The Road West, New Mexico, by Dorothea Lange (1935)
The Dust Bowl, a period of severe dust storms that caused ecological, agricultural and economic damage to part of America in the 1930s, happened in New Mexico in two ways. First, the northeastern part of the state was affected as a kind of extension of the Oklahoma panhandle (the part of Oklahoma tucked between Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico), where the worst problems were. Second, New Mexico (especially Tucumcari and Albuquerque) was on the route of escape from the Dust Bowl. So people in the state of New Mexico had firsthand experience of the largest migration in U.S. history.
Many factors led to this migration. The Dust Bowl was caused by a mix of events, including several that occurred many years earlier. For example, the need for wheat played a role in the midst of World War I. Wheat farmers found they made great profits as the government needed food to feed an Army. Then the introduction of machinery made the harvest more efficient, so profits skyrocketed. Such machines included the steam plow and the gas powered tractor. Because these could do more work than could be done otherwise, the farmers bought more land to farm because they could grown and harvest more than ever before and they gained enormous profits. The plains being as flat as they were made work by machine even easier. During this time, almost 85 percent of the native grassland was plowed under to make room for more farming.
Even though these inventions were helpful to the farmers in the moment, they badly affected the land in the long term. The Reeves steam plow is a good example of this. It was oversized and very heavy and as it rolled along it severely compressed the earth as it tore up the sod. Another destructive machine of the time was the disc plow,
which went into the ground and broke up clods of topsoil into fine dirt. “Soil experts” advised that farmers should disc plow as often as possible, especially after rain, to help retain moisture. This was completely wrong. Further problems were caused as the harvester thrasher (combine) came into use. It cut wheat and almost immediately thrashed it separating seeds form the plants, then deposited the wheat in a truck that drove beside the combine. These machines put many people out of work, because a job that once required as many as 20 people now could be done by two or three. But the efficient machines also encouraged over-farming.
After World War I (1914-1918) ended, the demand for wheat dropped. In 1919 and into the early 1920s wheat prices remained low. Farmers had already purchased expensive machinery on credit and were still paying for the machines. Those who owned land of their own had to pay the mortgage and those who didn’t most likely owed rent. This forced farmers to plow more land and plant more wheat just to keep up, which added to the problems that would lead to the Dust Bowl effect.
There were also environmental factors in New Mexico that made everything worse. For example, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, "Actively moving dunes have been identified on 1936 and 1938 aerial photographs in North Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Results of aerial photograph interpretation and analysis of historic climate data suggest that the most likely cause of activation in the 1930s was loss of vegetation cover due to increased temperatures and decreased rainfall."
It looks clear from this U.S. Geological Survey photograph comparing Quay County in 1938 and 1991 that New Mexico’s sand dunes had become active by 1936 and probably worsened other environmental problems. The combination of poor farming practices (such as dry land farming, unawareness about soil conservation, overgrazing, destruction of prairie grasses), and environmental changes such as the region’s strong winds and severe drought in the southwestern Great Plains in the 1930s, led to widespread disaster.
During these times filled with hardship, despair, drought, poverty and dust, people would gather around and talk about a distant land where there was sunshine, food, work, clear skies, and no dust. This place was the state of California. The word “California” to those affected by the dust storms was magical. It described a place where they could change their luck and start over. It was said that thousands of workers were needed to bring in the harvest of endless different crops. It was said that no one ever went hungry and that people could just help themselves to any kind of food or vegetable they wanted from any of the lush orchards and crops there. It was said no one ever got sick and they would live happily for a long time.
Over all, the Dust Bowlers truly believed they would find work and a better life in California…that is, if they could get there. So families sold what few valuables they still had, such as machinery and livestock, and then packed up and headed west. This began the largest migration of people in United States history. Between 1935 and 1940, more than one million people left their homes and set out on the three-week to eight-month journey to California.
Driving wasn’t the only way to get there…some people hitchhiked, others “rode the rails,” which usually meant they snuck upon a moving freight train car illegally. But those who travelled on the road made their way on a byway they called “the Mother Road,” or old Route 66.
People coming from Oklahoma would pass through Shamrock and Amarillo, Texas, then Tucumcari and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Holbrook, Flagstaff, and Kingman, Arizona, and finally Needles and Barstow, California. People had many stories about their journeys across America to California. For instance, in the book Children of the Dust Bowl by Jerry Stanley, the author tells of Rosalene Long, who remembered that the family got caught in a flood in Gallup, New Mexico and was forced to hide out for a week in a large tin building with twelve other families until the flood waters subsided.
Many people didn’t have enough money to get to California without stopping, so they worked along the way. They might pick cotton in Texas until they earned enough money to reach Arizona, where they would work enough to reach California. If they ran out of gas, or their truck broke down or got a flat tire, which happened often, some of the men would catch a ride to the nearest town and get an odd job to earn enough money for repairs or gas for the next day.
There were other people, not only the migrants, who must have suffered during this time and in this region such as the people who lived on the land where migrants passed through. In the towns on the Mother Road, for example in the towns of Tucumcari or Albuquerque, it must have been very difficult to see a never-ending flow of humanity going by who needed things, whether money, fuel, food or rest. To have people passing on your road always in need when you yourself may not have had a lot, must have been a great burden.
The migrant families would often camp by the side of roads at the end of the day and eat sugar-cured bacon stuffed in lard cans and if they were lucky, they had a meal of carrots and boiled potatoes. Everything they needed for that night was placed outside of their cars. They would cook, sleep outside, bathed if they were near water and did whatever it took to get going the next day. Between the harsh terrain and unreliable vehicles, the trip to California was a difficult one. They had to cross over the Black Mountains between Kingman and Needles. Then, once over, they had to cross 143 miles of Mojave Desert. This is where often fan belts stopped working, radiators cracked, and the floorboards turned into frying pans of 120 degrees or even more. Because of the intense heat, most people traveled the desert at night.
