods. Chickens became valuable, as they produced eggs for consuming and selling. Sows became important for everything on them except for their tail. Each killed sow was divided up into cans and given to the people. Government relief became an important necessity as well.
With the drought and the depression, the farmers turned to wheat as their choice of crop. The conditions made wheat a suitable crop to grow. Wheat had a higher return of payment than any other crop farmers grew. Worster helps clarify this with the chart that is given on page 151. The chart shows a spike in market value of wheat compared to other crops in addition to changes in farm units and the income of the crops.
As the people were trying to get by, Franklin Roosevelt comes in with the New Deal. Roosevelt founded the National Resources Planning Board to help solve the crisis. A “New Deal conservation” was considered to be needed to survive the horrid conditions in the plains. The leaders spoke “of the need to recognize such basic institutions as capitalism, commercial agriculture, and factory farming”. This conservation plan did assist better than the first conservation plan carried out in the Progressive Era.
As the New Deal aided the plains, one particular individual was trying to identify the problem in use of the land. Lewis Gray believed that “Most of the problems in American land use…were the outgrowth of an unrestrained capitalism” (Worster 189). Gray added that land use planning would have Americans find a middle ground between the policy of laissez-faire capitalism and socialism. Gray’s plan came in multiple steps, with the last being the most important. The last step was grassroots collective planning. Unfortunately, Gray could not carry out the plan.
The Dust Bowl brought the idea of ecology to the board’s attention. They have come to the agreement that there are limits to economic expansion. The limits helped the board learn that nature also has its limits, so conservation became more critical. The Dust Bowl was somewhat solved, with the solution being to conserve to “reach traditional expansionary aims”.
The Dust Bowl was a tragedy that struck the nation with its horrific storms. People were coming up with various solutions to fight this disastrous weather during the other crisis that was the Great Depression. Donald Worster does a good job explaining what the Dust Bowl was and how it affected the farmers and the plains. The pictures shown in the book really captures how intense the Dust Bowl was. This book is a good one to read. If anyone is interested in the Dust Bowl and would like to know more about it, I would recommend they read this work.
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