This is the first in a three-part series exploring the Dust Bowl, how conservation has mitigated drought conditions and the importance of being in tune with the land.
For most, setting a table with the coffee cup turned upside-down is basic etiquette.
But Colette Kessler sees the dining quirk for what it was in the 1930s – a means to avoid a mouth full of dirt.
This was just one daily ritual of many that were undertaken during the “dirty thirties,” said Kessler, public affairs specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in South Dakota. People often placed wet clothes along windowsills to prevent dirt from entering their homes.
Regardless, they found themselves constantly dusting.
Pierre resident and farmer Gaylord Norman, who was about 5 years old during the Dust Bowl, remembers dust storms on his family’s property, about 60 miles west of Fort Pierre. He recalls the dust often looking like a fog outside.
“One day we were coming home from my grandfolks’ place, and we got about a half mile from home and the car stalled,” Norman said. “The wind and dust were blowing really hard and we had to walk into the wind. My brother and I, we took off running for the house. My mother was probably carrying my baby sister and a couple other little kids along with her. I remember the dirt hitting me in the face.”
The Dust Bowl first blew across the Plains of South Dakota during the summer of 1931, almost two years after the stock market crashed.
Many children died of dust pneumonia. Towns were abandoned in search of work and food. Cattle resorted to eating tumbleweed to survive, because the grasshoppers had consumed anything that hadn’t blown away.
Several factors led to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, which is still considered the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history. The recipe for ruin included sustained drought and high winds, conversion of grasslands to croplands, and over-plowing and over-grazing of agricultural lands.
“Westward expansion was very exciting; the railroad was coming through, promising a ‘land of infinite variety,’” Kessler said. “The early 1900s were very productive years out on the prairie. Unfortunately, the people who came from the east didn’t understand the climate out west or how the Great Plains ecosystem works.”
Families continued to plow and farm their land the only way they knew how, and eventually topsoil began to blow.
“I can’t fault my grandparents and great-grandparents who came here and farmed the way they were told to,” said Angela Ehlers, executive director of the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts. “They farmed in Germany and Norway, where there was more precipitation and the fields were smaller. You put those practices here, and the soils are different, the climate is different.”
In response to these conditions, Hugh Hammond Bennett, considered to be the father of conservation in America, founded the Soil Erosion Service within the U.S. Department of Interior in 1933. A year later, a fierce dust storm swept across the Great Plains towards Washington, D.C. Dust even reached the Atlantic Ocean and was found aboard ships.
In 1935, the Soil Conservation Service was established in order to help landowners utilize conservation practices, and two years later President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged the nation to organize conservation districts within each state.
This was much needed, since “black blizzards” had stripped topsoil from more than 100 million acres of cropland by December 1934. Twenty of the worst storms fell on “Black Sunday” in April 1935 – turning day to night and leaving only bare ground behind.
Soil scientists have determined that it takes, on average, about 500 years for an inch of topsoil to form in South Dakota, said Kessler. So losing that soil from the northern Great Plains was like watching thousands of years of productivity being dumped across the nation.
The South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts was established in 1941 as a network to promote conservation between districts and to exchange information.
Today, there are 3,000 districts across the United States conserving soil and landscapes, including 69 districts in South Dakota.
In partnership with organizations such as the NRCS, the districts strive to utilize education and technology to preserve soil for future agricultural endeavors.
“They call the Dust Bowl the greatest man-made ecological disaster that the United States ever had, and it didn’t have to be,” Ehlers said. “We just didn’t know better. Now we do.”