Ken Burns Classroom

Henry Howard Finnell

Ken Burns Film: The Dust Bowl

Collections: The Great Depression and WWII (1929-1945)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

Hugh Bennett points to a map in an office
Hugh Bennett points to a map in an office. H. Howard Finnell is standing second from left, while other Soil Conservation Service men look on. Source: National Archives and Records Administration.

1894–1960

Henry Howard Finnell arrived in Dalhart, Texas, with a mission. Born on a farm in Mississippi, Howard had moved with his family to Indian Territory as a child. He’d graduated from Oklahoma A & M with a degree in agriculture and had come to Goodwell in 1923 as the first director of the Panhandle A & M Experiment Station. There he had embarked on a series of studies on better ways to grow crops in the semi-arid southern Plains. Using typical farming methods, he concluded, nearly 80 percent of a year’s rainfall never penetrated deeply enough into the subsoil to benefit the crops. As a result, wheat farmers could expect only four good harvests out of every ten, even during normal weather conditions.

Finnell discovered techniques to double the odds of a good crop by capturing as much moisture as possible: using terraces and contour planting to minimize runoff; keeping, rather than stripping, plant residues on the surface after a harvest; crop rotation, depending on subsoil conditions; and digging deeper rows with a plow called a lister. “We do not want a changed climate,” Finnell wrote. “All that is needed…is to make a better use of the rain that is received…Moisture conservation is the answer.”

In the space of a decade, Finnell had published 59 reports of his findings, but few farmers paid much attention; it was the 1920s, rain was plentiful, and harvests were good. In 1934, things were different. Hugh Hammond Bennett, the head of the Soil Conservation Service, put Finnell in charge of Region Six, the hardest-hit area of the country; code name: “Operation Dustbowl.” Finnell set up shop north of Dalhart. Areas where the soil was not suitable for cultivation were turned back to grassland.

Thirteen other demonstration projects, manned by CCC and WPA workers, put Finnell’s moisture-conserving ideas to the test, with great success. By May of 1936, nearly 40,000 farmers had joined him, and 5.5 million acres were under new terraced and contour-listed cultivation. At the end of 1937, despite the persistent dust storms, the amount of dangerously eroded land had been reduced by more than half.

At the end of the Dust Bowl, Finnell returned to Panhandle A & M as director of the experiment station. He continued to serve as Research Specialist for the Soil Conservation Service and devoted his time to the study of wind erosion and land use in the Great Plains. He retired in 1959. “Looking back on the twenty-seven years spent in the study of High Plains agriculture,” Finnell wrote, “it can be truthfully said there was never a dull moment, nor is there likely to be.” He died on September 7, 1960, at his home in California.

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