The Dust Bowl, directed by Ken Burns

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Re: The Dust Bowl, directed by Ken Burns

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[Donald Worster, Historian] The biggest percentage of people who moved into another state were going to California. There were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people pouring into California. They weren't all poor, and they weren't all from the Great Plains. So there was a river of people flowing into California in the 1930s. You could just see all of these cars pulling out from little side roads along the way joining this brigade going out Route 66, stopping at motels, sleeping under billboards. that's the way my parents essentially went from New Mexico across to Arizona.


They stopped in Needles, California, and didn't get any farther. That was the end of the road for them.

[Narrator] Those who did leave the Dust Bowl for California were joining an even larger exodus of Americans displaced by the Depression and the agricultural crisis that extended far beyond the Southern Plains.

[Timothy Egan, Writer] Now, the folks who left, the diaspora, the Exodusters, they were called -- these refugees were largely from the Eastern fringe of the Dust Bowl. They were from arguably not even the Dust Bowl itself. They were Arkies from Arkansas. They were from Missouri. And they were tenant farmers. When the farm economy collapsed, when the prices collapsed and you couldn't make a living, if you were a tenant farmer, you had nothing, because you didn't even own the dirt. So they left.

[Woody Guthrie] These people didn't have but one thing to do, and that was to just get out in the middle of the road. These people just got up, and they bundled up their little belongings, they throwed in one or two little things they thought they'd need, had heard about the land of California, and according to the handbills they passed out down in that country, you're supposed to have a wonderful chance to succeed in California.

[Woody Guthrie] [Singing]
I'm blowing down this old dusty road
I'm blowing down this old dusty road
I'm blowing down this old dusty road, lord, lord
And I ain't gonna be treated this way

[Narrator] Back in Colorado, with the money from selling his horses in his pockets, Calvin Crabill's father loaded what he could into their sedan and a little two-wheeled trailer, and joined the stream of cars rattling down Highway 66, with his 11-year-old son and asthmatic wife.

[Calvin Crabill, Prowers County, CO] When you came down that grade in San Bernardino, my mother, she was so happy, and you saw the green valley there -- that was a beautiful, beautiful sight. You see the trees. You see the trees. So my mother that day picked an orange, a ripe orange, and ate it, and that was something for her.

[Donald Worster, Historian] The migration out of the Great Plains in the 1930s was one of the biggest folk migrations in American history. It dwarfs the movement along the Oregon trail in the 19th century, the covered wagon era, which we've so idealized and romanticized. But we've forgotten this migration of the 1930s. Nobody celebrates it. There are no California Trail associations. We're ashamed of it, basically, because it was a migration of the defeated.

[Narrator] Out in Oakland, California, Harry Forester, who had left his family in Goodwell, Oklahoma, was now working a variety of jobs, sometimes making a dollar a day and sending as much of it as possible back to his ailing wife and children. Everything he held dear was half a continent away. The separation from his family made him miserable, and then came news from home that added to his woes -- one of his five sons, Slats, had come down with dust pneumonia.

[Louise Forester Briggs, Texas County, OK] My oldest brother god dust pneumonia, was at death's door, and my dad didn't know whether to come home or not because he thought he was gonna die. I imagine he was absolutely the loneliest man on the planet.

[Narrator] Forester decided his family should join him in Oakland as soon as they could.

Back in Goodwell, the Forester children mobilized for the move. They added hoops and tarps and a hand-built box for storing and serving food to a 1928 Chevy truck, converting it into a modern-day covered wagon. But Mrs. Forester's aged and blind mother refused to leave, so Slats, who had recovered, was left behind to care for her. They made their goodbyes, and brother Clois took the wheel with his frail mother in the front seat next to him. Then the other seven Forester children scrambled aboard, and they set off for California.

[Louise Forester Briggs, Daughter, Texas County, OK] It was pretty exciting for me because it was hope ... in a hopeless little heart. We were going to California and have oranges and stuff, you know? And we would have fruit, and we would live happily. And it was just an exciting time. I just couldn't wait to get there.

[Shirley Forester McKenzie, Daughter, Texas County, OK] We sat in different places. We'd move around. The mattresses were rolled up, and stuffed in the truck bed, so we had those soft mattresses to sleep on.

[Louise Forester Briggs, Daughter, Texas County, OK] And my favorite spot seemed to be right over the wheel of the truck. And we had the side tarps rolled up so you could see out. And one thing I remember, I was so glad -- we saw a weeping willow tree, and I'd never seen one.

[William Forester, Son, Texas County, OK] My brother was obsessed with the potential that we might run out of gas, so he stopped at damn near every gas station to top off the tank. It was a little four-banger Chevy, and he drove it at about maximum of 35 miles an hour, and it took a long time.

[Robert Forester, Son, Texas County, OK] He had a goal in mind and that was to get this crew safely through. He was a nervous Nelly anyway, and he had lots of tribulations when he had to take this job -- well, because it was a big job. He's a 21-year-old guy, and he's taking his sick mother and a bunch of kids all the way to California, across that big ol' desert. It was a ... a real worry for him, I know.

[Narrator] They were all anxious about their mother's fragile health, which prompted them to stop a number of times so she could recoup her strength, especially when a dust storm overtook them in New Mexico.

[William Forester, Son, Texas County, OK] And she was worn down by the travails of the previous years, and she was just in bad shape, and she was very feeble all along the way. Instead of camping one night in New Mexico, we used a little of our scarce money to rent a motel so that she could be sleeping out of the dust.

[Narrator] But in Eastern Arizona, despite her condition, she insisted that Clois detour through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, which she had always yearned to see.

[William Forester, Son, Texas County, OK] My mother's health got worse after that. We felt that it was necessary to just stop and not travel so that she could have time being still and resting in a cool, shaded place.

[Narrator] Farther on, they had to descend to the Colorado river on a winding road unlike anything on the Southern Plains.

[Louise Forester Briggs, Daughter, Texas County, OK] But I had a great disappointment when we went and hit the California border down at Needles. [Laughing] You're in the desert, and I felt, oh ..., I just went, "Oh, my God, no," because I was just broken-hearted, because I thought there'd be orange groves right there, you know.

[Narrator] They crossed the Mojave Desert at night, then turned north, up the Central Valley, and finally made it to Oakland, on the moist San Francisco Bay, where Harry Forester had rented a house, and was waiting anxiously for them to arrive.

[Louise Forester Briggs, Daughter, Texas County, OK] And we got into Oakland, and we went to Lake Merritt, and went up Grand Avenue, and turned right on Moraga and went up Moraga Avenue. We're in the hills now, in the Oakland Hills, which are pretty steep for someone like us.

[William Forester, Son, Texas County, OK] When we stopped in the canyon, telephoned that we were coming up the road, we were a mile and a half from the house, we started driving, and dad started hustling, and he raced down to the bottom of the canyon so that he was standing beside the road as we came driving by ten minutes later.

[Louise Forester Briggs, Daughter, Texas County, OK] And my dad met us at the corner of Pine Haven Road and Heather Ridge Way, and he had a house rented on the corner just up the corner a ways. I remember sitting in the back of the truck waiting for my dad to come and greet us while he was greeting mom and my brother and whoever had been riding with them.

[William Forester, Son, Texas County, OK] And he went around to the back, and he took each of the kids in turn, and he gave us a hug, and we laughed, [choking up] and it was great.

[Louise Forester Briggs, Daughter, Texas County, OK] And then he came around back and started lifting us out one at a time and giving us a hug and putting us down. And I looked around, and I thought, "Oh, yes, we have come to Canaan Land."

[Narrator] Then Harry Forester, who had once dreamed of amassing so much land he could bestow each of his sons with one square mile of rolling Oklahoma prairie, showed them all their new home -- a rented house of three rooms, on a hill so steep the buildings needed stilts to be level.

[Robert Forester, Son, Texas County, OK] And there were big pine trees -- oh, 60-, 70-foot, 80-foot tall, big trees, and that was spectacular. It wasn't Oklahoma, you know? [Laughing] Toto, we aren't in Oklahoma anymore. [Laughing]

[Shirley Forester McKenzie, Daughter, Texas County, OK] [Laughing] Especially to a fair-skinned, freckle-faced, red-headed youngster that I was, where that hot wind always just burned me. The mist and the rain was so light often that we kids would go off to school that first year without a hat or a coat or anything, because we just loved the feeling of that moisture on us. We were parched, too.

[Wayne Lewis, Beaver County, OK] There weren't any crops. It was dry, and so we didn't get any crops. One of those years, we put our entire wheat crop in one wagon, which was maybe 50 bushels.

[Clarence Beck, Cimarron County, OK] They were good people. There was nothing about the population that was bad. Everybody was hard-working, trying to make an honest living, and nature just wouldn't let them do it. So there were failures, and there were also people that were awful hard to knock off of the bush. And it ended up, a Depression, the Dust Bowl didn't get them all. It left quite a few. But it left the hardy ones.

