Taken by the storm
With ‘Dust Bowl,’ Burns retells ‘phenomenal’ history
Courtesy of Historic Adobe Museum
The huge Black Sunday storm - the worst storm of the decade-long Dust Bowl in the southern Plains - as it approaches Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935. Daylight turned to total blackness in mid-afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »
Courtesy of the Associated Press
During the decade-long drought that turned the southern Plains into the Dust Bowl, the hardest hit area was centered on Boise City, Oklahoma, in a part of the Panhandle formerly known as No Manâs Land. And the worst storm of all hit on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935âa day remembered as Black Sunday. Here the storm sweeps over a farmstead on its way toward Boise City.
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Courtesy of Library of Congress
FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein captured this photograph of Art Coble and his sons, south of Boise City, Oklahoma, in April 1936. It became one of the iconic photographs of the Dust Bowl and one of the most reproduced photos of the twentieth century. Purchase photo reprints »
Courtesy of Forester Family Collection
When Harry Forester lost his farm to the dust and Depression in Oklahoma, the family converted its truck into a modern-day covered wagon and migrated to California in 1936, where Forester had found work. Two of his daughters (Louise, front row, left, in cap; and Shirley, second row, second from right) help tell the story of their father's broken dreams and the journey to a new life. Purchase photo reprints »
Courtesy of Library of Congress
FSA photographer Dorothea Lange came across Florence Thompson and her children in a pea pickers' camp in Nipomo, California, in March 1936.
During the decade of Great Depression, California's population grew by more than 20 percent, an increase of 1.3 million people. More than half of the newcomers came from cities, not farms; one in six were professionals or white collar workers. Of the 315,000 who arrived from Oklahoma, Texas, and neighboring states, only 16,000 were from the Dust Bowl itself. But regardless of where they actually came from, regardless of their skills and their education and their individual reasons for seeking a new life in a new place, to most Californians - and to the nation at large - they were all the same. And they all had the same name: Okies. Purchase photo reprints »
It was “the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in American history, superimposed over the greatest economic cataclysm in world history,” in the words of Ken Burns, who directed “The Dust Bowl,” the two-part documentary that airs Nov. 18 and 19 on PBS.
Burns is no stranger to the Pioneer Valley, where he attended school. And the Walpole, N.H., resident is no stranger to making documentaries — this being the 23rd film he has created since graduating from Hampshire College and helping form Florentine Films.
“This is a 10-year apocalypse that I don’t think we can fully appreciate,” says the 59-year-old filmmaker. “The story of the human beings that survived ... is one of the most moving, and one of the most dramatic, stories that I think we’ve ever come across.”
The four-hour documentary chronicles the environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts, and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that for many seemed to herald the end of the world.
The voice of Woody Guthrie at one point in the film recounts, “A lot of people in the crowd there was religious-minded and they was up pretty well up on the scriptures and says, ‘Boys, girls, friends and relatives: This is is the end. This is the end of the world.’”
Farmers who had been attracted to the southern Plains grasslands in the early 1900s, by the offer of cheap public lands, began using gasoline-powered farm machinery in the decades that immediately followed, which made production faster and easier than ever. Although unpredictable precipitation patterns, combined with bitterly cold winters, hot summers and high winds, had made it unsuitable for agricultural production in the past, millions of acres were converted from grasslands into wheat fields.
And when wheat prices collapsed at the start of the Great Depression, “desperate farmers harvested even more wheat in an effort to make up for their losses. Fields were left exposed and vulnerable to a drought, which finally hit in 1932,” according to the film’s producers. “Once the winds began picking up dust from the open fields, they grew into dust storms of biblical proportions. Each year the storms grew more ferocious and more frequent, sweeping up millions of tons of earth, covering farms and homes across the Plains with sand, and spreading the dust across the country. Children developed often fatal ‘dust pneumonia,’ business owners unable to cope with the financial ruin committed suicide, and thousands of desperate Americans were torn from their homes and forced on the road in an exodus unlike anything the United States has ever seen.”
The epicenter around the far western edge of the Texas panhandle, the Oklahoma panhandle, and little bits of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico became a “no man’s land.”
