If you landed on this article you are likely searching for the causes of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.
Much of the historical literature of the Great Depression era focuses on the widespread economic devastation that engulfed the nation. The dust storms that swallowed the plains during the 1930s are typically featured as just one more disaster during tough times for Americans.
However, the Dust Bowl is a major event in its own right. It’s a tale of great sorrow and perseverance of the American spirit, though is particularly saddening given how the storms were largely avoidable.
This article will dive deeper into the numerous causes of the Dust Bowl and what exactly was the primary reason behind the disaster.
The 1930s Dust Bowl
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a cataclysmic event that brought great suffering and destruction to hundreds of communities. Beginning in 1931 drought wreaked havoc on the semi-arid region of the Great Plains surrounding the panhandle regions of Oklahoma and Texas.
At first crops failed due to the lack of water, sending the huge farmer population reeling. Most of these farmers needed the money from selling crops at market to pay their mortgages and other expenses.
With crops failing, the dry conditions made farms more susceptible to the frequent high winds of the region. Many farmers did not practice sustainable agricultural methods, loosening too much topsoil and destroying many of the native grasses that held the topsoil in place.
The combination of loose topsoil and high winds led to the creation of dust storms. These storms varied in size, though they were destructive wherever they passed.
Small particles of loose topsoil would be picked up and become part of the storm, while heavier particles would remain on the ground to be moved by the wind to create dunes as tall as 25 feet.
The storms could be intense. Eyewitness accounts detail how the dust reduced visibility in some storms to no more than three feet. Others detail massive dark black clouds that would blot out the sun for days at a time.
The storms could travel thousands of miles. Most notably, the cities of Chicago and Washington, DC experienced dust storms that had originated as far away as western Oklahoma.
What most remember about the Dust Bowl is simply just how much dust there was and its ability to go everywhere.
“Even wet towels stuffed in the cracks of windows could not keep the dust out… Everything in the house — even food in the refrigerator — was covered with dust.”American Scientist vol. 66 no. 5 via JSTOR1
The Dust Bowl was a horrific event and one which led to the suffering of a great many people. The fact that the Great Depression occurred at the same time as the Dust Bowl made the suffering that much worse.
The Causes of the Dust Bowl
The three primary causes of the Dust Bowl include poor farming practices, severe drought in the region, and the widespread economic depression.
In the decade leading up to the Dust Bowl, farmers in the region greatly expanded on planting crops more suitable to temperate climates, instead of the semi-arid climate of the region.
The main reason behind this was due to fluctuating prices for crops, including the most favored in the region: wheat. The demand for wheat during World War I saw wheat prices skyrocket and sent farmers rushing to plant more of the crop.
The post-war years saw an immediate decline in wheat prices back to historical averages, though a few years later prices would once again drastically increase. These wildly-fluctuating prices led to poor agricultural habits.2
In years when prices were high, farmers would plant more wheat in order to cash in on a bigger harvest. Some of these big harvests could bring in enough money to pay off an entire farm.
In years when prices were low, farmers needed to plant even more wheat to simply break even on their expenses.
In both scenarios, landowners dedicated ever more land towards farming despite the general knowledge that some lands needed to remain fallow in order to maintain native grasses that helped protect the topsoil.
There were, of course, other causes of the Dust Bowl. The relatively small land holdings’ sizes were partly to blame for the over-farming.
The Homestead Act called for parcels of 160-320 acres to encourage settlers to move to the area. These land holdings were deemed to be too small for the region in order to turn a consistent profit and were a big reason for the over-farming as settlers needed to utilize as much of the land as possible for productive crops.
Rapid advances in technology also produced machinery that made farming cheaper, easier, and more productive. These methods failed to account for the damage they would do to the soil, especially in a semi-arid environment prone to droughts.
Though there were many causes of the Dust Bowl, it was an entirely predictable event, even given the general knowledge at the time.
The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was an awful event on its own, yet also occurred amidst the Great Depression. This time period is well-known for being one of the worst periods in American history, during which millions of Americans suffered greatly.
When the Dust Bowl began in 1931 the state of the US economy was dire. Millions were unemployed and relief did not appear imminent. The Hoover administration believed in laissez-faire economics and that the economy would “fix itself” which would prove disastrous.
Thousands fled the region seeking relief from the Dust Bowl and opportunity elsewhere. Many of these migrants were called “Okies,” named for the region many hailed from, and while they settled all over the US, a popular destination was California.
John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, popularized and highlighted the hardships of the migrants. Without available employment opportunities, many would settle in makeshift shanty towns called “Hoovervilles” to just try to survive.3
The beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in 1933 is when effective relief measures finally began.
Several programs emerged to help struggling farmers of the region. The Farm Mortgage Act helped prevent foreclosures by allowing farmers to refinance their mortgages.
The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation bought farmers’ crops and animals and helped to distribute this extra food to the poor and unemployed. This was in conjunction with the Drought Relief Service that also bought herd animals at higher prices than local markets would offer to help keep farmers afloat.
In one of the more effective measures, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Public Works Administration (PWA) helped to employ millions of unemployed workers. These included many of the “Okies” and other Dust Bowl migrants.
The Aftermath and Effects of the Dust Bowl
While these programs were necessary to help keep the Dust Bowl region afloat during the Great Depression, rapid changes were needed to help the environment in the long term.
The 1935 Soil Conservation Act created the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) that helped to standardize soil conservation practices. It also paid farmers to adopt more topsoil-friendly methods in order to prevent ecological destruction of arable lands.
In 1937 another one of Roosevelt’s policies began to take effect in earnest. The Shelterbelt project was a massive undertaking that hoped to provide an immediate reduction in topsoil erosion and the subsequent dust storms.
The project authorized the planting of millions of native trees throughout a stretch of land from the Canadian border to Texas. These trees would simultaneously slow down the winds as well as anchor the topsoil into the ground.
Despite opposition, historians consider the shelterbelt project to be widely successful at helping to ease the effects of the Dust Bowl and reduce the intensity of the dust storms.
Only in 1939 when the drought ended and the rains returned did the Dust Bowl finally end. Areas that were lightly hit recovered relatively quickly. World War II in the early 1940s meant a dramatic increase in the demand for crops such as wheat.
However, other areas where the dust storms were more severe took much longer to recover. Land values plummeted in the aftermath and more relief work was required to make the land suitable for farming in the future.
The legacy of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression was of great pain and suffering. One can only hope the lessons learned can help prevent another environmental catastrophe in the future.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Lockeretz, William. “The Lessons of the Dust Bowl: Several Decades before the Current Concern with Environmental Problems, Dust Storms Ravaged the Great Plains, and the Threat of More Dust Storms Still Hangs over Us.” American Scientist, vol. 66, no. 5, 1978, pp. 560–69. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27848850.
2) Hornbeck, Richard. “The Enduring Impact of the American Dust Bowl: Short- and Long-Run Adjustments to Environmental Catastrophe.” The American Economic Review, vol. 102, no. 4, 2012, pp. 1477–507. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23245462.
3) Koppes, Clayton R. “Dusty Volumes: Environmental Disaster and Economic Collapse in the 1930s.” Reviews in American History, vol. 8, no. 4, 1980, pp. 535–40. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2701281.