Colorado Experience: The Dust Bowl

WOMAN: The Dust Bowl
was one of the worst environmental disasters
in American history. People know about the Dust Bowl, but they don’t think of it
as a Colorado story. WOMAN: They plowed up much of the southern prairie and loosened the top soil so those strong winds just carried away millions of tons of top soil. MAN: America’s economy
collapsed in the 1930s. One in four Americans
were unemployed. WOMAN: Drought and depression
ravaged the southern plains. MAN: You had a perfect storm
of economic crisis and climate crisis. WOMAN: They always called it
“The Dirty ’30s.” Those were the really
hard times out on The Dry. The wind blew and blew and
there was nothing to stop it. WOMAN: These immense storms, they have like this physicality to them. MAN:
The crops withered and died. There was no water
for the livestock. It was really a tumultuous time. MAN: It felt like
the end of the world. There was no way out of this.   (music)    “Colorado Experience”
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 Thank you.  MAN: American explorers
who first came into Colorado were not fooled
by the conditions. They accurately identified the
plains of Colorado as a desert. MAN:
It was range land. It was very dry and
it was described as the Great American Desert,
not inhabitable on some maps. MAN: Zebulon Pike and then Steven Long both looked around and said this land is unsuitable
for agricultural. WOMAN: With the Gold Rush of 1858, many people were flooding into the state and going to
the mountains in search of gold and other precious metals. In this area what that meant is
that all those miners up there needed a food source, and so,
people moved into this area to settle, to do
cattle ranching. And so, sometimes
these early settlers, when they moved into the area, they would homestead around a key area, like around a spring or access to water, and then they’d use open range
across the rest of the area. After the Pike Peak’s Gold Rush
boosters and developers said this is a potential Garden
of Eden, if we can only bring water to the plains,
we can make this land bloom. If we can only find
the scientific forms of agriculture,
we can conserve water and we can farm without
benefit of irrigation. After the Civil War, you had
the cattle drives across Baca County with their big cattle herds and longhorn steers going to greener grass north. MICHELLE: The Homestead Act
of 1862, you get essentially 160 acres for each filing fee and improvement
of your property. DR. CONVERY: There was a law that opened up free government land for homesteading and if they lived there for five years and made improvements on it,
they owned it outright. In order, as they said, to prove up your land, farmers had to put up fences, they had to
break the soil, plant seeds, build a house. There were specific regulations
about building a house. A house had to be 20 by 40,
but it didn’t say 20 by 40 inches or feet. Some people would cheat by
building a little model house that they would put on the land,
swear to a notary public that they had a house 20 by 40 on
their property and then rent it to the neighbor down the road
so that they could make the same on their land. There were all kinds of ways
to get around the regulations of the Homestead Act. This was the largest land
giveaway in American history.   Beginning in the 1870s and 1880s, farmers moved onto the plains of Colorado,
and Kansas, and the Dakotas, Texas, and New Mexico,
and Oklahoma. TERRY:
They called them nesters. The nesters would set up camp
beside the water and they would develop that
and start farming. WOMAN: People who loved the
plains came there essentially with this dream of homesteading, of finding this place to essentially support
their families on the land. Baca County is the farthest
southeastern corner of Colorado. It’s one of the remotest parts
of Colorado and if you look at a map of Baca County then,
you can tell that they were dreaming these
really big dreams. There’s a Minneapolis there. There’s a Boston there. There’s a town called Progress. We think of the plains
as very flat, but it’s a complex landscape. There’s little canyons. There’s a lot of rolling hills. It’s arid, so there’s not
a lot of creeks or rivers. There’s no railroad
going through there yet. There’s not a railroad going
through Baca County until the 1920s, so logistically,
how do you get there in the first place and how do you get your crops to market? So people come out there with
these big dreams, but they realize that the land actually
may be too much for them. DR. CONVERY: They tried to grow agriculture without irrigation by depending only on rainfall, and for a while,
they were successful. They used dry land farming
techniques which encouraged them to plow deep in order to bring
the spring rains deep within their soil, to harrow after
every rainfall, to pulverize the soil to keep the top soil
moist, and as a result of these techniques,
farmers, for a while, were able to do very well
on the plains. Whenever you break virgin soil,
it produces well so they had a good start.   DR. CONVERY: The Great Plains
of Eastern Colorado really went through
two boom and bust cycles. The first one was
