Watching the series of a television documentary "The Dust Bowl" by Ken Burns brought back some forgotten memories and provided some explanations about people and their attitudes long wondered about. It also shed some light on the reasons for the tenacious attitude of Texans.
The documentary vividly portrayed the horrid dust storms of the "Dirty Thirties." Not just a few, but literally hundreds of storms. It accurately pictured the farmers and ranchers who were affected by this disaster. One storm was said to have deposited three feet of sand/dirt on the area, and drifts as high as the roof of some buildings. At the same time it was scooping up the precious topsoil from the fertile fields of the farming families.
Their fields were ruined and with them the lives of the people affected by it. Barns called it "The worst man-made ecological disaster in all of American history and perhaps the world so far." It was a 10-year apocalypse that visited almost biblical plagues on people and rearranged the landscape." It came at a time when people all over the world were suffering in the great economic depression.
The drama which was most impressive was not the wind or the dirt, but the reactions of the people. With their homes destroyed, their land ravaged, their means of making a living taken away and their livestock decimated, many still hung on tenaciously to their land and homes.
Some were forced to leave because of poverty and sickness. Several family members died from dust-pneumonia, but the majority stayed on and fought the storms with everything they had. When they were down to their last penny they were forced to turn to government charity for sustenance or starve to death. This was tragically humiliating for these staunch, self-sufficient people. They just couldn't watch their wives and children starve so they went against their natural tendency to avoid charity.
An account was told of a large family which had run out of food. They had no bread nor anything to make bread with. A loaf of bread cost ten cents at the grocery store. They searched the house over but could not find a single dime.
This sort of situation resulted in about 40% of these people having to leave the country. Some went to Arkansas, but the overwhelming majority headed for California where they were told they could find work. A few stopped in New Mexico or Arizona along their way.
They found work in harvesting citrus fruit in California but the pay was meager. With the coming of so many workers, the orchard owners cut the pay even more.
The poor, starved and disheveled immigrants from the great plains were looked down on by most of the land owners and wealthy business men of their new home. Regardless of whether they came from Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma or Arkansas, they were called, "Okies or Arkies" which was intended as a term of derision, an insult. Burns likened it to calling a black man a "nigger." It added to the misery of the already down trodden formerly proud and independent people.
Many of those displaced individuals were able to come back home to the plains after the ten year hold the Dust Bowl held on their land ended but it was strange and difficult task. They still had to depend on governmental assistance to make a go of it.
Through the influence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, new farm programs were put in place in an attempt to recover the decimated farmland. Such things as terracing the crops and planting grasses on idle land to prevent erosion.
The government concluded over-planting the land was a reason for the land blowing out, so they began the practise of paying farmers not to plant some of their land. Such practices were new to the farmers and met with a lot of objections, but were slowly adapted by many farmers as they began to show favorable results. The programs were intended to help keep the soil tight so as to prevent another dust bowl.
The government also implemented a program called the Works Progress Administration to put the men back to work so their families wouldn't starve. The men worked for $30 a month of which $25 had to be sent back to their families. They worked on public buildings and roads, parks, bridges and even built schools. At its peak WPA provided jobs for three million unemployed workers.
Slowly their lives returned to normal and with the coming of rains the crops began growing on the newly developed land, and prosperity returned. The only fear then was the farmers might not utilize the new land conservation methods they were taught and go back to over using the land and water.
Some people wonder why Texan's are so independent and tenaciously loyal to their homeland. The people interviewed in this documentary are now elderly people in their 80s and 90s. They were youngsters in the days of this Dust Bowl disaster, yet they have vivid memories of those days. They saw their parents and grandparents broken and humiliated and driven off their land, and these people don't want to see this sort of thing happen again.
Never again do they want to have to beg for charity, nor be called an Okie by wealthy people with a smirk on their face who know nothing of what it took to stick it out through the horrible Dust Bowl. There are many other things which make Texans loyal to Texas, but this was a big one.
The big problem of our present generation is the depletion of the water in the Ogallala Aquifer, but people are working on a solution to this problem.
We hope and pray nothing like what happened to those folks happens in our generation, but the terribly dry year of 2011 and the continuing drought conditions certainly evoke concern. We are thankful our modern farmers have espoused conservation methods which go a long way toward prevention of such a thing.