Dust Bowl Stories

From Marion Renner, Haysville

I was born in 1933, so I have no memory of the dust storms. However, I do remember my parents talking about them.

They said they would wet rags to stuff around the windows and yet in the morning they had to sweep the house out.

My mother said she would wet tea towels and drape them over my crib when she put me to bed at night. In the morning you could see the outline of my body on the crib sheets.

My father worked for the Chevrolet dealership, which was about four blocks from our house. My dad would walk home for lunch every day. One dust storm day he called mother to tell her he was on his way home. She put a lamp in the window to help guide him to the house. He walked into the side of the house before he knew he was there.

Marion grew up in the Rooks County town of Zurich, where these photos were taken.

Lucille Drew, Wichita

I grew up on a farm north of Erick, Oklahoma, near the Texas panhandle and U.S. Highway 66. The thirties were hard times. Grasshoppers ate all of the corn; rabbits ate everything else. You could set a table and the tableware would collect dust before you sat down to eat. We hung sheets over the windows to keep the dust out. We couldn't raise feed for the cows, so we sold them to the government for $5 per cow but kept one cow for beef and one cow for milk.

Black Sunday in 1935 came on a Sunday afternoon. When we saw the dark cloud in the western sky, we though the world was on fire. We went to the cellar and listened as gravel from the nearest road, one and a quarter miles from us, hit the house.

When we left the cellar, it was so dark we couldn't see. That Sunday afternoon was graduation day at Erick High School. One of the graduates couldn't find her way home in the storm. It was that dark and dusty.

Lillian Wells, Wichita

Black Sunday in northwest Oklahoma is still vivid in my memories. Two sisters had walked more than a mile to spend the afternoon with me. I had recently learned to drive the car and to run errands like the two miles to the grocery store, so when I asked my Dad if we could take the car for a drive, he didn't hesitate to say okay.

We had no special destination in mind, so when we realized the next house was a friends, we said, "let's stop here."

There was a thick grove of trees on the north side of the house, which is probably why we did not see the black cloud. As we knocked on the door, it was suddenly dark. I asked to use the telephone and rang my house, My mother answered but the wind was so strong she could not hear where we were.

When the father came for his girls, my mother could only say we were in a house.

The cloud passed and it was light again. I dropped the sisters off at their house on my way home.

When Black Sunday is mentioned, I re-live every detail.

Marian Walker, Wichita

We were living in Syracuse, Kan., in the 1930s. My mother saw a black cloud coming from the west, so hurried to school in a Model A to pick up my brother who was in high school. People were running everywhere. My brother ran down the hill, didn't bother going to a gate, but jumped over a high fence and into the car. My twin sister and I were already in the car.

We hurried home across the river, where Mother and my brother lit lanterns and started out to gather the baby chicks. Mother told my twin sister and I to stay in the house. I remember crying and was scolded.

They soon came back in because they had run into each other, even with the lanterns—it was so dark by then—couldn't find any chicks that way.

Donnalea Keown Haynes, Wichita

During the 1930's she was in high school and lived in Johnson, Kan., on Highway 160 just 20 miles from the Colorado border.

"Houses weren't built as tight as they are now. There were no storm windows or plastics we have now to put on the screens. So dirt was a problem in the house. We kept newspapers on our table and stove to keep dirt out. When we were ready to set the table for a meal the newspaper was removed and plates were turned upside down until ready to put food on. We had lots of dust storms that lasted for a day or so. The worst was April 4, 1935 and it lasted three days. We couldn't see past the front porch. School buses couldn't run their regular routes so country students were housed a various residences in town. We also had one high school student die of dust pneumonia. When a storm was about to hit, Dad took an old blanket and put over the engine of our car, as dust wasn't the best for automobiles. Farm machinery had a lot of dirt around them—some had a few feet."

Grace Brooks, Wichita

It was Palm Sunday and my family had been to church. After lunch, the day was so nice that my eighty-nine year old grandfather decided to take an afternoon walk. The temperature rose to 84 degrees. While he was out walking there appeared on the northwest horizon a cloud that looked like a black blizzard. The swirling black dust clouds were rolling towards the farm at an incredible speed of about 38 miles per hour! It had been calm just before the wind and dust hit the farm about 3:00 p.m. The family was surprised by how quickly it happened. The temperature dropped rapidly to 50 degrees. Very quickly the sun was blocked out and it was pitch black. We could not see our hands in front of our faces.

Suddenly, the family realized there was an emergency because grandpa had not returned from his walk. Although I was only five years old I remember our family putting wet rags over our faces and going out into the choking dust to find grandpa. The dust was gritty in our eyes. We carefully stayed on the path between the house and the chicken house, which was just a short distance north of the old house and began taking turns yelling GRANDPA, GRANDPA. After the storm became less fierce grandpa was found. It was a joy to see him arrive home.

The family was worried about his health because of the amount of dust he inhaled. While walking along the barbed wire fence he cut his hands and the swirling dust created static electricity in the wire that shocked him. However, Grandpa recovered quickly from all the dust he took into his lungs. He soon was back to telling his great stories. As Arlene wrote, "Grandpa was a survivor".