[Pauline Durrett Robertson, Potter County, TX] Oh, there were many jokes about the dust, of course. So that we laughed so we wouldn't cry, I guess. One of them was, a rancher, after a big dust storm, walked out to see about his land, and he was trying to find the barbed-wire fence that had been covered with dirt. But he saw the tops of it, and there was the cowboy's hat over there. So he walked over and picked up the cowboy's hat, and underneath was a cowboy. And he said, "Oh, my goodness. Aren't you in trouble there?" He's covered with dust. And he said, "Well, I think I'm gonna be okay, but this horse I'm riding is in a little trouble."

[Narrator] By now, those who remained in the Dust Bowl had found that one way to deal with what was happening to them was to poke fun at it.

[Robert "Boots" McCoy, Texas County, OK] Well, there's an old saying there that one of the old-timers was telling the people that they'd had a chain wrapped around a corner post, and said when that chain got sticking out straight, that was a pretty good wind, but when it went to snapping the links off, it was damn windy. [Laughing] Of course, that wasn't true. That was just a saying. [Laughing]

[Narrator] 1936 would prove to be as dry as 1935, with even more dust storms. In April, an outsider showed up in Boise City. Arthur Rothstein was 21 years old, the son of Jewish immigrants, born and raised in New York City. He was in No Man's Land to take photographs for the federal government's resettlement administration. Rothstein's boss, Roy Stryker, believed that pictures could be a powerful tool to show not only the multitude of problems the nation was facing, but what the government was doing about them. Over the course of seven years, as the Agency became part of the Farm Security Administration, Stryker would launch an unprecedented documentary effort, eventually amassing more than 200,000 images of America in the 1930s, taken by a talented cadre of photographers, including Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Marion Post Walcott, John Vachon, and Dorothea Lange.

[Timothy Egan, Writer] And he sent them out there with a very simple set of instructions -- I want to see their eyes. I want to see their faces. I want to see emotion. I want people to look at these pictures and not see abstraction. I want them to see folks struggling in the land.

[Narrator] Prior to arriving in Oklahoma, Arthur Rothstein's assignment had taken him on a nationwide tour of the Depression. He had documented rural people being dispossessed to create Shenandoah National Park, desperate tenant farmers in Arkansas, hard-luck ranchers in Montana, and slum dwellers in St. Louis. But the most distressing situation he ever encountered, he remembered later, was what he saw driving through the Dust Bowl. "It was like a landscape of the moon," he said, populated by "hard-working people who, through no fault of their own, needed assistance, and the only place they could get that assistance was from the government."

About fourteen miles south of Boise City, he came across Art Coble, digging out a fence post from a sand drift. Rothstein chatted with him and his two young sons, snapped a few pictures, and was getting back into his car when the wind suddenly picked up. Looking back, he saw them bending into the storm, pointed his camera at them, and clicked the shutter. The image that Rothstein captured touched emotional chords with everyone who saw it, becoming the iconic picture of the Dust Bowl, and one of the most widely reproduced photographs of the 20th century.

In addition to hiring photographers, the federal government also underwrote a documentary film, and that summer it premiered at the Mission Theatre in Dalhart, Texas. "The Plow That Broke the Plains," directed by Pare Lorentz, was meant to describe the causes of the Dust Bowl and what Roosevelt's New Deal was trying to do about it.

[Film Narrator] The grasslands -- a treeless, windswept continent of grass ... a country of high winds and sun, high winds and sun.

written and directed by Pare Lorentz

[Transcribed from the movie by Tara Carreon]

PROLOGUE: This is a record of land, of soil, rather than people -- a story of the Great Plains: the 400,000,000 acres of wind-swept grass lands that ...
spread up from the Texas panhandle to Canada. A high, treeless continent, without rivers, without streams. A country of high winds, and sun, and of little rain.
By 1880, we had cleared the Indian, and with him the buffalo, from the Great Plains, and established the last frontier. A half million square miles of natural range.
This is a picturization of what we did with it.






[Narrator] The Grasslands: the treeless, windswept continent of grass ...
stretching from the broad Texas Panhandle, up through the mountain reaches of Montana, to the Canadian border.
A country of high winds and sun, high winds and sun.
Without rivers; without streams; with little rain.

[Music] [Crescendos]

[Narrator] First came the cattle ...
an unfenced range 1,000 miles long, an uncharted ocean of grass ...
the Southern range for winter grazing, and the mountain plateaus for summer.
It was a cattleman's paradise.
Up from the Rio Grande, in from the rolling prairies ...
down clear from the Eastern highlands ...
the cattle roamed into the old Buffalo range. Fortunes in beef. For a decade, the world discovered the grasslands. and poured capital into the Plains. The railroads brought markets to the edge of the Plains.
Land syndicates sprang up overnight, and the cattle rolled into the west.
The railroad brought the world into the Plains. New population, new needs crowded the last frontier.
Once again, the plowman followed the herder ...
and the pioneer came to the Plains.


[Narrator] Make way for the plowman!
The first fence.
Progress came to the Plains.
High winds and sun, high winds and sun. A country without rivers, and with little rain. Settler: plow at your peril!
200 miles from water!
200 miles from town!
But the land is new!
Many were disappointed.
The rains failed, and the sun baked the light soil.
Many left.
They fought the loneliness ...
and the hard years.
The rains failed them.
Many were disappointed.

[Farmer] [Angrily kicks stick across the ground]

[Narrator] But the great day was coming!
A day of new causes! New profits!
New hopes!












[Narrator] Wheat will win the war! Plant wheat!
Plant the cattle feed!


[Narrator] Plant wheat! Wheat for the boys over there!
Wheat for the allies! Wheat for the British! Wheat for the Americans!
Wheat for the French!
Wheat at any price!
Wheat will win the war!









[Narrator] When we reaped the golden harvest, when we really plowed the Plains ....
[inaudible]. We had the manpower. We invented new machinery.
The world was our market.



[30,000 FARMS FOR SALE!!

[Narrator] By 1933, the old grasslands had become the new wheat-lands.
100 million acres ...
200 million acres.
More wheat!

Come to Jonesville and See For Yourself












[Narrator] A country without rivers, without streams, with little rain.
Once again the rains held off, and the sun baked the earth.


[Narrator] This time, no grass held moisture against the winds and the sun.
This time, millions of acres of plowed land lay open to the sun.










[Narrator] Baked out, blown out, and broke!

[Farmer] [Shoveling dust away from house]

[Narrator] Year in, year out ...
uncomplaining, they fought the worst drought in history.
Their stock choked to death on the barren land.
Their homes were nightmares of swirling dust night and day.
Many went to [inaudible]. But many stayed ...
until stock, machinery, homes ...
credit, food ...
and even hope were gone.
On to the west! Once again they headed for the setting sun!
Once again they headed west.
Last year, in every summer month, 50,000 people left the Great Plains ...
and hit the highways for the Pacific coast:
the last border.
Blown out, baked out, and broke.
Nothing to stay for ...
nothing to hope for.
Homeless, penniless, and bewildered ...
they joined the great army of the highway. No place to go, and no place to stop.

[Farmer] [Shakes dirt off his clothes]

[Narrator] Nothing to eat, nothing to do ...
their homes on four wheels ...
their work a desperate gamble for a day's labor in the fields along the highway ...
for the price of a sack of beans, or a tank of gas.
All they ask is a chance to start over, and a chance for their children to eat, to have medical care, to have homes again.
50,000 a month.
The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.


[Narrator] The film placed much of the blame of the Dust Bowl on the arrival of the tractor to the Southern Plains, and described how sturdy farmers who had once slowly turned the soil behind a team of mules, suddenly became a mechanized force arrayed against nature itself.

[Timothy Egan, Writer] The reaction inside the Dust Bowl itself was largely not good. They didn't like seeing their land or themselves as characters on the bad end of a drama.


[Pauline Durrett Robertson, Potter County, TX] Sometimes at the movies, the newsreel showed the Dust Bowl, and that infuriated the local Boosters, because they said, "That's bad publicity. We don't need that bad publicity." The rest of us besides the Boosters thought, "Well, they got that right, and they're really telling it, what's happening to us -- they're really telling it right.

[Narrator] In the summer of 1936, President Roosevelt took a 4,000-miles whistle-stop tour across the midwest and Northern Plains to see for himself the extent of the Nation's agricultural crisis.

[Franklin Roosevelt] My friends, I have been on a journey of husbandry. I talked with families who had lost their wheat crop, lost their corn crop, lost their livestock, lost the water in their well, and come through to the end of the summer without one dollar of cash resources, facing a winter without feed or food, facing a planting season ...

