Depression, Drought and Dust
Aug 2, 2017 | by Ellen Dial
The Three D’s
No, not the crazy 3D movies from the 1950’s, but the three D’s that defined an era in our country – depression, drought and dust. The period between the glitz of the Jazz Age and WWII.
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Now, we are all familiar with both these events, right? BUT, as 21st century vintage mavens and history buffs, what do we really know?
We know fashion was gorgeous and feminine. Figure skimming dresses cut on the bias. Cunning little hats. Hollywood created some fanciful diversions – films full of music, romance, fabulous clothes, cocktails and comedy. Fast forward to the 1970’s and The Walton’s romanticizing the time. I loved this show, BTW. We knew they were poor. We knew there were struggles and some heartache. But what was it really like?
Well, it was bad. Really bad. To the point where I had to ask myself “…this was the United States of America? Seriously?”
Naturally, this got my brain going. We might remember bits and pieces from school, we’ve read the novels and heard stories from relatives who lived through it. It seems so long ago and NOT possible now, right? Hmm. We’ve been through crashes and lean times since the Great Depression, the crash of 1987 and the housing crisis of 2008 come immediately to mind. These times were not so great – at times bad. I’m guessing many of you have stories to tell.
More must be known! Enter the magnificent Ken Burns series The Dust Bowl. In all honesty, I had to watch it a couple times and each time I found myself teary-eyed. More research ensued. The process was heartbreaking, but what did I find out?
Well, let’s take a look, shall we?
Disclaimer: I am NOT an economist or deep historian. Not on any level. Volumes have been produced on these topics by those much smarter than I. What you’re about to read is a greatly simplified and incomplete 30,000-foot view – presented in a 21st century voice. You know, mostly mainly right.
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Vintage 3D | D One – Depression
The 1920’s roared! The market grew exponentially – pretty much unfettered by rules or oversight. From store clerks to Wall Street barons, many, many were investing. There were numerous nefarious schemes, funds, real estate deals, railroads, mines – you get the picture. Numerous investors became “rich” on paper. People threw their entire savings into these things. A ton of money was being thrown around. Consumer and commercial lending was at an all-time high. People buying stuff they didn’t have the cash to cover.
High cotton. As long as the market stayed fairly stable and other economic indicators stayed good.
There was no way it could last. In the early months of 1929, the stock market stumbled. It dipped, fell and leveled out. The big, big financial houses threw millions at the market. It exploded way up again in the fall. So, this deal worked!
Except when it didn’t.
On October 29, 1929 – the bottom completely fell out. Tanked. This caused a HUGE panic – investors scrambled to sell and get out. Over 20 million shares were sold/traded/dumped. The news coming off the Street was wild and ticker tapes were hours behind.
Almost overnight, millionaires and smaller investors lost every penny.
To debunk an urban legend, there were no recorded suicides on Wall Street that day. But in the weeks and months to follow, there were quite a few with the realization that the “get rich quick” schemes were fake. Many owed a great deal of money. Money that didn’t exist and probably never did.
As consumer confidence plummeted, businesses began to fail and unemployment sky-rocketed. Starting in 1930, banks were rushed – clients showing up demanding all their savings. The rush caused 50% of the banks to fail. The money wasn’t there. Think It’s a Wonderful Life.
At the peak of the Depression, an estimated 15 million people were unemployed – 25% of the population.
With all this madness, how did people survive? By scrimping and living on the edge.
What did people eat? Some families cultivated little gardens. They ate lard and sugar sandwiches, creamed beef or peas on toast, many things on toast, a lot of potatoes were consumed. Soups were made without meat and were water based. The basic ingredients for bread were expensive or scarce, Depression era bread sometimes had two ingredients – water and flour. They still wanted little pleasures, and “wacky cake” or Depression cake become a thing, they are delicious, BTW!! I’ve made these flavorful cakes without eggs, milk or butter. Here’s the recipe. Also, there’s a wonderful series on YouTube, called “Great Depression Cooking”, it was hosted by the marvelous 90+ year old Clara Cannucciari. Clara has since passed, but her legacy lives on. Check it out.
Thousands depended upon privately organized bread and soup kitchens. People stood on line for hours awaiting a piece of bread and a bowl of stew. The government (with the advent of FDR and the New Deal – enacted 1933-1938) began to hand out cheese, bread and produce. This saved many families. Social workers traveled far and wide providing support. Families receiving this government food had their name published in the local newspaper – not sure how I feel about that.
Men rode the rails all over the country looking for work, this is where the word hobo came from. They were kicked off trains and run out of town. All this to send a couple dollars back home. It was very sad indeed.
Hoovervilles popped up all over (inclusive of Central Park) – families kicked out of their homes built these little communities out of tents and tar paper shacks. Some even lived in large pipes and viaducts. In their cars. Many just roamed, looking for work and relief. With no running water or sanitation, disease was rampant.
I just can’t.
All things considered, the Walton’s were pretty lucky. No one starved. They didn’t lose their farm.