Anyone watching on giant TV screens some of the previously unseen film footage of black clouds of smoke approaching and quickly enveloping whole farms and communities may find the images unfathomable, or something concocted by special-effects studios. But these were real.
“Let me tell you how it was,” recounts Don Wells of Boise City, Okla. “I don’t care who describes that to you, nobody can tell it any worse than what it was. And no one exaggerates that; there is no way for it to be exaggerated. It was that bad.”
Inspired by “Miles from Nowhere,” the account of “American’s Contemporary Frontier” by Dayton Duncan, who wrote and co-produced the film, Burns said, “The dust bowl comes freighted with a lot of superficial, conventional wisdom,” and it dredges up images of the Joad family of “The Grapes of Wrath,” who were tenant farmers who lost their work because of collapsed cotton prices and headed to California.
“This was a 10-year apocalypse with dozens, hundreds sometimes, of storms a year, and it killed not only their crops, but their cattle and their children. Once you comprehend the full scope of this tragedy, you realize what a dense story, what a complicated, layered situation it is. This is an emotional archeology we’re doing.”
Dust and time
If “The Dust Bowl” seems to have a timeliness to it, in this year when more than half of the nation’s counties, in 32 states, were designated drought disaster areas, it’s neither by design nor by accident, explains the filmmaker, whose father was a cultural anthropologist with a love of photography and human stories that sparked his son’s passion for the visual imagery and narratives that drive his documentaries.
“We don’t choose our subjects for any timeliness,” says Burns, going on to quote from Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
“Our film on Prohibition wasn’t just about just gangster and flappers, but about single-issue political campaigns that metastasized — the demonization of immigrants, smear campaigns against a Democratic presidential candidate, a whole group of people who felt they had been left out. And you say, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re talking about now.’ It’s the same with ‘The Dust Bowl’: If you tell a good story, it will resonate with aspects of today.”
Burns said he and his production assistants were at work last year on post-production in their house on a side street of their Connecticut River village and were “stunned constantly by the powerful nature of the story — and then, unfortunately you look up from the middle of editing and there’s a dust storm happening in Texas, and another in Phoenix, and you say, ‘Gee, that looks like our footage, except it’s in color!’ Then all of sudden, you have a nationwide drought this summer that’s going to affect commodity prices, with farm families suffering. There are so many direct parallels.”
And yet, insists Burns, “What we have, in its heart, is a classic story of hubris, of bubbles that burst — real estate, agriculture — of a test of real human character, of the age-old conflict between mother nature and human nature … and she always wins. It just has that resonance, and that permits us to have a conversation about whether we want to invest in long-term planning or whether we want to do what everybody does: stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich, and just live present moment and forget it.”
Among the compelling stories told by Burns’ documentary is that of Hugh Hammond Bennett, the “father of soil conservation,” who was enlisted by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and to work with FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps to plant trees, build erosion control structures and plant cover crops.
Turning the nation’s attention to the gathering dust in this corner of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas pocket took a major storm on May 12, 1934, about which Bennett wrote, “This particular dust storm blotted out the sun over the nation’s capital, drove grit between the teeth of New Yorkers and scattered dust on the decks of ships 200 miles out to sea. I suspect that when people along the seaboard of the eastern United States began to taste fresh soil from the plains 2,000 miles away, many of them realized for the first time that somewhere something had gone wrong with the land. It seems to take something like a disaster to awaken people who have been accustomed to great national prosperity, such as ours, to the presence of a national menace.”
In one particularly frightening moment depicted in the documentary, the dust even appeared on the president’s desk at the White House.
“More dirt was moved in one day of one storm than the United States excavated in 10 years digging the Panama Canal,” says Burns. “An area greater than the size of Ohio that had never been plowed up, therefore, was left to blow, so that even FDR could come up with Oklahoma on his fingertips, and ships at sea the next day were covered with a patina of dust.”
Burns reflects today, “We were able to mitigate a lot of the problems of the Dust Bowl through many, many government programs, but also we learned the technology to dip a million straws into the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a finite source of water. When it runs out, you’re going to be faced with not just climate change and increased extremes of temperature and other droughts; you’ll no longer have reliable water supply to wet that ground down. And who knows, the winds may blow or we may wind up with what they feared in 1930s: an American Sahara in middle of the country.”
