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Historical Voices

The Dustbowl

On March 31, 1943, a character named Curley strode across the St. James theater stage in New York and began to sing about Oklahoma, where "the corn is as high/As an elephant's eye." Later in the performance, he and his fellow cowboys (and a few farmers) sang an anthem, to Richard Rodgers' stirring music, in which Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics celebrated "Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain." Yet only eight years before, the wind had come to Oklahoma, where it swept the soil into a great dust storm, covering everything in sight under a gray blanket. The great era of hope recalled by Rodgers and Hammerstein stood in ironic juxtaposition to the grim reality of the Dust Bowl.

Drought first hit the Great Plains in 1931, and brief storms in which the dried earth swirled around farms began to be more and more frequently reported. By January, 1935, the New Deal recognized the problem with the creation of the Drought Relief Service to coordinate relief activities, the most important of which was a program to buy cattle which would otherwise have starved. In April Roosevelt signed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which provided $525 million for drought relief.

Nature paid no attention to politics, however, and on April 14, Black Sunday, the worst of the dust storms hit. Robert Geiger of Associated Press, reporting on the storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, described the disaster as a Dust Bowl. Arthur Rothstein had been assigned by the Farm Security Administration to record the disaster in Oklahoma, and his series of photos capture the other-worldly look of the land in the wake of the worst storms.

Throughout the drought, farm families had to choose between their property and starvation, and more and more began to flee the worst-hit lands, especially in Oklahoma. Heading west on Route 66, they followed the mythology that California might be the solution to all troubles. To be sure, California agriculture was in a boom, and owners of the huge farms needed pickers, but the work was intermittent, brought low pay and seldom provided housing. People l ived in "Little Oklahomas," squatter camps of rough-made shacks, or as often simply pulled off the road and threw up a tent. The stench of the camps, the hunger, the squallor, caught the attention of the New Deal's Resettlement Administration, which built a few model camps, the best at Arvin in Kern County. But the vast majority of migrants continued to suffer in terrifying conditions through the end of the decade.

A number of tireless reformers continued to raise the issue of the Dust Bowl refugees. At the forefront of the movement to publicize the tragic conditions in California was Paul Taylor, a professor of economics at Cal (the University of California, Berkeley). Taylor led a series of studies, issuing reports and demanding action. His campaign took on added meaning when he was joined by the photographer (and his future wife) Dorethea Lange, whose images seared the plight of the refugees into the American consciousness. No less compelling was the work of John Steinbeck, who had written about the plight of migrant workers before, but who created, in The Grapes of Wrath, a masterpiece of reform fiction in the tale of the Joad family.

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