[Narrator] At the same time, Hugh Bennett, the head of the Soil Conservation Service, was on his own fact-finding tour with a committee of experts expected to make a report to FDR on the future of the Great Plains. Bennett's first stop was Dalhart, where Howard Finnell was making headway with the farmers he was trying to convert. Earlier in the year, Finnell had petitioned Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace for $2 million in emergency funds to offer incentives of twenty cents an acre for those who would try his method of contour plowing on their own land. Nearly 40,000 farmers had signed up and gone to work on 5.5 million acres.

[Donald Worster, Historian] The only program that was out there that was effective was this one, and Finnell was the point man to try to make it work among these farmers who had still not admitted that it was their fault, farmers who basically said, "This is all nature's doing. Leave us alone. The rains will come back, and we will be back in business."

[Narrator] Bennett and his Committee moved on with their tour, planning to meet up with the President in North Dakota and give him their findings. The final report estimated that 80% of the Great Plains was in some stage of erosion and pointed to what Bennett called "The Basic Cause" of the problem -- an attempt to impose upon the region a system of agriculture to which the Plains are not adapted." But, it concluded, the Nation "cannot afford to let the farmer fail." His boss was not about to let that happen.

[Franklin Roosevelt] Back East, there have been all kinds of reports that out in the drought area there was despondency, a lack of hope for the future, and a general atmosphere of gloom. But I had a hunch -- and it was the right one -- when I got out here, I'd find that you people had your chins out ...

[Crowd] [Applause]

[Franklin Roosevelt] ... that you are not looking forward to the day when this country would be depopulated, but that you and your children expect to remain here.

[Crowd] [Applause]

[Virginia Frantz, Beaver County, OK] To us, he was a savior. He just ... he gave us hope where we had none. I can remember my dad saying that he normally didn't vote Democrat, but he thought he would that time, and I think he became a staunch Democrat after that.

[Franklin Roosevelt] No cracked earth, no blistering sun, no burning wind are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen, and their wives and children, who have carried on through desperate days.

[Timothy Egan, Writer] Here's a land that God himself seems to have given up on ...

[Franklin Roosevelt] I shall never forget the fields of wheat ...

[Timothy Egan, Writer] ... and the fact that the President still gave it his attention -- so that was a very big deal at a time when they felt so abandoned, and you can't understate the importance of just giving it some attention.

[Franklin Roosevelt] It was their fathers' task to make homes, it is their task to keep these homes, and it is our task to help them win their fight.


[Man] We're continuing with Mr. Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl songs from Texas, Oklahoma, and California.

[Woody Guthrie] As I rambled around over the country and kept looking at all these people, seeing how they lived outside like coyotes, around in the trees and timber and under the bridges and along all the railroad tracks and in their little shack houses that they built out of cardboard and toe sacks and old corrugated iron that they got out of the dumps -- that just struck me to write this song.

[Woody Guthrie] [Singing]
I ain't got no home, I'm just a-roamin' round

[Narrator] During the ten years of the Great Depression, California's population would grow more than 20%. Half of the newcomers came from cities, not farms. One in six were professionals or white-collar workers. Of the 315,000 who arrived from Oklahoma, Texas, and neighboring states, only 16,000 were from the Dust Bowl itself. But regardless of where they actually came from, regardless of their skills and their education and their individual reasons for seeking a new life in a new place, to most Californians -- and to the Nation at large -- they were all the same, and they all had the same name.

[Louise Forester Briggs, Daughter, Texas County, OK] "Okies." And we were made fun of, and, "You talk funny," and, you know, all of that. Or, "Talk some more. You talk funny." and you hated that because it set you apart.

[Donald Worster, Historian] There was a sign in a movie theater in the Central Valley of California which basically said "Niggers and Okies Upstairs." That is, you can't sit down here with real people.

Timothy Egan, Writer] They were horribly mistreated. In some cases, they were treated the way Blacks were treated in the South. There were signs similar to the signs they had in Dalhart, Texas, that said, "Black man, don't let the sun go down on you here." Similarly, there were signs all throughout the Central Valley saying, "Okie, go back. We don't want you."

[Narrator] About a third of all the recent arrivals, many of them former sharecroppers from the cotton belt, ended up in California's agricultural valleys, where farmers had always relied on migrant labor to pick their cotton, vegetables, and fruits. They settled in developments called "Little Oklahomas" and "Okievilles" or moved with the harvests, sometimes traveling 700 to 1,000 miles in the season, staying in squalid roadside camps called "jungles" or simply putting up a tent along the road or in an unused field. And they found themselves at the mercy of the contractors, who conspired with the growers to drive down the field workers' wages.

[Sanora Babb] They have the simple and sturdy values often bemoaned as lost. They are proud, strong people, patient, uncomplaining, intelligent. They want first of all to work, to have a home for their families, to educate their children. These simple rights are part of the heritage of Americans. It is difficult for them to understand that none of them remain. Their whole lives are concentrated now on one instinctive problem -- that of keeping alive.

[Narrator] Sanora Babb, a former reporter who had grown up in the area around No Man's Land, had found a new job with the Farm Security Administration. With her boss, Tom Collins, she went up and down the Central Valley, informing the newly arrived migrants about programs to provide them with food and medical assistance for their families, education for their children, and better living conditions.

[Sanora Babb] Only a few days ago, we met a young man walking along the road to town in search of immediate work and help. His wife had had a baby three days before in an abandoned milk house separated from any camp, where they had taken refuge during the recent storms. He was desperate. Since the birth, his wife, their other children, and he himself had not eaten for three days. If he did not get something for them at once, she and the baby would die.

[Narrator] When the refugees learned Sanora had grown up on the Southern Plains, it helped establish a trust and respect that extended both ways.

The government had also asked the photographer Dorothea Lange to come back to California to document the deplorable conditions among the migrants. Tom Collins and the FSA used her photos to push for creation of a handful of government camps with better shelter and sanitation for the steady stream of refugees who were arriving every day. Collins insisted that the camps be self-governed, with elected committees responsible for everything from sewing clubs and libraries to childcare and cleanliness. But only a lucky few were able to find space there. And while the growers depended on the migrants for cheap labor, the locals, who were themselves suffering from the Depression, didn't appreciate anything that encouraged the newcomers to stay. Nor did the growers once the harvest was over.

[Woody Guthrie] [Singing]
It takes a worried man
To sing a worried song
Takes a worried man
To sing a worried song
I'm worried now ...

[Narrator] Like many of the new arrivals, Woody Guthrie had settled in one of California's cities -- Los Angeles, where he worked washing dishes and singing in bars before finally landing his own show on radio station KFVD. Each day, he performed his own songs, as well as older folk tunes he had learned in Oklahoma and Texas, which reminded many listeners in his growing audience of the homes they had left.

[Woody Guthrie] [Singing]
I asked that judge

[Narrator] But though he was becoming a well-known radio personality, he, too, felt the sting of bigotry aimed at anyone considered an "Okie." He began spending time traveling and performing for free in the Central Valley, where the treatment of the farm workers politicized him, and his music, for the rest of his life.


He sang at picket lines of workers holding out for higher wages, and started a newspaper column, "Woody Sez," in the left-leaning "People's World." "I ain't a Communist necessarily," he said, "but I've been in the red all my life."

[Woody Guthrie] [Singing]
Lots of folks back East, they say
Is leavin' home every day
Beatin' a hot old dusty way
To the California line

[Narrator] Guthrie was offended that the State legislature nearly passed a law closing the State's borders to people it called "Paupers and persons likely to become public charges."

[Woody Guthrie] [Singing]
Now, the police at the Port of Entry say
You're Number 14,000 for today

[Narrator] Then, without any legal authority, the Los Angeles Police Chief dispatched 125 of his officers to the main entry points from Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon. For six weeks, they intimidated anyone they considered "vagrants," including Clarence and Irene Beck's father Sam, from Wheeless, Oklahoma.

[Clarence Beck, Cimarron County, OK] My father was a Dust Bowl okie. He got put in jail when he crossed into California because he didn't have 50 bucks. When he was arrested, he was arrested as a vagrant and would have gone to jail except that one of his ex-neighbors in Oklahoma knew he was coming and was prepared for this and met him, arranged that he could stay with them so he no longer was a vagrant.

[Narrator] For a while, Beck was allowed to stay at a chicken farm, where he worked in exchange for eggs to eat. But he finally landed a job with the Los Angeles Highway Department and started a new life for himself and his daughter.

[Irene Beck Hauer, Cimarron County, OK] It's a fresh start. I guess that's the words to use -- a fresh start, which it was. It really was. So thank God of that. I was blessed that way.

[Narrator] Sam Beck died of a heart attack in 1947, at age 54, spreading blacktop on a California highway.

