Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry Exhibit Script Panel 1 Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry

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Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry Exhibit Script
Panel 1

Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry
In the 1930s, people on the Great Plains endured one of America’s most destructive ecological disasters—the Dust Bowl. What caused fertile farms to turn to dust? How did people survive? What lessons can we learn from the Dust Bowl?
We can find answers to these questions in the region’s history and geography. Centuries of human interaction with the environment intensified between 1850 and 1930 as farmers believed that they could overcome the area’s variable weather and climate. The 1930s disaster taught them that they were wrong. However, people survived the dust and the drought by forging new community ties and by embracing new government programs. People also discovered a new respect for the power of nature. The Dust Bowl experience demonstrates the complex relationship between humans and the dynamic Great Plains environment.
Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, 1936

Arthur Rothstein, photographer

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In this classic Dust Bowl photograph taken by Resettlement Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein in April 1936, farmer Art Coble and his young sons walk through a dust storm to a building on their property in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. This photograph became one of the most widely reproduced images of the 20th century.


LISTEN TO Hazel Allen tell how a dog led her future husband through a dust storm.


Panel 2

Humans and the Ecology of the Plains
Myth and reality, ebb and flow, boom and bust: these terms frame the ecological and economic contradictions of the human experience on the Great Plains. The key to that experience has often hinged on the adequacy of rainfall. Denser populations of Native Americans on the eastern Plains cultivated crops in an environment where precipitation is typically more certain and more plentiful. In contrast, humans on the western

Plains relied on the abundant resources provided by the bison to sustain them.

During periods of above average precipitation, however, human populations surged west into the semi-arid domain of the Plains’ short grasses. Farmers reaped the agricultural rewards offered by the rich soils. Inevitably, the rains would diminish and people would adjust by migrating to the tall grass and plentiful rain east of the Plains. Humans repeated the cycle throughout prehistory and into the 20th century history of the Great Plains.
Bison herd at water, circa 1905

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The bison, commonly known as the American buffalo, provided abundant resources for sustaining life on the western Plains. Their typical habitat was open or semi-open grassland, sagebrush, semi-arid land, and scrubland. They were hunted primarily for their fur and meat, but Native Americans used bison for many other purposes: the horn to create spoons and toys, the thick hide for bowls and walls of tepees, the heart as a sack for dried meat, and the stomach as a cooking vessel.

Average annual precipitation in inches, Southern Great Plains

Data courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric

Administration; Map by Jess Porter, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Average amounts of annual precipitation on the Great Plains decrease from east to west. Additionally, precipitation on the western margins of the Plains is less reliable from year-to-year and decade-to-decade. Periodic, recurrent drought is not uncommon.

Kiowa Indian camp near Anadarko, Oklahoma, circa 1899

William E. Irwin, photographer

© Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum,

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

The Kiowa lived, hunted, and farmed in the Southern Plains region starting in the early nineteenth century. They were one of many Native American groups living on the Plains during this time. Others included the Pawnee, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, and Wichita.

Fairview Farm in Seward County, Kansas, 1910–1915

F.M. Steele Collection

Courtesy of the Seward County Historical Society, Liberal, Kansas

In periods of high precipitation on the Plains, people moved west and established farms in the short-grass areas. The Fairview Farm in Seward County, Kansas, was one example. In this photograph, a farmhouse, farm buildings, automobiles, mule teams, and wagons portray a productive enterprise.

Panel 3
People of the Plains
Bison shared the Plains with other animals and with different groups of indigenous people for thousands of years. Native Americans farmed, hunted bison, and moved to different regions with the seasons. Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and others called the Southern Plains home. After 1800, western expansion by white farmers began forcing tribal populations westward. In the 1830s, the United States government removed the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) to the eastern margins of the Great Plains where they set up farms and communities.
Native Americans increasingly shared the Plains with other people. Hispanic farmers and sheep ranchers from southern Texas moved into the southwestern Plains between the Arkansas and Hondo rivers after 1848. White settlers increased their westward migration after 1860 while small groups of African-Americans set up farming communities on the Plains in the late 1870s in places like Nicodemus, Kansas.
An increase in hunting led to the decline of the bison, and as the human presence in the region grew, towns and ranches occupied more of the Plains. Humans came to rely more on agriculture to sustain themselves. Farming made them dependent on a resource that had a long history of coming and going on the Great Plains—the rain.
Early homestead—Nicodemus Historic District, undated

Photocopy of historic photograph

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

This undated photograph shows a historic homestead and inhabitants of Nicodemus, Kansas, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. After a period of decline, Nicodemus was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976, and is now a popular destination for visitors tracing African American history.

