Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Worst Hard Time: A Look Back at Even Tougher Times

The Worst Hard Time Timothy Egan’s new book, “The Worst Hard Time”, tells an extraordinary tale of how America's great, grassy plains turned to dust, and how the ferocious plains winds stirred up an endless series of "black blizzards" that were like a biblical plague: "Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains" in what became known as the Dust Bowl.

The Dust Bowl
The Dust Bowl, or the Dirty Thirties, was a period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to American and Canadian prairie lands from 1930 to 1936. The phenomenon was caused by severe drought coupled with decades of extensive farming without crop rotation or other techniques to prevent erosion.

The following photo shows a dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas in 1935:

Texas Dust Storm 1935

The next photo shows a farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936:

Oklahoma Dust Storm 1936

Millions of acres of farmland became useless, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Many of these families (often known as "Okies", since so many came from Oklahoma) traveled to California and other states. There they found economic conditions little better than those they had left. Owning no land, many traveled from farm to farm picking fruit and other crops at starvation wages.

The next photo, which has become known as "Migrant Mother", is one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Nipomo, California in 1936. Lange was concluding a month's trip photographing migratory farm labor around the state for what was then the Resettlement Administration.

32-year old migrant mother

In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

More About the Dust Bowl
American Experience: Surviving the Dust Bowl Surviving the Dust Bowl is the remarkable story of the determined people who clung to their homes and way of life, enduring drought, dust, diseaseeven deathfor nearly a decade. This episode is part of the PBS American Experience series, which provides an in-depth look at the epic stories that have shaped America.

Redmond Library Board


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