Rollers, Rabbits, and Red Snow – The Oklahoma Dust Bowl

September 14, 2018

A black roller tears into Goodwell, Oklahoma, Texas County home of Panhandle A&M College, now Panhandle State University, 1937.

Since around the time of Oklahoma statehood, farmers had cleared off, plowed, and harvested thirty-three million acres of buffalo country in the American Great Plains. This comprised an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania. These sturdy pioneers had not, however, adapted their agricultural practices to the verities of their untamed new prairie lands.

 

They had cleared fields of wind and flood breaks. In turn, they lost the thin layer of topsoil that allowed native grasses to root, retain the region’s precious moisture, and keep the earth from blowing away. They had unknowingly set in motion a ticking time bomb of unimaginable proportions.

 

Already facing falling prices and mounting supplies of unsold products, farmers grew even more nervous when precipitation declined in 1930 from the high levels of the preceding decade. Then, around noon on January 21, 1932, a monstrous dust storm formed in the Texas Panhandle. Historian Timothy Egan memorably described the surreal scenario:

 

A cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top appeared just outside Amarillo. The winds had been fierce all day, clocked at sixty miles an hour when the curtain dropped over the Panhandle. The sky lost its customary white, and it turned brownish then gray as the thing lumbered around the edge of Amarillo, a city of 43,000 people. Nobody knew what to call it. It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard—a black blizzard, they called it—with an edge like steel wool.

 

 

Map of the six-state Dust Bowl region, 1931-1939.

Two miles tall, it roared north and east into Oklahoma. It was the first of fourteen horrifying “dusters,” “rollers,” or “black blizzards” that struck the Panhandle that year alone. From there, droughts tormented the region in 1932, 1934, 1936, and 1937. Locust plagues struck, and the hideous black dirt monsters swept swarms of lethal tarantulas and centipedes from the Texas and New Mexico Llano Estacado and deserts, into the bathtubs, kitchens, and bedrooms of Oklahoma pioneer homes. Children and seniors alike died from bites.

 

Rabbits bred in such numbers during this unnerving era that whole towns would engage in search-and-destroy missions, killing thousands at a time with baseball bats and clubs. They piled them high in fields to burn. Cattle and horses suffocated to death in the gigantic oceans of choking dust, and children died from pneumonia after their lungs filled with dirt.

A gigantic “black blizzard” of drought-parched top soil carried by high winds approaches a farm at Boise City, Cimarron County seat, 1935.

Red Snow and Rain Barrels

 

Tens of millions of tons of northwest Oklahoma topsoil blew away in 1934, and again in 1935. At least forty dusters struck the Dust Bowl in 1935 and sixty-one in 1938—seven years after the full-fledged Dust Bowl first set in. That year, Oklahomans also witnessed the most severe wind erosion in recorded state history. In the spring of 1934, Oklahoma dirt cascaded into the Atlantic Ocean. Red snow fell in New England during the winter of 1934-35.

 

In retrospect, one could be forgiven for suggesting that the unseen—and often seen—hand of God was at work, reclaiming His own land, best suited for the now-slaughtered buffalo, for His own purposes.

 

Contrary to one of the many myths engendered by John Steinbeck in his famed novel The Grapes of Wrath, Oklahoma comprised only a portion of Dust Bowl territory. The ravaged plains spread from the Texas Panhandle north to Nebraska, and from the Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado and New Mexico through half the state of Kansas. The epic malady did devastate Oklahoma’s northwesternmost seven counties—Cimarron, Texas, Beaver, Harper, Ellis, Woodward, and Woods—and it savaged many others.

"Black Sunday,” one of the most massive and terrifying dust storms in history, rolled across the Southern Great Plains on April 14, 1935. Here it roars into Texhoma, Texas County, Oklahoma. Photo by Wilson Studio, Texhoma. Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society, Kent Ruth Collection.

The effects, though, were felt across Oklahoma. Betty Browning recollected her 1930s childhood in the country near Wagoner, only about fifty miles from the Arkansas line:

 

I can remember many times hearing, “The dust is coming! Go get the sheets off the line!” You’d look and you’d see that black cloud, as huge and as far as you could see. If you didn’t get those sheets off the line before it got there, the dust would cover it. You did your laundry when you thought the weather was going to be clear. You had to pick the days you would go put those sheets on the line. And then, the dirt came in the house, too—so often, we thought it was normal!

