GREAT BEND, Kan.- A recession is a scary time, everyone feels insecure with employment, family members loose jobs, our standard of living is threatened. The Great Depression of the 1920's was no doubt a very dark and dismal time in America. We were not sure where the country was headed, and those who were sure, did not have a very positive outlook. I just finished reading, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan, a fantastic tale about the dustbowl.
I have always been interested in that time period, the time period of the great depression. Growing up in a small town, back in the sticks of Michigan, I was required to ask my Grandmother about it during a school project. I expected some piece of history I had not known about my family and their survival through the depression. Instead my Grandma had a simple answer. She stated, "We did not even know a depression had happened, we were always poor. The depression never left up here."
In Kansas, and many of the other mid-western states, it was beyond evident that a depression had happened. Farmers could not sell crops because no one could afford food. Wheat lay beside train tracks rotting, while children in other states starved to death. The Federal Government and Herbert Hoover refused to get involved. Meaning, farmers did not get paid, and those starving did not get food. Between 1930 and 1935 there were 750,000 farm or loan foreclosures.
Midwesterners received a bad rap, one influential columnist, HL Mencken, stated, "...all those on the plains should be sterilized", essentially blaming people who chose to live on the plains for the problems being suffered. The rest of the nation felt that people in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas deserved no help from the government, many government officials agreeing. People from California posted signs at the border, telling Kansan's and other Dust Bowl refugees to turn back, no jobs would be given to "outsiders". The future for Kansas, a short lived state, looked bleak.
One judge in Dalham Texas allowed every family one tank of gas, and a spare tire, so they could afford to get out of town. Unfortunately, these dustbowl citizens were wanted no where else.
In Dalhart, which was a large city at the time, one child died every ten days during the worst years of the dustbowl. A mix of malnutrition and dust pneumonia plagued the mid-west, and the citizen's of it. Food was in such short supply that families canned Russian Thistle to eat, they and their animals were literally starving to death. The little money the families made came from CCC work, through Franklin Roosevelt. Keeping the roads clean from dust was a full time job, and provided a few hours pay. Some of the dust mounds were well over the top of area homes. Dust seeped in through cracks, and into lungs. It was ordered that each family could only work so many hours a week, so that everyone in town had a chance to earn money.
Franklin Roosevelt was met with much resistance to his Federal Programs for Kansas. People believed those on the Western plains were weak. I might guess those that had such strong opposition to these programs were not watching their children starve to death, or a family member die from the dust pneumonia.
As far as the economy, many other states were no better than Kansas. 200,000 children were vagrant in America, parents turning them out because there was no hope for them at home.
Between the great depression and the dustbowl, families in the mid-west suffered something fierce. Adding onto the dustbowl the explosion of locusts, and the overpopulation of rabbits, made things unbearable, people were packing up and leaving by the day. The Federal Government at one time, wanted to force everyone from the land, and close the dust bowl ravaged mid-western states for good.
People stayed. The government worked to get food production going again. People were innovative, using water from the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate crops and hold down the soil. Kansas eventually rebounded.
I enjoy a good "under-dog" story, especially when times get tough. Our country is facing economic uncertainty, and many are fearful of things to come. The dustbowl was a time when there were no jobs, schools were closed, plague, death, and starvation were immanent. There was no way for a man or woman to support their family. No government safety nets such as unemployment were in place. With all these odds against them, Kansans, and many western plains emerged from the dust, shook off their shirts and skirts to get back to work.
Things are tough now, but our ancestors went through much tougher times. We are a stubborn species, unwilling to give up, even when disaster lurks and plagues our daily lives.
Due to ingenuity of our leaders and the hard work of the American people we pulled out of one of the toughest times in America. Putting things into perspective, we have a lot of work to do to put our country's economy back on track, but things have been worse, and no doubt we will see tough times again.
After reading this book I was surprised about what has not changed in our country; blame put onto the victims of a natural disaster. People living furthest away from the disasters believe they have the best plans and are generally the most vocal about it. They believe nothing of the like will happen to them. I suppose that is one of the luxuries of sitting at home, reading about a disaster in the newspaper, there is time to place blame and to tell others what they are doing wrong. Some people need to rationalize a tragedy to explain to themselves why they would not be effected in the same manner. A coping mechanism of sorts, when in reality all of us are just as vulnerable to the darker things in life.
I do believe that most citizens in America want the same things; we just differ on the way to go about getting them. We all want a stable economy. We want every man and woman to have the opportunity for a job. We want children to have a decent education. We want many of the same things. Unfortunately, we need to work a little harder, and be a bit more respectful to others while we are trying to get it. Whether we like or not, we are a society that depends on each other from the food in our mouths, to the shoes on our feet for our survival. Farmers of the dustbowl, citizens, and politicians worked together to fix our nation. We need to come together again.