Watching a documentary on the Dust Bowl tonight reminded me that it was also an economic boom that went bust. Can we learn anything? How does the current situation compare?
|One of the pioneer women of the
Oklahoma Panhandle dust bowl.
By Arthur Rothstein, April 1938.
First, a bit of history. Wheat prices ran up in the 1910’s and 1920’s, more than tripling over the course of a decade. At the high point, wheat approached $4 per bushel. With the 1929 market crash, wheat prices dropped to 40 cents. The price continued down. And then it quit raining. After two years with drastically reduced or maybe even no income because of the price drop, wheat farmers missed first one crop, then another, and another because of the drought. And then the dust began to blow. And a vicious cycle of misery continued for a decade. A decade. My grandmother, and many thousands of others, lived through this. Two-thirds of them stuck it out, and didn’t give up. Their stories can break your heart.
Now, how does our current situation compare?
I’ll let you anwer that question. I’m asking a new one.
What can we learn?
Commonly accepted beliefs at the time included:
- “Rain follows the plow.” Plowing the surface was said to release moisture and cause rain. That’s only half right; it does release soil moisture.
- “The soil is the one resource that can never be exhausted.” This really was printed in farming instruction manuals of the day. Really.
- “Anybody can make money in this boom.” At the time, suitcase farmers began showing up to plant the ground, then leaving until time to harvest the crop and hopefully rake in the profits. When the price crashed, they disappeared, leaving the ground plowed up and exposed.
- “New technology makes things better.” Tractors changed the game, making it possible for one person to work 10 times as much ground. This magnified everything: profits in the boom, and devastation in the bust.
What assumptions are you not questioning? From the examples above, you might wonder:
- Is what you are looking at really cause and effect?
- Can anything last forever?
- Are you where you belong in business?
- Are you focused more on doing the right thing, or on the shiny new technology?
Maybe those sound like harsh or pessimistic questions. They aren’t meant to be. It’s more like, we are so focused on what we are doing, that it is incredibly difficult to to change our pattern.
I heard a farmer face this challenge, in 1992. An expert advised him to skip fertilizing in order to achieve what he wanted. The farmer said, incredulously, “But what would I do if I didn’t fertilize?”
What would you do, if you questioned assumptions?
My grandmother still has a drawer full of bread wrappers. There’s a whole generation of people here who do the same. You might need that. You can’t afford to throw anything away.
What could you conserve today?
Life Goes On
As horrific as it was, it passed. Yes, people suffered and died. Fortunes were lost. It was terrible. But it passed. My grandmother spent her teen years in an unbelievably difficult period. She survived, raised a family, had a career, and has lived an amazing life. She’s still here, and she’s a wonder.
How will today look to you after 70 years have passed?
Read the Dust Bowl story as written by Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time. It is riveting, personal, and wrenching.
Photo of me and Mema, ca. 2004 by me.
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Grant Griffiths says
Becky – wonderful post. I am 48 soon and my grandparents are gone. But I remember them talking about this time in our country’s history. Times were tough. But I have to say, I think the people were too. People were not sitting around waiting on the government to bail them out of every little misfortune that might come along. People then were determined to adjust and make a life out of what they had.
We have created our own worst enemy and that is softness. I grew up on a farm and during the 70’s Carter made it almost impossible to make a living with him asinine ag policies. But we adjusted and those who did survived.
You are right, your grandmother’s generation was tough as nails. My fear is I don’t know if the country is still made up of those type of individuals. I hope I am wrong.
Those of us in the middle of the country will have to be a shining example of what you can do when you adjust to what is happening around you. They come to us for their food. They can come to us for an example of a region who knows how to survive.
Becky McCray says
Grant, thank you. My grandparents really were all-day tough. This rubbed off on both of my parents, and many, many more folks around here.
Just one bit about the government issue. I have to stick up for Mema’s Democratic Party ideals here. (That photo of us is taken in the Woods County Democratic Party’s booth at the county fair, from the time I ran for public office.) From what I’ve read and heard about the Dust Bowl, people tried both to get the government to intervene, as well as to make it on their own. In fact, I imagine they tried everything they could think of.
All political issues aside, Grant, we have a shared legacy, one that is a powerful force shaping our communities. I really think our newest generation is going to be much tougher than we give them credit for. I’m glad you shared your thoughts.
The Worst Hard Time is a riveting book. He takes all the stories and incorporates the history and environmental factors.
I bet you have some great family stories from that era. Hopefully you record these down, a bundle of historic content!
Becky: What a wonderful story about your grandmother. It is hard for us today to imagine what they went through in those days and your relating of it was special!
I used to ask my own grandmother who was born in the 1800s what life was like back then. It was not only tough but there wasn’t much of a vision of what could be. She told me that the biggest invention for her was electricity which made it so much easier to do chores on the farm.
Love your blogs! Keep em coming for us out in the hinderlands.
Becky McCray says
Thanks, PokerPlasm. Yes, my mother in particular is a great recorder of stories.
Jack, thank you for your kind compliment. I can truly believe that electricity was the biggest invention for your grandmother. Before rural electrification, farm families here used kerosene lanterns well into the 1960’s. Hard for us to understand what a difference that made!
Invoice factoring blog says
The dust bowl happened in between WWI and WWII. That generation, like your grandma (though she is WAY too young for WWI :-) was tough as nails. Just look at the challenges they handled.
Becky McCray says
Marco, I’ll be sure to tell her y’all think she’s young. :) She’ll get a kick out of it.