[Clarence Beck, Cimarron County, OK] He had a tough life. A very tough life. He and his life was the reason that I said, "God, what do I have to do to have money and not be a farmer, and I'll do it. And I don't care whether it's being a pimp. I don't care whether it's stealing. Whatever it takes, I'm not gonna farm, and I'm not going to be broke." And that's been my driving force. It has been. And I'm not a farmer, and I'm not broke. And I'm not a pimp, either, thank God.


[Woody Guthrie] [Singing]
I'm a Dust Bowl refugee

[Narrator] Calvin Crabill's father, John, had rescued his wife and family from the dust of Eastern Colorado, but the hard times followed him to Southern California. He moved from one temporary job to another -- a Colorado cowboy, far from the Plains he loved.

[Calvin Crabill, Prowers County, CO] My father was called an Okie. He was a gentle, quiet man, so I think he could take it pretty well. It made me with a chip on my shoulder that I probably carry to this day, that I was very aware that I thought I was the poorest kid in high school. We rented a little house on the alley in Burbank, and the house in front, the people had more money, and they were very aware that we were the poor people on the block. In those days, you could get something to put on your license plate that would be some kind of a slogan. Well, it said "Peaceful Valley," and so my father liked that place, so he put it on his license plate. And the people at his job crossed out the "V" and wrote "Peaceful Alley" because they knew he lived on an alley. So if you're down, they push you down, fella, they push you down, and that's what happened to him, over and over and over, over and over.

[Sanora Babb] How brave they all are. I have not heard one complaint. They all want work and hate to have help.

[Narrator] As she moved from camp to camp, Sanora Babb kept a nightly journal, which she planned to turn into a novel, about the people she had met and what they had gone through. She also wrote detailed reports for her boss Tom Collins, who was regularly sharing her notes with a writer working on a muck-raking article for the San Francisco News named John Steinbeck.

[Sanora Babb] When Steinbeck first came, he had to stop seeing them before the day was out. Tom Collins said he said, "By God, I can't stand anymore. I'm going away and blow the lid off this place."

[Narrator] Sanora Babb would eventually send some chapters of her novel to Bennett Cerf, a prominent editor of Random House in New York City, who was so impressed he asked her to come East to talk about it. But by the time she arrived, in the winter of 1939, Steinbeck had come out with his own Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which chronicled the tribulations of the Joad family, tenant farmers who had migrated to California, from the cotton fields of Eastern Oklahoma -- not the Dust Bowl. The book was such a hit that the market couldn't support a second novel on the same subject, and her editor advised Sanora to put her manuscript aside. It was finally published in 2004, a year before her death.

Redacted CIA memo mentioning John Steinbeck shown

My discovery of John Steinbeck’s connection to the CIA could be described as payback for a youthful indiscretion—my own, not the author’s. While reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school, I skipped the “turtle” and other chapters that seemed to me superfluous to the plot line of the Joads’ journey west. The punishment for my teenage sin of omission came years later, when it first occurred to me that John Steinbeck was a CIA spy. The insane-sounding proposition grew from incongruities in Steinbeck’s life that—unlike Tom Joads’ turtle—I found I couldn’t ignore.

Steinbeck: Citizen Spy book cover shown with subtitle: The Untold Story of John Steinbeck and the CIA

FOIA to the CIA: What Do You Have on John Steinbeck?

Why was Steinbeck never called before the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities, despite his alleged ties to Communist organizations? Why did the CIA admit to the Church Committee in 1975 that Steinbeck had been a subject of the illegal CIA mail-opening program known as HTLINGUAL? Did Steinbeck’s connections to known CIA front organizations, such as the Congress of Cultural Freedom and the Ford Foundation, amount to more than mere coincidence? Did the synchronicity continue when Steinbeck did freelance writing for the Louisville Courier-Journal and New York Herald Tribune? Both newspapers were linked to MOCKINGBIRD, another CIA operation, in Carl Bernstein’s 1977 Rolling Stone article “The CIA and the Media.” Why did the CIA redact portions of Steinbeck’s FBI files before they were released under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the law that permits full or partial disclosure by government agencies of previously classified documents on request?

There was only one source—the CIA itself—that could definitively answer my questions and confirm or disprove my developing conclusions. I submitted my FOIA request to the CIA in January 2012. With characteristic bureaucratic speed, the CIA responded after eight months, in August 2012, sending me copies of two letters written in 1952. In the first, penned on personal stationery in his own handwriting, Steinbeck offers to work for the CIA. In the second, then-CIA Director Walter Bedell Smith accepts Steinbeck’s offer. The text of these letters and others can be found in my book, Steinbeck: Citizen Spy, at my website or in the FOIA Electronic Reading Room.

The CIA Director Accepts the Author’s Offer of Help

Jan 28, 1952

Dear General Smith:

Toward the end of February I am going to the Mediterranean area and afterwards to all of the countries of Europe not out of bounds. I am commissioned by Collier’s Magazine to do a series of articles—subjects and areas to be chosen by myself. I shall move slowly going only where interest draws. The trip will take six to eight months.

If during this period I can be of any service whatever to yourself or to the Agency you direct, I shall be only too glad.

I saw Herbert Bayard Swope recently and he told me that your health had improved. I hope this is so.

Also I wear the “Lou for 52” button concealed under the lapel as that shy candidate suggests.

Again—I shall be pleased to be of service. The pace and method of my junket together with my intention of talking with great numbers of people of all classes may offer peculiar advantages.

Yours sincerely,

John Steinbeck


ER 2-5603
6 February 1952
Mr. John Steinbeck
206 East 72nd Street
New York 21, New York

Dear Mr. Steinbeck:

I greatly appreciate the offer of assistance made in your note of January 28th.

You can, indeed, be of help to us by keeping your eyes and ears open on any political developments in the areas through which you travel, and, in addition, on any other matters which seem to you of significance, particularly those which might be overlooked in routine reports.

It would be helpful, too, if you could come down to Washington for a talk with us before you leave. We might then discuss any special matters on which you may feel that you can assist us.

Since I am certain that you will have some very interesting things to say, I trust, also, that you will be able to reserve some time for us on your return.

Walter B. Smith

Rewritten: LEBecker:mlk
Orig – Addressee
2 – DCI (Reading Official) [“w/Basic” has been handwritten beside this line and scratched out]
1 – DD/P [a check mark and w/Basic handwritten in]
1 – Admin [This has been scratched out] handwritten is “w/Basic”


Did Steinbeck’s CIA Connection Start in Russia?

Reread A Russian Journal with the possibility that Steinbeck was working for the CIA prior to 1952 in mind. When Steinbeck traveled to the USSR with Robert Capa in 1947—the second of three trips the author made to the Communist state during his lifetime—Walter Bedell Smith happened to be the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Steinbeck notes in his account of his and Capa’s Russian journey that they dined with Smith during their stay.

This experience helps explain the personal tone of familiarity expressed in Steinbeck’s 1952 letter to Smith offering to help the CIA. It also suggests the possibility that Steinbeck used his access while in the USSR to gather intelligence for the U.S. government from the Russian interior. While visiting a factory in Stalingrad, Steinbeck observes that the Russians are still melting down hulls from German tanks to make tractors fully two years after the end of World War II, lamenting his frustration at not being able to get current production figures for the facility. Such information would have been particularly important to the U.S. government in 1947, as the Cold War became hotter and American travel behind the Iron Curtain more difficult.

The 1952 exchange between the author of The Grapes of Wrath and the Director of the CIA provides a new set of parameters for understanding John Steinbeck’s life. In my book I carefully examine each of the letters resulting from my FOIA request to the CIA, the writer’s heavily CIA-redacted FBI files, Thomas Steinbeck’s thoughts on the matter, and likely avenues through which the elder Steinbeck could have served his government covertly both before and after 1952. Viewing the author’s life in terms of possible links to the CIA opens vistas for better comprehending certain works, such as The Short Reign of Pippin IV, that his literary agent, editor, and others discouraged him from writing.

The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication is a novel by John Steinbeck published in 1957; his only political satire, the book pokes fun at French politics.

Plot summary

Pippin IV explores the life of Pippin Héristal, an amateur astronomer suddenly proclaimed the king of France. Unknowingly appointed for the sole reason of giving the Communists a monarchy to revolt against, Pippin is chosen because he was rumored to descend from the famous king Charlemagne. Unhappy with his lack of privacy, alteration of family life, uncomfortable housings at the Palace of Versailles and mostly, his lack of a telescope, the protagonist spends a portion of the novel dressing up as a commoner, often riding a motorscooter, to avoid the constrained life of a king. Pippin eventually receives his wish of dethronement after the people of France enact the rebellion Pippin's kingship was destined to receive.

-- The Short Reign of Pippin IV, by Wikipedia

In recommending my book to a Steinbeck blogger, a noted Steinbeck scholar described the possible CIA-Steinbeck connection detailed in Steinbeck: Citizen Spy as “a potential game-changer.”

