The Dirty 50s: The Dust Storms of the 1950s

Introduction

I was recently asked what I remember about the “dust bowl” type of wind storms and the weather conditions generally during the 1950s, which some people at that time said were almost as bad as those of the 1930s. The most memorable events I recall were the dirt or dust storms that usually happened in late winter or early spring, before things had started growing on the prairie farms. March was usually the worst month for these storms.

My Earliest Memory

Actually, my very earliest memory is of a dirt storm.  I was probably about two and a half years old. All I remember is that we were in the kitchen, and the light was really dim and had a yellowish-brownish color.  Perhaps it was at night, and maybe we were using a kerosene lamp because the power had gone out, or perhaps it was daylight and the natural light was changed as it filtered through the storm. I was very small, and I don’t remember many details, but the experience made a real impression on me. The wind was howling terribly outside, making horrible screeching sounds as it tore past every nook and cranny of the old house.  I stayed in the kitchen, near Mommy and Daddy, where it seemed safest. 

Mommy was busy putting blankets over the doors and windows to try to keep the dust out, but this did not seem to be working. She also hung a blanket between the living room and the kitchen, and another one covering the doorway to the back of the house. Dust was collecting on every surface, especially around the cracks of the windows. She was fretting about it, using her moist dust rag and trying to keep the house as clean as possible. Probably Kenny was a tiny baby then, but I don’t remember him at all.

At one point Daddy went out to check on the livestock.  Mommy and I were really worried about him. She and Daddy had told me a scary story about how easy it was to get lost in a dirt storm, and they had told me that if I went outside, I was so small that they would not be able to find me, and that they would not be able to hear me, and I would not be able to hear them, if we called to each other. So I was very worried that Daddy might get lost in the storm, even though he was much bigger than I was. Eventually he did come back, which was a big relief to me and Mommy, but his face and his clothes were totally blackened with the dirt from the storm.

Seeing a Storm Approaching

Several years later, probably when I was in third grade, I was at school, and I was supposedly playing outside with all the other kids. The sky was a pretty blue with no wind, but far out on the horizon I could see an ugly brown dust storm rolling in, approaching from the northwest. As I watched, it was boiling and churning, getting closer and closer. Just before it hit, the teachers came out and hurriedly shepherded us indoors. 

A Perilous Ride Home

I remember another time when I was at school and a dirt storm came up, and about noon they decided to send us home. They called in the bus drivers and we headed home as soon as they managed to get the bus drivers to the school. The sky was a dirty brown color as we struggled against the strong wind to get to the buses. We headed out with our bus going about 25 miles per hour, creeping along the road as the wind shook it from side to side. There were stretches of the road where the farmland was well maintained and the dirt was not blowing too badly.  But then we would hit a stretch where the dirt was blowing very badly and the bus driver could barely see the road. We crept home, mile after mile. Finally we reached the river that crossed the road about two miles south of our house. 

A month or two before, a heavy rain had combined with melting snow to wash out one side of the road.  Now there was a large, deep cliff off the side of the road. At this particular spot the wind was blowing very hard and the dust completely obscured the view of the road through the front windshield. 

I noticed that our driver, Paul Short, was not watching the road through the front window. He was watching the side of the road through the little window at the bottom of the door. Luckily, there was no traffic on the road ahead. 

We finally made it to my home, and as I got off the bus I asked Paul if he was really driving by watching through the little window at the bottom of the the door of the bus, and he said, “Yes.” I thanked him profusely for getting me home safely, and for letting me out right by the house, not on the road about 600 feet from the house, where I normally got out. 

Changes in Farming

Minneapolis-Moline Tractor, ca. 1950

In the 1950s there were two ways of farming. The older way was with a “one-way” implement. The “one-way” was an attachment pulled on the back of a tractor. It simply turned the soil upside down. The roots of any plants growing in the plowed area were broken off, and the plants were buried in the upturned soil. Most farmers used this older method. 

