FDR and the Dust Bowl

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.

The Pare Lorentz Film Center at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum has produced a new animated video on FDR and the Dust Bowl. This video was created by FDR’s great-granddaughter Perrin Ireland. We hope teachers will use it to help their students better understand this important period in American History.

The Dust Bowl was a man-made environmental disaster. It unfolded on the nation’s Great Plains, where decades of intensive farming and inattention to soil conservation had left the vast region ecologically vulnerable. A long drought in the early and mid-1930s triggered disaster. The winds that sweep across the plains began carrying off its dry, depleted topsoil in enormous “dust storms.” Dramatic and frightening, these storms turned day into night as they destroyed farms.

Once fertile farmlands became barren and dusty wastelands where nothing would grow. In the hardest hit area—covering parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle—hundreds of thousands of people abandoned the land.

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange. Iconic shot of a destitute pea picker and her children. NPx 65-593(65)

When Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933, he faced many challenges but saving America’s farms was one of his most important and difficult tasks. His actions could be considered a blueprint for how a government should respond to an environmental disaster—combining scientific research, community engagement, business incentives, and proven environmental policies including soil and water conservation programs.

Close-up of the harsh soil conditions caused by unchecked erosion. NPx 74-20(263)

FDR’s New Deal attacked the crisis on the Great Plains on a number of fronts. The Farm Security Administration provided emergency relief, promoted soil conservation, resettled farmers on more productive land, and aided migrant farm workers who had been forced off their land. The Soil Conservation Service helped farmers enrich their soil and stem erosion. The Taylor Grazing Act regulated grazing on overused public ranges. Roosevelt’s Shelterbelt Project, created by executive order, fought wind erosion by marshalling farmers, Civilian Conservation Corps boys, and Works Progress Administration workers in an enormous effort to plant over 200 million trees in a belt running from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Amarillo, Texas. This immense windbreak moderated the Dust Bowl’s destructive winds. The Shelterbelt Project remains one of the great environmental success stories of our time.

In his fireside chat of September 6, 1936, FDR said this about the drought:

I saw drought devastation in nine states.

I talked with families who had lost their wheat crop, lost their corn crop, lost their livestock, lost the water in their well, lost their garden and come through to the end of the summer without one dollar of cash resources, facing a winter without feed or food—facing a planting season without seed to put in the ground.

I shall never forget the fields of wheat so blasted by heat that they cannot be harvested. I shall never forget field after field of corn stunted, earless and stripped of leaves, for what the sun left the grasshoppers took. I saw brown pastures which would not keep a cow on fifty acres.

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Fireside Chat Reading Copy, Page 1, September 6, 1936.
A farmer and his sons caught in a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936. NPx 66-174(32)

In the drought area people are not afraid to use new methods to meet changes in Nature, and to correct mistakes of the past. If overgrazing has injured range lands, they are willing to reduce the grazing. If certain wheat lands should be returned to pasture they are willing to cooperate. If trees should be planted as windbreaks or to stop erosion they will work with us. If terracing or summer fallowing or crop rotation is called for, they will carry them out. They stand ready to fit, and not to fight, the ways of Nature.

To fully understand the devastation of this drought you need only look at photographs from April 14, 1935, a date which came to be known as “Black Sunday.” It is considered the worst dust storm of the era, and is estimated to have blown away 300 million tons of fertile top soil. Oklahoma was hit the hardest but its force was felt in many states and the dirt and dust fell to the ground as far away as New York City.

The “Black Sunday” dust storm approaches Spearman in northern Texas, April 14, 1935.
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A dust storm in Liberal, Kansas, April 14, 1935.
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A dust storm in Rolla, Kansas, April 14, 1935.

Legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie was living in Texas at the time and experienced the storm first hand. He wrote a song about the storm seeming like the end of the world. That song is still well known today, “So Long Its Been Good To Know You.” But its lighthearted reputation hides the truth of its morbid lyrics:

The sweethearts they sat in the dark and they sparked
They hugged and they kissed in that dusty old dark
They sighed and they cried and they hugged and they kissed
But instead of marriage they talked like this: honey
So long, it’s been good to know ya…

The terrible drought did not let up until 1939, when steady rain finally quenched the thirst of the dry and dusty plains. As America transformed into the “Arsenal of Democracy” at the start of World War II, unemployment rates fell and agricultural prices rose. Farmers restored their farms and the new scientifically proven techniques of soil conservation were widely adopted.

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President Roosevelt holding 4-month-old Fala, August 8, 1940.

President Roosevelt’s efforts to help rural Americans pay their mortgages so they wouldn’t lose their farms, plant trees to break the fierce winds, teach them new techniques to preserve their soil and conserve their water were all part of his vision for a fair and just America. One where the government helped people who needed help the most. While FDR is often credited with bringing the United States out of the Great Depression and leading the Allies to victory in World War II, his role as a great environmental champion is sometimes overlooked.

Follow FDR Library Director Paul Sparrow on Twitter: @PaulMSparrow1