Friday, June 26, 2015

Letter from the Dust Bowl

Caroline Henderson (1877–1966)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Dust storm in Hooker, Oklahoma, June 4, 1937. Image from the Oklahoma Historical Society, via PBS.
Beginning in the spring of 1934, vast dust storms buried the high plains of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas under millions of tons of wind-blown soil and darkened skies as far away as Chicago and New York City. While visiting Boise City, Oklahoma, an Associated Press reporter Robert E. Geiger witnessed one of the worst storms on April 14, 1935—often remembered as “Black Sunday”—and his dispatch included the first use of the term “Dust Bowl,” the name by which both the area and the era came to be known.

Soon after Black Sunday, Congress established the Soil Conservation Service, and by December more than 30,000 workers had been assigned to erosion control projects. They were working against insurmountable odds; severe winds carried off much of the topsoil during a record-breaking drought, and the problem was exacerbated by years of over-farming. The destruction of livelihoods and the deterioration in living conditions caused an estimated two-and-a-half million people to migrate from the affected areas to other regions of the country.

Caroline Henderson was one of the farmers who chose to stay. From 1931 to 1937 The Atlantic published a series of letters she exchanged with Evelyn Harris, a widow who managed a farm in Maryland. Initially the correspondence appeared under the heading “Letters of Two Women Farmers,” but the title changed to “Letters from the Dust Bowl” as Henderson’s contributions riveted the attention of American readers and even prompted praise from Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. Her eyewitness accounts were featured in Ken Burns’s 2012 documentary, The Dust Bowl.

One of the more remarkable installments in the series was a letter that Henderson sent eighty years ago, on June 30, 1935, only ten weeks after Black Sunday. This week’s selection is preceded by a headnote, written by Bill McKibben, that includes additional information on Henderson’s hardscrabble career as a farmer.

Note: Henderson’s daughter Eleanor, mentioned in the letter, was a medical student at the University of Kansas. She went on to graduate in 1937 and became an anesthesiologist.

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