However, by the late 1950s my Dad had begun a newer way of farming, using a plow blade that cut off the roots of the vegetation, but left  the vegetation itself on the surface of the soil. This helped prevent the dirt from blowing away. While I was helping on the farm we used several different plows. We used the old one-way when I first learned to drive the tractor by myself in 5th or 6th grade. But after about two years we switched to using the Noble Blade plow, which left the roots under the soil so that the dirt would not blow so much. However, we discovered that the Noble Blade plow was hard to clean, because the roots would get tangled on the cutting blade, and we would frequently have to stop and clean them out by hand, which was very annoying and made the work much slower. Finally, after several years, we switched to the Krause plow, which did the same job as the Noble Blade, but was far more rugged and reliable. It had a special rod that ran the length of the blade to untangle the weeds if they got stuck. We also used several other plows as I was growing up. My dad worked very hard to protect his farmland and tried to always use the most functional equipment.

John Deere disk plow, a “one-way”

Our rides to and from school really showed us the differences between the new and the old ways of farming.  As we rode by farmland that was not farmed with soil erosion practices, the road would be practically obscured by dirt. Probably about one-third of the farms we passed were in this condition when the winds were blowing.

But good farming practices did not always fix all the erosion problems. We had two little hills a quarter of a mile southeast of our house and their tops would always start blowing in March, when the dust storms came. We could see the change of the color of the soil on these hills when we were plowing. Daddy always watched over our land, and when he saw it starting to blow, he would take a plow out to break up the hardpan soil below the topsoil, in order to get hard clods of soil on top, in hopes that this would lessen the soil erosion from the wind.  

Krause Plow

But the tops of hills and old-fashioned plowing methods were not the only problems contributing to soil erosion. Many farmers did not watch carefully over their land to try to stop the soil from blowing. Unfortunately, this was especially prevalent among the “gentlemen farmers” — people who lived in the city and only came out to work their land a few times a year. 

We had some land that was near such a farmer, Mr. Frank Ochapp. One piece of our land lay south of his farm, and another piece lay to the east of it. Mr. Ochapp lived in Denver most of the time, where he had some sort of management job, as I recall, but he came out to his farm occasionally, to prepare the ground for seeding, to plant his crops, and to harvest them. And sometimes he came out just to go hunting with some of his friends. Whenever he came out from Denver, he stayed in an airstream trailer that was permanently set up on his land. Kenny and I would occasionally ride our bikes over to visit him, and he would always ask us to have cookies and tea with him. He was always very nice and friendly to us, and we liked him.

However, when his farm would start blowing, it would scour away our topsoil and our young wheat, and then our land would start blowing. Daddy would go out and work our soil, trying to stop it, but it was nearly impossible with the neighbor’s soil blowing onto ours. Daddy would call Mr. Ochapp and ask him to come out to take care of his farm, but he could never make it out. As I recall, one time he said that highway 40 east of Denver was closed because of the blowing dirt. Another time he said that he had to go to a very important meeting and he could not come out to the farm.

Another problem we had because of soil erosion and blowing dirt in the fifties was that our fences would be covered by drifts of blow dirt, letting the cattle walk right over them as they tried to escape the wind. Their instinct was always to come together and walk with their backs to the wind until they found a sheltered spot. We always tried to get them to shelter in the corral near the house before a storm, but if the fences were covered with blow dirt we could not do this. The worst place I remember was the fence that was one mile south of our house. If it was covered, our cattle might be miles away after the storm. And it was a big (and urgent) job to repair the fence which had come down and find the cattle which had wandered away. Once, as I remember, it took us a very long time to find all our missing cattle. Some of them had joined a herd miles away and the farmer only discovered them when he was rounding up his own cattle to sell.

Tumbleweeds were also something to reckon with in windy weather. I remember in March, during recess at school, probably when I was in third grade or thereabouts, there would be times when we would go outdoors and there seemed to be millions of tumbleweeds blowing across the playground. We kids would try to catch them, and crunch them up, and make forts and houses out of them. Some of them would have smooth stems, but others would have thorns on them, which was hard on our hands. But we did not let that deter us from playing with them. 

