BOOK CLUB: The Worst Hard Time—The Untold Story Of Those Who Survived The Great American Dust Bowl

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STORY: Diane Dean

If the high temperatures in Florida are wearing you out, reading “The Worst Hard Time” will give you a reality check on suffering.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was tough, yet the majority of settlers in what became known as the “Dust Bowl” endured the hardships of farming during the environmental disaster of a decade-long drought. This cautionary tale could be a warning related to depleting the Ogallala aquifer now used to irrigate the same region.

Sally Melton and Diane Rich brought the story home to us with plates of dirt and artificial insects resembling the critters that plagued the land and their homes. The song “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya” by Woody Guthrie was played to start the discussion, a song one might recognize from “Prairie Home Companion.”

The maps provided by the facilitators showed the massive area affected by the lack of rain, raging wind, and the damaging effects of removing the grassland. Primarily the four adjoining corners of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas were devastated, though it stretched beyond those borders.

The introduction of farming tractors tore up the prairie turf to the tune of 50,000 acres a day. A gamble the farmers knew, but bet on anyway to return to the profits of production that existed a few years before. Book club attendees remarked that farming is a gamble and always has been. But the farmers never anticipated the illness their families would suffer with “dust bowl pneumonia.”

People moved there because the land was cheap and they were bamboozled by a fraudulent depiction of a “city.” More than 250 million people left their homes eventually, but most Dust Bowl residents stayed.

“Why did they stay?”

Book club members offered their views: there were no jobs anywhere else, family members were there, and they had invested so much and hated to give up. It was offered that hard times aren’t about losing money, or the drought. The real hard times are about losing hope and spirit.

Black Sunday occurred on April 14, 1935, when the wind blew so badly it was like “three midnights in a jug.” Five days later the Soil Conservation Act passed, and President Roosevelt directed The Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) to the dust bowl area “to the task of ending the waste of our land.”

Facilitators Sally and Diane read segments and poems from the book “Out of the Dust” by Karen Hesse. The book was a Newberry Medal winner in 1998 and highly recommended by Sally as a book to understand the time period for adults or young adult readers. The verse displayed the many emotions of a young girl growing up in the mid 1930s in the Oklahoma panhandle.

Most attendees felt the disaster was partially manmade. There was concern that current fracking methods may generate an environmental disaster.  As Texas farmers today realize the limited aquifer supply could be in serious jeopardy by 2028, many are growing crops that need less irrigation.

As we sifted the dirt through our hands we could only imagine the discomfort, frustration, sorrow, and grief the era of the dust bowl brought to those “choked by the dust in the dirty thirties.”


About the Author

Timothy Egan born in 1954 resides in Seattle. He contributed to a story series “How Race is Lived in America” and received a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2001. Egan was the winner of the National Book Award in 2006. His opinion column on current issues appears in the New York Times.  His latest book is “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero,” a story of the relatively unknown and extraordinary Thomas F. Meagher.

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