>
 

 


The Second Six-Pack
Nominations for the Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma Book for 2005


Read an excerpt from

Letters from the Dust Bowl
Courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Press


 

July 26, 1935

"DUST TO EAT," TO HENRY A. WALLACE, SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE

Who has given to me this sweet
And given my brother dust to eat?
And when will his wage come in?
—William Vaughn Moody, "Gloucester Moors"

. . . For twenty seven years this little spot on the vast expanses of the great plains has been the center of all our thought and hope and effort. And marvelous are the changes that we have seen and in which we have participated.

The almost unbroken buffalo grass sod has given way to cultivated fields. The small rude huts or dugouts of the early days have been replaced by reasonably comfortable homes. The old trails have become wide graded highways. Railways have been built, reducing our journey to market from thirty miles to fifteen and later to two and a half. Little towns have sprung up with attractive homes, trees, flowers, schools, churches, and hospitals. Automobiles and trucks, tractors and combines have revolutionized methods of farm work and manner of living. The wonderful crop of 1926 when our country alone produced 10,000,000 bushels of wheat—more, it was said, than any other equal area in the world—revealed the possibilities of our productive soil under modern methods of farming. I can shut my eyes and feel yet the rush of an almost painful thankfulness when we looked out over our fields that summer and watched our ripening grain bending, rising, bending again in golden waves swept on interminably by the restless wind. It seemed as if at last our dreams were coming true . . . .

Yet now our daily physical torture, confusion of mind, gradual wearing down of courage, seem to make that long continued hope look like a vanishing dream. For we are in the worst of the dust storm area where William Vaughn Moody's expression, "dust to eat" is not merely a figure of speech as he intended, but the phrasing of a bitter reality, increasing in seriousness with each passing day. Any attempt to suggest the violent discomfort of these storms is likely to be vain except to those who have already experienced them.

There are days when for hours at a time we cannot see the windmill fifty feet from the kitchen door. There are days when for briefer periods one cannot distinguish the windows from the solid wall because of the solid blackness of the raging storm. Only in some Inferno like dream could any one visualize the terrifying lurid red light overspreading the sky when portions of Texas are "on the air." This wind-driven dust, fine as the finest flour, penetrates wherever air can go.

After one such storm, I scraped up a dustpanful of this pulverized soil in the first preliminary cleaning of the bathtub! It is a daily task to unload the leaves of the geraniums and other house plants, borne down by the weight of the dust settled upon them, and to excavate the crocuses and violets and other little growing things that we have cherished out of doors. A friend writes of attending a dinner where "the guests were given wet towels to spread over their faces so they could breathe." At the little country store of our neighborhood after one of the worst of these storms, the candies in the show case all looked alike and equally brown . . . . "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 and window sills after one of the bad days.

Yet these personal inconveniences are of slight moment as compared with the larger effects of the persistent drought and wind erosion. The year 1929 brought a good wheat crop and we bought and paid for a small tractor and combine. In 1930 our harvest was cut short by hail. In 1931 we again raised a good crop of wheat and sufficient forage for our stock, but the ruinous prices and heavy expenses left little or nothing in return for our labors. Since 1931 the record has been one of practically unbroken drought resulting in complete exhaustion of subsoil moisture, the stripping of our fields of all protective covering and the progressive pulverization of the surface soil—an effective combination to produce exactly the results from which we are now suffering. In one limited respect we realize that some farmers have themselves contributed to this reaping of the whirlwind. Under the stimulus of war time prices and the humanizing of agriculture through the use of tractors and improved machinery, large areas of buffalo grass and blue stem pasture lands were broken out for wheat raising. The reduction in the proportionate area of permanent grazing grounds has helped to intensify the serious effect of the long drought and violent winds.

Now we are facing a fourth year of failure. There can be no wheat for us in 1935 in spite of all our careful and expensive work in preparing ground, sowing and resowing our allotted acreage. Native grass pastures are permanently damaged, in many cases hopelessly ruined, smothered under by drifted sand. Fences are buried under banks of thistles and hard packed earth or undermined by the eroding action of the wind and lying flat on the ground. Less traveled roads are impassable, covered deep under sand or the finer silt-like loam. Orchards, groves and hedge rows cultivated for many years with patient care are dead or dying. The black locusts which once gave something of grace and distinction to our own little corner are now turned into a small pile of fenceposts while the carefully gathered brush has helped to feed our winter fire....

Thousands of acres of carefully and expensively tilled soil show only the drill marks in the hard subsoil to prove that the wheat had been sown. Over much of this area the wind and eroding sand have obliterated even the traces of cultivation. Pastures have changed to barren wastes and dooryards around humble little homes have become scenes of dusty desolation. Small buildings have been almost buried. Stock ponds have in some cases been gradually built up into miniature sand dunes as the dry dust, shaken from the wings of the wind, has settled into water of the pool and later deposits have adhered to the accumulating moist earth.

