Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dirty Decade: Dust bowl memories cling to residents’ minds

By MATT BRISTOW, Herald Photographer | 11/16/2012

“It was so dusty you couldn’t see beyond the road, and that was 25 feet from our house,” Martha Christian said about her childhood years growing up on farms in Waverly and Williamsburg.

“In east Lawrence, I‘d look up at the sun and it was just a haze,” Jack Christian said. “The dust was blotting out the sun, but there was a yellow haze.”

“It was so dusty you couldn’t see beyond the road, and that was 25 feet from our house,” Martha Christian said about her childhood years growing up on farms in Waverly and Williamsburg.

“In east Lawrence, I‘d look up at the sun and it was just a haze,” Jack Christian said. “The dust was blotting out the sun, but there was a yellow haze.”

Jack, 92, and Martha, 89, Ottawa, still recall their experiences growing up during the Dust Bowl, the decade-long series of dust storms also known as the Dirty Thirties. More than three-quarters of a century has passed since dust storms ravaged the Southern Plains. The Kansas Historical Society’s website — www.kshs.org — said many factors caused the dust storms. The increased demand for wheat, more mechanized farming machinery and years of drought took its toll on the heavily-plowed fields. Drought-stricken earth was churned up by high winds, blown across the nation and even hundreds of miles out to sea in the Atlantic Ocean.

Even though the worst hit areas were hundreds of miles away in Southwest Kansas and parts of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle, the Christians said the Dust Bowl definitely affected them. Jack grew up a poor city boy in Lawrence, while Martha lived an agrarian lifestyle in Osage and Franklin counties. Growing up in the aftermath of the Great Depression and in the swells of the Dust Bowl, the Christians have lasting memories of those dusty times.

“It was scary, really, to see nothing but dust going down the road,” Martha Christian said. “I can still see it.”

The fine particles of dust would permeate into houses, despite the best efforts of home owners, she said.

“Your house was full of it. Full of it.” Martha Christian said. “My mother used to hang up wet sheets at the window, trying to keep out some of the dust.”

The worst of the storms came Sunday, April 14, 1935, Black Sunday. The Monday edition of The Ottawa Herald reported the weather in Ottawa during that iconic day: “Late Sunday afternoon, a shift of wind to the northwest brought a drastic drop in temperature, and clouds of dust.”

Jack Christian draws parallels of the weather of the 1930s to the drought now plaguing the area.

“It was so dry for several years, just like it was here this year,” he said. “This was an exceptionally dry year.”

The implementation of government programs by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt not only helped put people back to work but also helped stop the dust, he said.

“He had a huge program where he started planting trees,” Jack Christian said. “That’s what the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camps did. They went around and built ponds and so forth and planted trees to stop erosion.”

American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns recently completed his latest documentary, “The Dust Bowl.” The film touts the decade of dust storms as the worst man-made ecological disaster in history.

The two-part, four-hour documentary features interviews with individuals who lived through the worst of the Dust Bowl as children. Burns is known for his work on documentaries like “Baseball,” “The National Parks: American’s Best Idea,” and “The War.”

Dayton Duncan, writer of “The Dust Bowl,” has worked with Burns on several of his documentaries. Duncan was on hand to present a screening of excerpts from the film Tuesday at the Kansas City Public Library, Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. The program was concluded by a panel discussion featuring Duncan, Sara M. Gregg, assistant professor of history at the University of Kansas, and Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey.

The causes of the Dust Bowl were discussed, as well as the ongoing struggle with water management in the area. Duncan provided the background to the story and how the film was brought to life by the tales of those most exposed to the Dirty Thirties.

“I believe it was an important story, a little known story and a terribly dramatic story,” Duncan said.

“The Dust Bowl” documentary debuts Sunday night on PBS.

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