Dry, Dusty 1936
The weather of the Great Depression years brought more bad luck to Iowa—especially in 1936.
The winter of 1936 seemed like one long blizzard. Snowdrifts ten to 15 feet high clogged the roads. Trains could not blast through the drifts on the tracks and had to be dug out. Coal supplies ran low. Schools were closed. Families could afford to heat only a few rooms in their homes.
Drought Dries out the Soil
As the spring of 1936 approached, Iowans hoped that all the snow had been a good sign. Surely the drought of the last few summers was over. As the weather warmed up, farmers searched the sky for signs of rain. "There would be black clouds, just as black as black, and lightning and thunder. The clouds would reach clear to the ground and they'd come rolling in," said J. Bruce Haddock. But the clouds seemed to tease the farmers—rain fell, but "only a few drops."
As the drought continued, the corn crop withered in the fields. "On the Fourth of July," Haddock remembered, "the corn was just as tall as the wheel on the cultivator. And by a month later it was as though someone had pulled it back into the ground."
The Dust Bowl Blows into Iowa
States farther west were suffering from the drought too. As plants died on the Great Plains, there was nothing to hold the soil in place. Winds picked up the soil and carried it in dark, swirling clouds of dust. These states were called the Dust Bowl. But the clouds of dust did not stop at state boundaries. They hit Iowa too.
"The dust settled so thickly on the pastures that the cattle would not eat," author James Hearst wrote later about 1934-1936, "and cows, and calves, and steers wandered about bawling their hunger. We found it hard to believe. We all knew about dust storms in the dry plains of the Southwest, but for drought and wind and dust to sweep, like a plague, over the fertile fields of Blackhawk County, Iowa, seemed a bad dream."
Dust drifted two or three feet high, around fences and buildings. Dust sifted into houses, under doors and through cracks around windows. It filled the air, darkening the day.
"The year I came here to teach," recalled Georgette Haddock, "that fall the dust storms were here. And most of the time for several weeks that fall we'd have our lights on, because it was like evening."
Grasshoppers thrived in the dry, hot weather. They attacked the few crops still growing. Ruby Howorth recalled how grasshoppers on their Crawford County farm seemed to devour everything. "We left a pitchfork sit outside. You could see where they chewed into the wood on the pitchfork. Now that sounds crazy, but that's the truth."
The drought and dust storms taught Americans to protect their soil from wind erosion. Through better soil conservation, Americans tried to correct the disaster of the Dust Bowl years.
- Ginalie Swaim, “Dry, Dusty 1936,” The Goldfinch 7, no. 4 (April 1986: 10.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.