It might seem that the conditions here suggested were in themselves sufficient cause for discomfort and regret. Yet one must endeavor to resist not only the violence of the physical tempests but also the influence of erratic "winds of doctrine" which seem to blow most vigorously in time of trouble. Some would-be prophets are sure that the days of grace and mercy and rain for this great prairie land are forever past; that the future promises only hopeless and permanent desert conditions. Others, according to their own words, are quite as sure that fervent prayer is the one thing needful to bring relief. Special prayers for rain were offered at our county seat last Sunday morning. The afternoon brought one of the most sudden, dense, and suffocating dust storms of the season.... A revival preacher—a true Job's comforter—proclaims that the drought is a direct punishment for our sins. Some regard it as retribution for the ploughing out of cotton hundreds of miles away....

In this time of severe stress, next to the enduring character of our people credit must be given for the continued occupation of the plains country to the various activities of the federal government. Without some such aid as has been furnished, it seems certain that large sections must have been virtually abandoned. As it is, aside from the actual physical effects of the dust clouds, life goes on in a manner surprisingly near to normal, so near in fact that superficial observers have not realized the true situation and have felt that the reports of drought conditions have been exaggerated. One is forced to wonder whether such reporters expected to find people dying of starvation by the roadside! . . .

In our own section, the largest amount of direct cash benefit has come through the rental checks under the wheat acreage control program. I realize perfectly that this whole question is debatable. I do not know of any farmer who can give his whole-hearted approval to policies involving voluntary restriction of production. Such measures are contrary to the whole theory and habitual practice of agriculture. I do not know of any real farmer who would not gladly produce all that his acreage and equipment and the weather would permit him if he were sure of being able to secure by his labor the means of continued production, of clean, reasonably comfortable living, of education for his children, or professional care and some measure of security for the days when "the almond tree shall flourish—and desire shall fail." The important point is not the market price of our products but their actual value in exchange for the things we need. But who would venture to suggest a scaling down of interest, taxes, the cost of manufactured goods, labor, wages, or special services to correspond with the twenty five cent wheat, ten cent corn, six cent eggs and five cent cotton of recent years?....

To ourselves, inured by twenty-seven years of experience to the "plan as you go" system of agriculture, dependent principally upon the vagaries of the shifting seasons, the very flexibility of the [AAA] plans, the apparent willingness of those in charge to adapt the program to new or unforeseen conditions, gives us confidence in the sincerity of the purpose to prepare the way for better days in agriculture. Our personal hope is that eventually the limitation policy may give way to a more ample production program with storage facilities sufficient for all emergencies, planned on the broad basis of human need. A country blessed with America's actual and possible wealth ought to feel humiliated by the thought of a single ragged, undernourished child....

In our own part of the country the voluntary responses to the campaign for controlled production as an experiment for the benefit of farmers was practically unanimous. Undoubtedly the immediate results have been beneficial and we are glad for even one hesitating step toward what has been called "the American dream," the equalizing of opportunity so that even the humblest may be free to develop whatever native gifts he may possess .... I did not vote for the New Deal and certainly not for the old one. I can therefore claim no credit for its accomplishments or responsibility for its mistakes. I am not appointed to defend it. But I do like fair play. There are certain accusations made against the present attempts at social reconstruction that are wickedly unjust so far as we can determine from local conditions.

One of these criticisms relates to the alleged wastefulness of relief administration and the useless or damaging work projects attempted. In our county with a population of 14,000, between November 15, 1933, and December 27, 1934, the public work pay rolls under [the CWA and FERA] are reported as totaling $331,760.69. The sum expended seems to us truly enormous, and the extent of aid required is most unusual in a section where pioneer traditions of self-help and neighborly assistance are still strong. Yet certain facts should be considered. In the late summer of 1934 the county relief administration reported that they had been operating on about a 3% margin.... This, too, in a county of "magnificent distances" requiring much driving over an area 34 miles wide and 60 long, almost twice as large as the state of Rhode Island and nearly as large as Delaware. Even if this 3% overhead expense were doubled or quadrupled, it would still be far below the cost alleged by some severe critics....

If mere dollars were to be considered, the actually destitute in our section could undoubtedly have been fed and clothed more cheaply than the work projects have been carried out. But in our national economy manhood must be considered as well as money. People employed to do some useful work may retain their self respect to a degree impossible under cash relief...

