So how did the Dust Bowl end?
Three words: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When FDR ran for president, he seemed an unlikely savior: a rich dilettante with a funny accent, a withered body, and cigarettes he smoked from a holder.
But Roosevelt had a message and a cause: the "forgotten man" — the broken farmer in the West, the apple vendor hawking his wares for a nickle in in Manhattan, the Chicago and St. Louis factory worker now hitting the rails looking for work.
Roosevelt knew what had broken America: unfettered greed and a herd mentality that made prices too low for farmers to make a living.
Unregulated banking had left depositors banging on doors to empty buildings. Flashy brochures had sold both deserts and swamps as perfect locations for homes and the result was that both lives and land had been ruined in the process. It was time for a cool head, and a little rational government organization and intervention. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said he was the man for that job.
In November of 1932, FDR carried all but six states, and those he failed to carry were mostly small New England states that were not too hard hit by the Depression.
When FDR came through the door to the Oval Office, he faced a mountain of problems: an economy in ruins, Mother Nature in full riot, and a government that seemed to be without rudder or clue. Herbert Hoover, the Republican President who had fiddled while the Great Plains blew away, the stock market collapsed, jobs withered on the vine, banks collapsed, and home equity disappeared said, on his last day in office, "We have done all that we can do. There is nothing more to be done."
But of course, America was not defeated. All the U.S. needed was a little common sense and a little clear-eyed governing. Into the fray rolled a decisive Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man with bold ideas, clear plans, and a mandate to put them in motion.
First up was the Emergency Banking Bill which was signed into law just eight hours after it was introduced. By the end of Roosevelt's first week in office, bank deposits exceeded withdrawals. A few months later, this bill was further strengthened by adding provisions that insured individual deposits up to ten thousand dollars.
Next up was saving the farm. To do that, farming had to be profitable again. As Roosevelt never tired of pointing out, America knew how to grow food. In fact, American farmers were so damn good at it, that while farmers were producing record crops, they also saw an 80% decline in income due to over-production. What was needed was a stabilizing force on farm prices said Roosevelt. Just as a horse pulling a plow needed a bridle, so too did the Heavy Horse of capitalism. With a little restrain and a little guidance, that which could easily kill a farmer could be harnessed and made to serve him.
In the second year of FDR's first term, he sent government-sanctioned death squads to the Great Plains with a plan to buy and kill as many farm animals as possible.
The simple fact of the matter was that stock eradication was the only way forward for both farmer and animal. Most of the cows and horses on the Great Plains could not be sold as they were now in such poor condition that no one on earth would buy then.
Overproduction of wheat, as well as too many cows and horses, had left the ground eroded and broken. The wretched-looking cattle that still dotted the prairie were little more than bags of skin and bones outlined in ribs. The horses were scabby with sores, their teeth shattered and their lips bleeding from gnawing on fence posts. Cattle and horses alike had lungs that were packed with dust.
A bullet to the brain was not animal cruelty; it was blessed relief for animals that had no other hope.
Over the next year the U.S. Government bought eight million cattle and many horses in an effort to bring up stock prices so that farmers could feed their families.
The cattle the Government did buy up were often worthless. Nearly one in three were shot and tipped into a ditch to rot, their bodies too thin for even the starving locals to bone out for a single steak.
Land that had rippled with grass and run riot with millions of wild bison just 50 year earlier, was now broken and blowing away, much of it devoid of all vegetation and unable to support even a single domestic cow.
Along with payments to reduce farm stock, the Roosevelt Administration began making payments to get people to move out of really hard-hit areas.
Just as the Government and the railroads had once subsidized immigration to the U.S. and colonization of the Great Plains, they now paid for people to move away from Texas panhandle, eastern Colorado, Oklahoma and western Kansas. This was not land for potato farmers and get-rich-quick men. There was an over-shoot of people said the Government, and the way back to economic and land health was to reduce the number of humans as well as the number of cattle.
All of this was a massive help to turning things around, but the single greatest long-term force in ending the Dust Bowl and reshaping American agriculture came in the person of Hugh Bennett, someone most Americans have never heard of.
Hugh Bennett was an American original -- a big, friendly man who could shoe a horse, paint a barn, and fix a tractor, even as he spoke clearly and simply about his new theory to turn the land around.
What was wrong, said Bennett, was what we had done to the land, especially in the Plains. The land had been fine for 2 million years as a cover of native grass for migrating buffalo, but we had got it ruined it in less than 50 by turning the grass "wrong side up" and putting too many domestic cattle out to graze in permanent pasture.
Bennett thought it might be possible to turn things around, but it was going to be tough to pull it out of dive when things were going down so fast, and we were already so close to the ditch.
Bennett's radical plan was for the government to buy a million acres of land in the worst-hit sections of the of prairie states so that the land could be "haired over" with tough grass seeds imported from Africa. A new grassland had to be made (or restored), and it had to be done at a scale that had never been done before. It might be too late, of course, but the only way forward was to try, and once it was accomplished, to let the land rest for perhaps decades... or even longer.
