'Kansas in the Dust Bowl:  We Aim to Stay' by Susan Chaffin

A two weeks' stubble was on his chin,
His overalls were worn and old
His hands were hands of toil.
He had seen the scourging dust
Destroy his greening wheat, and now
His fields stretch to the sky,
A barren waste.
But in his veins the blood of sturdy pioneers ran cool,
And he, seasoned by the endless wind,
The blazing sun, the drought, the lonely plains,
Looked at the ground and said,
"I aim to try again."

      "Dust-Bowl Farmer" by Edna Becker

The people who settled Kansas were of sturdy stock. They had to be. A life on the prairie was not easy. For more than three-quarters of a century the people of Kansas struggled to make the land lush and fruitful. They built homes and schools and churches. They created families and communities that were loving, generous and tight-knit. They survived mud and grasshoppers and the Civil War. Kansans felt justifiable pride in their state. Yet, in the spring of 1934, just when the unemployment rates and business failures were dropping, when there was widespread hope the Great Depression was coming to an end, Mother Nature decided to teach America a lesson. The lesson would be so harsh it would cause many people in the Great Plains to toss aside everything they'd worked for; to abandon their farms and the Mid-Western way of life. History books show caravans of trucks and cars headed away from Oklahoma on Route 66. They do not show the same number of caravans leaving Kansas.


     The year had been dry. Spells of drought and dust were splattered across the Great Plains. Farmers were concerned but not alarmed. They had faith. Rain had always come. They knew this from experience. Many times in the past, dust storms, drought and tornadoes spent a season in middle America. It was to be expected. Early explorers had commented on the dust storms in their journals. They also wrote of mud and muck and floods. All were a natural part of the cycle, and hopes were strong that the following year would bring the rain.


     The rain did not come. Farmers began to worry. The winds started early in the year. Precious topsoil from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas was loose and began to shift with the wind, from one area to another. Farmers across the Great Plains woke each morning to watch the sky. Weeks passed. There was not a hint of moisture from the clouds. The weather was a continuous stream of heat, wind, drought, more sun and, of course, more wind.

     "Then, on April 14, massive clouds ...blotted out the sun over western Kansas." These clouds were not the fluffy cumulus the people were wishing for. They were dark and ominous, caused by wind tearing across the land from the east, gathering parched wheat and the loosening topsoil into an ever-widening, unstructured, airborne path. People who lived at the time describe animals and birds scurrying to safety. They also speak of an eerie silence at the center of the storm as the forty- to fifty-mile-an-hour winds deepened this odd trail across the state towards Oklahoma and Texas. This storm quickened the farmers' worry to alarm.

     A scant, and dry, month later, on May 10, 1934, the wind came back. Its direction this time was from the west. The light, filtering through the thick, brown haze of traveling topsoil, was as if it belonged to some other world. It was not just a path this time. It was an area nine hundred miles wide and fifteen hundred miles long. "During the next day, it was estimated that twelve million tons of soil fell on Chicago." Clifford Hope, who was in Washington D.C at the time, said, "It showered dust on the White House. Some was said to have settled on the President's desk. When I left the Capitol that evening I found my car covered with a film of familiar-looking Kansas soil."

     The May 10 storm is generally regarded as the worst. However, there were many successive storms. The wind and moving dust ripped up vegetation, not even leaving roots. Dirt was lifted from one field to another. It covered the crops. Cattle tried to eat the dust laden grass and their stomachs filled with "mud balls." Fences and buildings were buried in dust. Farmers learned quickly to turn off their windmills when the dust began. Women learned to hang wet sheets and blankets over the windows of their houses or tack oiled-cloth to the openings. Nothing seemed to help. Dust skittered across the floors from the tiniest of crevices. Dust swirled and rained inside, as well as out. "Dust pneumonia" cases overwhelmed hospitals. The "black blizzards" struck almost without warning, so people had no time to seek cover. Stories abounded of farmers suffocated in the fields, of a frantic teacher telling her small students to put their arms around fence posts and hold on for "dear life" and of city-people becoming so disoriented they could be across the street from their homes or business but have no idea where they were. Of course, as Lynn Nelson mentions in "Living With Dust," the Kansas sense of humor took over, so there were stories of "trees chasing dogs" or, again from Clifford S. Hope, sightings of praire dogs "burrowing ten feet in the air."

     Humor aside, it was a grim time. Life was harsh for everyone. Many simply picked up and left. It is estimated that from over 350,000 people to 1,000,000 migrated from the Great Plains in the 1930s. Instead of "busting" or "breaking" the land, the land had broken them. But, for some reason, Kansas was different.

