BLACK SUNDAY, April 14, 1935......
The dust storm that turned day into night. Many believed the world was coming to an end; and many people did see the end of the world that they knew.
The clouds appeared on the horizons with a thunderous roar. Turbulent dust clouds rolled in generally from the North and dumped a fine silt over the land. Men, women and children stayed in their houses and tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. When they dared to leave, they added goggles to protect their eyes. Houses were shut tight, cloth was wedged in the cracks of the doors and windows but still the fine silt forced its way into houses, schools and businesses. During the storms, the air indoors was "swept" with wet gunny sacks. Sponges were used as makeshift "dust masks" and damp sheets were tied over the beds. The Dust Bowl ...that's what they called it. It extended from eastern Colorado, Kansas, northern New Mexico, Oklahoma and northern Texas; but other states as far north as Montana, were affected by it.
The people who lived in the Dust Bowl had already experienced droughts , blizzards, tornados and and dirt storms from 1931. In 1935, one dust storm was followed by another and yet another in rapid succession. In late March a severe storm lashed sections of the dust Bowl so hard that many people were stranded for hours. No one dared to leave a store and head for home although it might be less than a block away. On Sunday April 14, 1935, the sun came up in a clear sky. The day was warm and pleasant, and there was a gentle breeze out of the southwest. Suddenly a cloud appeared on the horizon. Birds flew swiftly ahead of it, but were not swift enough for the cloud traveling at sixty miles per hour. This day was named "Black Sunday". (The picture on the right was taken by the Stovall Studio in Dodge, Kansas on "Black Sunday".)
Extensive farming of the semi-arid Great Plains, together with a prolonged period of drought, caused severe soil erosion in the 1930's . The soil was blown away by the wind and formed huge dense clouds of dust. You could no longer farm the land or make a living on large sections of the Dust Bowl. Coupled with the thirties depression, it was an economic disaster that forced people off of farms and homes that they had occupied all of their lives. Many impoverished farming families made their way west from the Dust Bowl along US66 - Route 66, "The Dustbowl Highway" - to the crop fields, fruit orchards and wine growing areas of California in search of work.
The migrants had a hard time making a decision of where to go. In this picture (taken by Dorothea Lange for the U.S. Government Resettlement Agencies), a man and a woman looked puzzled and confused about the direction they should take..... where should he drive that old jalopy....or where were they heading in life?
“Slept in a bed all my life long, till now – sleeping on the ground,” said the old lady in the picture on the right (also taken by Dorothea Lange) Many migrants had to travel in poor conditions to go to their "promised land". They didn’t know what California was really like but they were willing to try it out.
And life was also difficult and harsh for those who remained in their homes across the plains and "toughed" it out. Periodic winds rolled up two miles high, stretched out a hundred miles and moved faster than 50 miles an hour. Every possible crack was plugged, sheets were placed over windows and blankets were hung behind doors, but still the dust got in.
The following picture was taken at Stratford Texas during 1935. ( The photos of Dorothea Lange are presented with the permission of The U.S. Library Of Congress; and the following picture of the dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas is presented with the permission of Nancy Leon, Pasadena, CA with credit to the NOAA George Marsh Album.)
April 14, 1935
Black Sunday, nineteen thirty-five...
the day turned into night;
the thick, black dust that plagued us
had blotted out the light.
It looked like some satanic hand
had poured tar from on high.
It blew and boiled above us,
and charred the raging sky.
Armageddon? Some believed it-
that an awful, evil spell
had been cast upon creation
by the anti-Christ from hell.
The Prairie's crust,
gust after gust,
was blown to God knows where.
Outside the house-
Inside the house-
dust clogged the heavy air.
Black Sunday..... All who saw it
could clearly understand
that crops would never grow again
upon the ravaged land.
Armageddon? Some believed it-
but the rest knew all too well.....
call it what you want to,
it was a living hell.
The cruel winds blew incessantly
and stripped the prairie bare.
The precious soil, thus swept aloft,
tarred black the heavy air.
We went outside with goggles;
and on faces, towels were hung.
Still dust filmed the eyes and nose,
and grit begrimed the tongue.
Dust filtered through the smallest cracks
and settled on the floors;
upon the stove and in the food;
and even in the drawers.
Everywhere... dust everywhere...
dirty sheets of silt,
although we dusted, swept and mopped
and battled to the hilt.
"Would this nightmare never end?",
we asked- but knew full well,
that even when Black Sunday waned,
we'd still be facing hell.
Neighbors...some already gone-
just like the dust clouds, blown
down some dust-filled highway
to places yet unknown.
And what of us? Where would we go?
How could we leave our home...
just leave the only life we'd known...
just pack it up and roam?
Oh, the dreams- all dashed to dust.....
and hopes that wind did quell;
no golden fields of wheat for us-
just bitter grains of hell!
Bette Wolf Duncan
copyright © February 9, 2006
Dust storms plagued much of the country during the 1930s. While the worst of the dust bowl was concentrated in the the southwest, the northern states as far north as Montana and Wyoming did not escape the horrors of the dust bowl. An account appearing in The Billings (Montana) Gazette by Lorna Thackeray (Dec. 29, 2003), said this: "A mighty wind blew out of Montana and Wyoming on May 8, 1934, sucking top soil off dried-up fields and blowing it in a vast brown cloud east across the country and onto ships 300 miles off the Atlantic coast. The dust storm was estimated at 1,500 miles long, 900 miles across and two miles deep. On its sweep across the continent, the storm picked up 350 million tons of dirt and drove it at speeds of up to 100 mph. On the night of May 9, an estimated 12 million tons fell on Chicago as the dark cloud advanced on the East Coast. Three days after the storm began, the dust headed out to sea."
During the beginning of the Depression and The Dust Bowl, I lived on my grandfather's ranch where I was born. It was located near Park City, Montana. My parents later farmed near Joliet, Montana, but couldn't make it because of the severe drought and depressed economy. They moved to Billings, Montana where my father found work at a lumber yard. Those were hard times for most people....times not easily forgotten. The same account of the severe drought and dust storms in Montana by Lorna Thackeray in the Billings Gazette (supra) said this: "Horses struggling to survive on desiccated range north of Miles City wandered around hairless during the worst years of the Great Depression. "They would eat the tails off each other -- and the manes, too," recalls Alfred Hirsch, who now lives at Kinsey. "Desperate livestock gnawed on the fence posts for what little moisture remained in the wood. Sometimes, grasshoppers got to the wood first. Sometimes dust blown in from dry cropland covered the fence posts so deep even the grasshoppers couldn't get to them." "
The Dust Bowl taught farmers new farming
methods and techniques. The country learned a valuable lesson from the Dust Bowl - take
care of the land. We are far better caretakers of the earth than we were before. The Dust Bowl's future,
however, is controlled to a large extent by the
weather. The prolonged drought combined with the meteorological phenomena of the
1930's was rare and never before tormented the Great Plains as it did. When
drought plagues us again, will the wind blow and
history repeat itself?