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DUST BOWL LORE

Oklahoma was and is identified as "the Dust Bowl State" even though it had less acreage in the area designated by the Soil Conservation Service as the Dust Bowl than did the contiguous states of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. The lore of the Dust Bowl still circulates around the Oklahoma image as fiercely as the dust storms that blew through its Panhandle.

Big Dust Storm

Sunday, April 14, 1935, started as a clear day in Guymon, Oklahoma. The temperature was in the upper eighties, and the citizens, in their fourth year of drought, went to the Methodist Church for a "rain service." The congregation packed the church and lifted prayers seeking divine intervention for moisture; the minister said that "good rains within three weeks means a harvest; God rules all, and our last resort is prayer." By late afternoon the skies were darkened, but not by rain clouds. Instead, the worst of the black blizzards hit Guymon.

Throughout the southern High Plains temperatures fell more than fifty degrees in only a few hours as winds as high as seventy miles an hour blew black soil from Canada and northern plains states. Total darkness lasted for forty minutes and was followed by three hours of partial darkness. The relative humidity decreased to less than 10 percent. As the nation had become aware of the dust storms, journalists such as Associated Press staff writer Robert Geiger were in Guymon writing a series of articles. In his April 15 release for the Washington, D.C., Evening Star he wrote: "Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer's tongue rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent. If it rains. . . ."

Geiger used the term "dust bowl" for the first time in print. Within three months "dust bowl" was being used throughout the nation. He specifically referred to "the western third of Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, and northeastern New Mexico." That area is almost identical to the Dust Bowl boundary as formally designated in 1939 by the Soil Conservation Service as the geographical extent of the severe wind damage by 1939.

For various reasons, the word "Oklahoma" quickly became synonymous with the term "Dust Bowl." In truth, Texas and Cimarron counties, in the heart of the Dust Bowl, suffered the worst damage, most severe storms, and most dramatic sand drifts. Coincidentally, when Geiger first placed the term "dust bowl" in print in April 1935, and when other journalists reported the "Black Easter" storm, their datelines stated "Guymon, Oklahoma." This geographical reference firmly planted the Oklahoma Dust Bowl connection in the public mind.

When the dust storms began, singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie lived in Pampa, Texas. He was an Okemah, Oklahoma, native, but the dust storms occurred far from his Oklahoma home town. His 1940 recordings, including "The Great Dust Storm," "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "Dust Pneumonia Blues," "Dust Bowl Refugee," and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," released under the title Dust Bowl Ballads, made him known as "Oklahoma's Dust Bowl Balladeer." However, those songs actually drew upon his experiences in the Texas Panhandle in the early 1930s.

Guthrie also wrote songs about the Dust Bowl migrants, and most of them actually were from Oklahoma, but not from its Panhandle Dust Bowl area. Examples are "Tom Joad" and "Do-Re-Mi." Mostly cotton farmers from eastern and southern Oklahoma, Guthrie's migrant heroes were sharecropper and tenant farmers forced off the land by improved mechanized farm equipment, extremely low prices for cotton, and the Great Depression. Moreover, because the New Deal's crop reduction program paid the farms' owners to plow under their land, the sharecroppers and tenants who had actually worked the land were made homeless and became migrants.

Dust Bowl Ladies

Sayings and stories about Oklahoma weather, as well as Guthrie's songs and John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, helped perpetuate Oklahoma's Dust Bowl image. Some of the more critical statements included "Oklahoma has four seasons, often within the same week." Stories circulated that even with all the doors and windows closed the dust was so thick that a strong light bulb "looked like a cigarette burning and you couldn't see your hand before your face." One story claimed that a man's car was stalled by the sand; when he opened the door, he shot ground squirrels overhead tunneling for air. The wind velocity was so wicked that one man said, "You can fasten a logchain to a fence post or tree, and if it isn't blowing straight out, it is a calm day." Some people said that farmers were advised not to rotate their crops, for the wind would do it for them. Folks referred to dust storms as "Oklahoma rain." Women would hold their pans up to a keyhole and let the wind and sand clean them. It was so dry for so long that frogs could not learn to swim and would drown when put in water. Some said, truthfully, that "the wind blew the farm away, but we didn't lose everything—we still got the mortgage."

Other weather lore proclaimed that "dust had to be thrown in a man's face to revive him after he fainted when a drop of rain hit his face," and "the wind blew away so much soil that postholes were left standing above the ground; one farmer hitched up his team and wagon, gathered the postholes, and stored them in his barn for future use." These are just a few of the many wry sayings and descriptive exaggerations that emerged from the Dust Bowl era. Woody Guthrie summarized the problems and life in the Dust Bowl with "dust sometimes gets so thick you can run your tractor and plows upside down. So dark you can't see a dime in your pocket, a shirt on your back, a meal on your table, or a dadgum thing. Only thing that is higher than that dust is your debts. Dust settles, but debts don't."

The word that became synonymous with the migrants who traveled west to work was "Okie." Reportedly, Ben Reddick, a journalist with the Paso Robles Press in California, saw in migrant camps numerous "old cars with Oklahoma license plates reading 'OK'." On the back of a photo depicting the camps and the autos he wrote the word "Okies," which was published as the caption. Thereafter, the term spread, applied to migratory workers. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Will Rogers and others sometimes said, facetiously, that the migration of Okies to California raised the intellectual level of both states. In many western states Okie continues to be used as a derogatory term, despite Oklahomans' numerous attempts to turn it into a complimentary term. However, those who live here generally consider themselves to be "Oklahomans," not "Okies." While "Okie" had been used before the dust storms hit, it became one of the traditional elements associated with the Dust Bowl era. Unfortunately, no matter how much research and no matter how many books and articles are written about the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma remains in the minds of many as "the Dust Bowl State."

SEE ALSO: DUST BOWL, FARMING, GREAT DEPRESSION, TWENTIETH CENTURY.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (1989; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1943). Caroline Henderson, Letters From the Dust Bowl, ed. Alvin O. Turner (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001). Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr., ed., Hard Times in Oklahoma: The Depression Years (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1983). Guy Logsdon, The Dust Bowl and the Migrant (Tulsa, Okla.: Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, 1971). Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Guy Logsdon

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