Letter from a Dust Bowl Survivor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In March of 1935, a Kansan named Grace wrote to relatives, sharing the recent difficulties in her hometown of McCracken during the Dust Bowl, a period of severe drought and dust storms that afflicted the Great Plains region in the 1930s. She opens with a tongue-in-cheek quip that what her readers thought was a dust storm was actually her beating out carpets and linens. When Grace penned her letter, the Great Depression was in its sixth year and the Dust Bowl in its fourth (by government counts). Both crises ended roughly by 1939. Grace's letter is a strikingly clear example of one family's dealings with the daily struggles created by the Dust Bowl, and it describes, with resignation, how even things as simple and basic as a sneeze were utterly changed.

Summary Overview

In March of 1935, a Kansan named Grace wrote to relatives, sharing the recent difficulties in her hometown of McCracken during the Dust Bowl, a period of severe drought and dust storms that afflicted the Great Plains region in the 1930s. She opens with a tongue-in-cheek quip that what her readers thought was a dust storm was actually her beating out carpets and linens. When Grace penned her letter, the Great Depression was in its sixth year and the Dust Bowl in its fourth (by government counts). Both crises ended roughly by 1939. Grace's letter is a strikingly clear example of one family's dealings with the daily struggles created by the Dust Bowl, and it describes, with resignation, how even things as simple and basic as a sneeze were utterly changed.

Defining Moment

The Dust Bowl affected the Great Plains of the United States roughly from 1931 until 1939, unfortunately coinciding with the years of the Great Depression. Five states were primarily affected: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Colorado. The conditions at the beginning–a parching drought–set the stage for the winds to pick up and carry the dried dirt that lay on the land. One result of this was seen in the deaths of the livestock that were part and parcel of the agricultural life along the Plains. These animals, often found dead on the ground and covered with residual dirt, had inhaled the dust and succumbed to it. It was also not uncommon for men, women, and children to cough up lumps of earth, and the inhalation of dust led to a condition known as “dirt pneumonia” or “dust pneumonia.” Grace notes that common sneezes and spit produced mud, and she is aware that pneumonia was prevalent.

The Dust Bowl has been examined not only by historians, but also by economists, meteorologists, and agriculturalists, all in an effort to understand how it happened and why it lasted for as long as it did. One theory, espoused by Donald Worster, is that the Great Plains as a whole had suffered from protracted farming, and the lands, in contrast to the perception of them as expansive, golden wheat fields, were, in actuality, often too changeable–too unpredictable for such industrialized, heavy farming. According to this theory, the droughts and high winds inevitably produced the conditions for what transpired. However, a geographical and meteorological analysis by Geoff Cunfer suggests a more complex interplay between nature and mankind. Cunfar's data points to the Plains having had more localized climate patterns, with some areas, which had not been farmed extensively, experiencing dust storms prior to the 1930s and others where soil erosion was clearly implicated in the development of such storms. Moreover, older analyses described smaller-scale, but similar events going back to the mid-nineteenth century. Computer simulations from NASA scientists indicate that abnormal surface temperature shifts in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans may have weakened jet stream winds and moved them south, reducing precipitation levels in the Plains. Regardless of the extent to which human activity or climatic shifts may be responsible for causing the Dust Bowl, its effects are undeniable.

Grace's letter stands as one example of daily life during the Dust Bowl, exhibiting the pleasures and hardships of ordinary men and women in the midst of harsh economic times. For instance, she describes their “frenzied time of cleaning, anticipating the comfort of a clean feeling once more,” which was, for them, a purely sensual pleasure worth the physical effort to produce, despite its momentary nature. To the historian and researcher, Grace's letter holds greater significance, due in part to the fact that she wrote for family, without thought of future notoriety, and thus expressed her circumstances perhaps far more honestly.

Author Biography

Grace's letter indicates little in the way of specifics about her background. Although she mentions that “there has not been much school” the week of her writing, it is unclear why Grace notes this–whether as a student or an adult, perhaps a mother or teacher. Given her use of proper grammar and opening witticism, she may have been a teenager or adult at the time.

