Monday, July 18, 2011

Dust Bowl Days

The weather here has been crazy hot and has me reminiscing over the trip I took this spring to Kansas, Oklahoma and a small part of New Mexico. It was my "Dust Bowl tour" and these were the states that were hit the hardest by the Dust Bowl. I've become a bit of a history buff, especially interested in the history of the American West, and any history on man's impact on nature.

The book "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl" by Timothy Eagan inspired my trip. Back in 2000, I spent half the summer working in the Oklahoma panhandle and the northwest portion of New Mexico and Eagan's book mentioned many towns that I drove through that summer. I remembered the abandoned buildings that dotted the landscape along the long stretches of empty highway. Were some of those empty houses, barns and sheds remnants of the Dust Bowl era?

Last fall I started reading books, researching the Dust Bowl online and calling small town city halls. I wanted to visit and see any old houses or farmsteads that were still standing. I wanted to stand on the same land that was buried under dirt during those difficult times, to see what a homesteader may have seen over 60 years ago.

On my trip I spoke with a Dust Bowl survivor, visited several Historical Societies and Museums to read old newspaper articles and spent an incredible day exploring abandoned homesteads that served as homes during those dark days. I kept a journal and took a lot of photographs. Here are excerpts from my journal and a few photographs. To respect the privacy of those who owned the homesteads, I omitted photos of specific buildings but don't worry, there will be a picture or two from that day.

So here is the journal. I apologize if it jumps around but to save space, I'm limiting it to excerpts of the meat of the day.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

...I headed for Hugoton, KS. I spoke with Ms. G.R, the curator of the musuem on the phone back in November and she sent me a packet of information. I went in this afternoon and introduced myself. She vividly remembered the Dust Bowl days (she graduated from High School in 1941). She recalled frequently shoveling dirt out of the house that was shin-deep. She remembered a time when the ceiling came crashing down because the attic became so heavy with dirt. She told me the ceiling did not have wood back then but were rather made of plaster. Ms. R said the house didn't have a basement, but her dad dug a basement under the house and they spent most of their time in that dug-out basement to avoid the dirt...Ms. R said Saturdays were shopping days when most people went to the Market to buy, sell or barter goods. Many people traded their eggs, cream, milk and butter to the grocery store for fresh vegetables. It was a beneficial trade on both ends because the grocery stores usually did not carry those dairy products and there were people in town who bought those goods.
I mentioned to Ms. R that I came across a dilapidated store on the highway around Woods, KS. She said it was an old gas station that was closer to town during the Dust Bowl Days. When it went out of business, a couple bought the building and moved it to Woods, KS but has since been abandoned once the couple died.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Yesterday I went to the Herzstein History Museum in New Mexico and met up with the museum curator and her staff. The museum didn't have as much information on the Dust Bowl as I had hoped, but the photos and articles they did have were amazing. There was a display on Black Sunday in addition to other photos. I scanned a few photos and an article.

Photos from the Herzstein History Museum in Clayton, New Mexico

Newspaper clipping at the Herzstein History Museum

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Yesterday was an awesome day. Peregrinus (Country Girl and her beau Peregrinus came into town on Friday night) hooked me up with a colleague who had access to several homesteads that were active and in existence during the Dust Bowl Days....Some of the houses were still made with sod!

Most of the outer walls of these houses were made with sod and plastered over with chicken wire holding the plaster up.

Some of the inner walls and ceilings of these houses consisted of thin wooden slates covered with plaster. Most of the houses were in some form of disrepair; holes in walls, walls missing, broken window panes, screens hanging off doors, missing shingles, holes in the ceiling or roof. But almost all the houses were in good shape. The barns back in the 30s (and probably 20s and 40s as well) were multi-functional, holding grains, farm equipment and sometimes even animals. The barns that housed grains often had wires supporting the walls because the walls tended to bow out when holding the weight of grain...

Most of the houses contained evidence of inhabitants; a table, a mattress with exposed springs, torn up carpet, a suitcase left behind, a broken telephone, even an early 20th century washing machine.

We spent an extra few minutes bird watching at each of the homesteads. I finally got to see Barn Owls again after 11 years. More than half the sites had Barn Owls that we flushed out upon entering a building. It was nice to see them floating on the air once again.

I spent a bit of time with Peregrinus and Country Girl birdwatching at a beautiful state park over the weekend and in addition to the owls, hawks, meadowlarks, horned larks and other songbirds, we saw pronghorn, big horn sheep (introduced into the area) and even a few donkeys. The homesteaders were drawn to the Great Plains for the fertile soil and their actions altered the landscape, but even so, I find this area beautiful.

I enjoyed my trip in this portion of the Great Plains, there is definitely an allure for me to the small towns. It wasn't unusual for someone to stop and ask if I need help when I was pulled over on the shoulder of the road to take a photograph, bird watch or read a historic marker, watching people wave and speak with each other in restaurants and stores and being approached in these same places to see where I was from and share their stories once I told them the purpose of my visit. I loved the personal stories from Ms. R, the various museum curators and the proprietors of the Bed and Breakfast establishments that I stayed in. I heard so many town stories I don't think I would have read in any book. Time definitely does seem to slow down in a small town and I wonder if the manners, closeness and overall atmosphere was the same today in these towns as it was back in the 30s.

I'm not finished with my Dust Bowl Tour. I need at least one more trip and I can't wait to go back in time to explore the past in this part of the states.


  1. Thanks for the post! I'm doing an English project on the book 'Out of the Dust' by Karen Hesse, so I needed information about the Dust Bowl.

  2. Glad to be of help! I HIGHLY recommend reading The Worst Hard time...even though you've already read a Dust Bowl book. It was an amazing trip and lots of fun to put that little bit of history in concrete terms.

    Feel free to give me a holler if you have any questions!