He adds, “Maybe it is timely.”
And yet, whether Burns’ documentary — the product of years of research — can help illuminate public thinking is less than clear.
“We’ve been talking to Farm Aid and trying get out the message of ‘The Dust Bowl’ and what it suggests in terms of long-range planning, and what you find, particularly in political culture today, that’s so antagonistic, and lacks the civility we need to solve our problems, is that history is still a table around which we can discuss complex issues. We make our films nonpartisan, with the idea that history can illuminate not just what went before, but what is going on now.”
As with any oral history of a period decades old, Burns and his co-producers knew it was a race against time to find survivors who could tells the human stories that would carry the film. They made appeals on the radio and television stations around the affected area, as well as in California’s Central Valley, where many of the refugees fled. That led to roundtable discussions that co-producers Julie Dunfey and Susan Shumaker had with about 130 Dust Bowl survivors in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and historical societies, which resulted in filming of 30 of those people who were affected and the more than two dozen who are in the film.
“We thought we’d cut those down to a handful of people,” Burns says. “But each person had a kind of uniqueness that required us to help tell their story and intertwine their stories, so it has a human dimension. Nothing comes close to what individual stories do. When you see two men in their late 80s break down and cry about a little sister they haven’t seen since early 1935, who herself was less than 2½ years old, you understand the great gift is that memory is not distant and covered in cobwebs, but present and activated by calling on it, and these men break down. And you’d have thought that little girl had died last year, not back in 1935.”
Many of those survivors shared their family albums, and the producers combed the small historical societies for archives for a treasure trove of photos, although there was little film footage.
“This was still a relatively poor and still relatively poor and bare-bones agrarian population,” Burns explains, and “prospering meant you didn’t starve and maybe you were able to feed your family, maybe turn a little profit. There was not the extravagance of movie cameras the way you’d find in the big city.”
Still, he said, “everybody had a little camera and took pictures … that have not seen the light of day except in those albums,” and there were also photos taken by photojournalists like Roy Stryker and others send out by the Farm Security Administration.
“We felt that among the great joys of this film was the introduction of this country to really heroic and pretty amazing human beings who stayed through 10 years of hundreds and hundreds of storms,” Burns added. “They also got to show and prove it, with photographs somebody would take of a storm approaching, the way it would suddenly block out the sun. If you had an enterprising photographer, they kept snapping away. We got some amazing, amazing shots.”
“The Dust Bowl” also tells the story of how some people “who started out as conservative as you can get were looking for (FDR’s) help, and it wasn’t just the complicated soil conservation techniques they were suggesting of going back to the old plow, of contour plowing, of rotating your crops. They paid people not to plant, they paid people to buy their land and return it to grassland, they culled their cattle and paid them for worthless cattle, they gave them surplus commodities that let them physically survive during those dark years of not only depression, but drought and dust. The government was a huge part of it, as it is in all crises.”
The creator of documentaries about the Civil War, about jazz, about baseball, Prohibition and a forthcoming film about the Roosevelts, says his key motivation is always to tell an engrossing, people-centered story. The story of the Dust Bowl, he says, is “phenomenal.
“We went in realizing were dealing with a good story, and as got in, we understood we were dealing with a monumental tragedy. By the end, we realized that the tragedy was mitigated by extraordinary human perseverance and really great character — of people who just fought and struggled to hang onto their land.”
Even the filmmaker before this had a superficial understanding of this subject, but he came away learning some important lessons.
“We live in a kind of complacent and whiny age. That’s not the kind of stock that survived that Dust Bowl and the Depression and then — may I put out — went on to defeat fascism and militarism in the next decade. A lot of those men you meet, who were kids and teenagers during Dust Bowl, went on to fight for the Marines, the Army, the Army-Air Force and Navy in the Second World War. They barely mention that.”
This is a story that’s still gripping, Burns says.
“It’s close to us, in the lifetime of folks we know. And now they’re dying out.”
On the Web: www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.