Grace's town of McCracken lies near the center of Kansas and, at the time of Grace's birth, still was a relatively young community, having been founded around 1886 along the Missouri Pacific Railroad. There is no way to determine what kind financial situation Grace's family was in at the time of her writing, nor how large her family was. Her letter indicates that her family had, or at least had had, “gardens,” but it is unclear whether they were farmers by profession. It is equally unknown what became of Grace and her relatives after the Dust Bowl ended.

Document Analysis

Grace opens her letter with a general address to family. While this may appear odd to the modern reader, it reveals that she probably intended the letter's distribution to a wide family network, rather than to anyone specifically. Just as it was common for Civil War soldiers' letters to be circulated throughout their home communities, and vice versa, Grace may have wished her missive to reach as many of her relatives as possible. It is possible that the relatives to whom she addresses her letter may not have been experiencing the Dust Bowl themselves, as Grace goes into such detail about her and her immediate family's daily struggle with the dust and dirt. Had they lived in an area affected by it, Grace would not have needed to include such detail; they, too, would have dealt with the same matters as often as she.

Her writing is simple and to the point; having her hair matted with dirt and the same gritty particles between her teeth was the norm. Although it had been the better part of four years since the beginning of the droughts and dust storms, and the preceding year had seen the worst droughts ever recorded, there is no sense of complaint in her letter, even when she describes washing right before meals and having to ensure that it was done “snappy.” In one incident, she left her house during what she terms “a lull,” but quickly found that the murkiness returned: “I knew the direction, so I kept on coming, and was quite close before I could even see the outline [of the house]. It sure made me feel funny.” Her behavior and nonchalance in describing such an episode displays how much she had grown used to this way of life. Grace is also fairly matter-of-fact in reporting the rising numbers plagued by the dirt pneumonia that resulted from breathing in all the dust. She herself was not immune to health worries related to this, as she confides that they all have “trouble with our chests.”

While Grace and her family took up a rare opportunity to attend church, many others within the community did not do likewise; she presumes they “stayed home to clean.” Given her earlier mention of the temporary joy in having things tidy, it was a very understandable choice, and her words convey a nonjudgmental attitude about this.

There is one note of despondency near the close of her letter. She notes that they have made efforts to perform gardening and plowing tasks; however, with the winds and the dust and dirt sweeping along, the family has been left unable to determine whether their soil quantities have lessen or increased. She concludes with the acknowledgment that “it's useless to plant anything.”

Essential Themes

Although little information is available about Grace, her age, and the dynamics of her family, and how both major crises of the 1930s–the Depression and the Dust Bowl–affected them personally in the ensuing years, Grace's casual letter serves as a window into the day-to-day realities of surviving those crises. The experiences she describes showcase the challenges of her time and place, from the mundane difficulties of maintaining household cleanliness to the larger issues of poor health, social isolation (inability to hold school or attend church), and economic and/or nutritional impacts (the uselessness of raising crops in their garden).

At the writing of this letter, one of the worst days in Dust Bowl history, Black Sunday, was yet to come. On April 14, 1935, an enormous dust storm, with winds up to sixty miles per hour, ravaged Oklahoma and parts of Texas. Government-mandated soil conservation efforts would begin to show definitive results–a 65 percent reduction in soil loss–by 1937, and the drought finally abated another two years thereafter, in 1939. But by then, about 2.5 million Plains inhabitants had given up hope and packed up, bound for places like Southern California, where unemployment, migrant labor on corporate-run farms, and shantytowns awaited.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Duncan, Dayton, & Ken Burns. The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2012. Print.
  • Mulvey, Deb, ed. We Had Everything but Money. Greendale: Reiman, 1992. Print.
  • Sleight, Kenneth. “America's Exodus: The 1930s and the Dust Bowl.” Bright Hub. Bright Hub, 11 Mar. 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
  • “Surviving the Dust Bowl.” American Experience. WGBH Educational Foundation, n.d. Web. 5 June 2014.
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