On the Great Plains, the miseries of life under a struggling economic system were compounded by environmental catastrophe, transforming America's agricultural heartland into a barren wasteland known as the Dust Bowl.
The early American pioneers who settled on the Great Plains called themselves "sodbusters," taking pride in the work they did to plow through the native grasses that had long dominated the landscape. By ripping apart the grass, the settlers uncovered rich soils that would soon sustain great farms of wheat and corn. But they also ripped apart a native ecosystem that naturally protected the earth from erosion. Without the roots of wild grasses to protect it, dry topsoil could turn to dust and simply blow away.
In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, the worst drought in American history struck the Great Plains. (In some places the rains did not return for eight long years.) Crops withered and dirt turned to dust. Furious winds whipped the dust into "black blizzards"—huge clouds of dirt, sometimes more than a mile high, that blotted out the sun while blowing across the Plains like some kind of Biblical plague. People overcome by the dust storms felt as though they had been sandblasted, their skin whipped by windblown granules of earth. Visibility, they said, dropped to zero. Small animals (and in one case a seven-year-old boy) suffocated from breathing in airborne dirt. Barns and tractors were buried in great drifts of dirt, dropped by the dust clouds like snow from a winter storm.
The Southern Plains—Oklahoma and Kansas, the Texas panhandle and eastern Colorado—became known as the Dust Bowl, and life for the rural folk who lived there became almost impossible. Thousands of beleaguered Dust Bowl inhabitants loaded their life's possessions into their cars, or their wagons, or even their wheelbarrows, and headed west in hopes of finding a better life on the coast. But the Pacific Coast states had their own economic problems, and had no desire for an influx of destitute "Okies" (as they disparagingly called the Dust Bowl migrants) seeking jobs that did not exist. Californians even paid to put up a billboard alongside the highway heading west out of Tulsa: "NO JOBS in California," it said. "If YOU are looking for work—KEEP OUT."25
Still, many Dust Bowl refugees did make it to California in their overloaded jalopies. The experiences of the migrants (and the other Dust Bowlers they left behind) remain among the most poignant examples of the hardships of American life during the Great Depression, immortalized in evocative works of literature (John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath), photography (Dorothea Lange's Dust Bowl portraits), and music (Woodie Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads").