The Dust Bowl and the Role of Government

Bill Neinast

A recent documentary should be a part of history classes across the country.

Ken Burns’ four hour epic “The Dust Bowl” was featured without ad interruptions on PBS last week.  This compelling American story is normally  passed over, if mentioned at all, with a short paragraph about strong, dry winds blowing away the top soil of the mid west.

That description is perpetuated in a one sentence promotion of the film.  According to that promo,  “THE DUST BOWL chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the ‘Great Plow-Up,’ followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.”

The film, however, which is shown through the eyes and cameras of 26 Americans who suffered through the catastrophe, tells a more compelling story than those heard before.

Thousands of families and millions of acres of land in relatively small parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado were affected by the bone dry winds blowing soil into every opening, including eyes, mouths, and lungs.  Some of the soil was blown as far away as the nation’s capitol and beyond.

This test of human resistance and resilience was aggravated by its occurrence right in the middle of the Great Depression.  That was just three quarters of a century ago and occurred during my life time.

TV had not yet been invented and there were more homes without radios than with.  Without the 24 hour news coverage enjoyed or suffered today, few outside of the immediate area were even aware of the devastation.

This film uses rarely seen sights and sounds to hammer home several important historical facts about this country and its people.

One of the most compelling sub plots of the film is the depiction of Americans of the 30s as substantially different from their cousins of the 21st Century.

Several of the narrators mentioned how embarrassing it was for their parents to have their neighbors see them accepting government aid.  This embarrassment was aggravated by newspapers that published lists of families going on the public dole.

Others mentioned that their hard working fathers who were losing their land to foreclosure or not being able to find work as tenant farmers had too much pride to do the “make work” of WPA projects.

Conversely, the film shows the government at its best.  Here is the government providing for the general welfare.

You go out with Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC) encampments building or improving public parks.  The young corpsmen got to keep only $5.00 of their monthly $30 salary.  The other $25 had to be sent to their families.

In other stills and movies you see beautiful WPA stone bridges and large schools built of stone by farmers who had never laid a brick or stone before letting go of their plow handles. 

Although not in the dust bowl area, some of those solid WPA structures are still in use in the local area.  Their beauty and permanence should be compared to that new vacant lot in Brenham.  That lot was the home of a deficiency riddled building constructed by a contractor just 30 years ago.

None of the government support was given.  It had to be earned.  The only gifts were the distribution of surplus food bought from farmers not ravaged by the drought and wind.

The government saw a need that only it could satisfy.  There was no way that it could provide badly needed rain.  It could, however, use educated soil specialists to teach how the old methods of plowing and farming every inch of land was providing the soil or dust that invaded everything and everybody.

By getting the farmers to contour plow, use a different type plow, terrace, and plant some grass land the dust clouds were substantially diminished during the next drought, just 20 years later in the 50s.

Not emphasized, as the film ended with the last scenes of the drought, dust, and famine, is one of the big differences between government aid then and now.  When the rains came and private employment returned with the beginnings of building a war machine, the government folded up its programs and left.  The only thing left is education and assistance through programs like the Soil Conservation Service.

That is one of the few times that a government program created to meet a real need did not outlive the need.

So here’s the perspective.

See “The Dust Bowl” if you can.  You will get a greater appreciation of what and how people can endure.

The film will also make some long for a government that offers a hand up, not a hand out.


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