The Worst Hard Time is the story of the dust storms that struck the Southern Great Plains in the 1930s. The region encompasses western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, and the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles. The region is normally a dry part of the Midwest, though several rivers run through it carrying the snow melt from the Rocky Mountains.
Timothy Egan explains that, prior to the 1900s, this area was covered by waste-high grasses, but as the result of an increased European demand for American wheat, much of the sod was plowed under. The federal government, under the Homestead Act, had encouraged the settlement of “nesters” on the land to provide the labor input. The individual farm family would own and operate their own farm.
Unfortunately this region received on average only twenty inches of rainfall per year, marginal land for growing a wheat crop. And Egan argues that there was no provision for the specific needs of dry land farming. In the 1930s rainfall was less than twenty inches. And there was often a strong wind blowing over the land in the winter that dried out the soil and picked up anything that would fly.
Unfortunately also the market price of wheat dropped by half after the Great War. Which meant that to maintain the farmers’ livelihood, a nester would have to plant twice as much wheat. This meant plowing under even more of the sod.
A network of railroads, mostly east to west connections, cheapened the cost of grain transport out of the region. The railroad promoters also invited European immigrants to consider homesteading some of this wheat land. Agents were sent to recruit the “Volga Germans.” Ethnic Germans living in the Volga region of Russia, many of them Mennonites or Lutherans. They used dryland farming techniques appropriate for the dry lands in the American Midwest.
Catherine the Great (reigned 1762 to 1796) had encouraged this German settlement in newly opened lands in southeastern European Russia. She exempted them from military service and land taxes. In 1872 Catherine’s privileges were revoked by Alexander II (reigned 1855 to 1881). Looking for an alternative, Kansas and the surrounding states in the U.S. looked like an opportunity. They and their descendants weathered the dust storms of the 1930s.
These dust storms sometimes lasted for days and caused a significant loss of an irreplaceable resource. The dust got into everyone’s lungs, causing ‘dust pneumonia’, particularly deadly to the elderly and the very young. It was also devastating to farm animals.
Both the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations, Egan suggests, were uncertain about what to do. If the cause was faulty agricultural practices, then the best means of ameliorating the situation was to encourage a different set of farming methods. Both Administrations were pro-active in intervening in the U.S. farm economy, resisting the argument that the situation should be left to sort itself out.
Others viewed the dust storms on the Southern Great Plains as caused by exceptional weather conditions. The situation should be handled like any other natural disaster.
Rainmakers were given a chance. It was believed that loud booms (cannons) would create rainfall in clouds with moisture. Experiments were sponsored by Congress. No successes. There was also an untapped source of water buried below the surface, the Ogallala Aquifer. It survived but has since been tapped and is slowly disappearing.
In the spring of 1934, the dust clouds began to move east and hung around the eastern seaboard cities for days before moving out to sea. When the eastern U.S. got a taste of a dust storm, Egan contends, attitudes abruptly changed. Roosevelt’s ‘Second Hundred Days´ created a Resettlement Administration that reversed the “cold brother [Hoover] who would not help a family in need.”
The New Deal strategy was to resettle farmers currently farming “worn out land,” and that category would include the dry lands of Kansas and adjoining states. But this program had its critics. It moved the problem of agricultural distress and unemployment westward to the Pacific Coast.
California was hostile to the nesters, (John Steinbeck’s exiles were from Eastern Oklahoma). Their presence in California looking for work, however, turned into a blessing when they found employment in the industrial structure created on the West Coast to fight the war in the Pacific.
Timothy Egan won a National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time in 2006.