'Black Friday' had different meaning during the Dust Bowl

Monday, November 19, 2012

"Black Friday" is nothing new to the prairie, but 70 years ago, it had a completely different meaning, and could fall on any day of the week.

Ken Burns' "Dust Bowl" program debuted Sunday on Nebraska public television and concludes Wednesday, but thankfully will be viewable other times as well if that doesn't fit into your schedule.

Burns, who has created classic programs about profound topics such as the Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and many others, has produced another must-watch program for anyone who doesn't remember the "Dirty 30s," for anyone who lived through them, and especially for anyone who lives in the Plains states.

Even those who grew up hearing about the dust storms might not have learned of "Black Easter" of Sunday, April 14, 1935. The day started with warm blue skies -- fooling a family in Burns' film into going on a picnic and leaving their windows open, only to see temperatures fall 50 degrees and wind-blown black soil from Canada and the northern Plains fill the family's home with dust and nearly prevent them from getting home at all.

Many of us might not have heard of the "dust pneumonia" that claimed hundreds of people, many of them elderly or very young, or of the powerful static electricity that accompanied the dust storms.

Some of the storms blew dust as far as the White House and hundreds of miles into the Atlantic Ocean, causing some easterners to proposed such hare-brained ideas as paving the entire Plains region or covering the farms with tar paper.

Despite the hardships, most farmers stayed put rather than fleeing to California, a la "Grapes of Wrath," and only a minority of those who did were actually from Oklahoma.

The film correctly points out that the Dust Bowl was both a natural and a manmade disaster, resulting from the breaking up of too much native grass to produce wheat in response to high prices caused by World War I, combined with a decade of drought that should have been easy to predict.

While many will see the film as a call to deal more vigorously with climate change, it also makes a good case for the dangers of unintended consequences. Who could have guessed that misguided federal policy allowing too much fragile land to be broken up for farming, or allowing railroads or unscrupulous land developers to make false claims such as "the rain follows the plow" could have resulted in the Plains being overrun by grasshoppers and jackrabbits?

We're facing another drought similar to the one that kicked off the Dust Bowl years, but, thankfully, conservation measures and irrigation have kept it from having the same results.

Yes, that irrigation is no longer unrestricted, and area Natural Resources Districts are going to extraordinary length to meet the demands of compliance with the Republican River Compact.

But the larger lesson should be that governmental policies and individual response to them must take the long view in order to avoid a repeat of the past's tragic mistakes.

Learn more about the film here.

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