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