in the early 1880s. As farmers came in under
the Homestead Act, they began producing in what was one of those very wet cycles. They produced so much grain
that there was really no place to store it. TERRY: You have to remember
that this was brand new, virgin country, and of course, you didn’t have storage facilities then. They piled it on the ground. They hauled it off in their old
trucks, then, they actually flooded the market because
it overrode the infrastructure to haul it away. DR. CONVERY: Because of overproduction and then severe drought
in the early 1890s, the early boom collapsed
by about 1893. In 1909, this new Enlarged Homestead Act sparked a new land boom, which allowed farmers to take a double parcel of land for virtually nothing. That act coincided
with another wet cycle. It coincided with the First
World War and the need to supply grain for Europe. It was so easy to take up land
in the early 1900s that it was virtually
irresistible.   Beginning in about 1910,
the plains went through a cycle of above average rainfall. MICHELLE: Typically, this area
would get somewhere between 10 and 12 inches a year. During those times, it was higher end of that, 12 to 14, and so what that meant is that when these people homesteaded an area, they were
having good crops. (music) DR. CONVERY: Farmers came onto the land right at the time when World War I began driving up
the demand for American wheat. As we became the bread basket for war-torn Europe, Americans realized their golden
opportunity lay on the plains. During World War I alone,
agriculture prices tripled and as a result of that, more and more farmers broke land on the plains until ultimately 13 million acres of land, on the dry land,
were under cultivation. It seemed like everything
was working out. The farmers were coming to
the land, the rain was falling, the prices were high,
there was really no way that you could lose in this scenario. TERRY: And sometimes the worst thing that could happen to you on a new project is have instant success and it maybe gives us a little false
sense of security. DR. CONVERY: They went into debt
to buy more land. They went into debt to buy
more machinery, more tractors, to plow up still more acres. This hunger for
cultivatable land ultimately led to a collapse.   My father, Monte Robert Gourley,
came to Baca County in 1913. He come from Oklahoma and
he was homesteaded on a half section of ground in the
northeast corner of Baca County. TERRY: My grandfather loaded up the old covered wagon, so to speak, and headed west
and he developed a claim northwest of Springfield
about 14 miles, and they started that homestead out there in 1917. He bought what they called a
relinquishment and that had been homesteaded at another time by
somebody else, but they didn’t satisfy the requirements of the
homestead and so he set up camp, dug a hole in the side of
the ground, made a little soddy, and started farming. What does a soddy look like? Basically, dig a hole in the ground and pile some sod bricks up around it and then use whatever roofing material that they can come up with. Those were nasty places to live
because the creatures crawl in and out, you know, and when
it rained, it rained mud.   It was a hard life, no doubt. Even when it was a good time,
it was a hard life. There was tough times and it was
hard, but all of my memories of my childhood and my life on
The Dry are very positive ones. We always had love,
we had plenty eat, and we had a place to stay,
we had clothes to wear. We had one another, family
picnics, and mom would take us fishing, and at night,
we would go hunting. We had great times.   The image that people
have of homesteading, it is what I call the Little House on the Prairie model, where you have like the blonde girl, the blonde mother, the father with the ox and wagon
and going to the west and settling in those areas,
but it is a much more complex, much more diverse population. Some of the earlier movements
towards the west, particularly black movements, had to do with
the end of Reconstruction, so after 1877, more or less,
you start having populations moving from the south. People wanted to leave places
where Jim Crow was and Ku Klux Klan, and so on,
so they moved to areas to create their own communities where
they could be more successful. ALICE: My mother’s family
came to Colorado in 1916. May 1st, they loaded up their
wagon and hitched up their team and headed from Oklahoma and by
the end of May, they had reached Colorado, and they had stopped
along a waterway here in the Manzanola area, and they
saw this gentleman and he had a wagon with some barrels on it and he was filling them with water and so her father asked him, how do you get to the land
that they’re homesteading? The man said, go back. He said, “You don’t
want to be here. This is not the place to be.” Her father said, “Well,
I have nothing to go back to.” They headed out to The Dry. For 100 miles, you could
see nothing but dry. She said, you know, in Oklahoma
we were used to the red soil and the green grass and the trees and streams running. She said, there was nothing. She said, there was not a tree. She said, I didn’t hear a bird. She said, I just broke down
in tears, but her father was going to homestead and
that’s what he’d come for. M. DORES: The Dry is located south of Manzanola, about 10, 11 miles in the southeastern part of Colorado. It’s very open sky, very harsh
landscape, very flat, and you can see for
miles and miles. ALICE: Everyone locally knows that the dry land is the area where there is no irrigation
and they call it the dry land and then, the people
that live there said, well, where do you live
out on The Dry? At the peak, there probably was 45 to 50 families that settled on The Dry and they would have periods where they would have enough snow and enough rain where they could plant some crops, but it was never what anyone thought it would be. M. DORES: They had something in mind that was something that had been promised to them that
was irrigation agriculture and it wasn’t happening and that’s why they start leaving. It was quite early
before the Dust Bowl. ALICE: Farmers would hire them
to work and my mother always laughed, and she said, you know, it was out of the cotton fields and into the beet fields. My mother and father stayed
and her father, and Lou Lou Craig,
my grandmother, and her family stayed, but the majority of
the people left the dry land. M. DORES: Owning land, even if
it was dry and inhospitable, was important for
African-Americans. ALICE: It’s a chance of
a lifetime for us to own some property and have a place that we can call our own.   Drought happens about
every 20 years on the plains. The 22 year period spanning
the First World War in the 1920s and into the 1930s
was a natural phenomenon. What complicated matters was
the human use of the land — the overplowing,
the overproduction that took place set the table for the worst environmental catastrophe in American history. Because it’s so arid out there,
you actually need a fair amount of land in order to make it
and if you have machinery, you can till more land,
you can plant seed, you can harvest a lot easier. TERRY: Modern technology,
really, instead of enhancing the situation, it demeaned
the environment and it wasn’t really
anybody’s “fault.” They might’ve had some
unrealized expectations, but given the data that they had to make decisions with, we might’ve all made
the same decision.   DR. CONVERY: An interesting thing happens at the end of the First World War — because so many European nations are in debt, the demand for
exported wheat collapses. Wheat prices plummet and
as a result of that, farmers have to go into an interesting
cycle of debt and overproduction in order just to keep
their heads above water. JAMES: Well, you planted about half a bushel, you’d have to get a little more out of it then
you put in it or you’d go broke, and some guys back in those
days went broke, too. But in the 1920s, a couple of
things happened — the price of wheat began to fall, but at the
same time it began to get drier. The yields that had been
so fabulous during the First World War began
ever so slightly and then increasingly,
to diminish over time. A lot of farmers had gone into
debt to buy land during the war or to buy new farm machinery, but when the price of wheat began to drop, they had to plant more and more land in order to make ends meet,
so through the 1920s, American farmers were
in serious trouble. Their only way out of their
dilemma of debt and falling wheat prices was to
plow even more land and that just further
set the stage for disaster. By the end of the 1920s,
most American farmers were on the ropes and
then it stopped raining.   JAMES: Well, it was dry and hot and once in a while, we’d get a few drops of rain. ALICE: Large chunks of earth
would just crack and break. You could go out and lift it up. The kids would stack it together
and make houses. It was just that dry. DR. COLE: Fields that were once green that people thought was their American dream, dried up, and the very, very fine dust that you find down there
started to blow. DR. CONVERY: Living on
the eastern plains during the Dust Bowl was perhaps
the most trying experience in American
agricultural history. The first dust storms
began in 1931 and they really continued
all through the 1930s. ALICE: They always called it
“The Dirty ’30s.” Those were the really hard times
out on The Dry and the wind blew and blew and there was nothing
to stop it and there was so much dust that came into the little
old houses that they built that they stuffed newspaper
in the cracks and mother said she would hang these sheets
and burlap bags, or whatever you had,
up to the windows. They would wet them and
they would catch the dust and keep it out of the house
and keep them from choking. JAMES: It was terrible,
you couldn’t hardly breathe. Some people got dust pneumonia. DR. COLE: If you were young
or elderly, you were especially susceptible to this
and some people die of it. ALICE: My father was still having to haul water and they had the team of horses. There was so much dust and so
much dirt that it packed into the horse’s nose and he had to
keep getting down with a wet cloth and cleaning the horse’s
nose and by the time he got back one of the mares, her name was
Bravo, her nose started to bleed and it bled and bled and my
mother said she had to tear up strips of cloths and wet them
and pack the horse’s nose and dad had to hold it tight and so
she made some cloth muzzles and he would tie those over the
horse’s nose and he would keep that wet and it kept the dust
out of his horse’s nose. DR. COLE: Baca County was one of the parts of the southern plains hit hardest by the Dust Bowl. People called it and some of
the neighboring counties the epicenter of the Dust Bowl. During the Depression, more
than half of the population is on relief of some sort
so it’s a part of Colorado that is essentially where you see
the problems of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression
and this kind of environmental tragedy
play out most dramatically.   Black Sunday, which is
April 14, 1935, largely considered to be the worst
dust storm of the Dust Bowl. It was a beautiful morning
and you can tell it’s coming because the animals react to it. Birds just start flying
trying to get ahead of it. Livestock start panicking,
so you know what’s coming and you know it’s going to be dark and it’s going to be windy and you’re going to have to cover your mouths and try to cover the mouths of your children and try to keep yourself from ingesting
all of that dust. There’s this Associated Press
reporter named Robert Geiger and he starts driving to
southeastern Colorado. He drives down to Baca County,
he goes through Oklahoma, he goes into Kansas, and during his reporting from this part of the country, he coins
the term “The Dust Bowl.” People kind of referred to it as
the dust area or the dust belt before, but in one of his
dispatches, he uses the term “Dust Bowl” and it sticks.   There’s always been
drought on the plains. There’s always been dust
storms on the plains, but this combination of overplowing, of mechanization, of widespread homesteading
left the plains more vulnerable to drought than they had
ever been in their history. TERRY: You had a perfect storm of economic crisis and climate crisis, and so those converged
in the early ’30s and everything happened
all at once to those poor people and so it was really
a tumultuous time. DR. CONVERY: The harvest of 1931
was a disaster. Drought destroyed much of
the Great Plains wheat crop and every year after that
in the 1930s, conditions just got worse
and worse and worse. Some ranchers held on. They could always eat their
livestock, but for wheat farmers who exported everything, there
were really no alternatives except to pray for rain
or to leave. TERRY: And so you had
an out-migration. MICHELLE: Those folks who left, they just left their buildings completely, and many times,
it looks like they loaded their vehicle and left everything else there — there are remnants of beds and parts of cars
and domestic items. DR. COLE: But some people
were essentially moved because the government moved them for this government program called the Resettlement
Administration. It was this early attempt
by the government to solve the problem of the Dust Bowl. You take families, move them
to less drought-stricken parts of Colorado, or elsewhere in
the west, give them new farms, give them livestock,
and give them a new start. TERRY: Some people were
just too broke to leave. They didn’t have the resources
that it took to get up and leave. There were others
that were perhaps a little better managers. Some of the people invested
their money other places. They brought more money
with them to start with and diversified
their operations. Maybe they were
a merchant in town or they had a job
at the post office. Some people are just more
tenacious than others, you know. They’re just doggone hardheaded. I’m just going to stick
this out no matter what. Some people didn’t have
anything to leave to. So in 1930, there’s over 10,000
people living in Baca County, which is the most that have
ever lived in that county. In the 1930s, about 40 percent of the population decides to leave. JAMES: Several families
lived in the area, some of them went to California, some of them to Oregon, and the others stayed
and waited it out. By 1932, one in four Americans
were unemployed. There was no market for
whatever crops you could grow. There was no way out of this debt cycle, and it got so bad that farmers really had to turn to the government to help them find ways to buy time
until the rains returned. The New Deal under
President Franklin Roosevelt created a number of programs —
The Farm Security Administration to help support
commodity prices. And most importantly, for
the farmers in the Great Plains, the Soil Conservation Service came along to help farmers develop new, more environmentally sensitive ways to farm the land.   JAMES: Rain came back in ’39
and it felt great. People planted wheat
and it done good. Everybody had smiles
on their face and was ready to get with it.   TERRY: So you fast-forward to
my generation and we were using some of the same technologies
that our fathers and grandfathers used,
but in the mid-’80s, we started applying more
science to the soil. We realized that we could rotate
our crops and we could grow residue on the ground and
use harvested wheat stubble to provide an environment
for the next crop. DR. COLE: So people just kind of
experiment with new farming techniques like no-till farming
where you don’t really disturb the soil very much, plant trees
to create a wind break, contour plowing instead of doing
everything straight in a row. For a lot of families, they just
have to keep being innovative and rethink the ways
that they farm. DR. CONVERY: Farmers
see themselves more as stewards of the land. They grow crops today that
are very resistant to drought. They work to bring in
irrigation. They work to tap ground water. MICHELLE: For the ranchers,
the strong recognition that out in this arid area, you need a lot of acreage to keep a cow and a cow/calf pair and so the acreage that they allot for that is much larger and so the idea is that they’re rotating their cattle so that no one area
is getting overgrazed to the point where it’s
not going to come back. DR. CONVERY: The Soil Conservation Service bought back a lot of the abandoned farmland that farmers walked away from during the worst
of the Dust Bowl and they created grasslands, Comanche National Grassland and Pawnee National Grassland originated in
abandoned farmsteads. MICHELLE:
These areas are not cultivated. We do allow grazing and other
multiple uses, but by having areas that are stable
it helps the landmass overall because controlling
soil erosion. What we’ve learned is that
trying to keep the native vegetation, and where we don’t
have it, try to re-seed it, so that in this current drought,
we’re not having the devastating effects of the 1930s. TERRY: And so with the Comanche National Grassland and the re-vegetation through the conservation reserve programs and to no-till farming, that really changed
the landscape. While we still have issues,
we have some tools to mitigate some of that. We also have air-conditioning
and nice modern houses we can live in that the dirt doesn’t
blow through and our tractors have got GPS guidance systems on
it so we’re much more efficient. It’s never going to be easy
being a farmer on the dry lands of the Great Plains, but by
becoming more sensitive to the landscape, by becoming sensitive
to its patterns and rhythms, those farmers who were
able to stay behind have managed to prosper. TERRY: If you were here on
the right day, you wouldn’t know that you weren’t in
a 1930s dust storm. A lot of days, it’s sunny
and calm and beautiful, and other days, why, you’ve got the wind and the dirt. You get a real sense of
what it was like then, although on a much
smaller scale. We get strong winds
with sustained winds of 45, 50 miles an hour.   TERRY: What is it like
to be here as a survivor of the Dust Bowl Era? When the dust is blowing
and it’s bad, I say, it’s poor judgment. It’s not learning from the past. DR. COLE: That’s just part of the plains kind of environment, but we’ve never had
a Dust Bowl ever again. Part of it is we tend to
have droughts now at times when
the economy isn’t bad so that kind of economic
collapse isn’t there. DR. CONVERY: Alleviating
the Dust Bowl didn’t mean that we never had
dust storms again. In the summer of 2013, there were a number of dust storms on the plains as a new cycle of drought began to wrap itself around the plains once again.   MICHELLE: Some people ask, have we rebounded from the Dust Bowl or are we still in the process
of rebounding? We’ve made huge improvements
since the Dust Bowl to have a more stable environment,
but even though we’ve come a long way, there’s still
more restoration work to do. DR. CONVERY: The big lesson of the Dust Bowl was that this unbounded optimism that you could turn the Great American Desert into the Garden of Eden was an overreach that farmers needed to find ways to coax prosperity out of the land without destroying the land
in the process. They were reminded in the most
extreme way of the fragility of the landscape and that they
needed to treat that landscape with respect or it could
turn on them very quickly. MICHELLE: Farming practices, ranching practices, and soil conservation practices in this part of the U.S. is different than in other areas in that they are a little bit
more fragile. Native prairie grasses and other
vegetation is important to hold the soil because this is
an area that drought is common. DR. COLE: It’s mostly about learning more about the environment you live in
and kind of realizing that in order to live here, you have to make certain choices. So in some ways,
the Dust Bowl is all about unanticipated consequences. TERRY: A lot of us stay here because we want to prove to ourselves and our families
that if you’re tenacious, if you’re smart,
if you’re lucky, that you can live in an area
that’s not just perfect. DR. CONVERY: We are always
going to have to be vigilant to the costs and opportunities
of farming on the plains so that we never repeat
the catastrophe of the 1930s.   (music)  


  1. Great documentary! You are pronouncing Baca wrong! It is not pronounced "back-uh," it is pronounced "Bach-ah."

  2. This is awesome piece of information,as we indians dont face such dust storm so frequently and with this isntensity but this will add to my knowldge from your experience.thank you.

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