The Day the Sun Died

Judith – Your email arrived with this query – “Gram, why did you say the dust storms were scary?”.  You could not imagine the flood of memories that poured over me when I read that!  In a flash I was a child again – hearing the wind howl and smelling the suffocating dust.  I will try to answer —-

Why were the storms scary?  Let me tell you about the first one I experienced when I was about 5 years old.  The background is that we were in the middle of a severe drought.  For some time – I cannot remember how long but for several years we had received less than usual rainfall.  Crops were poor, and always “next year” was expected to return to normal.  However the adverse conditions continued.  The land dried out more and more.  I can remember cracks in the field so big that sometimes tools dropped would fall into a crack and be lost.  Then the winds began to get worse.  In those days the farming practice was to sow half of your land, and summer fallow the other half.  The land which was left fallow was cultivated to remove all weeds.  The accepted farming belief then was that this was the best farming practice, to keep the grains grown from being hampered by weeds, and also from having weed seeds mixed in with the harvested grain.  So, drought, soil getting drier and drier, winds getting stronger, and large sections of land with the soil cultivated, no ground cover, and vulnerable to blowing.  I don’t know the physics of what happened next, but it seemed that a strong wind blowing would start to pick up soil, and almost like a storm on the ocean when the waves get bigger and bigger, the storm would roll on over the countryside, adding soil as it went — you get the picture.    

I return to the first such storm we experienced.  All the above drought conditions existed.  One hot day the wind had been blowing strongly from the west.  Doris and I were playing in the farmyard, and Dad was starting to put his team of horses into the barn.  For no apparent reason the horses began to act strangely upset, hard to handle.  About the same time it began to get darker.  My Dad looked west and saw a huge dark cloud of something rolling towards us.  He yelled at Doris and me to run to the house, in a tone which induced instant obedience!  We stood on the back steps with Mom, our hearts pounding and watched Dad literally man-handle his frantic horses into the barn, slam the door shut and run towards us screaming “Get into the house, get into the house”.  He was scarcely in and the door shut when it hit.  Utter darkness, the house shaking, the wind roaring.  Dad’s hands were trembling as he found and lighted our gas light, as I clung to his leg.  When the light was lit, I remember whispering “What is it Daddy?”.  His answer frightened me more, for he said “I don’t know, Marjie, I don’t know”.

Eventually the storm moved on.  How long – I do not remember.  It seemed like forever that first time, but now I would guess it took maybe 15 or 20 minutes — and then we could see the results.  Things blown away, turned over, broken off, the dust covering everything, inside and outside of the house.  Your questions opened a door and released a flood of memories.

These are a few of the things I recalled as I read your message, and they will answer your question.  Eventually the drought cycle ran its course, the rains returned, and farming and life went on.  It took many years though before farming practices changed.  As agricultural colleges and practical experience both pondered on the dry period and the dust storms, as herbicides were developed and information acquired, farming did change drastically.  In our area now, and probably in most of the West, the popularity of summer fallow has dwindled.  Minimal tillage, ground cover, constant cropping are all part of new farming practices.  These have their own problems, but the dust storms as we experienced them, are gone.

Much love, Gram

P.S.  Some 80 years later I still feel upset and sad if I hear the wind howling around the house.  A throw-back reaction, I guess, to the young child in an upstairs bedroom, hearing the wind raging and knowing no rain would fall that night.  “Daddy needs rain for the crops – when will it come?”, I remember thinking as I fell asleep.  Memory is an amazing thing, is it not?   Gram


Filed under Prairie Childhood

25 Responses to The Day the Sun Died

  1. Sid Dunning

    Well done! this took me back to my own childhood on the farm.

  2. Mike Taschuk


    What year was this? I estimate 1927 – does that sound right?

    Mike T.

  3. Mike Taschuk

    Another question; did your father have formal agriculture training? You mentioned the agricultural colleges – how were the “best practices” of the day distributed?

    • Marjorie

      First question re: my Dad’s education. Formal schooling ended in grade 8 when his mother died leaving 7 children and her husband. The two oldest, a girl and then my Dad, had to quit school to fill in raising the younger children and, for Dad, in addition helping his father farm the rented farm. Any education after that was self-taught and acquired, but none of it in an agricultural college. The latter, in this country, were available for my generation but I do not think for his. In Denmark agricultural schools existed, but of course farming conditions, crops, and weather conditions all different here. The prevailing and accepted “good farming” practices were as stated in the article. Hope this answers your question – not sure what you meant by “distributed”.

  4. Ellen Nygaard

    Hi, Marjorie, I can certainly identify with that. While we did not have the severe dust storms of the Depression years (which, according to your blog, probably came a few years later) we had a lot of dust storms in Dalum in the 1950s. I particularly remember one that we were not present to witness – only its aftermath. We had an old farm house that was poorly insulated with drafty old windows. We also had a patterned linoleum floor in the living room. We came home from a trip to Drumheller and there had been a dust storm which obliterated the pattern on the linoleum, covering it completely with a layer of grey dust. You can imagine how my mother must have felt having to clean everything in the house to get rid of the dust. I’m like you – I hate to hear the wind howl to this day.

    • Marjorie

      Ellen – Yes – this was earlier. The approximate date was 1927, could have been a bit later but not much. I can remember storms which left so much dust inside that one could not see where the dinning room hardwood floor met the living room rug! Imagine getting that cleaned up with no vacuum cleaner (no electricity). Only later could I appreciate how courageous the adults were to fight their way through those times.