A second anxiety, whether real or assumed, relates to the fear of wide-spread and serious degradation of moral character, resulting from the various relief projects.... When a man will drive several miles to some FERA project, work with his horses for the required time under any weather conditions, spend most of his earnings for high-priced stock feed so as to conserve the means of his family's livelihood and be ready for farming again whenever rain may come, the danger of his becoming a habitual pauper through government aid seems to me quite negligible. If we must worry so over the ruinous effects of "made work" on people of this type, why haven't we been worrying for generations over the character of the idlers to whom some accident of birth or inheritance has given wealth unmeasured, unearned and unappreciated? If we must continue to protest against the AAA efforts to effect some fair balance between prices of farm and industrial products because of increased cost to the consumer, why haven't we for a-century been crying out against the similar effect of protective tariffs, imposed with the conscious purpose of maintaining prices sufficient to build up and increase enormous fortunes for a comparatively few?

A third criticism is based on the overworked idea of "regimentation," concerning which certain syndicate writers and politicians have wasted too much ink and breath.... over this alleged menace to American liberties.... I have attended nearly all of the wheat meetings in our own district and the most distinct impression received was the entire absence of anything like standardization or compulsion.... Many of these self appointed defenders of freedom seem to know nothing of the loss of liberty attendant upon seriously adverse economic conditions. No regimentation is more cruel than that of extreme poverty. The cramped and barren lives of millions of sharecroppers in the southern states, the deplorable conditions in some of the coal mining areas, the slum districts in almost any large city, are a pitiful contradiction to our boasted "inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

....We did not wait ourselves for the government or any one to tell us to go to listing our own fields to control as far as possible the blowing and loss of surface soil. But this work is wearing on both men and machinery and especially hard on our thin pocket book. A prominent political interpreter recently referred to the idea of the possible exhaustion of people's resources as an "alibi." Perhaps he really thinks that small savings renew themselves like the widow's cruse of oil and that people prefer to ask for government aid rather than to depend upon their own efforts. To go back to our listing, we feel that to some extent it has been helpful in holding our own acreage this far. But to be genuinely effective, such a plan must be carried out on a large scale and not left to piecemeal efforts....

Our reduced herds of cattle were carried through the past winter largely on waste materials. Straw had been saved from the meager wheat crop that survived the drought and dust of 1933 and 1934. Crops not worth harvesting were pastured out and utilized to the last stalk. Russian thistles were gathered and stacked; in some cases where wheat was worth harvesting with a combine, the stubble was later cut with a mower and the rough, poor feed laboriously saved. We even hear of bear grass, or "soap weed," the yucca plant of the broken grazing lands, being ground and utilized for stock feed. There is in our section no supine waiting for government assistance. The people we know are meeting a hard situation with vigor, and individual resourcefulness. Yet there is moral support in feeling that agencies more comprehensive and powerful than any one person can control are supplementing our efforts....

To many old-timers like ourselves who have for twenty five years or more wrought the persistent effort of bodies and minds into the soil of this now barren land, the greatest cause of anxiety is the fear that our county may yet be designated as "submarginal" land and included in the areas now being purchased for public domain. A fourth year of failure such as now seems probable would give added weight to the arguments for such a procedure. Repossession of our land by the federal government and a general migration to more favored localities may be the best way to meet the present disheartening situation. Yet the problem is not one that admits of a simple, off-hand solution.... It involves the interests not only of farm people but of the many small towns which have sprung up as trading centers throughout the plains region....

Yet common sense suggests that the regions which are no longer entirely self-supporting cannot rely indefinitely upon government aid. So the problem remains and the one satisfactory solution is beyond all human control. Some of our neighbors with small children, fearing the effects upon their health, have left temporarily "until it rains." Others have left permanently, thinking doubtless that nothing could be worse. Thus far we and most of our friends seem held—for better or for worse—by memory and hope. I can look backward and see our covered wagon drawn up by the door of the cabin in the early light of that May morning long ago, can feel again the sweet fresh breath of the untrodden prairie, and recall for a moment the proud confidence of our youth. But when I try to see the wagon—or the old Model T truck headed in the opposite direction, away from our home and all our cherished hopes, I can not see it at all. Perhaps it is only because the dust is too dense and blinding.

Meanwhile the longing for rain has become almost an obsession. We remember the gentle all-night rains that used to make a grateful music on the shingles close above our heads, or the showers that came just in time to save a dying crop. We recall the torrents that occasionally burst upon us in sudden storms, making our level farm a temporary lake where only the ducks felt at home. We dream of the faint gurgling sound of dry soil sucking in the grateful moisture of the early or the later rains; of the fresh green of sprouting wheat or barley, the reddish bronze of springing rye. But we waken to another day of wind and dust and hopes deferred, of attempts to use to the utmost every small resource, to care for the stock and poultry as well as we can with our scanty supplies, to keep our balance and to trust that upon some happier day our wage may even yet come in.

Return to Letters from the Dust Bowl links

Meet the Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma Sponsors

Contact the Webmanager
© Oklahoma Department of Libraries 2003-2005