     People in Kansas lived very much as they had before the Dust Bowl, with considerable adjustments to the ever-changing weather conditions. They still planted small gardens, carried water from their wells, milked cows and gathered eggs. They learned that meeings could be postponed; church and school activities delayed. In fact, schools were closed occasionally during the worst storms or just after them, to clean up. Women's clubs still held regular meetings, and civic and service clubs continued to function. Covering food with dish towels to keep the dirt off while women prepared meals became a natural habit. Everyone in a community was faced the same or similar problems. They shared horses and food. People drew together and played cards or attended "literaries" and dances. They helped one another a bit more than usual. (Jim Sumner's story about "Brownie" is just one example.) Kansans pulled together as a community.

     Preservation of "what few resources" they possessed became a high priority. Staying close to family, as well as helping the family to survive and go on, was extremely important. People in Kansas seemed to feel that "quality of life was not measured by material possessions, but rather by satisfaction of a job well done."

     Not only did less people leave Kansas farms than the surrounding states, but those who left their farms were more likely to go to one of the cities in Kansas rather than California. It seems many couldn't abandon the Sunflower State.

     A Kansas woman interviewed in a magazine expressed it better than many. "Why do we stay? In part because we hope for the coming of moisture, which would change conditions so that we again would have bountiful harvests. And in great part, because it is home. We have reared our family here and have many precious memories of the past. We have our memories. We have faith in the future, we are here to stay."

Dust Bowl Facts


     Agricultural experts know that wind and drought were not the only contributing factors for the Dust Bowl. One of the most important ingredients was the lack of natural vegetation. When the Great Plains was settled in the mid-1800s, it was covered by buffalo grass. The grass held moisture in the soil and kept it from blowing away. In dry years, the wind blew out huge craters, but as long as the grass remained, the land could recover. By the turn of the century, farmers had established homesteads and plowed under the buffalo grass to create fields. World War I brought a great need for wheat and, with the invention of the farm tractor, the ability to plow larger and larger areas of grassland. After the war, the plowing continued. Larger and more powerful tractors were built and used. The early 1930s, known to some as "the age of the wheat kings," there were almost three times as many acres in wheat production than a decade earlier. This, combined with the drought and wind, contributed to the dust storms. The Dust Bowl brought about the Soil Conservation Service, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and a nationwide plan to develop and retain both topsoil and moisture. They laid the groundwork for the knowledge farmers of today have about enriching their land so that it will be productive for many, many years.

Daily Life

     People drew water from wells the the farms. It was used sparingly. Bathing was infrequent because the water not only had to be carried from the well but then heated on the stove. Some said it did little good to bathe -- you felt dirty immediately afterwards because of all the dirt in the air.

     Dust pneumonia was a frequent ailment and could cause death if not recognized and treated. It is caused by a combination of the dust in the air and wet sheets used to try to keep the dust out of the house. Babies who slept in cribs covered with wet sheets were most suseptible to this ailment.

     Heat was still provided by a large stove or range during this time. Cow chips were the primary source of fuel for many households. Women and children were usually responsible for gathering the cow chips. Corn cobs were used if people were fortunate enough to have them. Coal was a rarity because of the cost and the scarcity of trees severely limited the amount of dead wood available to chop for fuel.

     Food was plain. Folks used the canned food from the cellar or tried to keep small gardens close to their houses. This was not always successful as they were routinely covered with dust. Some covered growing vegetables with damp cheesecloth because it let in the light and the air but not all the dust. Some remember using a lot of dried beans and legumes for soup. In fact, many homes kept a big pot of soup on the stove almost all the time. It was served with biscuits, corn bread or country white bread.

Soup Recipes


1 cup lima beans
4 cups cold water
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 tablespoons carrot, grated
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Soak beans over night. Drain. Cook beans, onion, celery and carrot in cold water; when tender rub through a coarse sieve. Melt butter; add flour, milk and seasonings. Cook for about 5 minutes. Combine mixtures and serve.

One cup stewed tomatoes can be added to this soup for variation.


1 can peas
2 cups cold water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
a bit of bay leaf
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups scalded milk
1-2 tablespoons chopped onion
celery salt

Cook peas, bay leaf and onion in cold water for about 20 minutes. Make a white sauce using the butter, flour and milk. Combine mixtures, add seasonings, and serve.

Cold cooked peas may be substituted for canned peas.


4-5 potatoes, boiled and mashed
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon celery salt
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 qt milk

Cook onion in butter for 4-5 minutes. Add flour, milk and seasonings; cook in double boiler 20 minutes; add mashed potatoes. Serve after straining.


1 cup chopped carrot
1 cup chopped turnip
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup butter or pork fat
2 cups chopped potato
1 cup chopped onion
1 meaty soup bone
water to cover

1 can tomatoes

Sauté onion and celery in butter. Add vegetables and water to cover. Add the soup bone and the can of tomatoes; simmer until tender. Salt and pepper as needed.

(Original artwork by Dick Taylor; all rights reserved.)

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