Land and Lives Turned to Dust

In the 1930s, agricultural practices that replaced native prairie grasses with cash crops such as wheat and corn, combined with overgrazing cattle by ranchers, turned out to have devastating consequences for farm families, centered initially in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. An extended multi-year drought prompted wind erosion that sent topsoil blowing black-dust clouds across the unobstructed plains as far east as New York and Washington, DC.

Today’s post features four black-and-white photographs each by Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange from the Library’s Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Rothstein’s four, from March 1936, capture the blowing dust and the stark desolation on abandoned farms in Texas and Oklahoma. Lange’s four show the migrant refugees encamped in California, having fled their farming lives, looking for work, shelter, and a second chance to make a go of it. Rothstein and Lange’s photos, augmented by their captions — his brief and simple; hers longer, detailed, and descriptive – tell the Dust Bowl story clearly, concisely.

Heavy black clouds of dust rising over the Texas Panhandle, Texas. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b27276

Heavy black clouds of dust rising over the Texas Panhandle, Texas. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b27276

Dust storm. Oklahoma. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b38298

Dust storm. Oklahoma. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b38298

Dust storm damage. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b38295

Dust storm damage. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936.
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b38295

Sand dunes in orchard, Oklahoma. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b38305

Sand dunes in orchard, Oklahoma. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936.
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b38305

Squatters along highway near Bakersfield, California. Penniless refugees from dust bowl. Twenty-two in family, thirty-nine evictions, now encamped near Bakersfield without shelter, without water and looking for work in the cotton. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, November 1935. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b26857

Squatters along highway near Bakersfield, California. Penniless refugees from dust bowl. Twenty-two in family, thirty-nine evictions, now encamped near Bakersfield without shelter, without water and looking for work in the cotton. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, November 1935.
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b26857

Four families, three of them related with fifteen children, from the Dust Bowl in Texas in an overnight roadside camp near Calipatria, California. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, March 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b31649

Four families, three of them related with fifteen children, from the Dust Bowl in Texas in an overnight roadside camp near Calipatria, California. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, March 1937.
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b31649

Auto camp north of Calipatria, California. Approximately eighty families from the Dust Bowl are camped here. They pay fifty cents a week. The only available work now is agricultural labor. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, March 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b31758

Auto camp north of Calipatria, California. Approximately eighty families from the Dust Bowl are camped here. They pay fifty cents a week. The only available work now is agricultural labor. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, March 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b31758

Example of self-resettlement in California. Oklahoma farm family on highway between Blythe and Indio. Forced by the drought of 1936 to abandon their farm, they set out with their children to drive to California. Picking cotton in Arizona for a day or two at a time gave them enough for food and gas to continue. On this day, they were within a day's travel of their destination, Bakersfield, California. Their car had broken down en route and was abandoned. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, August 1936. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b38486

Example of self-resettlement in California. Oklahoma farm family on highway between Blythe and Indio. Forced by the drought of 1936 to abandon their farm, they set out with their children to drive to California. Picking cotton in Arizona for a day or two at a time gave them enough for food and gas to continue. On this day, they were within a day’s travel of their destination, Bakersfield, California. Their car had broken down en route and was abandoned. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, August 1936.
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b38486

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2 Comments

  1. Matt Timmons
    June 23, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    Great article. Ken Burns did an excellent documentary on this and the over-planting of grain that caused the soil in the midwestern states to degrade into sand and thus began the dust bowl era. Incredible photos and film as well as interviews. Thanks again for the article and pics.

  2. Julie Burwell
    June 23, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    Great article. Moving pictures!

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