Twenty-seventh in a seventy-five part series sponsored by the
Oklahoma Heritage Association as its contribution to the Diamond Jubilee Celebration in 1982.
1934 – Year of Disaster
by Mac McGalliard
“Okies, Grapes of Wrath, Dust Bowl” are all terms suggestive of the years of the Great Depression in Oklahoma. The depression got under way in 1930 and extended through the decade of the 1930s and beyond, but the year when the worst disaster struck most families was 1934.
That was the year it forgot to rain. Dust storms blotted out the sun, and the low prices and lack of money hit bottom. That was the year that the trickle of people out of the state developed into the greatest flood of outmigration the nation has ever seen. By the end of the decade, it was estimated that some 250,000 people left Oklahoma, and 1934 was the year the flood began.
In the face of barren fields and parched pastures, water wells and springs drying up, families by the thousands loaded their most necessary possessions on their automobiles, and left their homes and dreams behind to head to more prosperous states. Five years later, in 1939, their continued sufferings and disappointments were to be chronicled for all time by John Steinbeck in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
What brought on the disaster of 1934 was a combination of factors, some natural and some man-made. Decades of poor farming practices had begun to take their toll in the late 1920s and reached a peak in 1934. The natural cover, grass sod and timber, had been destroyed on the land, leaving the soil exposed to wind and water erosion. This destruction was made worse by running rows up and down hills, by clean cultivation, and the destruction of crop residues. Soil fertility was used up, and none put back.
Soon after the onset of the nationwide economic depression with the stock market crash of 1929, jobs in the towns and industries began to be eliminated, and there was nowhere for the people to go but back to the land, and this increased the pressure on the already abused land. Every old house or shanty on the countryside was occupied by a distressed family who hoped to survive with a garden, a cow or two, and a few chickens.
The weather was dryer than normal in 1933, and it developed into a major drought in 1934. Windstorms blew across the bare prairies and plains of western Oklahoma, west Texas, and the portions of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. That area was the heart of the “Dust Bowl.” Blown dust and fine sand piled up along fence rows until only the tops of the post were visible. Sand dunes built up against farm buildings. Crops and pastures wee devastated.
The only help available for the suffering families were the beginnings of the state and federal drought and depression relief programs. 1934 was year of the infamous killing of cattle and hogs, “little pigs and calves,” with a mere pittance paid to the owners, but it was better than nothing. “Made work” jobs were being provided through the federal WPA (Works Progress Administration) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). The Governor at that time was William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, and the state-sponsored relief program (mostly on rural roads) was called “Murray Work.”
But the relief programs were not enough for many families. The West beckoned, and they went. Mostly to California, but also to Arizona, Oregon, and Washington. Generally, they were not welcomed in those states, and many were exploited by employers, but most of them survived and became permanent residents. Not all were “Okies,” there were also “Arkies, Kansies, Texicans,” etc.
Now with development of Sunbelt jobs and prosperity, some of them are “coming back home.”
Newspaper clipping from Blanchard, Oklahoma newspaper celebrating 1982 Oklahoma Diamond Jubilee. Found in scrapbook belonging to Raymond R. Stone, born 1919 in Hastings, Jefferson County, Oklahoma