Ken Burns Classroom

The Legacy of the Dust Bowl

Ken Burns Film: The Dust Bowl

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

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

The Great Plow-Up

In the 1910s and 1920s the southern Plains was “the last frontier of agriculture” according to the government, when rising wheat prices, a war in Europe, a series of unusually wet years, and generous federal farm policies created a land boom – the Great Plow-Up that turned 5.2 million acres of thick native grassland into wheat fields. Newcomers rushed in and towns sprang up overnight.

As the nation sank into the Depression and wheat prices plummeted from $2 a bushel to 40 cents, farmers responded by tearing up even more prairie sod in hopes of harvesting bumper crops. When prices fell even further, the “suitcase farmers” who had moved in for quick profits simply abandoned their fields. Huge swaths of eight states, from the Dakotas to Texas and New Mexico, where native grasses had evolved over thousands of years to create a delicate equilibrium with the wild weather swings of the Plains, now lay naked and exposed.

The Dirty Thirties

Then the drought began. It would last eight straight years. Dust storms, at first considered freaks of nature, became commonplace. Static charges in the air shorted-out automobiles on the road; men avoided shaking hands for fear of shocks that could knock a person to the ground. Huge drifts of dirt buried pastures and barnyards, piled up in front of homesteaders’ doors, came in through window cracks and sifted down from ceilings.

Some 850 million tons of topsoil blew away in 1935 alone. “Unless something is done,” a government report predicted, “the western plains will be as arid as the Arabian desert.” The government’s response included deploying Civilian Conservation Corps workers to plant shelter belts; encouraging farmers to try new techniques like contour plowing to minimize erosion; establishing conservation districts; and using federal money in the Plains for everything from grasshopper control to outright purchases of failed farms.

“We Survived”

In 1944 just as it had thirty years earlier, a war in Europe and the return of a relatively wet weather cycle brought prosperity to the southern Plains. Wheat prices skyrocketed, and harvests were bountiful.

In the first five years of the 1940s land devoted to wheat expanded by nearly 3 million acres. The speculators and suitcase farmers returned. Parcels that had sold for $5 an acre during the Dust Bowl now commanded prices of fifty, sixty, sometimes a hundred dollars an acre. Even some of the most marginal lands were put back into production.

Lessons of the Dust Bowl

Then, in the early 1950s, the wet cycle ended and a two-year drought replaced it. The storms picked up once more. Bad as the “Filthy Fifties” were, the drought didn’t last as long as the "Dirty Thirties." Those farmers who used conservation techniques mitigated the damage to the land. And because nearly four million acres of land had been purchased by the government during the Dust Bowl and permanently restored as national grasslands, the soil didn’t blow as much. At least a few lessons had been learned.

But now, instead of looking to the skies for rain, many farmers began looking beneath the soil, where they believed a more reliable – and irresistible – supply of water could be found: the vast Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground reservoir stretching from Nebraska to north Texas, filled with water that had seeped down for centuries after the last Ice Age. With new technology and cheap power from recent natural gas discoveries in the southern Plains, farmers could pump the ancient water up, irrigate their land, and grow other crops like feed corn for cattle and pigs, which requires even more moisture than wheat.

Writer Timothy Egan calls the Dust Bowl “a classic tale of human beings pushing too hard against nature, and nature pushing back.”

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