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From the Dust

On the trip from Knoxville to Florida I read this – a history of the Dust Bowl.

It’s very good – for those already familiar with the period, there’s probably not much that’s new – but for the rest of us, it’s a good popular introduction to the background of the disaster, with lots and lots of personal stories gleaned from published and unpublished memoirs and histories.

The Dust Bowl is the Mother of All Cautionary Tales, of course – settlers drawn out to unfarmable land by various speculators, government plans and charlatans. Settlers who then coaxed a miracle out of this land, bringing amazing harvests in a period of skyrocketing wheat prices, which only encouraged more to tear up more of the land, held together for centuries by the grasses that fed the buffalo. And then prices dropped, so in a panic of trying to cover costs and maintain income, even more land was torn up, until the droughts started and the land just started to blow away.


Black Sunday, April 14, 1935. More photos here.

Horrors ensue, of enormous storms of dirt and dust that continued for years – burying homes and infecting countless with ‘dust pneumonia’ and other ailments, killing the very young and the very old. Many left, some stayed.

The reason I read this book is because it was sitting on the coffee table at my Dad’s house. My dad asked me if I’d heard of it, I said, no, and I asked him if he’d read it. No, he said, he hadn’t been able to confront it yet (not his exact words, but something like it). Why? Because there’s a personal connection here.


One of the primary sources for Egan was the memoirs of Hazel Lucas Shaw, who left the area before the dust storms began, only to move back as a young bride, to experience the full horror – Black Sunday, pictured above, hit the day she was to bury her infant daughter and her grandmother, both killed by the dust. Hazel Lucas Shaw is a relation of sorts – she is the sister of my grandmother’s sister’s husband, but the truth goes deeper, for all of them were up there at the time – my dad’s grandmother, his aunt, and her future husband, Hazel Lucas’s brother. They were all living through the dust, suffering the poverty and the temptation to despair in the face of dust and more dust, with no end in sight.


Difficult reading, in any case, but the closer you are, the more painful the read, indeed.

And it certainly puts a life of relative ease – dare we even say luxury – in stark perspective, pushes meaningless complaints out of mind, and inspires some girding of loins: No excuses. Here’s my life…what good shall I do with the gift today?

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posted July 11, 2006 at 11:06 pm

Another must read for anyone who wishes to know more about life on the Plains is The Children’s Blizzard.
This horrendous winter storm killed more than 1000 people – mainly children- in a single day. An intense artic cold front dove into the Plains in late January in 1888. Most of the children were still in school when the cold front passed. Temperatures before the front hit were in the low 30s. Within minute the winds were gusting to over 60 knots, the temperatures plunged to below 0, and visibilities were less than 5 feet.
From North Dakota to Kansas hundreds of children died of exposure as they attempted to make it home. Most of the families were very recent immigrants from Europe and had no idea how dangerous winters in the Great Plains could be. The Children’s Blizzard of 1888 was one of the worst weather disasters in American history.
The grand children of the survivors of the Children’s Blizzard had to face the droughts of the 20s and 30s. From what I hear, there are very few families living in the Northern Plains anymore. Most of the old grangers and rail towns have long since been abandoned. Rail lines have gone idle. The farms and churches are gone, and for the first time in 150 year, there are more buffalo than humans.

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posted July 11, 2006 at 11:36 pm

A few years ago, PBS produced an American Experience episode called “Surviving the Dust Bowl.” It’s very good. I think it might be available for borrowing from libraries.

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Jimmy Mac

posted July 12, 2006 at 1:50 am

And don’t forget to (re)read “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck for a very vivid albeit fictional tale of people desperately seeking a new life in California after losing all to the dust bown in Oklahoma.

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posted July 12, 2006 at 1:54 am

My mother’s family had to auction off their rural Kansas farm and move to Wichita and live hand to mouth in the farm depression that preceded the stock market crash by a number of years. (Previously they had been embroiled in the Bleeding Kansas saga)
Then they had to deal with the dust storms that forced particulate matter under the doors and into cracks by windows and made the sky dark. People had to wear wet cloths across their mouths and noses for days at a time. My maternal grandfather became a migrant harvest hand sleeping in barns, my mom’s bed was rented out to keep the landlord at bay a few days longer, my paternal grandfather was a chauffer & my paternal grandmother sold girdles door to door to keep the wolf from the door.
In spite of all and with no money, my mom & dad’s families told them to go for their dreams; they worked their ways through college (in an era before govt loans); my dad went to med school; and they had a baby (me) 2 weeks before he shipped off to Northern France to fight the Nazis.
We don’t have such brave people any more. Tested people. People of their word. People with hope when logic says there is no friggin’ reason to hope.
I’m starting to think that guy whose RIP you posted the other day was right. Our culture has died while we were distracted and looking the other way. Now everybody wants guarantees and pouts when things aren’t going exactly how we want it to be heading.
I’m embarassed when I really think about the character of my forebears. The Therapizing Agenda has sapped us of our true grit. Gosh, Geo Washington would not tough it out at Valley Forge these days.

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posted July 12, 2006 at 7:27 am

It was common knowledge at the time that the Dust Bowl was all Prescott Bush’s fault.

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posted July 12, 2006 at 8:12 am

how true, how true

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posted July 12, 2006 at 9:10 am

Lamenting that our culture is soft & was stolen from us while we were asleep at the wheel, is true but unhelpful. Like Amy said, we need to “gird our loins”, wake up & get with the program that God has been trying hard to get us to hear thru our Holy Fathers for the last 30 yrs. That’s what we’re going to have to talk to God about when we stand before Him in the not-too-distant future.

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Maureen O'Brien

posted July 12, 2006 at 9:27 am

George Washington lived on the frontier, had few books, and lost his father and brother before their time. He used his brain, his determination, and his guts (and God’s help, of course) to make himself someone who was educated, cultured and acted with virtue.
No excuses.

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posted July 12, 2006 at 10:23 am

There are still plenty of people out there- you just don’t hear about them. They are not the kind of people that get “celebrated” in our society today.
There are many men and women who silently carry thier cross without complaint. Perhaps they are the true conter-culture. In a society which celebrates victimhood and moral exhibitionism, it is easy to forget that there are people out there who quietly persevere.

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Jimmy Mac

posted July 12, 2006 at 11:21 am

” … when we stand before Him in the not-too-distant future ”
What is your source of information about this not-too-distant future? I know that I’m going to be captured in The Rapture, but I’m not sure about the rest of you.

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posted March 13, 2007 at 6:42 pm

YAWN! I looked up the dust bowl this is what I got.

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