As part of a five-state region affected by severe drought and soil erosion, the "Dust Bowl" as it was called was result of several factors. Cyclical drought and farming of marginally productive acreage was exacerbated by a lack of soil conservation methods. Because the disaster lasted throughout the 1930's, the lives of every Plains resident and expectations of farming the region changed forever.
The settlement and development of the Southern Plains came relatively late. Not recognizing the problems of initiating massive agricultural programs meant farmers had no back up plans when the drought hit. Historian Donald Worster suggests they had "A Sense of Invulnerability": "Around World War I they were talking about upsetting the balance of nature on the plains. People were worried about insect outbreaks, I think, more than anything else. But nobody had seen dust storms of a scale that the 30's would bring. Indians came along and told people to leave the grass where it was. There may have been a few obscure individuals who worried about what was going on. But most of the people living in the area were pretty well caught up in the dream of progress and turning this place into a breadbasket. So if there were misgivings, they were not being published.... I think particularly in the 20's when the great plow-up occurred, there was an enormous sense of invulnerability, at least in official circles, and I think to a large extent among settlers and farmers."
Scientists had noticed, for instance, the level of the Great Salt Lake rose after Mormon settlers started irrigating nearby land for cultivation. These "facts" were widely disseminated:
A Nebraska scientist, Samuel Aughey, extrapolated in 1880 on the slogan, "Rain Follows The Plow:" "...after the soil is broken, a rain as it falls is absorbed by the soil like a huge sponge." Then the soil evaporates a little moisture into the atmosphere each day, receiving it back at night as a heavy dew.
In addition it was widely believed that the spread of the railroads and electric wires, modified natural electrical cycles in an arid zone and induced the fall of moisture. Stories were also repeated that artillery fire such as at the Battle of Gettysburg, contributed to the heavy rains that followed. Cannon used to clear the Plains of Indians might even have the added benefit of bringing rain.
The drought cycle of the 1890's offered a warning to thoughtful observers. The newly opened lands were barren, and it was necessary for some state agencies and even the U.S. Army to provide assistance to the hurting farmers. New legislation was enacted in an attempt to minimize farmers' further risk. These actions would have to be expanded by FDR's New Deal because few, if any, lasting changes in farm structure were made. Rather than seeing the drought cycle, many farmers would have agreed with an assessment from 1880: "This is the sole remaining section of paradise in the western world."
An interesting side benefit of increased grain production was the opportunity advanced by Prohibition. Distilling became a common practice during the 20's and early 30's. The authorities largely tried restricting production rather than harsh punishment of bootleggers and moonshiners.
Amongst the many reasons for erosion, the farming practices of the 1920's and 30's were highly relevant. Before World War I, a variety of crops were being grown, which tended to allow the farmer to survive: if one failed another crop would carry him through which was a good backup plan. Since fewer brooms were made from broomcorn and few options were available to sell grain sorghums, these crops declined in production, as wheat became the staple crop. The appearance of modern mechanical farm equipment encouraged farmers to plow up more land and to plant on marginal acreage. The combine, tractor, one way-plow and truck all made possible greater yields and higher profits. Unfortunately, these devices could not change the...
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