Time will tell.


bill steigerwald says:

October 4, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Great work. Steinbeck’s connection with the CIA makes a lot of sense. He was, despite his leftist reputation, very anti-communist and patriotic. I’m sure he wasn’t shooting microfilm of those great old Soviet tractor factories or doing any recruiting, but when he went into the USSR and behind the Iron Curtain he didn’t play along with his host’s propaganda machine. He didn’t trash America’s foreign policy from Moscow like some other celebrity dupes/useful idiots. And he made a point to seek out and encourage dissident writers in Eastern Europe. Then there was Steinbeck’s hawkish support of the war in Vietnam and his sleepovers at the LBJ White House, which make his lefty-liberal supporters squirm and search for proof that he turned into a dove on his deathbed. Steinbeck was always a New Deal Stevenson Democrat/Cold War liberal and never as left-wing as his progressive friends wished and conservative enemies charged. But apparently he didn’t just suck up to political power, he offered to do freelance spy work for it.


William Ray says:

October 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Another comparison could be made as context for your point: Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the left social/right defense U.S. Senator from the State of Washington. Thank you for reminding readers that both foreign-interventionist Presidents between Teddy Roosevelt and LBJ were Democrats, Woodrow Wilson and FDR, and that the isolationists who opposed American entry into European wars were Republicans, such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge from Massachusetts. History can be quite as surprising as the future when actually studied.


Martin Maloney says:

October 17, 2013 at 5:30 am

I was active in the movement against the war in Vietnam. John Steinbeck appeared before a congressional committee and testified in favor of that war. As I recall, he had a son in military service in Vietnam.

It seemed incongruous to me at the time that someone who had written “The Grapes of Wrath” could support the Vietnam war.

After reading this article, it makes perfect sense.


William Ray says:

October 17, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Thank you, Martin. Look for my blog post about Brian Kennard’s book on Steinbeck and the CIA later today. You’re right. Both of John Steinbeck’s sons served in Vietnam. Kennard treats this phase of the author’s public politics candidly and compellingly in the book, which I highly recommend.

-- Did John Steinbeck Work as A Citizen Spy for the CIA?, by Brian Kannard

Indeed, over the years, the CIA had been engaged in the business of trying to suppress books rather than encouraging them. In 1964, for example, John A. Bross, then the CIA's comptroller, got the bound galley proofs of David Wise and Thomas B. Ross's book The Invisible Government. The book was an expose of the CIA, FBI, and other agencies that had engaged in illegal activities. Bross obtained the galleys through a friend of a family member who was then working for Random House. With the authorization of John McCone, then DCI, the CIA asked Bennett Cerf, president of Random House, if the agency could buy up the first printing.

Cerf responded that he would be delighted to sell the first printing to the CIA, but then immediately added that he would then order another printing for the public, and another, and another," according to Wise's subsequent book, The American Police State. The agency dropped the idea.

While the CIA would have liked to have brought legal action against the authors, they were journalists, not former employees. The CIA has gone to court only to enforce contracts signed by CIA employees when they enter and leave employment.

-- Inside the CIA, by Ronald Kessler

According to Wise, CIA officials considered buying up all the copies, but abandoned the idea when Random House chief Bennett Cerf pointed out that he could print a second edition. Instead, McCone formed a "special group" inside the Agency to sabotage the book. Its number 1 weapon: bad reviews written by CIA agents under code names and passed to cooperative journalists and publishers; among the fake reviewers was E. Howard Hunt, later of Watergate burglary fame.

Following that, in 1965, the New York Times decided to launch its own investigation of the CIA, triggered by a slip of the tongue by Congressman Wright Patman (D-Tex.) the previous year. As chair of the House Banking Committee, Patman had convened hearings to explore whether foundations were being used as tax dodges. The congressman inadvertently identified the J.M. Kaplan Fund as a CIA conduit, and named eight (phony) foundations that passed funds through it. CIA officials rushed to Patman's office. The following day, Patman announced that the CIA had nothing to do with his hearings and declared the matter ended.

But the episode caused the Times' managing editor, Turner Catledge, to pay more attention to CIA activity. On September 2, 1965, Catledge noticed an odd story coming out of Singapore. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew publicly revealed that five years earlier the CIA had offered him a $3.3 million bribe for the release of two CIA agents who had been arrested. Yew had demanded $35 million, but ended up taking nothing in return for their release. Details of the story were truly bizarre, but the prime minister had produced as evidence a letter of apology from Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Times journalist Harrison Salisbury remembers Catledge thundering, "For God's sake let's find out what they are doing. They are endangering all of us." The Times Washington Bureau chief Tom Wicker, drafted a survey to send to the newspaper's worldwide network of journalists asking what they knew about the CIA. What were their experiences with the agency?

James Jesus Angleton, the CIA counterintelligence chief whose job was to look for Soviet moles, had a copy of the survey before the ink was dry. The legendary Angleton had grown steadily paranoid after decades of professionally suspecting everyone of pro-Moscow sympathies. According to Salisbury, Angleton regarded the journalistic survey as a KGB instrument; the very phrasing of the questions "betrayed the hand of Soviet operatives." While Angleton's reaction might have seemed extreme, the response to the Times survey at CIA stations around the world was similar.

CIA media liaison Colonel Stanley Grogan sent a memo to McCone, "NEW YORK TIMES Threat to Safety of the Nation," in which he suggested using the CIA's "heaviest weapons," including White House pressure, to combat the Times. Salisbury, who saw the memo, described it as a scream from outer space. "Any questions, any attempt to probe what the CIA was doing, how it operated, what its intentions might be, was seen as hostile, dangerous and frightening, capable of destroying the agency."

In late April 1966, in the midst of the CIA furor over the two Ramparts articles, the Times published the fruits of its investigation in a series of five articles. While listing some of the CIA accomplishments, the articles depicted the Agency as without oversight; seemingly the government had no control over its increasingly questionable behavior. Richard Helms, then Raborn's deputy, moved quickly to contain the damage, successfully killing a planned book based on the articles. Most of all, Salisbury noted in his memoir, the CIA feared a permanent record, available and accessible to all. He and Wicker thought that the CIA response was hysterical in the extreme, but they could not persuade the higher-ups to publish the book.

-- Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA's Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, by Karen M. Paget

[Sanora Babb] You, who live in any kind of comfort or convenience, do not know how these people can survive these things, do you? They will endure because there is no immediate escape from endurance. Some will die. The rest must live.
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Re: The Dust Bowl, directed by Ken Burns

Postby admin » Wed Nov 04, 2015 7:10 am


[Caroline Henderson] The worst storm thus far in 1937 occurred immediately after a slight snowfall, which again roused delusive hopes. That snow melted on a Tuesday. Wednesday morning, with a rising wind, the dust began to move again, and until late Friday night, there was little respite. We are now reluctantly feeding our livestock the last small remainder of the crop of 1931.

[Narrator] In most of the nation, the drought had ended, but for Caroline Henderson and her neighbors who had stayed in the heart of the Dust Bowl, 1937 would prove to be the worst year yet. Guymon, Oklahoma, just thirty miles Southeast of her homestead, was engulfed by six bad dust storms that January, fourteen in February, and then thirteen more in March, including one that closed the schools in nearby Boise City and tore roofs off of buildings 100 miles away in Dodge City, Kansas. On the afternoon of May 21, a local photographer named Francis Craver noticed a dust cloud appearing over the Doric Theatre in downtown Elkhart, Kansas. He grabbed his camera and chronicled the storm's descent, which caused the high school to cancel commencement ceremonies planned for that evening. Two weeks later, fifty miles East of the Hendersons, in Hooker, Oklahoma, a furniture salesman named George Risen saw another wall of dirt approaching. He scrambled to the top of the tallest building in town and began taking pictures with his Brownie camera. As it passed, the storm dropped three feet of dust on Hooker and the surrounding countryside.

DUST STORM NEAR RECORD PROPORTIONS. LITTLE PROSPECT REMAINS FOR PRODUCTION OF WHEAT IN COUNTY. Sunday's dust storm, whipped by a near 40-mile gale, is credited by many as having been the worst yet experienced here from the standpoint of duration and density for an all-day period. Visibility was cut to zero many times during the day. According to reports from several sections of the county, the remaining wheat was badly damaged but was not entirely annihilated as was supposed by those witnessing the lashing sand throughout the day.

By the end of July, the number of destructive storms would rise to 79; by the end of the year, to 110. The only difference between the Southern Plains and the Sahara Desert, one resident suggested, was that a lot of "damned fools" weren't trying to farm the Sahara.

[Dorothy Williamson, Prowers County, CO] If you were a farmer, you plowed the ground, and you put seed in it, and it grew up. That was farming. You didn't expect this dirt that was giving you this food to turn on you like that and destroy you like it did.

