Like most of my fellow “Okies”, I am somewhat sensitive to the stories of what life was like during the Dust Bowl years. For those of you who model the Depression-era, here are some observations of what life was really like. This article was adapted from an original story titled “Pioneers of the Prairie”, written in 1967.
During the “dirty thirties”, many farmers were ruined. They were told to “cheer up”, because it could get a lot worse. They cheered up and sure enough it got worse.
Most of the farmers milked cows, raised chickens and a few hogs, grew grain for the cattle, and put out a garden each year. The standard of living depended greatly upon whether the cows were fresh, hens laid, and gardens produced. By the end of any week, the family would have, maybe, a full five-gallon can of cream and several dozen eggs that were hauled to one of the produce houses in town. At one time, cream was as cheap as 8-cents per pound for butterfat and eggs at 6-cents per dozen. Groceries and gasoline were bought with the produce check – or as far as it would go. Once in a while there was enough money left from the produce check to buy a new pair of socks.
Wheat would occasionally soar to new highs – dust storms would carry the wheat, roots and all, high above the ground.
On the day before Easter, the drugstore in town would give an ice cream cone for an egg. The children of the community were quite delighted.
There was no running water unless you were in a hurry with a bucket.
Flour was bought in hundred-pound sacks. Many times the flour would have weevils by spring. Bread was usually homemade. It was quite a treat to have “bought’n” bread.
One day a man was knocked unconscious by a drop of rain hitting him on the head. Two buckets full of dirt were thrown in his face to get him back to normal.
There was a bumper wheat crop in 1931. The price of wheat that summer was from 30 to 35 cents per bushel. Some farmers dumped their wheat on the ground hoping for a better price. After several rains, the wheat molded and resulted in quite a loss to the farmers. The moldy smelling wheat was hauled by wagons to the elevator and the farmers received only 24-cents per bushel.
W.P.A. projects were started to help people during these hard times. Anyone caught with an orange in his dinner pail was terminated for being too “well-off.”
In 1934 and 1935, due to the great drought, many cattle were starving, so the government paid $12 to $15 per head for young cows. Old cows were bought for $8 to $10 per head and then killed at local stockyards.
In 1935, one farmer southwest of town offered his farm of one-quarter section of land and an additional eighty-acre tract to the local Chevy dealer for a truck, but the dealer refused to trade “even-up.”
There was no electricity in the rural areas though a few farmers had carbide lamps or Delco plants (generators). R.E.A. lines were built throughout the area after the war. Many people left a light burning that first night just to see if it would still be burning by morning!
One of the stories told during the drought years was of the farmer carrying a load of wheat to the elevator. A highway patrolman stopped him and asked how much wheat he was carrying. The farmer said, “400 acres.” The patrolman replied, “Get it to the elevator quick!” Even when harvests are meager, farmers still chuckle at the story.
Though none equaled the famous “black duster” of Sunday, April 14, 1935, the dust storms were frequent and damaging. The people watched helplessly as the wind took the precious topsoil from their fields and one after another of their family developed dust pneumonia. By the spring of 1936, the hospitals were filled with dust pneumonia patients. After putting out a crop in the fall, many families moved to a healthier climate for the winter. Times were made more difficult when the Depression caused wheat and cattle prices to hit rock bottom. It took a bit of thrift, a bit of ingenuity, and a whole lot of faith to survive.