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Americans tend to confuse the "Dust Bowl," a region plagued by dust storms in the 1930s, with the mass migration of "Okies and Arkies" to California that occurred in the same decades. Many people were forced to leave the Dust Bowl for California. But the majority of 1930s migrants, even migrants from Oklahoma, came from regions of the country largely unaffected by the dust storms.
Most migrants were forced off their lands by the economics of large scale agribusiness, not by dust storms. Still, those who lived through the dust storms, or lost their land, would never forget them.
Once called the "Great Desert" by European explorers, America's plains states have since become the extremely productive farmland. But they confront settlers with a tough, harsh climate, prone to extremes of temperature and periodic drought. Winds sweep across the flat, treeless landscape with special fury. Natural histories of the region show consistent and recurring cycles of drought, often lasting ten years or more, usually accompanied by dust storms of amazing size. Repeatedly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, strong winds scoured the terrain and spread clouds of choking dust across the southwestern plains. None of these approached the terrible "dust bowl" of the early 1930s.
In 1931 one of these cyclical droughts struck Texas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, Kansas and the Eastern parts of Colorado and New Mexico. This time, it struck a changed landscape. In the 1920s, technological advances had made more land available to the wheat farmer. Increased production drove down prices, which led to more intensive cultivation of more land in wheat, including some regions where the land could barely support wheat under the best of conditions. Disk plows, pulled in long rows by newly available tractors, cut the soil shallowly but more thoroughly, making it drier and more vulnerable. The combination proved disastrous when the usual Spring winds came in 1932.
Newspapers and magazines rushed to record the devastation as the "black blizzards" of dust rolled across the plains. Some of the most enduring images of this region, and indeed of the 1930s, come from the work of photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, or Arthur Rothstein. Sent out by the Farm Security Administration to document conditions in rural America, they produced apparently objective accounts of America's rural poor. Arthur Rothstein's famous 1936 image, "Fleeing a Dust Storm," came from just such an excursion.
Although the FSA presented the image as a spontaneous moment in the face of a storm, in fact Rothstein posed the picture--he instructed the farmer and his children in how and where to walk. There was no storm to flee, as images taken at the same time and place show.
This photograph shows the same farmer and one of his children, on the same day. Clearly there had been dust storms--the farmer is digging out a fence post. But the boy is playing contentedly on what appears to be an ordinary day. The FSA wanted its photographers to draw connections between the Dust Bowl and land mismanagement. Rothstein used dramatic license to highlight the genuine devastation the region experienced.
In a fascinating look at how the "documentary sensibility" of the thirties evolved, historian James Curtis has pointed out that Rothstein carried the same bleached, white steer skull around with him as he toured the drought stricken plains, placing the skull for maximum effect. Some plains residents, especially Republican opponents of the New Deal, objected to the depictions and pointed out that a photographer could place a steer skull in any dry spot and convey an artificial sense of devastation. Such criticism endangered the FSA's project. "If you have that goddam skull," one of Rothstein's supervisors wrote him, "hide it for Christ's sake."