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The Storm that Stirred the Dust Bowl: November 11, 1933

Among the states hardest hit by the Great Depression was California. California’s industries — the growing of fruit (thought more of a luxury than a staple by most Americans), motion pictures, and vacation spots — were of the sort to suffer most hurt during an economic downturn. Moreover, with its regions of mellifluous climate, California attracted the out-of-work from across the nation; they thought it would easier to bear poverty in a pleasant clime than in the regions where harsh winters prevailed. They also increased the number of poor unemployed in the state.

Photograph by Dorothea Lange of a “young migratory mother, originally from Texas"

The poverty of the Depression received little effective response from California’s state government. The governor, James “Sunny Jim” Rolph ignored New Deal solutions to the crisis and continued the policies of the Hoover administration. When Rolph died after a heart attack on June 2, 1934, the lieutenant governor, Frank Merriam, assumed the governorship and perpetuated Rolph’s policies.

Upton Sinclair

For the November 1934 election, the Democratic Party nominated a surprising gubernatorial candidate — the author and former Socialist Party member, Upton Sinclair. In a self-authored pamphlet, I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future, Sinclair promoted a plan that, he said, would end poverty in California. EPIC (End Poverty In California) he called the plan that proposed a series of state land colonies or communes where the unemployed could be put to work on farming projects under the direction of agricultural experts. The state, too, could set idle factories running, said Sinclair, and employ even more workers. Sinclair called for the abolition of the sales tax and the removal of all property taxes on houses and ranches valued at $3,000 or under, while he favored a steeply graduated income tax (targeted at wealthier citizens) and increased inheritance, public utility, and corporation taxes. Though his policies were considered radical by New Deal Democratic standards (and opposed by the Republican candidate, Governor Merriam, and the third party candidate, Raymond Haight of the Commonwealth-Progressive Party), it appeared for a time that Sinclair might pull off an electoral win in the Golden State. He received the endorsement of such famous American writers and intellectuals as Theodore Dreiser, Archibald MacLeish, and Clarence Darrow. The radio priest, Father Coughlin, came out in support of Sinclair’s program.

But Sinclair faced an unlikely opponent — the weather. Not the weather in California, but a drought in the Great Plains. With profits to be made in farming following the Great War, the grasslands of the Plains (in the region west of the 100th meridian) had been turned from cattle raising to wheat growing. These regions, however, enjoyed little rainfall (about 20 inches a year) and relied on the native grasses growing there to anchor the soil against erosion. Concerned more for profits than for proper cultivation, and encouraged by extraordinary rainfalls in the 1920s, farmers engaged in poor soil management and overcultivation. But already in the 1920s, overcultivation had so eroded soils in 100 counties in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, that they were declared “dust bowls” — unfit for further cultivation.

A dust storm in Texas, 1935

But the worst was yet to come — and it came on November 11, 1933. Strong wind storms hit drought stricken fields in South Dakota, driving before them the exposed soil. By noon, the sky was darker than night, and in a matter of hours fields were turned to drifting sand while soil dunes covered roads, trees, buildings, and farming machines. From South Dakota, the winds continued into the south, toward Texas, spreading similar destruction. By 1934, storms had spread the “Dust Bowl,” as it was called, into the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma and included 756 counties in 19 states. The devastation was apocalyptic. According to statistics from the National Resources Board, by 1934, 35 million acres of arable land had been completely obliterated, 125 million acres were nearly gone, and 100 million more acres faced similar destruction.

Farmers in the Dust Bowl regions had already been suffering from falling prices, foreclosures, and unemployment. Larger farms, run with farm machinery, had displaced thousands of workers. Now, drought and destructive winds forced a vast migration of the poverty-stricken from the region stretching from the Dakotas to Texas — and it was the lure of California’s rich agricultural lands that drew them. Families, utterly wretched, piled all their earthly belongings in ramshackle cars and headed west. Arriving in California, these migrants (derisively called “Okies” because some many came from Oklahoma) glutted the migrant farm labor market. Paid low wages and suffering violence from organized police resistance in support of California growers, the migrants discovered that they had not left poverty, suffering, and injustice behind them.

A Dust Bowl refugee migrant worker standing in a field in Kern County, California

Californians, already suffering from the Depression, regarded the Okies as a rapacious and potentially revolutionary horde. During the state election of 1934, Upton Sinclair’s political opponents capitalized on this fear. Even chicanery was brought into play to promote Governor Merriam and to paint Sinclair as the harbinger of a socialist revolution, such as had transformed Russia in 1917. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios in Hollywood stepped into the political fray, requiring its employees to support the anti-Sinclair campaign with money and to act in fake newsreels. One such newsreel depicted criminals and prostitutes pouring from freight trains (they were really extras from Hollywood movie sets) and described them as the dreaded Okie invaders. Some rowdy “migrants,” wearing fake beards and speaking with “Russian” accents, declared that they warmly supported Sinclair’s policies. “Vell, his system vorked vell in Russia, vy can’t it vork here?” they declaimed.

Fear that Sinclair’s EPIC plan was more radical than it appeared was one element, it seems, that won the election for Governor Merriam, who beat the author-candidate by a margin of 250,000 votes. Merriam returned to Sacramento, while Sinclair again took up his pen. His next offering to the reading public of America was the book, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked.

The Garden of Eden Ain’t a Sugar Bowl

In this song, the Okie folk singer, Woodie Guthrie, describes how expensive it was for those who escaped the Dust Bowl to live in California.

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