Go to Kansas” broadside, 1877

Nicodemus Town Company

Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society

This broadside advertises the availability of residential lots for $5 in Nicodemus, Graham County, Kansas, and encourages African American emigration to the town. Nicodemus was first settled by former slaves in 1877, and is a prominent example of African Americans settling in the West in the nineteenth century.

Hunting Horse and daughters, circa 1908

J.V. Dedrick, photographer

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Hunting Horse, a Kiowa patriarch, stands with his daughters for a photograph taken near Taloga, Oklahoma. The Kiowa were one of many Native American groups who had to share the Plains with other people from the mid-nineteenth century on, as whites, African Americans, Hispanics and other groups moved in to establish towns and farms.

Plains family in front of a sod house, circa 1900

Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Photographic Library

A family poses in front of their sod house somewhere on the Great Plains, with a well, farm horses, and wagons nearby. Because wood was in short supply on the Plains, many houses were built with rock-hard blocks of sod made from thickly rooted prairie grass. Roofs were made of sod or shingles. Commonly called “soddies” or “soddys,” sod houses were easy to heat in the winter, cool in the summer, resistant to prairie fires, but subject to rain damage and leaks.

Panel 4
Artists of the Plains
The fields, the grass, the bison, and the dramatic swings in weather inspired several distinct traditions of art based on the ecology and cultures of the Great Plains. Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche all created art that combined indigenous and European methods.
The grassland ecosystem also appeared in the paintings of Albert Bierstadt and other artists. These pictures found an audience interested in traditional scenes of the American West, but the work of Bierstadt and others also captured the dynamic environment of the Great Plains in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Like these artists, Willa Cather and other writers sought to capture the distinctive way of living found on the Plains. In Cather’s novels, the first one published in the early 1910s, a character’s fortune could change as quickly and capriciously as a hailstorm destroys a crop. Most people who bought Cather’s books lived well beyond the Plains. Communities in the grasslands, like the artists, became tied to larger economic systems that supported their agriculture along with their art and culture.
Cover of My Antonia (1918) and O Pioneers! (1913) by Willa Cather, reissue edition, 2011

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

O Pioneers! is the story of the Bergsons, Swedish immigrants in Nebraska struggling to keep their land productive while My Antonia is about a Bohemian immigrant family, the Shimerdas, and their memorable oldest daughter, Antonia. Both books are part of Willa

Cather’s “Great Plains Trilogy.”

Willa Cather, 1921

Courtesy of the Phillip L. and Helen Cather Southwick Collection, Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries

Willa Cather (1873–1947) lived in Nebraska from the age of nine, first on a farm and then in the town of Red Cloud. She graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1894. Her experiences with immigrant families and frontier life on the Plains form the subject matter and themes of many of her works. Cather’s “Great Plains Trilogy,” consisting of O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918), was a popular and critical success.

Howling Wolf Hunting Buffalo, 1874-75

Howling Wolf (Southern Cheyenne Indian, 1849-1927)

Pen, ink, and watercolor on ledger paper

Courtesy of Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio;

Gift of Mrs. Jacob D. Cox

Howling Wolf, a Southern Cheyenne warrior and artist, had a reputation as a brave fighter and was a leader in Cheyenne ceremonies. In 1875, he was arrested by the U.S. government and sent to prison at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. There, he became a prominent Native American ledger artist. Ledger art was drawing and painting done by Native Americans in the ledger books used to keep inventories. Howling Wolf carefully depicted scenes from his life and from Cheyenne ceremonies in ink, and then filled them in with crayons, colored pencils, and watercolor in flat opaque tones. In this classic scene from nineteenth century Plains Indian life, he depicts himself as a young man hunting buffalo.

Hunting on the Plains, circa 1871

Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives


Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

A man on horseback brandishing a rifle rides next to his quarry, an American bison. Other hunters and bison are in the background. Currier & Ives published many lithographs showing scenes from life on the prairie during the last half of the nineteenth century.

Sunset of the Prairies, undated

Alfred Bierstadt (1830 – 1902)

Oil on canvas

Courtesy of the Art Renewal Center ® www.artrenewal.org

Alfred Bierstadt, a prolific German-American landscape painter, was one of many artists inspired by the beauty found in the rolling land and open skies of the Great Plains. Sunset of the Prairies shows two people on horseback gazing at a magnificent prairie sunset, an idealized scene which evokes a feeling of awe and respect for the natural world.

