Summer Issue 2010
SW Kansas and The Dust Bowl
by George Laughead
The Dust Bowl oral history interviews were completed in 1998 by an intern of the Ford County Historical Society, Brandon Case, a Masters in History student at Fort Hays State University. The organization of the project was started by Ann Warner, FCHS board member. Dr. Lynn H. Nelson, Professor Emeritus, History, University of Kansas, guided us on the editing of the interviews. The transcription of the interviews was paid by a Kansas Humanities Council grant and completed by Erica Land. Web site formatting was done by George Laughead. All the interviews can be found at: www.skyways.org/orgs/fordco/dustbowl/
Lola Adams Crum
Born 1908, Dodge City, KS
“On Sunday April 14, 1935, I was grading papers, sitting at our kitchen window, the window faced the north. And I looked up and there was the blackest cloud you ever saw just about a third of the way from the horizon. My mother and brother had gone down to my grandmother’s about half a mile east, so they weren’t home. But my dad was asleep on the bed in the bedroom, so I hollered at him, “Pop, come here and look at this cloud.”
“Well, by the time he got awake and got out on the porch, which was quite quick because I was yelling. I was scared and he, didn’t take him long to get out there. We looked at that and here it was, just two-thirds of a way up from the horizon, just almost to up to the, well, about two-thirds, and, so we went back into the house right quick. And of course, in those days, your light was a lamp, a coal oil lamp. And I reached, by the time I got into the kitchen, halfway across the kitchen; to reach for the matchbox, I couldn’t see the matchbox. That dirt hit that quickly, and it just engulfed you, it just covered everything, and you couldn’t see, you couldn’t see anything. Now, if you wake up in the night, you can see where the window is, you couldn’t tell where the window was. It was that dense. And, well, I lit the lamp, and you know, it wasn’t any time between, until it seemed foggy in there. The dust had come into the room with the window shut and the doors shut.
“I can tell you another interesting story about the dust storm days. Since I was teaching here in school, in town, one of my very dear friends was Flora B. Miller, who was the Principal and teacher over in the school on the east side of town, in those days, they called in First Ward. And, she was a good friend of mine and ever once in a while, I’d go spend the night with her, especially on these bad nights. And, as time went along, she said, “Well, Lola, when these storms started, I thought I’d just keep my house as it was.” Her son had gone to college, so she was alone that winter, she said, “I thought I’d just keep my house as it was anyway, dusted.” But she said, “You know, it wasn’t too long before I put sheets over the furniture in the front room because I very seldom went in there when I was working.” And time went on and she said, “Lola, I’ve decided that I’ll do well if I can keep my stove and my table clean in the kitchen.” The next time I saw her, she said, “Lola, I got to the place where if I can keep my plate and my pillow clean, I’m doing well.”
James A. Williams
Born 1915, Liberty, MO
“The first time I remember a dust storm was in the summer of 1934. I was sitting out in what we called the “Bunk house” where my brother and I had our bedrooms. And, sitting there one day, we had a bad dust storm come, it was just you know an ordinary dust storm; you could see for a few miles but it, the wind was blowing, the dust was blowing, and all at once it got totally dark. Just totally dark and I thought the world had come to an end. And it didn’t stay that way very long - soon it lightened up again. I suppose just a cloud of dirt went over.
“During dust storms, out on the ranch they had quite a lot of hay, prairie hay that the creek ran through, and so we cut hay and stacked hay. The meadow, the big meadow down below the house the creek run through, sub-irrigated that area quite well, so we could put up hay. In 1934, you couldn’t do any farming - there was no rain out there. I don’t know what it was in other parts of western Kansas, but I’m sure pretty much the same.
“Dad owned his land and they didn’t spend much money because we had milk cows; we milked some cows, and used the separators to get the cream out of the milk. About once a week we’d take a five-gallon can of milk to Sharon [KS]to the depot, then be shipped up to Denver - they would pay for that. And my mother had chickens and eggs - in those days, women didn’t buy prepared foods. All the groceries our folks used to buy was flour and salt and things of that kind. And mother prepared things - of course she didn’t work anywhere so she had time to do that; she was a good cook.
