Book Review of The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Egan

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The Forgotten Truth of the Dirty-Thirties
HIS-190
19 November, 2010

When you consider the disaster of the American Dust Bowl of the Dirty Thirties on the Great Plains, no wonder Stephen Long of 1821 concluded that the American West was “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”1 It seems that Timothy Egan’s book, The Worst Hard Times, hit the nail right on the head as to the cause of the worst natural disaster that the United States has ever experienced. The great dusters of the Dirty Thirties occurred because of the United States Government’s encouragement to over-farm the Great Plains during the early twentieth century, particularly during the Great War and the 1920’s. When you take into account this foolhardy encouragement to the homesteaders and their family farms it is only natural that the homesteaders share in the blame. For it is through their ecological destruction, neglect of the land and greed during this era that known, natural occurrences of high winds, low annual precipitation, and occasional drought were worsened and tossed the land to the skies and rained it back down on them in unimaginable ways. It is apparent that they did consider the long term consequences of over-farming the “Great American Desert,” or more now commonly called the Great Plains. As Lawrence Svobodia, a Kansas wheat farmer who kept track of the slow decline of his farm stated: “The area seems doomed to become in dreary reality the Great American Desert shown on early maps.”2 It does not seem reasonable that the US government could have forgotten Stephen Long’s report, the conclusions of John Wesley Powell, and many others about this arid land.3 However, history shows again and again the short memories of humankind. As history teaches, when we ignore the lessons of the past we are doomed to relive them in the future. What started out to be great progress in the farming industry of the Great Plains ended in great decline. As these homesteaders and tenant farmers steadily moved into the American West (because of the Homestead Acts of 1862 and 1909) they began tilling up the grasslands of the Great Plains. This massive tilling and overturning of the grass turned the land of the Great Plains into one mammoth strip of dirt stretching from the US-Canadian border to nearly the US-Mexican border. This destruction of ground cover was a time bomb waiting to explode, and it did. In 1932 it went straight up into the air after years of over-farming and neglect. These grasslands were and are vital to the sustainability of the Great Plains of the Central United States because of the extreme climate conditions that exist there. Once they were tilled up there was no grass left covering the land, this allowed the winds of the prairie to blow as they usually did, but this time being allowed to gather the dirt up and turn it into the form of massive dust clouds that no one had ever seen before. The weather men had never studied this weather phenomenon before because of its non-existence before the 1930s. These dust clouds would then blow fiercely across the Great Plains and dump tons of dust on Great Plain’s farms, towns, the open prairies and at some points, the eastern United States (as far as Washington D.C., New York City, and Boston and even out into the Atlantic Ocean). They severely destroyed everything in their path; the ecosystem, cattle, prairie chickens, horses, sheep, buildings, automobiles, crops, and especially, human life. When you get down to the gritty facts it truly does not seem that this land was meant to be farmed, at least not to the extent that the homesteaders did in the twenties, then the forties, and even still to this day. Long’s prophecy of the American West was coming true; this land was too arid to support subsistence farming, let alone just living on the land itself.4 The American West was and is not stable enough to support droves...