Depression took on many forms in America’s heartland. Some were natural, while others were man-made. Massive dust storms blew away the land, and economic misfortunes blew away people who had tilled that land for decades.
Storms and Foreclosures
The first great storm hit South Dakota on November 11, 1933. Suddenly a huge black cloud turned the midday sky darker than midnight. The storm blew all afternoon and well into the night. No one dared travel outside without covering his or her face with a handkerchief. The storm blew through Chicago the next day and traveled as far east as Albany, New York.
It was no isolated incident. Dozens of storms sent dirt and sand flying through the Great Plains. Kansas resident Eleanor Williams recalled, “If a roller came from the north we could recognize the rich black topsoil from Nebraska and Colorado. If it came from the south, we’d get the red dust of Oklahoma. Our topsoil would be exchanged in a day or so as it blew away to a neighboring state.”1 Violent winds sometimes exceeded seventy miles per hour. “A newly painted bus would find the paint stripped away instantly by blowing sand,” recalled Nebraskan Ray Cordwell.2
The storms choked people, suffocated animals, and often kept visibility near zero. “You’d be driving in Kansas and you couldn’t see the front of your car,” Cordwell said.3
Such storms became so common that the Great Plains area became known as the “Dust Bowl.” One cause of the Dust Bowl was natural. The Great Plains went through a period of drought in the 1930s. These dry periods were not unusual. Since 1889, the Great Plains averaged one drought year in every six.
Yet this time conditions were different. Generations of overgrazing had destroyed much of the region’s grass. This grass had held much of the topsoil in place. Homesteaders had plowed up other lands. These lands, too, went flying during the storms.
Nature, along with financial conditions, spelled economic ruin for thousands of farmers. Even in the best of times, many barely survived. They borrowed in the spring to buy seed and supplies. When the harvests came, they paid back their loans. If the harvest was bad, they remained in debt.
Farmers had little control over the prices paid. Their production usually exceeded demand, so prices remained low. Occasionally farmers tried to keep their products off the market. They hoped to create a scarcity, which would drive up prices. They argued and sometimes fought with other farmers who felt they needed to sell their goods, no matter what the price.
Mike Reno of western Iowa started the Farm Holiday Association. This group took militant action in 1930 to prevent farmers from reaching markets in Sioux City, Iowa. Farm Holiday Association members stopped farmers’ trucks and dumped their milk. Some farmers needed escorts from deputy sheriffs to get to Sioux City. At some time, the Farm Holiday Association members and farm producers reached a truce.
When farmers could not pay their debts, banks foreclosed on their mortgages and took over the farms. Banks tried to sell off the property of debt-ridden farmers. Sometimes the banks’ attempts were less than successful. Neighbors often united to buy the auctioned goods for minimal prices. A prize horse might go for only a quarter, a cow for a dime. Afterward, the buyers would return the goods to the farmer. Outsiders tried to grab a bargain at these auctions. Neighbors let these exploiters know—in a friendly way or otherwise—that they were not welcome.
A farmer who lost title to his or her land might still stay on it by becoming a tenant farmer, paying rent to the new owner. Or the farmer could become a sharecropper, working the land for a percentage of the crops. Even those choices might be short-lived.
Bank foreclosures of small farms led to fewer but bigger farms. Wealthier farm owners could afford to buy the latest machinery. One man working a tractor for about a dollar a day could do the work of several farm families. These families might have been on the land for decades. But they were no longer needed to raise crops. They had to go. Many families moved to town and went on relief. Others hit the road.
“I’ve Been Doin’ Some Hard Travellin’”
Unemployed Americans sought work near their homes. All too often, there was no work to find. Many left to find a new job—wherever that might be. Hundreds of thousands of Americans went by boxcar, by auto, or by thumb, searching for work.
The Missouri Pacific railroad kept records of freight car migrants. The railroad counted 13,475 migrants in 1929. Two years later, it counted 186,028 on its railroad alone. Some of the boxcars were so crowded, they had standing room only.
Railroads hired special police to evict the illegal travelers. If caught, they might be put to work repairing tracks. When the numbers of riders became too great, many police gave up their futile effort. In some cases, railroad conductors ordered extra boxcars to accommodate the migrants.
Men comprised most of the boxcar riders. Women, however, also rode the rails. Many disguised themselves as men, to ward off sexual advances. Boys and even girls joined the cross-country migrations. Often they left home to ease their family’s financial burden.
“When a train would stop in a small town and the bums got off, the population tripled,” recalled former rider Frank Czerwonka.4 Some went to the local “Sally”—Salvation Army outpost. Most stopped at hobo jungles, settlements outside of town. They grabbed food and shelter while learning of possible work opportunities.
Many went to local residents’ houses. They sought a job or a meal or both. If someone gave them a handout, they left marks near the house. These signals told future visitors of the homeowner’s generosity. One mark might mean that a home would provide a meal. Another meant that the homeowner expected work for food. A different mark meant that the visitor could sleep in the family’s barn.
By the mid-1930s, a different group of migrants appeared. These were the tenant farmers who were forced off their land. Many came from the Southwest. They were known as “Okies”—those from Oklahoma— or “Arkies”—from Arkansas.
