Farm Collector Blogs > First Things

Remembering the Dirty Thirties

by Leslie McManus

Tags: august 2011, first things,

During a drive west across Kansas in early May, the sight of green fields along the interstate nearly brought tears to my eyes. It’s not that I have some kind of weird soft spot for farm crops (though I do, actually, if we’re talking wheat ready to harvest). No, the emotion was fallout from a book I’d just read about the Dust Bowl years.

In The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, author Timothy Egan recounts the utter devastation of a six-year drought on the Great Plains and its people in the 1930s.

This disaster – which displaced thousands of people, turned cities into ghost towns and affected 100 million acres of land – was created by a perfect storm of stupidity, greed and cyclical weather phenomena. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, everything that could go wrong on the Plains did – all at once, and over and over again, for nearly a decade.

As I read the book, I began to see the advent of mechanized farm power in a different light. In the late 1920s, the tractor that made increased production possible was the same tool used to destroy a fragile ecosystem on the arid Great Plains. Tractors, of course, were not the central demon of the Dust Bowl tragedy. In fact, many homesteaders of the era had yet to abandon their workhorses. Nonetheless, the wild optimism and faith in new technology that marked the early years of the last century now rings in my mind with a tone more cautionary than celebratory.

Among the readers of Farm Collector, the Dust Bowl story comes as no revelation. More than a few of you lived through the worst hard time; others learned of it from parents and grandparents. We’d love to hear your stories: Send them to us, and we’ll share them in the magazine and on our website,

Need a little inspiration? Read Delbert Trew’s column on grain hauling equipment in the years immediately following the Dust Bowl. It captures familiar themes in farm country: resilience, resourcefulness and impossibly green fields … exactly the kind of thing that makes a grown woman cry. FC