Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Twilight At 2

Dust from the southern plains blew into Lawrence on this date, blocking the sun and severely reducing visibility. Contemporary photographs show that old Fraser Hall was virtually invisible from the front of Bailey Hall, hardly a block away. The dust was coming primarily from the newly plowed fields of the southern high plains, which included southwest Kansas, southeast Colorado, northeast New Mexico and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. KU Geology professor C.J. Posey reported that he had not seen anything like in his 15 years on Mount Oread.

He did not have to wait that long for a repeat performance. The next year another dust storm hit KU on March 24. Farmers near Dodge City watched dust form their fields that had been “treated” by furrowing (creating ridges of earth between the rows of crops), blow away at the same rate as untreated fields. TWA pilot O.W. Coyle reported that on his flight from Amarillo to Wichita the dust cloud concealed the earth’s surface from Tucumcari, New Mexico to Kiowa, Kansas. “From above, the dust looks like an extremely turbulent cloud formation . . . [with] domes here and there and thicker parts have a dark reddish brown hue.”

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s has been called one of the most tragic environmental calamities in American history. And under the interpretation of Dr. Donald Worster, KU alum and professor of history, it has also altered the study of American history and helped to create the sub field of environmental history. According to Worster’s groundbreaking book, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, the fundamental cause of these great dust storms was the encounter between the expansionary energy of the United States and a “volatile, marginal land, destroying the ecological balance that had evolved there.” To Worster, the responsible party was capitalism, which he contended, “has been the decisive factor in this nation’s use of nature.” During the summer of 2001, Worster amplified these remarks, noting, “The Dust Bowl was a dramatic episode in the history of the United States, raising questions of whether agriculture on the high plains was sustainable on the common market.” On March 20, 1935, agricultural sustainability was blowing away on the prairie winds whipping across the KU campus.

Homesteaders first came to the Great Plains in large numbers after the Civil War. After about 1890, farmers discovered that the variety of winter wheat known as Turkey Red fared quite well on the plains – much better than corn or other moisture-loving crops. Brought from the Volga River Valley in Russia by German Mennonite and Catholic farmers, Turkey Red wheat came to dominate the fields of Kansas farmers, especially western Kansas. In 1909, Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act, granting farmers 320 acres of land (as opposed to the previous grants of 160 acres), if they “improved” the land for five consecutive years.

As farmers rushed to take advantage of the last remaining agricultural lands in the country, mostly on the semi-arid high plains, they also plowed the native grasses. This left bare soil exposed to the omnipresent winds from roughly September to May. Individuals such as Hardy Campbell encouraged dryland farming (farming using no irrigation) in the region, even though his “dust mulch” method required some sort of rainfall to create a crust on the soil and hold it in place. From 1910 to 1930, spurred by the rising commodity prices of World War I and increasingly efficient machinery, farmers plowed up millions of acres, many of them using Campbell’s “dust mulch” method of farming. When the fickle rains of the region became increasingly rare, there was nothing to hold the soil in place; the stage was set for the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. “Other societies have committed environmental blunders as well,” Worster pointed out, “but they usually didn’t have the resources to make a mistake as big as the Dust Bowl.”

“Like American agriculturists elsewhere,” he concluded, the plains farmer “increasingly came to view farming and ranching as businesses, the objects of which were not simply to make a living, but to make money. The notion that nature puts restraints on what man can do in those businesses was as abhorrent to him as were social controls.” As abhorrent as the notion might be, the possibility that nature could limit the activities of the capitalist enterprise called the United States of America was perhaps the only clear thing in the Kansas skies during the 1930s.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: University Daily Kansan, 21 March, 22 March 1935; UDK, 24 March 1936. Lawrence Journal-World, 20 March, 1935. See also Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1955), 147; and Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). For an alternative view of the Dust Bowl period, see Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.]