Thousands flocked to California. There, they heard, people could find steady work. They crammed their old cars with family members, dogs, and any possessions that would fit. Then they set out on the perilous journey through the southwestern desert.
California hardly extended a welcome to its would-be residents. Many were greeted by the “hobo express” or the “bum blockade.” In some towns, migrants were thrown onto a truck (the “hobo express”), driven to the edge of town, and warned not to return. Sometimes a local posse met a freight train. Guns in hand, the posse members made sure the travelers remained in their boxcars. Authorities at the California state line (the “bum blockade”) stopped migrants before they could enter. When one migrant sued to stop the illegal blockade, he and his family were intimidated by police. He withdrew his lawsuit.5
Blockades did not prevent people from streaming into California. An estimated three hundred fifty thousand migrants entered the state in the early 1930s. More than two hundred thousand teenagers slept in Los Angeles flophouses and missions in 1932 alone. Many of them came from different states.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided funds for the care of “resident, transient, or homeless persons.” It set up “Uncle Sam hotels” in every state except Vermont. The experiment did not last, however. “It was not popular mainly because migrants are not popular,” commented journalist Nels Anderson.6
People slept where they could—even occasionally in the local jail. They had to be careful. “In California, I didn’t sleep in the jails,” said songwriter Woody Guthrie. “I was an Okie fullblood and was afraid I might not get out.”7
In the Middle Ages, minstrels journeyed from town to town. These roving musicians sang songs that described the latest news or local life. America had such a minstrel in the Depression years. His name was Woody Guthrie.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, named after a soon- to-be American president, was born in Oklahoma City in 1912. Even as a young man, the down-and-outs of society fascinated him. He spent endless hours chatting with the cowboys, railroad men, and hoboes he met at the edge of town. He talked at length with oilfield workers and shopkeepers. Formal education never interested him much, but he read nearly every book he could find. Young Woody devoured books on psychology, philosophy, and religion.
He avoided manual labor if possible. Even so, he held a variety of jobs—sign painter, quick-sketch artist, fortune-teller. Then he hit the roads or the rails.
Boxcar hoboes were not just Woody Guthrie’s fellow travelers. Men with names like “Dinner Fly” or “Dick the Stabber” were his people. “Pretty soon I found out I had relatives under every railroad bridge between Oklahoma and California,” he claimed.8 When Guthrie wrote, “I’ve been doin’ some hard travellin’, I thought you knowed, I’ve been doin’ some hard ramblin’, way down the road,” he spoke from experience.
His comrades freely told him the stories of their lives—their pasts, their presents, their hopes, disappointments, and fears. He turned those stories into hundreds of songs. Some were spur-of-the-moment tunes, forgotten the next day. Others survived as great works of American music.
Guthrie sang to anyone who would listen. He sang at union rallies, work camps, Hoovervilles, in boxcars, in jails. His songs celebrated the lives of American people. “Pretty Boy Floyd” told of an Oklahoma Robin Hood who robbed banks and gave money to the poor. “Pastures of Plenty” described the sad life of many migrant workers. “Tom Joad,” a seventeen-verse ballad, summarized John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. “The people of Oklahoma haven’t got two bucks to buy the book, or even thirty-five cents to see the movie, but the song will get back to them,” Guthrie said.9
The songs were more than just entertainment. Woody Guthrie used them to forge a sense of pride. “I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose,” he said.
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world . . . I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.10
The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck, a native Californian, traveled the land and observed life. He worked as a migrant laborer and he wrote. The result was the most famous book of the Depression and one of the greatest works of American literature.
The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the fictional Joad family. They were simple Oklahoma farmers forced off their land. The Joads covered the range of Depression humanity. They included hot-tempered but idealistic Tom, level-headed Ma, cowardly Connie, and fun-loving Al. Joining them was a preacher who was seeking the truth.
One day, they saw a handbill offering jobs picking fruit in California. The twelve-member family, plus the preacher, set off in a weighted-down jalopy for the promised land.
California’s reality proved unhappier than the dream. Thousands of other workers also saw the handbills. The surplus of willing laborers meant growers could keep wages low. A day’s work barely kept a family from starvation. One by one, the Joad family left. Some died, and others just wandered away.
Steinbeck told the dramatic story of a Depression migrant family. He also gave detailed descriptions of the life they faced—selling treasured possessions at a fraction of their value, bargaining for food at a roadside diner, doing emergency repair work on a car.The Grapes of Wrath captured the many experiences the Okies faced—sadness, fear, violence, and even occasional happiness.
The book criticized banks that took farmers’ land and big farm interests that treated migrants poorly. Not surprisingly, those groups condemned the book. When producer Darryl F. Zanuck bought movie rights to the book, some believed he bought them so that no movie would ever be made.
Zanuck, however, made the film. It became a classic. He took special precautions. The movie was shot secretly so that those opposed to it could not interfere. If someone asked, the film crew gave the name of a different movie. Zanuck hired extra “stagehands” (actually bodyguards) in case trouble arose.
Zanuck did not use the book’s depressing ending in his movie. Instead, he left viewers with an uplifting message. Tom Joad is running from the law. The family is out of work. An uncertain future awaits. Yet Ma knows the Joads and common folk like them will survive. “[They] can’t wipe us out,” she says. “Can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever. ’Cause we’re the people.”11