Dust Storms During the Depression Era Inspired Humor

Man recalls growing up in Western Kansas during the Depression Era, and joking about dust storms

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Among my more vivid memories of the depression era is a recollection of the Western Kansas dust storms during the winter and spring of 1934/1935. That was during my senior year in high school; as I recall, the entire term was somewhat gritty.

By this time, most of the native buffalo grass had been plowed under, and the plains changed to grain fields. It had been very dry in the fall, and there was very little snow that winter. Whatever crops had grown the previous summer had long since been harvested, and the thin stubble remaining in the fields was not enough to hold the soil in place when the wind blew, which was nearly every day.

It seemed if the wind came from the North one day bringing some Nebraska dust, that it would return from the South the next day loaded with top soil from Oklahoma. Soon the soil was pulverized to a flour-like or powder-like fineness; then a vagrant breeze or a whispering zephyr was enough to shift the dust from one location to another. Thus the topsoil of this part of the Great American Breadbasket spent a lot of time traveling through the air that winter.

The wind-driven, loose, powdery soil penetrated the smallest holes and cracks in buildings and machinery. Some ceilings in houses actually collapsed from the weight of the dust in the attic. The dust drifted like snow, especially around the Russian thistles (tumbleweeds to poets) which were caught in the fences and on the north side of buildings. Many internal combustion engines in cars, trucks and tractors were ruined that winter because so much of the very abrasive dust was sucked into the carburetor air intake and literally ground the bearings and pistons beyond functional tolerance.

When the wind started to build, one could see a wall of dust marching across the plains, getting darker, nearer and larger by the minute.

Perhaps the thing which impressed me the most was the proliferation of tall stories engendered by the caprice of Mother Nature when she released the dust storm condition. Two examples of this gallows humor follow:

Joe:. "In the middle of the dust storm yesterday, I had to go outside. On my way to the barn, I saw a gopher digging a hole."

Moe: "What's so odd about that? That's what gophers do."

Joe: "Yeah, but 10 feet in the air?"

"After that dust storm the other day, I found a new hat out in the yard. I picked it up and there was a man under it. I tried to help him out of the hole in the ground, but he said, 'I'm ok, but please just see if you can get my horse to move!'"

There's something positive about a society which can make jokes about a really painful situation such as the dust storms, even as they realize no human agency can do a thing to alleviate the problem.

Rex O. Wonnell
San Jose, California

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.