An Amarillo photographer's personal journey through the Dust Bowl- with past and present eyes.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Part 1: On location with Dayton Duncan and Buddy Squires - The Dust Bowl

The day was warm enough - but it was a deceiver. Once the sun set, the cold would set in - fast. It's amazing how quickly it can go from a pleasant day in late March - to a frigid night on the steppes of eastern New Mexico.

My friend (frequent adventure cohort) Ken Hanson and myself had been invited to a small abandoned farm north of Clayton, NM to watch award-wining-cinematographer Buddy Squires and Florentine Films writer/producer Dayton Duncan capture on film the sun setting behind an abandoned Dust Bowl era farmhouse.

I had scouted out this location months earlier. To say it is in the middle of nowhere is an understatement. The landscape is stark and featureless except for a hint of mountains far to the West. There are not many trees - just the ones next to the farmhouse - transplanted no doubt by the former residents - now long gone from this world. It comforts me to think some part of those hardy settlers lives on in this land.

I had discovered the house on my trek from Kenton, Oklahoma while traveling down Highway 406. I had found several abandoned farms along this route. Most were in poor shape- only ramshackle remains and yet some (like this one) were in amazingly decent shape. Weathered -yes, but perfect visual metaphors for the harsh realities of life in the Dust Bowl.

The particular house we are shooting this evening faces northeast - it's backside toward the sun, perfect for a sunset silhouette shot. Plus, after dark comes the magic time - the beautiful graduated cobalt blue to orange sky, typical of this region and quite the perfect setting for the documentary.

On my location scout, I had marked this house on my GPS, photographed it and (just for safety's sake) used Google Maps to make it very easy for the crew to find in the vastness that is northeastern New Mexico.

Ken & I arrived an hour before sunset to find the Dust Bowl crew already set up. Dayton Duncan greeted us warmly and introduced us to the crew and (of course) cinematographer Buddy Squires who was peering through the lens of a 16mm Aaton not too different then the one I used when I was taking cinematography classes some thirty-odd years ago.

Although I was surprised to see they weren't shooting digital - I understood it. Film still looks really great and this crew was - well - old-school.

In fact the whole idea behind Florentine Films is old school - producing historical documentaries like no one else ever has or will do again.

Still, Florentine wasn't mired in the stone-age. Buddy told me the film would be converted to digital and edited on modern non-linear editing system such as Avid.

I have to confess - Buddy Squires is an idol of mine. His work on The National Parks- America's Best Idea was epic. His list of projects is downright staggering and his eye for capturing the beauty of our history is humbling.

As a nature photographer and wannabe film maker, I can connect with what Buddy is trying to convey and can only imagine the difficulty he has encountered in trying to get the perfect shot - which he manages to do quite often. Be it Yellowstone in the dead of winter to capturing the grittiness of Brooklyn street life.

His intimate-style photographic work (especially the one-on-one interviews with WWII veterans in The War) has often been copied - as in HBO's Band of Brothers.

I never get starstruck around celebrities - but I am around Buddy Squires.

I met Dayton Duncan when I was invited by my sister, Shelley Stanton to a sneak-preview and meet & greet with the writer/producer at Amarillo College just before "The National Parks America's Best Idea aired on PBS. KACV had produced their own local tie-in program on our own local natural wonder - Palo Duro Canyon and Dayton Duncan had graciously agreed to hold a lecture for the station.

Before that - I had worked with KACV on a community education outreach-program as a tie in for another Ken Burns documentary "The War." My small part was to take collected video interviews with local WWII veterans and produce a DVD for KACV TV to give the families of the interviewees and as part as an educational package for local schools and for The Panhandle Plains Historical Museum archives.

I had screened The War - and it was magnificent- an intimate document that was begging to be made - not just another overview of dates, major battles, politics and weapons, but the words and views of the veterans themselves and the families involved -the impact on their society and lives.

The War was hard to watch - yet compelling and documentary television at its best.

Therefore when I was given a chance to meet one of the producers, I jumped at the chance.

Myself and Florentine Films producer Dayton Duncan.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Oz in the dust.

Click to enlarge:

Almost as dreaded as the black dusters were the spring twisters.

The clash of dry air with warm moist air coming from the Gulf resulted in inevitable farm and life destroying tornadoes.

During the Dust Bowl - when storms did come they often brought with them tornadoes and very little rain.

Excerpt from The Worst Hard Time - by Timothy Egan

May 6, 1933.


People raced for shelter, praying for deliverance. The tornado touched down in Liberal, Kansas near the Oklahoma border, in the heart of tornado alley. It lifted roofs from barns, knocked down warehouse walls, pushed homes from their foundations. An old broom factory was completely destroyed. Stores were pulverized into piles of sticks. Windows shattered. Downtown was reduced to a heap of timber and sticks. Four people were killed: nearly eight hundred were left without homes. And not long after the tornado swept destroying one of the biggest towns on the High Plains, the mud pellets came again, tossed from the sky, a final insult.

Photographed near Carter, Oklahoma by Steve Douglass

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Out of gas - twice.

Ken Hanson, his father and his 1927 Ford Model T:

Click to enlarge


I enjoyed reading the story on Dust Bowl Echos about the making of the photos simulating a car on Black Sunday using my 1927 Model T Ford. Let me tell your readers, as Paul Harvey would say, “The Rest of the Story”.