In places where the land was a little less ruined, Hugh Bennett thought better farm practices might be enough to turn things around: contour plowing, winter ground cover, cover strips to hold the soil in place.
Bennett found a friend and believer in FDR. Roosevelt felt if the Plains could be saved, then Hugh Bennett was the man to do it.
|Black Sunday, 1935.|
On April 14, 1935, the biggest dust storm in U.S. history hit the prairie states, pushing a tower of dirt more than two miles into the air, and moving 300,000 tons of topsoil towards the east coast.
This was "Black Sunday" -- the day the wind moved more dirt in a single afternoon than was dug by an army of machines toiling for over seven years to build the Panama Canal.
On April 19, 1935, five days after Black Sunday, Hugh Bennett was in Room 333 of the Russell Senate Office Building (then simply called the Senate Office Building) pushing for land conservation.
As Timothy Egan notes in The Worst Hard Time:
He began with the charts, the maps, the stories of what soil conservation could do, and a report on Black Sunday. The senators listened, expressions of boredom on the faces of some. An aide whispered into Big Hugh's ear. "It's coming."
Bennett told how he learned about terracing at an early age, about how the old ground on his daddy's place in North Carolina was held in place by a simple method that most country farmers learned when they were young. And did he mention—yes, again—that an inch of topsoil can blow away in an hour, but it takes a thousand years to restore it? Think about that equation. A senator who had been gazing out the window interrupted Bennett. "It's getting dark outside."
The senators went to the window. Early afternoon in mid-April, and it was getting dark. The sun over the Senate Office Building vanished. The air took on a copper hue as light filtered through the flurry of dust. For the second time in two years, soil from the southern plains fell on the capital. This time it seemed to take its cue from Hugh Bennett. The weather bureau said it had originated in No Man's Land. "This, gentlemen, is what I'm talking about," said Bennett. "There goes Oklahoma." Within a day, Bennett had his money and a permanent agency to restore and sustain the health of the soil. When Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act, it marked the first time any nation had created such a unit.
To force prices up enough for farmers to make a living, Roosevelt had the government buy surplus corn, beans, and flour, and distribute it to the needy.
Over six million pigs were slaughtered, and the meat given to relief organizations.
Crops were plowed into the ground — like slitting your wrist, to some farmers. In the South, when horses were first directed to the fields to rip out cotton, they balked. Next year, the government would ask cattlemen and wheat growers to reduce supply in return for cash. Hoover had been leery of meddling with the mechanics of the free market. Under Roosevelt, the government was the market. The Agricultural Adjustment Act created the framework, and the Civilian Conservation Corps drummed up the foot soldiers. They would try to stitch the land back together. Build dams, bridges. Restore forests. Keep water from running away. Build trails in the mountains, roads on the prairie, lakes and ponds.
In May, Roosevelt signed a bill giving two hundred million dollars to help farmers facing foreclosure. Now, before some nester's land could be taken to satisfy a bank loan, there was a place of last resort.
That summer, FDR launched the Second Hundred Days, signing into law the Social Security Act so that the crushing cycle of old age poverty that had bedeviled mankind since the beginning, might end.
Next up was the Works Progress Administration to fund the building of roads, schools, bridges and parks, and the National Labor Relations Act, which enshrined union rights in the workplace even as it outlawed wildcat strikes that could cripple the economy.
And what was the result?
Things turned around. Farm economies began to improve with incomes 50 percent higher, and crop prices up 66 percent since Herbert Hoover's last day in office.
Money flowed back into the banks. People slowly returned to work.
Roosevelt took credit, and the American people gave him credit, but the Supreme Court disagreed, stepping in to say that government control of the American farm economy was unconstitutional. The government could not be the market.
Of course, today we do have price supports and market-making for all kinds of agricultural products.
The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers every year to leave over 30 million acres fallow -- land that supports fox, deer, quail, pheasant, sage grouse, and turkey, as well as scores of millions of song birds.
Social Security is the primary source of income for most Americans in retirement. If you are lucky enough to have gone to college, it's probably because your parents had a little money set aside now that they no longer had to provide economic sustenance to their parents (your grandparents) in old age.
The over one million acres of Dust Bowl land that the government bought from broken farmers in 1935 for $2.75 an acre, is now almost four million acres located in 20 publicly-owned National Grassland parks administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
And in the end, even the Republicans admitted it was all due to the good sense and steady hand of FDR.
When Kansas Governor Alf Landon, who had run against Roosevelt in 1936 saying he had no idea how to fix the Great Plains, was asked about the New Deal and its lasting effect on the country, he said it "saved our society."
And, of course he was right and the American people knew it. Alf Landon lost every state in 1936 except Maine and Vermont, winning the Electoral College by the largest margin ever, 523 to 8,
As for Hugh Bennett, the Big Man that Saved the Plains, he died in 1960 at the age of seventy-nine, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery just two miles from my house. On Saturday I may bike over to lay a flower on his grave; a great American not enough of us have ever been told about.
Hugh Bennett at the first soil erosion research station in Guthrie, Oklahoma.