When people finally reached California, they rejoiced as if their problems blew away in the wind. And when they saw the vast stretch of orchards endlessly in all directions, there were lots of tears of joy and relief, and thoughts of the money they could make working in those fields. However, this joy did not last long. The travelers soon found out that California wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Signs reading “No Jobs Here” or “Looking for Work? Keep Out” were found to be frequent landmarks in every town. There were too many workers and not enough jobs. California growers had over-advertised the number of workers needed to do the farming. This situation worked perfectly for the growers, because the high number of workers drove down wages. A grower might offer to hire someone for 25 cents an hour, a poverty wage even then. If a worker wouldn’t take the job because his family couldn’t live on 25 cents an hour, the growers didn’t care because there was always someone willing to work for that little. What California offered to migrant workers of the Dust Bowl in many cases was more hunger and misery.
This is why John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath. He described what the migrant workers faced during their first months in California, calling it a “dead time.” His book drew the attention of America to the condition of the migrant workers.
"And then the dispossessed were drawn west—from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land." John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939
A modern author who depicts the Dust Bowl using not prose but verse is Karen Hesse. Her 1997 book Out of the Dust describes the Dust Bowl using poetic language that makes the entire story she tells seem almost like flowing dust. The story is about a girl growing up during the Dust Bowl who encounters trials of the time that are described in many nonfiction accounts, such as corralling the wild jackrabbits that were multiplying to a frightening degree, grasshopper infestations, and of course the smothering dust storms.But in the 1930s, writers and artists helped focus the attention of America on the people of the Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange was one artist who would have a direct connection to New Mexico. Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895 on the 28th of May. When she was seven, she contracted polio, which gave her an obvious limp. At the age of twelve, she walked through downtown Manhattan to meet her mother after school when she discovered before her a wealth of visual imagery in buildings and people. She found photography wasn’t just the click of a button or the flash of a camera. The camera had to understand the person and vice versa to make the picture count and have meaning.
She was hired by the government’s Farm Service Administration to document effects of the Depression. Sometimes she would come upon a camp where refugees from the Dust Bowl were trying to get by. She would talk to them until they felt comfortable having her take their pictures. She thought her limp helped her create an instant link between herself and her subjects. At times she believed the people trusted her more because she wasn’t “whole or secure” like them, which might have made them more inclined to talk to her. When she was in California photographing homeless families looking for work, she took what is probably her most famous picture, known as “Migrant Mother.”
Lange once said, “I had to get my camera to register things that were more important than how poor they were – their pride, their strength, their spirit.” Though most of her works were of Oklahoma and California, she also took memorable pictures in New Mexico. One of my favorite pictures by Dorothea Lange is of a girl sitting near a broken fireplace in a room with a bed, a wooden bench, a window, and cracked floorboards.
The picture was taken in Bosque Farms, where the girl had relocated to from Taos Junction in December 1935. It has the caption, "Resettled farm child. From Taos Junction to Bosque Farms project, New Mexico." I like the composition and lighting of the photograph, and the environment the girl is living in. These photographs by Dorothea Lange give a sense of what the New Mexico Dust Bowl looked like. The pictures relate New Mexico to the other states of the Dust Bowl in their images of depression, dust, and unsureness.
Historians have made this New Mexico connection clear also. One writer addressed the area of Mills, NM, where Dorothea Lange had taken many photographs:
“At Mills [NM], on the high plains of eastern New Mexico in Harding County, dust storms became routine in March, April and May 1935. Soil filled furrows and left fields rippled with miniature dunes. It drifted over fences and up the sides of farm buildings….The sheer discomfort of blowing sand drove families away from the area. Employees of the federal government’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration in Mills reported that “the physical discomfort and menace to health occasioned by the almost continuous blinding dust storms which have swept the area during the past three months have rendered it distinctly unsuitable for human occupancy….Three years later things had not improved much.” Geoffrey Cunfer, The Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment, p. 143.
The author also says, “Today Mills no longer exists except as a sign by a lonely state highway and a few foundations hidden beneath the sea of dry grass.”
From what I can determine, the most likely counties in New Mexico that were affected by the Dust Bowl were Union, Harding, Quay, some of Roosevelt, a part of De Baca, most of Gallup and San Miguel, Mora, and the eastern half of Taos County. Even in a current history of Harding County in New Mexico on the Harding County website, there is an admission that “Harding County has never recovered from the Great Plains Dust Bowl.”
The Dust Bowl didn’t happen all at once but was a collection of problems that built up until they all came crashing down upon the nation during the 1930s. A combination of drought and poor farming techniques might not have been so bad for a little while, but the endlessness is what led to the loss of hope among citizens. So people set off in the largest human migration in U.S. history to California, where they thought things would be better. These times were captured by artists and writers so that this point in America would never be forgotten, and we might learn from the mistakes in the past so that they are not repeated in the future.
Brown, Harriet. Welcome to Kit’s World. Malaysia: Pleasant Company Publications. 2002.
Cunfer, Geoffrey. The Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. Texas A&M University Press, 2005.
DeAngelis, Therese and Gina. The Dust Bowl. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002.
Hesse, Karen. Out of the Dust. Broadway, New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.
Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl. New York: Random House, Inc. 1992.
Garrison, Mary Helen. “Harding County History.” Harding County, NM. http://www.hardingcounty.org/History/history.htm (May 14, 2009).
“Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945: The Dust Bowl.” Library of Congress American Memory. http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/timeline/depwwii/dustbowl/dustbowl.html (May 14, 2009).
“U.S. Geological Survey Eolian History of North America.” http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/info/eolian/task1.html (May 14, 2009).