Dust Bowl

This photo of buried machinery in a barn lot at Dallas, South Dakota, was taken May 13, 1936.

The weather has been something terrible. The sand and dust is drifted up in drifts like snowdrifts. In a lot of places, the fences are all drifted under. We have had sand blizzards for the last three days — so bad that you could not see the sun all day long and the sky above was clear. It got so bad at times that it got so dark we had to have lights. This hasn’t been the first storm we have had. — Henry Wagner, South Dakota, 1934

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Henry Wagner didn’t live in McLeod County. In fact, he didn’t even reside in Minnesota. The letter he wrote in 1934 came instead from South Dakota, a region hit hard by the dust storms that decimated the Great Plains of the United States. The recipient of the letter was Fred Birkholz, a Lester Prairie man who’d sent some grain to Wagner. Without it, he would not have made it through the year.

It was the worst drought in recorded history and dubbed the “Dust Bowl,” or “Dirty Thirties.” Lack of rain, intense heat and heavy winds swept across the heartlands of America and created blizzard conditions of thick, choking clouds of dust that fell to the ground like snow. In parts of the country, it became so bad that entire towns were abandoned as people fled their homes. Livestock perished, and in several cases so did people who lived in the affected areas.

The cause of the dust storms was due in large part to an insufficient understanding of the ecology of the Great Plains. The decades prior to the 1930s provided a favorable climate, but when drought hit, the land could not handle the impact that technology had on it. The rise of mechanized ag implements in the 1920s led to extensive deep plowing of virgin topsoil. The practice displaced the native, deep-rooted grasses that trapped soil and moisture during arid periods. In the following decade, as the region entered a severe drought, the exposed topsoil turned to dust in the dry heat and was carried away by the wind.

The storms blew choking bellows of dust across the plains, at times reducing visibility to less than 3 feet. They called them “black blizzards” or “black rollers.” Dust storms so severe that they blocked out the sun and could travel as far as the East Coast.

In Minnesota, where dust clouds came from the west, it was a common saying that they were “trading South Dakota real estate.” The storms made their way across the south and central portions of the state, raining dust that was kicked up from the west, then picking up dust from Minnesota and sending it east.

Farmers in McLeod County, as well as other parts of the state, suffered the same fates as those in the central heartlands. Sand drifted in the fields, fence posts were buried, and crops failed. Vegetable gardens were planted in dried creek beds and slough holes — places that still held moisture regardless of the dry weather.

The drought began in 1931 when the central Great Plains states saw their first episode of major drought. It peaked in the middle of the decade and didn’t weaken until 1941. In some cases, abnormally dry weather capable of creating dust storms persisted well into the 1940s. The magnitude of the drought, as well as the financial depression that gripped the nation, led to federal relief programs aimed at putting people to work and improving conditions on the plains such as planting windrows and altering farming practices to improve soil conditions. Though issues in the nation remained, the programs helped to lessen the effects of the next dry spell during the 1950s.

Today, in 2020, abnormally dry and windy weather has us deadlocked in near drought conditions. The grass is brown and crunchy, the rivers and lakes are going down, and the continual high winds threaten to kick up small dust storms. As bad as it seems, however, it’s little compared to the conditions of the 1930s.

If 2020 has taught us anything, however, it is that you never know what the future has in store.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. During this time of uncertainty, the museum is closed and programming is canceled. For more information, email Haines at director@mcleodhistory.org.

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