Following is an excerpt of a letter my father wrote to my mother the day after the storm. She was in California because of the serious illness and death of her mother. The letter reveals his perspective on that eventful day.
It was hazy Sunday morning and you could see only about two miles but it was sunshiny and pleasant. I was just ready to go to McMahans to get a sick cow home, when I saw a terrible black cloud coming from the north. I ran to the house and called Anna Mae and a few seconds later it was totally dark. This was about three in the afternoon. The windows were black as a pitch-dark night and it was very alarming. I groped into the bedroom and got the flash light and then I lit a lamp and then hurried over to the other house. Grandma was there with her flashlight, but grandpa was out walking and we did not know where. In about ten minutes the total darkness passed and we could see somewhat and I stood outside. Presently, I heard grandpa call and I went in the direction of the sound and finally found him at the pasture fence just south of our neighbor's house. He was lost and was following the barbwire fence. The only way one could keep the direction was the to remember the wind was in the north. The dust was terrible for a while and then stopped blowing about nine.

Audrey Burdette, Valley Center

The 1929 harvest was a bumper crop in southwestern Kansas. Grain rolled into the grain bins, putting a smile on every farmer's face. Soon acre after acre of pasture ground was turned into farmland with the rich, fertile loam waiting to be planted.

But nature is always in control. The rains gradually became further and further apart. Time moved into the 30's and the middle states of the USA were in a drought. Southwestern Kansas is an area that enjoys winds and they caused the area to become a dust bowl. Dry loose soil sifted from one farm to another. If the wind blew from the north, we jokingly blamed the dust storm on Nebraska. The black dust sifted everywhere. When the wind blew from the south, we jokingly remarked about the red Oklahoma dirt. But it was not funny! It was serious. The dust storms would blow in so fast. You wouldn't know one was coming until you say the black rolling clouds of dust billowing higher and higher in the distance.

This was a time during my oldest brother Ned's illness. Ned had developed rheumatic fever that had damaged his heart. The joints in his body were swollen and painful. Dr. Broady, our family doctor in Plains, used an ultraviolet ray machine to treat the painful joints. One bright sunny Sunday afternoon, my older sister, Cleone, needed to meet the bus in town to get to Fowler where she was teaching in the public school. Mother and Dr. Broady had made arrangements for Ned to have a treatment that afternoon and Don, my younger brother, drove.

They hadn't been gone but a few minutes when Dad saw a back line on the horizon off to the northwest. He watched! Another dust storm was on the move and it was coming toward us fast. By the time the storm clouds were darkening over our home we knew someplace on the road to town a very young driver was responsible for the family car and its occupants. We were worried for them. Dad wanted the rest of the family to go to the storm cellar, but if I remember correctly, my youngest sister, Iola, and I were the only one to make the trek down those stairs. And we didn't stay in the cellar very long. Although it was black as night, Dad never stopped scanning the road for a glimpse of the returning car. Hours passed, the storm lightened, and then car lights were seen as though coming through a fog. They had stopped on the road in the blackness and then slowly inched their way to a farmhouse for refuge.

All of this was hard on Ned. Heart patients have difficulty breathing and it was very important to keep the dust away from Ned. Once they got home, he was helped into the house. They large kitchen seemed to be the best place for Ned. His twin bed was set up in the extension area of the table. The bed had high head and foot panels. Every extra sheet in the house was sprinkled with water and by using clothes pins a canopy and side drop panels covered and surrounded him.

As always, the day following one of those dusters was crystal clear. The sky was deep blue—not a hint of the previous day except for barren fields and fence rows piled high with thistles that held that blowing dirt. And in the house there was dirt to be cleaned from the windows, the floors, and everywhere. The dirt was taken out in a bucket or just tossed out a window. This storm had been the worst.

Terry Mort Mason, Wichita

I wasn't born until 1945, so obviously I have no first-hand memories of the "Dirty Thirties," however, the dust storms continued well into the forties and fifties. Their severity was perhaps somewhat less intense than those of the thirties.

I do remember roads being closed during the later dust storms. When people were caught out of the roads during the storms, it wasn't unusual for them to proceed cautiously, which unfortunately, proved fatal for many. There weren't may stretches of highway that did not have the black and white "Think" roadside markers that indicated a loss of life. I'm told the markers were placed by an insurance company.

People traveling in the storms generally feared being struck from the rear, but because visibility was so impaired, they couldn't see approaching vehicles even with their headlights on, so there were also head-on crashes.

The dust storms were responsible for respiratory ailments, particularly that referred to as "dust pneumonia." When the dust storms occurred many people would hang wet sheets or blankets over windows to filter out the gritty dust that relentlessly seeped in through any possible crack or crevice.

Much like a drifting snowstorm, the winds of the dust storms carried the fine soils and caused drifts along fence rows and buildings. The storms were devastating to crops and livestock and caused a lot of people to abandon their homes and lands for "greener pastures."

With the advent of conservation programs and improved farming methods, the destructive effects of the dirt storms was not eliminated, but lessened to a great degree.