What America Looked Like: The Dust Bowl

Her farm is nearly barren, her husband's health is failing, and each day brings a new onslaught of terrible storms, but in 1935, Catherine Henderson is resolved to stay in the dust bowl.

In its May 1936 issue, The Atlantic published a series of letters from Caroline A. Henderson, a farmer struggling in Oklahoma. Writing to her friend Evelyn in Maryland, Caroline describes a heartland that is quickly devolving into a ghost land -- barren, dusty, and increasingly devoid of people. Out of near nowhere, dust walls hundreds of feet high appear, engulfing everything in a dark soot and making life difficult in every regard. Even when it does rain, the conditions don't improve much because the empty farms around hers have no foliage to soak up the water. Avoiding the storms "is almost a hopeless task," she writes to Evelyn, "for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over." 

Severe drought coupled with poor farming practices led to these dry, dusty conditions, which lasted for much of the decade. In all, nearly 2.5 million people were displaced by the dust bowl. Caroline's letters acknowledge that it might be wise for her family to leave as well, but she feels an attachment for her home of 28 years and has faith that bounty will return to Oklahoma. She likens her remaining neighbors to heroes of epic Greek poetry, battering through an impossible and divinely wrought storm with the hope that, at its end, normalcy will resume. As she tells her friend, "Perhaps it is a sin to parody anything as beautiful as Ulysses. Yet as we gray lonely old people sit here by the fire tonight, planning for the year's work, my thoughts seem bound to fall into that pattern: 'It may be that the dust will choke us down; / It may be we shall wake some happy morn / And look again on field of wavering grain.'" 

Below is a condensed version of a letter dated June 30, 1935.

My Dear Evelyn:

Our recent transition from rain‑soaked eastern Kansas with its green pastures, luxuriant foliage, abundance of flowers, and promise of a generous harvest, to the dust‑covered desolation of No Man's Land was a difficult change to crowd into one short day's travel. ...

Wearing our shade hats, with handkerchiefs tied over our faces and Vaseline in our nostrils, we have been trying to rescue our home from the accumulations of wind‑blown dust which penetrates wherever air can go. It is an almost hopeless task, for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over. 'Visibility' approaches zero and everything is covered again with a silt‑like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on the kitchen floor. I keep oiled cloths on the window sills and between the upper and lower sashes. They help just a little to retard or collect the dust. Some seal the windows with the gummed‑paper strips used in wrapping parcels, but no method is fully effective. We buy what appears to be red cedar sawdust with oil added to use in sweeping our floors, and do our best to avoid inhaling the irritating dust. ...

Early in May, with no more grass or even weeds on our 640 acres than on your kitchen floor, and even the scanty remnants of dried grasses from last year cut off and blown away, we decided, like most of our neighbors, to ship our cattle to grass in the central part of the state. ...

A friend in the southwestern county of Kansas voluntarily sent me a list of the people who had already left their immediate neighborhood or were packed up and ready to go. The list included 109 persons in 26 families, substantial people, most of whom had been in that locality over ten years, and some as long as forty years. ...

On a sixty mile trip yesterday to procure tract repairs we saw many pitiful reminders of broken hopes and apparently wasted effort. Little abandoned homes where people had drilled deep wells for the precious water, had set trees and vines built reservoirs, and fenced in gardens ‑- with everything now walled in half buried by banks of drifted soil -- told a painful story of loss and disappointment. I grieved especially over one lonely plum thicket buried to the tips of the twigs, and a garden with fence closely built of boards for wit protection, now enclosing only a hillock of dust covered with the blue‑flower bull nettles which no winds or sands discourage. ...

It should be remembered that 1935 is the fourth successive year of drouth and crop failure through a great part of the high plains region, and the hopelessly low prices for the crop of 1931 gave no chance to build up reserves for future needs. If the severe critics of all who in any way join in government plans for the saving of homes and the restoration of farms to a productive basis could only understand how vital a human problem is here considered, possibly their censures might be less bitter and scornful. ...

Naturally you will wonder why we stay where conditions are so extremely disheartening. Why not pick up and leave as so many others have done? It is a fair question, but a hard one to answer...

To leave voluntarily -- to break all these closely knit ties for the sake of a possibly greater comfort elsewhere -- seems like defaulting on our task. We may have to leave. We can't hold out indefinitely without some return from the land, some source of income, however small. But I think I can never go willingly or without pain that as yet seems unendurable...

We long for the garden and little chickens, the trees and birds and wild flowers of the years gone by. Perhaps if we do our part these good things may return some day, for others if not for ourselves.

Will joins me in earnest hopes for your recovery. The dust has been particularly aggravating to his bronchial trouble, but he keeps working on. A great reddish‑brown dust cloud is rising now from the southeast, so we must get out and do our night work before it arrives. Our thoughts go with you.

Read "Letters From the Dust Bowl" in the May 1936 Atlantic
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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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