[Robert "Boots" McCoy, Texas County, OK] Those people that was real religious said that God was trying to drive us off of the land. I never did believe that, or dad never did believe it, and we believed whatever dad believed, you know, as kids. Dad said they'll just be times that they'll be bad and times that they won't.

[Virginia Frantz, Beaver County, OK] Both of my parents were very, very good Christian. No matter what came along, they seemed to accept it. They both just seemed like they were just going on doing the best they could, and they didn't do a whole lot of griping about it.

[Narrator] Around the house, Virginia Frantz's mother often sang hymns to take her children's minds off the troubles staring them in the face.

[Virginia Frantz, Beaver County, OK]
[Singing] I'm pressing on the upward way
New heights I'm gaining every day
Still praying as I onward bound
My prayer, my aim, is higher ground

And then it was

[Singing] Oh, lift me up and let me stand
By faith, on heaven's table land
A higher faith than I have found
Oh, lift me up on higher ground

[Laughing] It's been probably sixty years since I've heard that song. [Laughing]

[Floyd Coen, Morton County, KS] I remember we had the radio, and he's listening to it, talking about a flood on the Ohio River, and houses floating down and people on them houses. And my dad turned to us and said, "We've got it better here than they have up there." And that was in '37. So he thought that the dirt was better than that water.

[Narrator] In April of 1937, farmers from five states met in Guymon, Oklahoma. "The problem in the Dust Bowl is entirely too large for the remaining good farmers to even make a start to cope with," they wrote the government. "We must have help, and it's imperative we have help now."

[Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Historian] I think it has to be pretty extreme for a group of farmers, very independent-minded, very stubborn, a group that on the whole doesn't like to be meddled with, to say, "Please come and meddle with us." But at this point, they're into their sixth year of no income, their fifth year of no crops, and they're seeing neighbors' fields blowing into their own, they're seeing enormous clouds of dirt in the air, and they don't know what else to do. And when you don't know what else to do and you're afraid of losing your farm, then you begin to ask for rather more extreme measures than you would have asked for otherwise.

[Donald Worster, Historian] If one man mishandled his land, everybody suffered under these conditions. All it took was one 1,000-acre farm blowing dirt badly to disrupt the lives of everybody around him. And if that farm operator actually happened to be living in Amarillo or Denver, and only came out on weekends anyway, who did you talk to? There was no authority to stop this sort of process.


[Narrator] The farmers wanted every landowner to be required to leave stubble on harvested fields, and they wanted some way to have abandoned acres planted with cover crops. To do it, they even suggested that martial law be declared.


[Timothy Egan, Writer] They wanted the ability to condemn other people's property if they weren't keeping it up. This was hugely antithetical to how most of these people thought. In some counties, they were granted authority to go out and condemn someone, to slap them in jail if need be, if he was letting his land blow again. Very authoritarian measure for folks who considered themselves highly individualistic.

[Donald Worster, Historian] When your back is against the wall, all ideology goes out the window. So here is a group of people who are very anti-state, anti-government, who never wanted the government interfering with anything they did or telling them what to do, but who, when the chips are down, are going to ask for the only help they can get, and that's from the federal government.

NO PAYMENTS UNLESS LAND TILLED RIGHT. Eighty-five percent of land must be worked to entitle operator to participate in program; will pay for weed growth. New rulings issued this week by the AAA require that 85 percent of crop land must be farmed before a person ...

Eventually, soil conservation districts were established meant to enforce better farming practices through consensus. At the same time, the government was buying back as much land as it could from dusted-out homesteaders and slowly returning it to permanent grassland. Farmers now got help to buy gasoline for their tractors if they were doing soil-erosion work. And in some cases, they even received payments not to grow cash crops at all.

[Donald Worster, Historian] "We have got to begin to induce people to plant less." How do you do that? You can't just take their land away from them. So the idea was to pay them not to produce. So the idea was to pay them not to produce. For the people in the Great Plains, this was a salvation. They could keep their land, they didn't have to go out every Fall and plant wheat again, the government would send them a check, and year after year, this could go on, and until better times emerged.

[R. Douglas Hurt, Historian] Nobody knew whether any of this would really work or how long it would take. Might be 50 years, might be 70 years; nobody knew. It's a time period in which the federal government entered agriculture as never before, and it's never left.

[Narrator] Meanwhile, near Dalhart, dunes that had once towered 36 feet above one of Howard Finnell's employee's cars, had been tamed in 18 months of painstaking restoration work. The contrast between contoured fields that captured the rain, and those farmed the old way was striking. With such tangible results, more and more farmers decided to take Finnell's advice. By the end of 1937, despite the persistent dust storms, the amount of dangerously eroded land had been reduced by more than half.

In 1938, the rainfall edged upward -- more than 18 inches in Boise City -- and although the number of dust storms receded only slightly, some farmers in No Man's Land brought in a wheat crop of ten bushels per acre -- nothing close to a bumper crop, but almost bountiful compared to previous years. The drought seemed to be losing its grip.

[Timothy Egan, Writer] When the worst was arguably over, when they had seen the back-hand of nature, when they'd seen more venom and anger and outright evil, as they called it, that the sky had thrown at them, that any human beings could ever take, and they thought it was over, came one more almost biblical plague.

[Robert "Boots" McCoy, Texas County, OK] Grasshoppers mostly were crawling, but, you know, you scare them, they'd jump and fly. But most of them were just crawling, just like a whole sea of them. Just, they ate everything in sight.

[Pauline Robertson, Union County, NM] It almost looked like the ground was moving, and they would get that big, and they would eat on the bark of the trees, and they ate everything that they could come in contact with.

[Sam Arguello, Union County, NM] And they kept on going. From here, they left on, and what I understand, somewheres in Oklahoma, they grew wings, and they all took flight, and they said they shaded the sun because they were all together.

[Narrator] Farmers hooked up sleds to their tractors and dragged them across the fields, trapping grasshoppers in vats of kerosene. Some tried crushing them under rollers. Several states called out their National Guards to spread poison, mixed with sawdust and molasses and banana oil, along the roadsides.


[Timothy Egan, Writer] How much more out of sync could nature be when they're now pouring strychnine on what had been the greatest grassland to kill grasshoppers who are chewing on fence posts because there's nothing else left to live? That that itself, by the time they were pouring poison on the land that had been killed by them, I think they had gone so far down the road in altering this great grassland that it was almost beyond repair.

AMARILLO DAILY NEWS. PLAINS TO WHOOP 'N HOLLER FOR FDR TODAY. BIGGEST BAND IS CHOMPIN' AT BITS; CHIEF EXECUTIVE DUE TO ARRIVE AT 6:45, BY FRED POST. Highest honors as a host come to Amarillo today when the Southwest swarms into the city to give President Roosevelt a rousing reception. When the Presidential train, due at 6:45 o'clock this evening from Fort Worth, rolls into Amarillo it will be the first time in history a nation's chief has accepted an invitation to the Panhandle-Plains. The invitation was extended months ago by Congressman Marvin Jones.

[Pauline Durrett Robertson, Potter County, TX] All the Democrats were excited. There were people in Amarillo who did not like Roosevelt. And they were usually the wealthy people. I know one of them was -- one of the rich men I heard say, "This socialistic regime is not American. It's anti-American." Those of us who were, you know, poor, appreciated the programs that Roosevelt started.

[Narrator] On July 11, 1938, a train bearing the President of the United States pulled into the station at Amarillo, Texas, the largest city in the Dust Bowl. In honor of the President's visit, organizers had assembled what they claimed to be the world's largest marching band: 3,000 people -- anyone, they said, between the ages of nine and ninety who could play "The Eyes of Texas" on any instrument. An estimated crowd of 200,000 -- four times the population of the city itself -- turned out, lining the three-mile route of Roosevelt's motorcade to Ellwood Park. "People who are ignorant and people who think only in terms of the moment," the President said, "scoff at our efforts and say, 'Oh, let the next generation take care of itself. If people out in the dry parts of the country cannot live there, let them move out.'"

[Timothy Egan, Writer] And then the most amazing thing happens. Remember, the drought has been going on for eight years. It starts to rain. These clouds come out of nowhere. It's a July day. It's peak hot season. Clouds bunch, and it rains. And it's an old-fashioned gully-washer. And the rain comes off of Roosevelt, and he continues. He's got his clamped knees up there, and he continues to give his speech. "I'm never gonna desert you."

Charles Hatfield (on the ladder) and his younger brother with one of their rain towers, in Coalinga, Calif. The pair built a similar 20-foot tower in the woods east of San Diego and began what one city official would later call “an incantation aimed at wringing moisture from the air.” What followed was a destructive downpour.

In 1915 San Diego hired 'moisture accelerator' Charles Hatfield, who claimed to have a formula to produce rain.