  5. Ian Hepher

    Thanks, Mrs. G., for a great story. Ralph has been kind enough to share your blog address with me, and I will read your writings with great interest. My dad, who is 90, grew up in the same era, of course, but on the shores of Kootenay Lake…it is interesting to compare mountain and prairie living during those challenging days. Best from Ian in Lethbridge.

    • Marjorie

      Hello Ian – One of the fun things about this Blog is connecting once again with people we know – and also some strangers! Glad you liked the story. This business has also stirred up my memory and is bringing back a lot of things that had been packed away somewhere for a long time!

      • Ian Hepher

        I’m back for another peek at your blog, Mrs. G. Odd (to me) to think that in another year I will be as old as my father was when he retired. He has led an interesting life lately…he was immersed in care giving until my mother died about 5 years ago, but remarried at 85 and now has a rich, happy, and very involved life in Creston. So really, I have two of you to ponder and emulate as I move towards this new era of my life – for which I am practicing by working very little this summer. Cheers, Ian

        • Marjorie

          Ian – Good to hear from you again, and to get the update on your father. Nice indeed to hear that he is once more happily engaged in life itself. It must be good for you to know things are going well for him. ‘Bye the way, I still can produce a good cup of coffee if you and your wife ever get up this way. Marjorie

          • Ian Hepher

            I remember your unique method of making coffee! Just a little shot of cold water in the pot before serving, isn’t that the process. Thanks…we don’t get to Calgary all that much, which is silly, but we may take you up on it…perhaps when Ralph is in for visit…Ian

  6. Hi Marjorie,
    So glad to know you are blogging. I read of your long-time memory with much interest having grown up on the west coast which has other kinds of storms. But I don’t think you have to go through such horrible storms to be bothered by wind — I think it’s an atavistic response to something bigger and louder than regular wind, esp. if the roaring air is thick!

    (However did your mother clean it up? Did everyone help?)

    There is also that electric charge in the air that bothers my wiring. Not John Benn’s, however, he just loves to hear it roaring around our condo knowing he’s safe inside. (He says hello!)

    • Marjorie

      Barbara – Nice to hear from you, I remember our visit to you very well, and treasure the pictures you took, especially of Sheldon. To the cleaning up part – I remember part of it – first of all hanging curtains on the clothes line, rolling up the carpet and putting it over the fence, and pounding it with a carpet beater over and over. Then sprinkling water on the dust covered floor and sweeping up what they could (my mom and dad) and then washing the floor. Wiping down the windows and the furniture and on and on. I remember only part of the process, but it took a long time as the dust settled out of the air. And all this to be repeated when later, other storms struck. It was a better time to be a child than to be an adult.

      • One thing, tho. Your family probably didn’t have as much STUFF as we do nowadays. Or did they? I think of 1920s farm households as pretty basic with big radio consoles and sturdy diningroom tables & chairs, bare floors with a few area rugs… a couple pictures hung higher than we do now…

        • Marjorie

          Right Barbara – not as much but still a lot to clean – without electricity so no vacuum cleaner! Our living room rug was a large area one which came to about 20 inches of the walls, so that had to be taken out and beaten clean. No wonder they dreaded the arrival of yet another storm.

  7. Judith Umbach


    Love the emotion you generate with your story. Congratulations on joining the blog world. My mother also hated the wind, although she never did say why – perhaps for the same reasons as you.

  8. Marlene Holst

    Thanks Marjorie for providing a window into the lives of my own parents. Both were raised on the prairies of rural Alberta and I know that they experienced the same dust storms as children. I particularly remember my mother telling me that she would constantly scan the horizon for signs of the black clouds of dirt and also for clouds of smoke. I guess prairie fires were also hazard. Mom always hated the wind too. Memories run very deep, don’t they?
    Looking forward to more on your blog!!

    • Marjorie

      Marlene – Thanks for you comments, both here and at church. I’m not surprised your mother didn’t like the wind howling, it certainly made an impression on us. This blog is surprising me, and it is fun to get the comments. People’s reactions are always interesting. Keep it up.

  9. kate

    Hi Gram,
    Thanks for writing this story down for us. It makes me think instantly of the photograph a number of us have, of Barry’s father (I think?) returning in a dust storm. I can really only imagine how scary that must have felt, especially as a young girl. Raising my two now, I really appreciated the comment about how you felt more afraid after asking your father what the storm was, and realized he didn’t know, and was also afraid and uncertain – how true the emotional significance of that for kids.

    Love you Gram,

    • Marjorie

      Kate – How good to hear from you! Your response fits in with one of the reasons that I listened to Ralph’s suggestion that I use a Blog to record my stories, and Isabel’s generous offer to manage the mechanics of it. Life changes always, but at this time in history change may be occurring at an all-time speed. My childhood seems light years away from that experienced by Aidan and Naomi. If they serve in any way to inform them of their past, to be a connection with “Great Grandmother Marjorie”, or just be fun to hear —- what more could I ask? Love, Gram PS It’s fun for me too!

  10. Esther

    Dear Mom Gibson:
    Thank you for sharing this story.
    It must have been a terrifying experience for you to witness these dust storms as a young child.
    Your vivid recounting of the storms gives insight into “real life” farming in Western Canada in the past that one never hears or reads about (unless one is an Agricultural Economist).
    It is a delight to read your blog. This might be another book in the making!
    What a marvellous means of communicating and storytelling!
    Love, blessings,

    • Marjorie

      Esther! How great to hear from you and greetings to all your “clan”. It was Ralph who suggested that I use a blog to pass along some of my memories, and Isabel who has constructed it and is guiding my learning of the mechanics. So far she is doing all of the posting etc, and I just send her the writings, but hopefully I can learn more in the coming months. I am very much enjoying the exercise. My appreciation of your interest! Mom G.