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and life along the winding road

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Chosen as our January book club read, The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan covers several families who moved to the Great Plains in hopes of providing a livelihood on the open spaces. Some moved, ironically, for their health - a prescription by geography that doctors believed would improve breathing of those with respiratory problems. The book is well written and covers the time leading up to the dust bowl and how the government tried to undo the bad decisions they had made. One suggestion was to cover the Great Plains with concrete! Another was to return Indians to the land they had been ousted from.

I had heard about the Dust Bowl, and seen horrendous images of a rolling wave of dust descending on houses, but what I didn't know is that the disaster was man made. Taking land that was once roamed by Indians and the American bison (often known as buffalo) homesteaders took advantage of cheap and sometimes free land in the Great Plains. The bison were exterminated and Indians were moved, then ranches sprouted up. But the lands which once sustained the bison, was not suited for cattle and they did not do well when the temperatures plummeted. Trying to make a living off the land and dwelling in sod homes, the new landowners plowed up land and planted grains. A frenzy to make more and more money produced thousands of acres of dusty soil where the buffalo grass had once held the topsoil together. Books were published such as How to Get Rich on the Plains. What resulted was a disaster. After several years of drought in an area with already low annual rainfall the high winds and storms shifted the soil, which resembled sifted sand. Black Sunday in April 1935 started cloudless and sunny, but quickly dropped from 85 to 25 degrees. The warm and cold air clashed and winds rushed over the prairie resulting in a rolling dust cloud 200 miles wide and several thousand feet high. The sky was black and barbed wire fences cracked with static electricity. 350 million tons of dust spread from the plains to the Atlantic even covering ships 200 miles out to sea in a cloud of dust. More soil was transported across the U.S. in the storm than was dug from the Panama Canal. It wasn't until a cloud of dust settled on the White House that the government decided it was time to investigate the problem.

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