Let’s throw some fuel on this dumpster fire…
Vintage 3D | D Two and Three – Drought and Dust
Remember my comment re: real estate schemes? Well, in the 1870’s through the 1920’s these were a definite thing. Lured by the wild claims of land speculators (and the federal government), thousands of would-be farmers and ranchers (many of them immigrants who spoke little to no English) flocked to areas of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado. Many didn’t realize their dreams and the work proved to be back-breaking and relentless. In contrast, some did just fine and prospered. The groundwork for the Dust Bowl was laid years before the actual event, here’s how…
Before the Great War, this land was cultivated utilizing a single bladed plow. It was mule-drawn and very simply pushed the topsoil aside, preserving it. WWI brought about a huge need for wheat, to support the war effort and the promise of a great deal more money was just too tempting. Farmers moved to the Angell plow, which is a 10-foot length of discs and was mechanized. More efficient, much easier, but less respectful of the land. These plows basically ground up and destroyed the topsoil. Thousands of additional acres were cultivated as well – a total of 100 million acres of natural prairie grass, whose root systems helped keep the topsoil compact, moist and well, on the ground were destroyed during this push and beyond. This vast area was Ground Zero for the Dust Bowl.
After the war, farmers motored along and changed nothing. Prices soared, output was enormous and a lot of money was being made. Good times! But a change was brewing – the change? The massive economic downturn and the worst drought/heat cycle in recorded history. No good will come of this.
With that said…
Between the years of 1930 and 1940, these 100 million acres of farmland were tormented by huge dust storms, averaging 40 storms per year. Burying buildings and vehicles. There was no escape even inside your house, the interior would be coated with a fine layer of grit, even the most conscientious of housekeepers couldn’t keep up. Vegetable gardens were buried. Crops failed. Livestock got lost, starved (there wasn’t enough vegetation and bagged feed was expensive) and/or suffocated and died. Children and the elderly came down with dust pneumonia and died, it was so bad that field hospitals were set up to handle the large number of those afflicted. People “lost their health” and were sickly. Hunger was a very real thing.
Some of the storms were so immense (The most famous being the “Black Sunday” storm on April 15, 1934, pictures and info here) that they blocked out the sun completely and created massive static charges. If you shook hands during a storm, the shock could knock you to the ground.
Once prosperous farms, because of a huge drop in land prices and the drought, were rendered worthless. Crop prices dropped so low the farmers could barely afford to cut and transport what little they could grow – mountains of wheat rotted within sight of grain elevators. Farms were lost because they couldn’t repay loans or pay their taxes. It’s estimated 2.5 million people lost their land and livelihood. Of that enormous number, 10% migrated to California. The word “okie” grew out of this situation. People who piled everything they could onto the family truck and headed off to find some relief. The families were so poor that when feed and flour producers discovered women were making clothes out of the sacks? They started putting their product in brightly printed bags, so the garments would at the least be colorful.
This is heartbreaking. But it’s also where it gets downright Biblical.
About midway through this catastrophe, plagues of locust descended upon the region as well as thousands upon thousands of jack rabbits. These pests ate EVERYTHING in their path, including fence posts. Additionally, our well-meaning, though perhaps misguided, government decided to pay farmers/ranchers to destroy their livestock. The families needed the money, so they did it. The stories shared in “The Dust Bowl” were completely horrible and gut-wrenching – I can’t even write about them.
The storms got so bad a huge cloud of dust from the epic Black Sunday storm descended upon the US capitol in 1934, finally motivating the Administration to fully address the tragedy in the Midwest. Keep in mind, the previous administration had done, for the most part, nothing about the crisis.
So, what happened? The New Deal was expanded to include food and social work support to effected regions. The WPA put people back to work – roads, bridges, dams were built and the national parks grew (as an aside, the men working these projects made about $30 a month and had to send 90% of their earnings back home). Windbreaks were created to ease the erosion and experts were hired to research fixes for the top soil issues. The New Deal also included farm subsidies, farmers were paid to let a certain percentage of their land lay fallow. These beautiful grasslands are federally protected and most still exist to this day.
Did all this help? Eventually. A good 14 million trees were planted – easing the impact of the prairie wind. Fallow land went back to prairie grass – keeping the dirt where it belonged. Also, farming experts eventually educated the farmers, the contour plowing method was adopted, along with other soil preservation techniques. The drought cycle had eased significantly by 1941. The Ogallala aquifer was tapped to irrigate the land. Scary thought, we’ve now used over 50% of the water in this aquifer and we’re using it faster than it can recharge – what’s going to happen when it’s dry?
Did we learn any lessons? Not so much. Our entry into WWII made grain prices skyrocket yet again, production exploded and the cycle started over. In 1950, we experienced another Dust Bowl, though not to the extent of the original, thanks to the charges made 10 years before. Could it happen today? The experts say yes. Think of the crazy weather that has plagued the country over the past several years.
All in all, this period of our history was the perfect storm. An epic economic crisis paired with an epic natural disaster. Vast areas of our country, for all intents and purposes, went from a first world country to a third. There were very few who weathered this storm without impact, no one was really safe.
We did gain some things – a system of support programs, some truly magnificent monuments (Hoover Dam and Mount Rushmore), good roads, literature and art – John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange, Woodie Guthrie came to mind. Some would argue the things gained weren’t necessarily good, but lessons were definitely learned.
Or were they?
To our darling readers: What stories have you heard in your family about Depression, Drought, and Dust? Do you have recipes you still use?
The writer would like to thank: Wikipedia.com, history.com, pbs.org, thebalance.com and LOC.com and those who post their images freely on the internet.
Recommended Reading and Viewing
The Dust Bowl a documentary by Ken Burns
When the World Breaks a film by Hans Fjellestad
(Both available on Amazon Prime video)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (and the movie, too, both widely available)
The music of Woody Guthrie – available on iTunes and Spotify
The photography of Dorothea Lange