As California is finding out, drought can make people — and their governments — do things that might otherwise be unthinkable.

Take the San Diego of 1915.

With their small city beset by drought, civic leaders hired "moisture accelerator" Charles Hatfield, who claimed to have a secret formula of chemicals to produce rain.

"It was a disaster," said Rick Crawford, supervisor of special collections at San Diego's central library.

For $10,000, Hatfield promised to produce enough rain to fill the city's depleted reservoirs. The otherwise fiscally conservative City Council agreed — although one councilman called the idea "foolishness."

Charles Hatfield scans the skies for signs of rain. The debate continues over whether he was a fraud or a man who had discovered an early forerunner to modern cloud-seeding. (Gordon Wallace / Los Angeles Times)


San Diego "rainmaker" case: An article in the June 1 California section about San Diego's hiring in 1915 of "rainmaker" Charles Hatfield was accompanied by a historic photo of Hatfield on the ladder of a 20-foot tower, which was identified as one he had built east of San Diego. He did build such a tower for San Diego, aimed at "wringing moisture from the air"; however, the photo was of another tower, in Coalinga, Calif., in 1924.


Hatfield and his younger brother built a 20-foot tower in the deep woods east of the city and began what one city official would later call "an incantation aimed at wringing moisture from the air." Smoke drifted skyward.

What followed in January and early February of 1916 was a downpour — 30 inches of rain by some estimates.

Mission Valley flooded. The San Diego River jumped its banks. Farms, homes, bridges and businesses were swept away. Little Landers, a farming commune, was destroyed. Two dams were damaged and a third failed. Estimates of the deaths range from a dozen to 50.

Hatfield, who had done other rainmaking chores, decided to flee.

"Fearful of being lynched by angry farmers, Hatfield 'got out of Dodge,' as the saying goes, leaving town during the night," wrote Dan Walker in his "Thirst for Independence: The San Diego Water Story," published in 2004. "He never received his $10,000."

When the waters receded, Hatfield returned and filed a lawsuit. Litigation dragged on for years, not settled until the San Diego County Superior Court rejected it in 1938.

From the "Hatfield Flood" came a legend that has endured for decades, inspiring books, historical reviews, at least two country-western songs and, very loosely, the 1956 movie "The Rainmaker" starring Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn.

The debate continues over whether Hatfield was a fraud or a man who had discovered an early forerunner to modern cloud-seeding.

With San Diego again gripped by drought, the Hatfield saga is getting renewed notice: a display curated by Crawford in the special collections section of the downtown library and a short docu-drama on the Travel Channel.

Then, as now, San Diego was deeply concerned that its meager amount of native water will not sustain its population. By the late 19th century, San Diego officials were determined to capture as much rain runoff as possible. "We were building more dams than anybody in the world," Crawford said.

A business organization called the San Diego Wide Awake Improvement Club demanded that the City Council do more to keep San Diego from withering with thirst.

When drought left the reservoirs at a low ebb, the council was ready to take a chance, even if it meant spending lots of money. The means have changed but not the motive; as Walker's book suggests, the quest for water "independence" never ends in San Diego.

Modern-day officials have bet on an expensive deal for water from the Imperial Valley and a $1-billion desalination plant being built in Carlsbad.

In 1915, officials were taken with an impeccably dressed, politely earnest transplant from Kansas, the son of a devout Quaker family.

Charles Hatfield spoke in scientific terms and promised to work for free unless he could fill the Morena reservoir. He talked of having successfully using his rainmaking technique in Alaska, Los Angeles County, the San Joaquin Valley, Texas and Hemet. He had studied the works of other rainmakers, including the so-called Australian Wizard, and was familiar with the popular book "Elementary Meteorology."

At first, San Diego rejoiced at the rain: "Rainmaker Hatfield Induces Clouds To Open," read one headline.

Then concern set in, followed by distress and then horror as the water roared westward, unstoppable. The San Diego River, usually a few dozen yards wide, was calculated to be a mile in width.

"It seemed the rains would never end and the damage would never stop mounting," historian Thomas Patterson wrote in a 1970 article for the San Diego History Center. "Great trees tumbled root over branch. Sticks of lumber, railroad ties and parts of houses floated crazily."

Just what Hatfield did at his tower near Lake Morena is unclear.

Some accounts indicate he set the chemicals on fire and let the smoke drift upward.

Shelley Higgins, who later served as a Superior Court judge, wrote in his book "The Fantastic City of San Diego" that he went by the tower and saw Hatfield "shooting bombs" into the air.

The controversy and litigation did not hurt Hatfield's career. Offers to make rain came from farmers and others throughout the Midwest and Texas.

The library exhibit includes a letter in 1920 from a New York-based sugar company begging Hatfield to come to Cuba. In 1929 he answered a plea from officials in Honduras to produce rain to douse a forest fire.

The Depression ended Hatfield's rainmaking career; Dust Bowl farmers could not afford his services. He went back to his original trade: selling sewing machines.

Hatfield died in 1958 at age 82 and was buried in Glendale — never having revealed his chemical formula.

-- With San Diego again drought-ridden, 1915 'Rainmaker' saga is revisited, by Tony Perry

[Narrator] "I think this little shower we have had, the President beamed, "is a mighty good omen."

AMARILLO DAILY NEWS. PANHANDLE STAGES RAINSTORM FOR ROOSEVELT. PLAINSMEN THRILL WHEN "CHIEF" PAID TRIBUTE BY DRENCHED THRONG. BY LEWIS [ILLEGIBLE] The President talked of a possible wager he could have was and then turned prophet at Ellwood Park last evening. He said the rain that pelted his face as he talked to a multitude on his first visit to the edge of the "dust bowl" was "a good omen." He used the theme of the weather to cast his few political seeds, but he was surprised at the greeting of dripping clouds in Amarillo. "If I had talked to the newspapermen on the train today, they would have given me a hundred to one odds it wouldn't rain in Amarillo," he said, "but it is raining." Flashing the famous Roosevelt smile after he got off the Fort Worth and ...

[Pauline Durrett Robertson, Potter County, TX] And we had been wishing for rain, praying for rain, and it rained the day he came. It rained. And so he took credit for that.

With the Kennedy brothers, it was no longer purely a matter of national security. It was personal. Castro had not only survived the Bay of Pigs but been emboldened by it, openly mocking the United States' effete and quixotic attempts to bring him down. A smoldering President Kennedy demanded action. Sam Halpern, a veteran Agency officer, recalls Richard Bissell summoning him into his office. "He told us he had been chewed out in the cabinet room of the White House by the president and attorney general for sitting on his ass and not doing anything about Castro and the Castro regime." Bissell related the president's order: "Get rid of Castro."

Halpern wanted clarification. "What do the words 'get rid of' mean?" he asked Bissell.

"Use your imagination," Bissell responded. "No holds barred."

In the year ahead the Agency did indeed use its imagination. There was even a short-lived plan to convince the Cuban people of Christ's Second Coming, complete with aerial starbursts. "Elimination by illumination," the scheme was dubbed by one senior officer.

-- The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives, by Ted Gup

[Narrator] A snowstorm in early 1939 brought more hope, which grew when the Soil Conservation Service announced that, thanks to better farming practices, the soil was in its best condition in seven years. By the end of the year, the Dust Bowl had shrunk to one-fifth its previous size.

[Pauline Robertson, Union County, NM] I don't know how many weeks we'd get a little rain and a little rain. And the thing I remember, that when it first started, the sunflowers started growing. They were in our pasture that was close to the house. When we went to get our milk cows in, which we did on horseback -- you had to hunt them because you couldn't see them -- and the sunflowers would be up above our head.

[Narrator] In Follett, Texas, Trixie Travis Brown's father had been trying for years to persuade his wife to pull up stakes and move to Idaho.

[Trixie Travis Brown, Lipscomb County, TX] My mother was very reluctant because all of her family -- you know, we had probably 50 people of the 437 in Follett were all relatives. She just was not willing to say yes. My father, he even had the land picked out in Idaho. He had the map out. And mother just kept holding out.

[Narrator] Then, slowly, things began improving.

[Trixie Travis Brown, Lipscomb County, TX] We began to go out on a regular basis. Mother and dad liked to take drives anyway. Mother got so worn out with all the kids in the house that she would say, "George let's take a drive out to look at the wheat." We would go out and stand and see how high it was to us children. We'd stand there, and they'd sort of measure the height of the wheat. And then when it began to really develop, it was obvious it was going to be a really good wheat crop. And it was. The map went into a drawer, and the trip to Idaho was cancelled.

MOISTURE IS ON INCREASE. The month of March has thus far brought a genuine surprise to Cimarron county inasmuch as a total of .77 of an inch of moisture has been received in the form of snow since the first. The storm of last Friday and ...