In Conclusion

According to U.S. Government records, the Great Plains and the Southwestern U.S. suffered through a period of severe drought that started in 1950 and lasted, in some areas, until 1957. These same records note that the Dust Bowl period of the 1930’s actually comprised several separate drought periods, which were worsened by the financial problems of the time, after the stock market crash in 1928 brought down much of the U.S. financial system. Life in the 1950’s was certainly very hard for our family. Mommy and Daddy sometimes said it was worse than the 1930s, and there were many neighbors who agreed with them. But the conditions were a little different, and they were at a different time of their lives, adults rather than children. In the 1930s, when their parents were dealing with the difficulties of life, things might have seemed easier for them, but I doubt that it was so.

2 thoughts on “The Dirty 50s: The Dust Storms of the 1950s”

  1. Interesting. I didn’t realize these were common in the 50s too. Do they still have those now or have enough people started using the newer technique that it’s not such an issue?

  2. Kenneth Pickens

    1957 was the last year we had terrible winds and it destroyed all of our wheat. Each spring where the wheat had blown out, i.e. it had died, we would plant a summer crop we could put into bales of hay to feed the cattle in the winter when they could not graze the ground.

    To my recollection the dirt storms started in 1952. The reason I think that is because Daddy said from when they moved to Colorado in 1948, when Gary was a baby (he was born in Dodge City, Kansas) until 1952 everyone had bumper crops. That let them pay off the 5 quarters (800 acres) of ground they bought. There was a lot of snow and most of the soil had just recently been converted from grass to farmland so it was high in nitrogen and they were harvesting 35 to 45 bu per acre crops.

    Wheat prices had fallen to 35 cents per bu. in the 30s but had recovered to $2.00 to $4.50 per bu. after the depression, during WWII, and until about 1952. When the Korean War was about over the young men from WWII and Korean War broke out sod and grew wheat. Suddenly there was a world surplus in wheat and corn and the prices dropped below $1.00 per bu.

    Because the crop was so good Momma and Daddy bought a new car that I hated. They had been driving a Ford 2 door coupe, if I remember right. The Plymouth they traded for was likely the one Daddy could get the best trade for, as it was extremely ugly. I don’t remember getting it as much as I remember that it did not cause whoop ups on hills when we were going from the end of our dirt road to the blacktop by Hubbard’s, later Conrad’s. The Plymouth was brown, and when I say brown, just think in terms of a ugly stool. But its biggest sin was it didn’t have carpet and in winter on long trips Gary would sleep on the seat and I was small enough to get relegated to the floor. The Ford car had a large shelf in front of the back window and that was where I remember sleeping or laying and watching the back window mirror effect a night reverse view. I loved it.

    In 1957 Daddy’s tractor totally quit working and it was a financial crisis. So he looked for the least expensive new tractor he could find. John Deere and International Harvester were the most expensive by 2 or more thousand over Case tractors. The MINNEAPOLIS was the smallest company and only made propane and gas tractors. Diesel was preferred because the fuel cost less than gasoline and one gallon of diesel would do as much work as 1 1/2 of gasoline and 1 3/4 of propane. Propane made a tractor far less desirable because the fuel was hard to store, so Daddy always said he wanted a propane Minneapolis Moline model GB. He traded off our diesel International tractor for one. Our tractor horse power went up from 35 to 67 and Daddy got better and larger farm equipment.

    He had bought a 8 foot Noble Blade in 1952. Unlike one ways it left the wheat straw on top of the soil so it was much less likely to blow dust or wash out in the normal Colorado summer downpour. I will write about the dirt storm later, but Gary has covered it really good. In 1968 we had a bumper Wheat crop and it saved the farm from bank foreclosure. We were farming about 3000 acres in 1968 and there was not a wheat allotment, like in later years where the government forced us to drop from an annual 1500 acres planted to 460. Daddy gave up the rental farmland as we were forced to grow hybrid Sudan on the excess acres and feed it to cattle. So instead of the farmland we rented 2 or 3 thousand acres of grass. We called it the Reed land, so I suppose that was the owner.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: