Dakota Datebook

Dust Storms

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Seventy-seven years ago today, the first of the great dust storms of the 1930s hit North Dakota.

Homesteaders had been systematically plowing up the native grasslands to plant wheat — in fact, it was a condition of homesteading to break the land for planting — and by the 1930s, not much root structure was left to hold back wind erosion. When a series of hot summers and droughts dried up farmers’ crops, conditions were perfect for high winds to strip away the topsoil, and disaster struck.

The term “dust bowl” was largely used by journalists to describe conditions down around Oklahoma and Texas. But drought and dust storms actually hit North and South Dakota first, leading to the term “dirty thirties.” Lack of moisture caused stunted crops, grasshoppers ruined the rest, and crop prices plummeted. By December, 1934, North Dakota – of all 48 states – had the highest proportion of people depending on government relief.

Dust storms could send dirt 6,500 feet into the air and traveled as far as 2,000 miles. These “dusters” could be seen coming for miles, like a massive cloud of smoke pushed before a large fire. When storms hit, sometimes for days at a time, they often blocked out the sun. Windows were stuffed with rags, or sealed with tape or putty, and wet sheets were hung over windows and doors to catch the dust. During the worst of it, lights had to be used during the daytime.

Also known as black blizzards, the dirt drifted the same way snow did. Drifts covered fences and vehicles, closed roads and partially buried houses and barns. People had to climb out their windows to shovel paths to their doors. Many dust storms contained static electricity that caused cars to stall, and some people felt that this static contributed to their crop failures.

Dust storms were particularly hard on the young and the elderly, causing a unique illness known as “dust pneumonia,” which caused a large number of deaths. As the thirties progressed, pastures dried up, and cattle, other livestock, and wild animals starved or died from dirt in their lungs and stomachs.

In Washington, a man named Hugh Bennett was vainly trying to initiate emergency conservation measures with FDR and the congress. Pictures of huge “dusters” in North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas had partially convinced the committee that soil conservation measures were needed, but Bennett wanted more drastic action.

While the Soil Conservation Act was being debated before a Senate Committee in 1934, Bennett stalled the hearing for a day because he was tracking a dust storm that was making its way up the Ohio Valley to the East Coast. Bennett was ready when the storm arrived; during the hearing, he herded the committee to the windows for a look. As the storm hit, it blacked out the sun, and Bennett said, “Gentlemen, that is Kansas blowing by.”

Any doubt that had remained was now gone, and soil conservation became a priority. The government bought up many North Dakota farms, helped relocate the displaced farmers, and much of the ravaged land was replanted into grass that could be used for pastures.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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