[Lorene White, Stanton County, KS] No one will every know what it meant to you to have it rain. And even to this day, we had rain the other day, and I thought when it was raining how nice this was, how what a good rain. And that's what we prayed, what we yearned for, was the rain that came that would soak into the ground and let us raise a crop and eventually stop the dust.

[Floyd Coen, Morton County, KS] Well, when it did start raining, it was just such a blessing. We'd go out in the rain and hold our hands up, and let that hit our hands and our face, and then just almost worshipped that rain because we knew then that we was gonna have some crops.

[Imogene Glover, Texas County, OK] It just seemed happier everywhere you went -- everybody, not just my folks. When we'd go to the neighbors either side, the Thrashers or the Freemans, we always felt like things are getting better. I remember the first year that we probably had a good crop after the Dirty Thirties, we got stuck in the field, and daddy didn't even gripe about it, [laughing] he was so glad that we were having rain.

[Narrator] At his farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle, Dorothy Kleffman's father decided it was now safe to bring his wife and children back from Arkansas.

[Dorothy Kleffman, Texas County, OK] They have a saying here that if you wear out a pair of boots here in the Panhandle, you'll come back, and when we did come back, the land had been recovered. They had learned how to terrace the land. And I remember my dad had a wheat crop, I think in 1940, that was a good wheat crop. And we thought, we're back. We survived.
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Re: The Dust Bowl, directed by Ken Burns

Postby admin » Wed Nov 04, 2015 7:50 am


[Caroline Henderson] December 13, 1944. We had for once a super-abundance of rain and already three snows. Wheat was a fair crop. We saved most of it between rains. We have ample pasturage with the increased rainfall, and cattle have done reasonably well. And we had a nice garden with most of our winter's living stored away.

[Narrator] Just as it had thirty years earlier, a war in Europe and the return of a relatively wet weather cycle brought prosperity to the Southern Plains. Wheat prices skyrocketed, and harvests were bountiful.

[Caroline Henderson] May 1945. We have at last assembled most of the materials for piping water into the house, with a sink in the kitchen and indoor toilet in the bathroom. But we need a superman to do the work. We have both worn down fast during the years of extreme desolation since 1931. Every small accomplishment now seems to demand a greater output of energy and resolution than in the years that are gone.

[Narrator] Caroline Henderson was grateful for better weather and higher prices, but she and her husband Will were now nearing 70. She suffered from asthma, he had a heart condition, and neither of them could forget the stern teachings of the Dust Bowl.

[Caroline Henderson] It is good to remember that the laws of the universe recognize no favorites and cherish no hostility or small vindictiveness; that before sun and rain, stormy winds, or summer's kind beneficence, we all stand upon one common level.

[Narrator] In the first five years of the 1940s, land devoted to wheat expanded by nearly three million acres. The speculators and suitcase farmers returned. Parcels that had sold for $5.00 an acre during the Dust Bowl now commanded prices of 50, 60, sometimes 100 dollars an acre. Even some of the most marginal lands were put back into production. "The same process," Howard Finnell warned, "is starting again in the very same place. "I always said I was the only one who could remember those dreadful days," Caroline confided to a friend, adding, "People have simply assumed it couldn't happen again." Then, in the early 1950s, when the wet cycle ended and a two-year drought replaced it, the dust storms picked up once more. But the damage to the land was mitigated by those farmers who had continued using Howard Finnell's conservation practices, and because nearly four million acres had been purchased by the government during the Dust Bowl and permanently restored as national grasslands, the soil didn't blow as much. At least a few lessons had been learned.

[Wayne Lewis, Beaver County, OK] We want it now, and if it makes money now, it's a good idea. But it isn't necessarily it's a good idea. If the things we're doing are going to mess up the future, it wasn't a good idea. Don't deal on the moment. Take the long-term look at things.

[Timothy Egan, Writer] I think that the most basic lesson was, be humble. Respect the land itself. Listen to what it's trying to tell you. If the wind blows 60, 70 miles an hour for 50% of the year, there's a reason why only one thing is growing there, and it's native grass. Don't try to put things in place there that don't belong there. Listen to the land itself.

[Narrator] But now, instead of looking to the skies for rain, many farmers began looking beneath the soil, where they believed a more reliable -- and irresistible -- supply of water could be found -- the vast Ogallala Aquifer, an underground reservoir stretching from Nebraska to North Texas, filled with water that had seeped down for centuries after the last Ice Age. With new technology, farmers could pump the ancient water up, irrigate their land, and grow other crops, like feed corn for cattle and pigs, which require even more moisture than wheat.

[Charles Shaw, Son, Cimarron County, OK] The only thing that's holding that ground together is that irrigation water that comes out of the Ogallala. The Ogallala is about 100 feet deep on the average. We've used over 50 feet of it now. We've got about twenty years of water left under these eight states or the portions of these eight states, and it's disappearing. It's gonna be gone in 20 years. If you lose the water, you're gonna lose the land. And that's it in a nutshell.

[Wayne Lewis, Beaver County, OK] My folks put in one of the first irrigation wells, and we thought it was a great idea. As I look back at it now, it was the beginning of a bad idea. Having irrigation water permitted us to do some things that weren't good for the long term. And some of these days, I'll be gone, but somebody is gonna be out of water. Folks are gonna have trouble getting enough drinking water, and they'll look back and say, "And to think back there in the 50s and 60s, they used up our drinking water to raise hog feed."

[Donald Worster, Historian] I think the Dust Bowl can happen again -- most emphatically can happen again. It can become a creeping Sahara. The Sahara Desert, a few thousand years ago, was a savannah. We know that it's possible to turn from Savannah to a stark desert, and there's no reason to think that it can't happen in the middle of North America.

[Caroline Henderson] August 1, 1965. Another hot and desolate day. We are both quite weakened by our struggles, either with asthma or a desperate cough, I believe largely the result of working with the dusty wheat. We had reason to hope for a good rain for the feed crop, just now in need of encouragement, but the moisture was cut off with only a light shower.

[Narrator] On her homestead in No Man's Land, Caroline Henderson carried on without resorting to irrigation water from the Ogallala Aquifer. It had been nearly 60 years since she first arrived, full of dreams of farming her own land and prospering from its bounty. In those 60 years, she and Will had seen only ten bumper crops -- and oftentimes, she expressed feelings of failure to those she knew best. As they approached the age of 80, they were still using the farm equipment they had purchased in the 1920s because Caroline refused to borrow money for land or machinery. But they were free of debt, their daughter had become a successful doctor and had given them a grandson with a bright future. In her old age, Caroline steadfastly refused to turn her land over to a farm management company -- "strangers of some far-away money-gathering corporation," she called them, "with no possible interest in this small bit of the good earth." In 1965, with both of them in bad health, she finally agreed to come to Arizona to live with their daughter. They returned to No Man's Land the next Spring for a final visit. Will died three days later. Caroline joined him -- passing through what she called "The Western Gate" -- within a few months. In accordance with her wishes, the homestead was placed in trust, on the condition that it never be plowed again.

[Caroline Henderson] To prepare the ground as well as we may, to sow our seeds, to cultivate and care for -- that is our part. Yet how difficult it is for some of us to learn that the results we must leave to the great silent unseen forces of nature, whether the crop be corn or character.

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Re: The Dust Bowl, directed by Ken Burns

Postby admin » Wed Nov 04, 2015 8:06 am

Directed by Ken Burns

Written by Dayton Duncan

Produced by Dayton Duncan, Ken Burns, Julie Dunfey

Edited by Ryan Gifford

Associate Producers: Aileen Silverstone, Susan Shumaker

Cinematography: Buddy Squires, Stephen McCarthy

Narrated by Peter Coyote

[Woody Guthrie] [Singing]
That old dust storm
killed by baby
But it can't kill me, Lord,
And it can't kill me
That old dust storm,
Well, it killed my family
But it can't kill me, Lord,
And it can't kill me
That old landlord,
and he got my homestead
But he can't get me, Lord,
And he can't get me
That old dry spell
Killed my crop, boys
But it can't kill me, Lord,
and it can't kill me
That old tractor
Got my home, boys
But it can't get me, Lord,
And it can't get me
That old tractor
Run my house down
But it can't get me down,
and it can't get me
That old pawn shop
got my furniture
But it can't get me, Lord,
And it can't get me
That old highway,
It's got my relatives
But it can't get me, Lord,
And it can't get me
That old dust mite
Killed my wheat, boys
But it can't kill me, Lord
And it can't kill me
I have weathered many a dust storm
But it can't get me, boys,
and it can't kill me
That old dust storm storm,
Well, it blowed my barn down
But it can't blow me down,
And it can't blow me down
That old wind might
blow this world down
But it can't blow me down,
It can't kill me
That old dust storm
Killed my baby
But it can't kill me, Lord,
And it can't kill me
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