Panel 5

Voices of the Plains
Artists who captured the intense connection of people to their environment in the Plains spoke for the many migrants, farmers, and shop keepers who had little time to draw or write fiction. Many farming families remembered their ancestors settling on the Plains in the late nineteenth century or before. These voices and stories can be found in the archives and oral history collections of universities, libraries, and historical societies across the United States.
Caroline Henderson became one of the most well-known chroniclers of life on the Plains. Henderson, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, arrived in Oklahoma in 1907 and wrote lyrical descriptions of the land. Plains natives Marvin Carnagey, Laverta Carnagey, and Marg Scruggs recorded their memories of the land in oral history interviews. (See QR codes below.)
Henderson, the Carnageys, and Scruggs all spoke about the promise of owning land in the Great Plains and all described the dream of becoming independent farmers. Conditions on the Plains often made that dream of independence elusive, and each sought to understand what had caused the economic collapse and environmental adversity that visited farm families.
Caroline Boa Henderson and Will Henderson at the time of their wedding, 1908

Courtesy of David Grandstaff

Caroline Boa Henderson (1877–1966) graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1901 and taught school in Iowa until 1907. After moving to Oklahoma to teach, she married Wilhelmine Eugene Henderson in 1908. They lived on a farm in Eva, Oklahoma, through the prosperous years of the wheat boom, during the worst years of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and after. Henderson wrote about life on the Plains for national publications such as the Practical Farmer. She vividly recounted the Hendersons’ loss of crops, animals, and other amenities of daily life during the Dust Bowl years in a series of letters to friends and family, many of which were published in a column (“Dust Bowl Diary”) in the prestigious Atlantic magazine. Henderson’s letters and other papers are found in the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Manuscripts Collection, http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/mountholyoke/mshm038.html

Letter from Caroline Henderson to Mrs. Alden, mother of Rose Alden, October 5, 1913

Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Library, Information, and Technology Services— Archives and Special Collections

Caroline Boa Henderson (1877–1966) wrote hundreds of letters to family and friends about weather conditions, crops, and daily life on the farm in Eva, Oklahoma, where she resided for nearly 60 years. In this 1913 letter to the mother of her lifelong friend, Rose Alden, a classmate from Mount Holyoke College, Henderson laments the fact that there was little snow the winter before and no spring rain that year. “Then we had a regular Egyptian experience with grasshoppers and blister beetles which destroyed things faster than they could be replanted.” Henderson’s letters reveal the ups and downs of farm life on the Plains. Two years after this letter, she was writing of a successful year with much optimism for the future.

Laverta Ruth Carnagey was born August 3, 1913 in Iowa. Her parents moved to Oklahoma when she was six months old to join her grandparents, who were homesteading south of Arnett, Oklahoma, in far northwest Oklahoma near the state border with Texas. As a young girl, she helped with the housework, but said she “never had to go out and work.” Laverta went to Catesby, a small country school, through the eighth grade, and then went to Laverne, Oklahoma, for high school. At that time, there were no school buses going to Laverne, so she had to board there during the week: “I went there Monday morning and then I went back home on Friday.” She attended high school for two years and then left to be married.
Marvin Carnagey (d. 2013) was born August 15, 1914 in northern Missouri. His parents separated when he was six and his father went to Oklahoma to join a brother who was homesteading there. Marvin and his two older brothers soon moved to Oklahoma to be with their dad. Marvin’s father didn’t have the money to keep the children, so they were all sent to different families—“he scattered us out, one here, one there, one somewhere else. That was in 1921.” Marvin started working in the fields when he was seven, and after that, “it was about all work and no play.” He would help with the fall field work and go to school near the first of December, and then stop attending school around the first of March to start plowing again.
Marguerite Scruggs (d. 2012) was born in 1920 in Lawton, Oklahoma. Her father had grown up on a farm near Lawton, where his family was homesteading. Her grandmother Scruggs, a school teacher, believed strongly in education, which influenced her son, Marg’s father, to put himself through college. At the age of five, Marg moved with her family to Sayre, Oklahoma, where her father became the cooperative extension agent for Beckham County, a job he held until he retired. She recalls the Wall Street collapse of 1929 and its repercussions, which endangered her father’s job. She also remembers Franklin D. Roosevelt taking office in 1933 and immediately closing all the banks. Marg herself earned a Ph.D from Iowa State University in home economics education.
LISTEN TO Marg Scruggs

