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Memories Of The Dust Bowl

The last few years in Nashville have been full of weather extremes.

In 2010, our city experienced what was called “The 1,000 Years Flood.” Around 14 inches of rain in two days soaked the ground and flooded The Cumberland and Harpeth Rivers, causing several people to lose their lives and thousands of people to lose their homes.

Last year was a ridiculous tornado season. And while we just missed the brutal tornadoes that ravaged Alabama last April, the threat of a serious tornado was a weekly event.

This summer, it’s just been hotter than an Eskimo in the Sahara. We had somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 straight days of 100 degrees or more, topping out with 109 degrees on one day, which was the highest temperature ever recorded in Nashville.

Anyway, all that to say, despite these crazy weather conditions, despite the heat and the rain and the tornadoes, I still have my home. I still have my job, my car, my family.

That’s a stark contrast to the insane weather phenomenon—the Dust Bowl drought—that inspired John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath.

Our always trustworthy friends at Wikipedia say the Dust Bowl drought has been categorized as “the most extreme natural event in 350 years.” It affected the panhandles in Oklahoma and Texas, and nearby areas in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, covering 100,000,000 acres.

Massive dust storms swept across the plains during 1934 and 1935. The featured photo above shows an approaching dust storm in Stratford, Texas in 1935.

These brutal storms literally stripped the topsoil from the ground. In some cases, the dust was so thick that people couldn’t see 5 feet in front of them.

With the topsoil gone, crops wouldn’t grow and farmers—pretty much everyone—were left without work or a source of income. In 1935, 500,000 Americans were left homeless. To make matters worse, all of this happened during The Great Depression.

So many people from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and so on decided to move. Following the drought, more than 2.5 million people moved out of the plains states before 1940. 200,000 of them moved to California. And, if you’ve read The Grapes of Wrath, you know that wasn’t a good move.

Many of the “Okies” became second-rate citizens, migrant workers, who moved from town to town looking for cotton, oranges, peaches, and other crops to pick. They lived in cars, tents, and makeshift roadside villages.

Needless to say, a lot of people died from malnutrition and pneumonia. In The Grapes of Wrath, many of the Joads either died or decided to bail because of the difficulty of the trip.

The Dust Bowl drought was a horrible period for Midwesterners, and Americans in general—especially considering that it happened during The Great Depression.

But the beauty of literature is that people like me, people who aren’t necessarily drawn to history, get to experience these real-life events through characters we grow to care about.

Then, at least in my case, our interest is piqued and we seek to learn a little about the event that inspired the literature. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?

I love learning, and The Grapes Of Wrath is yet another perfect example of how fiction is a great teacher.

Speaking of a great teacher, Ken Burns is releasing a PBS documentary, called The Dust Bowl, in November. Nice timing. Burns creates incredible documentaries, and this one looks like no exception. Trailer below.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kathy #

    That picture of Stratford TX looks just like the haboobs that have been roaring through Arizona the last few years … perhaps the haboob does not last as long as the Dust Bowl did but still looks remarkably similar.


    August 14, 2012
    • It also reminded me of the massive dust clouds that swept through NYC after the towers fell on 9/11. Eery.


      August 14, 2012
      • Kathy #

        oh yeah, that too … eerie is right!


        August 15, 2012
  2. Excellent book on the dust bowl is by Timothy Egan entitled The Worst Hard Time. One of the best books I’ve ever read. If you want more information on its causes, and the people’s response.


    August 14, 2012
  3. Good reminder of those days. Will want to see the PBS special – thanks.


    August 18, 2012
  4. Great trailer from PBS!


    August 23, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Book #46: The Grapes Of Wrath | 101 Books
  2. Ralph Ellison: An American Journey | 101 Books

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