“She had a big garden, which I had the privilege of hoeing, being the youngest kid at that time. And they had a big potato patch, which I also got to hoe, and she canned, she had numerous jars of vegetables. Then I remember every year, in the season, they’d go to town and buy two or three bushels of peaches and some grapes, and she’d make grape jelly and can the peaches and so on.
“I was not really in those days too conscious of cleanliness, but I do remember one time in 1935 when I was up at Fort Hays. I roomed with three other fellas my age, down in the basement of a preacher’s house, and we were having a bad dust storm. And I for some reason had to go upstairs and in the morning and the preacher’s wife and that college girl that helped her were industriously sweeping, and they said, “We’re going to stay ahead of it.” Well, I went up a couple hours later and they were sitting down, they couldn’t stay ahead of it. We were in the basement and at night, when we’re having those dust storms, we’d go to bed, we’d put a washcloth, a damp washcloth over our faces and in the morning, of course, it had gotten away off our face, probably by morning, but it would have a lot of black on it, the dust that came late.”
Arthur W. Leonard
Born 1917, Dodge City, KS
“Why, nobody had any money in 1929 when the crash happened. Why after that, we not only had the crash out here, but we had poverty and dust and dirt and every thing imaginable. And it got worse as it went along; it never got any better. Every day it was hot and dry. And we got some moisture, but not much. And people began to learn how to live with the dust. They’d wear a dust mask over their face to keep the dust from getting in their lungs. But anybody that lived back there in the dust storm days, especially in this part of the country, have lung problems. They have black spots on their lungs. The doctors wonder what that is, and that’s nothing more than deposits of dust from the dust storm days.
“Most of the houses in the city, in the buildings, why, you had to clean the dust on top of the rafters because if you didn’t the ceiling would fall down. It got so bad. And when I was a kid, that’s how I earned part of my money, was cleaning up dust off of porches and yards and going up in the ceiling and scraping between the rafters to get the dirt out. And I did that, and of course, no body had any money back there then. There wasn’t very much and what you had was very precious. Candy bars were not more than a nickel, and we had penny candy, and we had what we called lollipops. Candy bars were twice as long then as they are now for less money.
“Conditions back there then were more or less a hand-me-down situation in the family where people had four or five children or maybe more. Why, they never threw anything away: shoes, clothes, overalls, they handed it down to the next person until it was completely wore out. And we lived in what I always called the “corduroy days,” where people wore corduroy pants and you swished back and forth when you wore your knickers. I even wore knickers when I was a kid, and it was one of those things. As you growed up during the dust storm days, you learned to take care of yourself. You learned to save your money. Mother always said you should always save everything you can save, for some day you’ll need it. And she was right. It was pretty bad.
“Automobiles and tractors and one thing and another--there was a lot of electrolysis in the air from the dust storm days, and a tractor wouldn’t run unless you pulled a chain behind it around the tractor. And automobiles sometimes--you had to get maybe two air cleaners on the automobile to keep the dust out of the motor cause it just tore the motor all to pieces. It’d get in the oil and just grind the motor up. It was hard on an automobile, the dust was.
“And of course it was hard on everybody else too. Conditions in the homes and one thing and another, you had to learn how to take old sheets and make strips out of them, and then you made your glue out of flour, and you glued around the windows, and you glued them shut. In other words, so the dust couldn’t get in, but the dust got in anyhow. And when you went to bed at night, why you turned the pillow over. Even though it was covered, it’d have dust on it. It got underneath there some way, and the bed got it. In the morning after a dust storm day, you have to eat in the kitchen, if you was lucky to have food, you had to clean off the kitchen table. The dust would be on top of the table and all over the house. Dust cleaning in the house was a continuous job, it never quit. It just went on and on and on.”