 

She vividly recalled the importance of rain barrels:

 

You set rain barrels out when you knew it was going to rain. You could catch an entire barrel of rain, and barrels were tall. It was a good source of water, which was so precious, since we were all on well water. Mom used it to water the garden where we grew food. And when we took baths, on Saturday night or when company was coming or something, all five children all used the same bath water, one at a time.

Arthur Rothstein’s famed photograph of a Dust Bowl Era Cimarron County father and son as the father attempts to rescue one of his farm fences from a gargantuan sand drift. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Rabbit Season

 

Rabbits plagued people and animals from one end of the Dust Bowl to the other. They multiplied like never before, and devoured the limited vegetation. Retired Guymon dentist Darryle Gibson grew up near Erick, Beckham County, in far western Oklahoma. He remembered how the locals dealt with rabbits during these troubled times:

 

About 1935 or ’36, there hadn’t been enough rain for the grass to even grow around Beckham County. For some reason, the jack rabbits began to multiply. They became so thick, on a quarter section of ground, there might be as many as a thousand or more. They were eating all the grass and all the vegetation for the cattle and the livestock. The people who lived in the area decided the one thing they could do was kill those things.

 

About two hundred people got together and they joined hands and had clubs. They began to move forward and they’d scare these rabbits out. Where they’d scare them to, there’d be another group of people with clubs who would meet them, and they’d encircle these rabbits. As those rabbits would get close to ‘em, they’d club ‘em in the head and kill ‘em.

 

On this one rabbit drive that I remember seeing, they killed almost five thousand rabbits in that one area. There were some people there who raised mink. They came over from eastern Oklahoma and picked up about half of those rabbits and took them with ‘em, and the rest of ‘em just lay there and they were coyote bait. Boy, those coyotes really had a ball for about two weeks.

Patsy and Darryle Gibson

No Quit In Them

 

Again, contrary to the images of Steinbeck and others, the vast majority of Oklahomans remained in their own state. Some stayed on their land or their communities, others took often-part-time New Deal jobs or make-work, and many went to cities to find employment. Others left for a period, then returned. Some, particularly in the state’s larger cities, actually prospered during the period.

 

Like many Oklahomans, Panhandle farmer Caroline Henderson and her husband Will set their jaws like flint and stayed on their land—in their case, for over sixty years. Though the Dust Bowl’s terrors tortured them, ruined them financially, and nearly killed them, neither it nor anything else could drive them out. The Hendersons’ marathon of mostly silent suffering stands in the twenty-first century as a lasting monument to the unshakable resolve of a people determined to forge a better life in the Oklahoma countryside than they might have had elsewhere.

 

Will and Caroline Henderson, Panhandle pioneers and Dust Bowl survivors. Caroline’s memoir, Letters from the Dust Bowl, remains the most acclaimed non-fiction account of the catastrophe. Ken Burns featured it prominently in his PBS documentary, The Dust Bowl.

Caroline’s classic memoir, Letters from the Dust Bowl, is considered the greatest non-fiction account in print of the Dust Bowl. One of its many powerful excerpts reads:

 

There are days when for…periods one cannot distinguish the windows from the solid wall because of the solid blackness of the raging storm….After one such storm, I scraped up a dustpanful of this pulverized soil in the first preliminary cleaning of the bathtub!....Dust to eat, and dust to breathe and dust to drink….Dust in the beds and in the flour bin, on dishes and walls and windows, in hair and eyes and ears and teeth and throats…to say nothing of the heaped up accumulation on floors (sometimes so thick it lies in ripples on the kitchen floor) and window sills after one of the bad days.

 

Guymon resident Virginia Frantz grew up in Beaver County during the ‘30s. She and her family struggled, but stayed put, too. “My parents were brave, brave people. We were poor as Job’s turkey,” she said.  “One day, I had to strike a match to see what time it was on the clock on the wall, and it was noon. It was because of how dark the dust made the day.”

Virginia Frantz

She developed dust pneumonia. “Every time I’d cough, I’d cough up mud.” A few years ago, after a successful teaching career and raising seven children, a doctor x-rayed her troubled lungs and asked if she grew up on the farm. He told her, “You’ve got a tiny ridge of dust in the bottom of your lungs.” It had been there for eighty years.

 

“What I’ve got in my lungs is older than dirt!” Frantz said with a laugh.

 

Artists such as Steinbeck, Okemah folk singer and political activist Woody Guthrie, and photographers Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee employed their unsurpassed talents to chronicle the plight of the yeomen of the Sooner State and elsewhere. The drama and power they mustered to convey their messages and tell the stories of the often powerless who could not tell their own, reached beyond the intellect to the human heart.

A windmill stands as a lonely sentinel over this abandoned Guymon farm—and the tons of blown sand under which it is buried—in a 1937 Associated Press photo.

Black Sunday

 

The worst recorded dust storm in American history engulfed northwest Oklahoma and much of the rest of the Southern Great Plains on April 14, 1935. The afore-mentioned Darryle Gibson and Virginia Frantz both experienced the historic horror as children. They shared their recollections recently with the author.

 

Frantz, author of the Dust Bowl memoir Keepin’ it Together, and whom Ken Burns featured in his documentary The Dust Bowl, recalled:

 

It was a beautiful day. We had gone to church. My cousin and one of my friends had come home with me to play and eat dinner. We had already eaten and were playing outside as we always did, when we looked up and saw it coming. We had no warning. It came from the northwest. We saw rolling walls of dirt. It almost reminded you of animals. It was quiet, no noise, stalking you. Like it was alive. The birds were flying ahead of it, madly, trying to get out of the way. We knew this was the granddaddy, the worst. We went to the cellar, just like we did all the time.

 

Gibson remembered:

 

Every time big clouds would come up, my mother would grab me and my brother and we’d go to the cellar. If it hadn’t been for the cellar, we probably wouldn’t have made it, because I spent half my childhood in the cellar. But that Sunday, we saw that thing coming, and it was so black and so terrible looking. My mother said, “It’s the end of the world, the end of the world’s coming.” She started crying, and dad consoled her and said, “Aw, honey, it’s just another one of those dust storms.”

 

So we went to the cellar, and the wind blew, and we stayed in there for two hours before we could get out. It got so black, dad would look outside and he couldn’t see the sun shining. The wind just about ruined everything that we had around the house, all the flowers, the vegetation. There was a half an inch of dust settled on everything that night. When we went to bed, Mother put a wet cloth or wet towel over our bed to keep the dust from falling in on us during the night.

Poetess Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, daughter of a migrant family who migrated to California during the Dust Bowl.

Faith, Hope, and Love

 

What to make of such a time and place and people? One Oklahoma child migrant to California, poetess Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, wrote beautiful verse nearly until her 2007 death. This included the poem Living With the Land. It memorably conveyed the ambivalent but deep emotions residing in the hearts of the people of the High Plains country of Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

 

Lizzy Bates

was washing dishes

when the first drops pelted

light March rain

lasted only ten minutes

but the roof leaked above the stove

and smelled of sour lumber

When it stopped

Lizzy came outside

and looked at the hard sky

 

This will be a hard season

not another drop of rain

until November

she said

Not spoken bitterly

but as a mother knows

her own child’s weakness

and loves it anyway

 

Virginia Frantz, still vibrant in her mid-nineties, wistfully recalled how a cousin who delivered mail in the area gave her mother the precious gift of one hundred baby chickens during the depths of the Dust Bowl:

 

So we cleaned out that brooder house, and we cleaned that brooder stove, and we got it all ready for the chickens. They came, and we taught them how to drink, and where to go to get the feed. Mother’d go by and see them every day, just like her own children. She cherished them.

 

One night we woke up and there were lights flickering in the house. We looked out, and the brooder house was completely burning up. I saw my mother kind of on the edge of the shadows, and just crying like her heart was broken. But the next morning, she came out and fixed us pancakes for breakfast. She said, “We haven’t had pancakes for a while, so I’m going to fix them this morning.” Then she started singing a hymn. I think it was Higher Ground.

 

"Lord, lift me up and let me stand,

            By faith, on heaven’s tableland.

A higher plane than I have found;

            Lord, plant my feet on higher ground."

 

 

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