The Worst Hard Time

This is another posting from 2 years ago that I missed clicking the publish button.

Our local library does a fall book talk each year. This year’s theme is the 1930’s. I missed the first book, Mules and Men, a compilation of stories and “bold lies” of blacks in the South since the Civil War.

The second book was All the Kings Men, by Robert Penn Warren. It received the Pulitzer for fiction in 1947, but the story was based in the 30’s. Warren is the only author to receive a Pulitzer for fiction and Poetry. I have not written about the book because I only made it through the first hundred of the 674 pages.

This book I found easy to read. It is about the Dust Bowl which began just after the Great Depression started and ended just before WWII began. The first five chapters cover 1901 to 1930. Egan uses them to explain how the great middle-American grassland came to be plowed. In 1800, the High Plains was covered with a combination of grasses and other plants suited to surviving long droughts. Some had roots going as deep as eight feet and they grew in topsoil that averaged 18 inches.

Starting after the Civil War, settlers moved west to homestead. They brought with them the new John Deer steel plows that could bite deep into the thick mass of roots that held the soil in place. By the 1920’s tractors were added to make quicker work of turning the last patches of land and planting them to wheat. In that decade, farmers made very good money because of the high demand for the golden grain. In fact, adjusted for inflation, they made more per bushel than the $5.25 being paid today.

The problem is that the High Plains is a near-desert. The average rainfall runs from 10 to 18 inches. In the 1930’s, the high was 10. In addition, there were long stretches of heat over 100 degrees. In fact, there were stretches over 110. It should be noted that much of the Dust Bowl stands between 3,000 and 5,000-foot mark with the western edge close to Denver and Cheyenne.

See short video here and two longer ones here and here.

I am a historian and I grew up in Scott County, KS, which is in the middle of the Dust Bowl. I lived there in the 1950’s when we had several years of a mini-dust bowl, with 1957 being drier than any year of the 30’s.  We kids did get a little tired of our parents telling us, “This is nothing like a real duster.” They were right, of course.

On April 14, 1935, the Big One hit. It was Palm Sunday. It became Black Sunday. In the leading edge of the storm, it was impossible to see. My father was a sophomore in high school. His mother sent him out to get the clean clothes off the line. It hit while he was working. He touched his hand to his nose and could not see it. He was able to crawl to the house where everyone was “sweeping” the air. They would wet cloths, drape them over brooms, and wave them in the air.

While this book is history, it is very readable. Egan won the National Book Award for this book. He was on a team that won the Pulitzer for reporting on race in America.

I consider this a must read book. If nothing else, read chapters 1-5 and 16.

Mike Lawrence

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