SCAN THIS QR CODE http://www.library.okstate.edu/oralhistory/scruggs.mp3

LISTEN TO Laverta Carnagey

SCAN THIS QR CODE http://www.library.okstate.edu/oralhistory/lcarnagey.mp3

LISTEN TO Marvin Carnagey

SCAN THIS QR CODE http://www.library.okstate.edu/ oralhistory/mcarnagey.mp3

Panel 6
Plains inhabitants faced a complex and highly variable environment featuring periods of wet weather and periods of drought. People of the Plains endured hostile weather phenomena such as tornados, blizzards, floods, hail storms, dust storms, and the constant wind. The short-lived tornado or the hail storm both posed less of a threat than the most serious weather hazard on the Plains: drought. The Plains has episodic, recurrent drought, meaning that people can experience plenty of rain for a period of time, but drought will always return.
Early government surveyors Zebulon Pike and Stephen H. Long traveled through the region during a time of drought in the early nineteenth century and called it “The Great American Desert.” Their description of the area as a wasteland illustrates the impact of drought on the Plains environment. A few years of above average or below average precipitation might make a good or bad condition appear to be permanent. Migrants faced a contradiction between this challenging and unpredictable environment and the region’s promise of independence and profit.
Car driving over heavily eroded streambed in Oklahoma, 1930s

U.S. Soil Conservation Service

Courtesy of Oklahoma State University Library,

Special Collections & University Archives

During times of drought on the Plains, water sources such as this stream dried up and made farming nearly impossible.

LISTEN TO Aline Crouch talk about an Easter Sunday dust storm.

SCAN THIS QR CODE http://www.library.okstate.edu/oralhistory/couch.mp3

Large drifts of soil piled up against a barn, 1936

Arthur Rothstein, photographer

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

A farmer’s barn near Liberal, Kansas, is nearly buried by piles of dust. The “dust” is actually topsoil blown off fields by high winds during a severe drought in parts of the Plains.

Cow trying to graze on a windswept pasture, 1936

Arthur Rothstein, photographer

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Prints and Photographs Division

For centuries, constant wind and recurrent periods of drought on the Plains made conditions for growing crops and grazing animals difficult and unpredictable. This was true for the indigenous people of the Plains as well as for the settlers who began arriving in the nineteenth century. A lone cow grazing in sparse pasture on a farm in Ford County, Kansas, is a stark symbol of the ever-changing Plains environment.

Sparse vegetation in wind-eroded soil, Oklahoma, 1930s

U.S. Soil Conservation Service

Courtesy of Oklahoma State University Library,

Special Collections & University Archives

Part of the southern Plains landscape is semi-arid, featuring vegetation which does not require much water. During severe droughts and wind storms, this vegetation and other drought-resistant grasses are able to stay alive and provide sustenance to cattle, and sometimes, to humans. In Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, Dust Bowl survivors tell of eating pickled tumbleweed for weeks on end.

Panel 7

Railroad, Farms and American Dreams
Economic conditions on the Plains changed dramatically in the second half of the nineteenth century with the expansion of railroads into the region from the east. Some migrants to the Plains could start farming without buying or leasing land: the Pre-Emption Act (1841) and the Homestead Act (1862) let settlers apply to own land that they altered. Several railroad companies built tracks across the Plains in the 1850s and 1860s. Farmers used the new railroads to ship their crops to distant markets and to gain access to products brought to the region by rail.
Railroad companies received land from the federal government and worked with state governments and local officials to promote settlement. The railroads and local boosters wanted to replace the image of the Plains as a place of little water and a difficult climate with something more enticing. The railroads, government scientists, and land speculators tapped into an American belief that humans could improve the land by working it. They used the phrase “rain follows the plow” to convince farmers that plowing the land released moisture into the atmosphere, which, in turn, produced more rain.
Rain follows the plow.” —Charles Dana Wilbur
Railroad construction workers, 1912

F.M. Steele, photographer

Courtesy of the Haskell County Historical Society, Sublette, Kansas

Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad construction workers stand on tracks being built in Haskell County, Kansas. Between 1871 and 1900, 170,000 miles were added to the nation’s growing railroad system, and building continued into the 20th century. The railroad opened the way for the settlement of the West, provided new economic opportunities, stimulated the development of towns and communities, and generally tied the country together.

An Oklahoma land claims office, no date

George Grantham Bain Collection

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and

Photographs Division

At noon on April 22, 1889, a bugle sounded, signaling the beginning of the great Oklahoma Land Rush. Horsemen and people in wagons raced to stake their claims on two million acres of land in central Oklahoma which had been declared “open” by President Benjamin Harrison a month before. Those who could stay on the land for five years and improve it would become landowners.

Millions of Acres” advertising circular, 1872
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