When Steve was working with renown film maker Dayton Duncan scouting out locations for photo shoots, he approached me with an idea for some photos using my restored 1927 Model T. The idea was to take the car to a rural road in western Armstrong County near a friends house, and simulate several scenes during the Black Sunday duster.

We loaded up Steve’s camera gear, and drove about 15 miles to a county road south of the Claude Highway east of Pullman Road. We were looking for a rural road similar to what you would see in the 1930’s. During that era, many farms didn’t have electricity yet, so we needed a location without power lines. Also, metal T-Posts weren’t in use, so we needed a field bordered by barbed wire and wooden fence posts. We found several locations.

We spent several hours shooting my car in different locations with assorted backgrounds. As well as still photos, Steve wanted to get several motion picture shots of the car coming and going down the road kicking up dust. We took quite a few shots with the sun in different angles, with the headlights on or off, close up and far off, and so on.

While driving down the road, after a while, I ran out of gas. Model T’s don’t have a gas gage, so I always carry a gallon of gas in the trunk. I know, I know, not very safe, but it sure beats walking! What I didn’t know until I poured it in, there was only a half gallon in the can.

Model T’s get about 25 miles to the gallon, and we were 15 miles from my house. I was sure we would make it, but it would be close. I told Steve we needed to head back now, but ever the dedicated artist, he wanted “Just a few more shots”.

We took several more shots with the car coming down the road from about a half mile away, then loaded up the gear and headed back. We made it to the paved road, and chugged along about 25 miles and hour to maximize the mileage. We almost made it.

We ran out of gas about a mile and a half from my house. Since Steve had a lot of valuable camera gear, and the Model T won’t lock up, I told him to wait in the car and I started walking. He made a bet with himself that I would get picked up within a half mile. He won.

I guess an 80 year old car on the side of the road and someone walking on the shoulder will peak anyone’s interest. Thank goodness we’re in Texas where people are friendly and willing to help. A young couple took me to my house and brought me back with the only gas I had, a half gallon of premix for my weed eater.

I thanked our helpers, poured in the gas, and we headed down the road in a cloud of blue smoke. We only had about five miles to the nearest station, so maybe there wasn’t quite a half gallon. We ran out of gas again within sight of the station. Laughing, Steve bet me I would get picked up before I made it to the station carrying the gas can. He won again.

I bet when he got up that morning, Steve never imagined he would run out of gas twice in a Model T before the day was done.

Thanks for the adventure my friend, let’s don’t do it again! - Ken Hanson

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dusty shoes hanging on a fence post ...

Photographed on an abandoned farm east of Amarillo.
(C) Steve Douglass

nothing but bones

Click to enlarge.

Unknown animal skull found at the bottom of a dried up playa lake bed in the Texas Panhandle.

(C) Steve Douglass

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dust Bowl survivor - Ina K. Labrier

So I am winding my way through the far west Oklahoma Panhandle (on my Dust Bowl location scout) and I happen on Kenton - the furthest-most community in the sooner state and also the highest, elevation 4,350 ft MSL.

A friendly border-collie wags his tail and greets everyone who stops at "The Merc" - the only place to get food or gas or groceries this side of Boise City.

I have plenty of gas - but I could use a meal - and I smell the sweet odor of bacon and burgers wafting out over Kenton, plus - I need information for my location scout.

I discovered a long time ago from my newspaper days if you want to know anything about anything in a small town - stop - buy a meal and talk to the proprietor or wait staff.

Never ask a county cop or anyone in an official capacity. They are naturally suspicious of outsiders - especially city boys with cameras.

If you want the inside info about anything? Ask a waitress.They love to talk.

So I order the special and strike up a conversation with the friendly and attractive woman who cooked up my burger. I tell her who I am and what I'm doing - scouting for a PBS documentary on the Dust Bowl. I ask her if she knew of any "Dust Bowl" looking locations and (or) survivors.

"You need to talk to Ina (pronounced Eye-Nah) - Ina K Labrier at the Hitching Post Ranch just outside of town. She's like a million years old or something and lived through it - as an adult."

"A million years old?" I quipped skeptical.

"Closer to a hundred." she said winking. "But I think she was here before Kenton was." she replied.

I tell myself she sounds like a good lead, but if she's close to a century, I worry she may be an invalid and won't be a very good subject for an interview. I'm also thinking that she probably wouldn't appreciate a no-advanced-warning drop-in from a nosy photographer.

I try and broach the subject- tactfully.

"Is she - um lucid?" I ask.

"Boy is she!" she replied. "I hope I'm half as sharp as Ina is at her age - heck, and that would put me twice as sharp as I am now."

I smile at the remark and before I can ask - she offers.

"Tell ya what - buy a trinket from the store and I'll give Ina a call and warn her you are coming. You passed her place on the way in."

I agree, thank her and begin looking for something to buy.

I wondered how much I should spend for a burger, a trinket and a referral?

The woman (sorry I can't recall her name) picks up a (wired) phone (there is no cell service in Kenton) and steps in the back room to talk in private, the curled cord trailing after her.

I shop for ten minutes and find three items of interest - two photo postcards of Kenton in the Dust Bowl days and a refrigerator magnet from Black Mesa State Park.

Total - including my lunch is just under $20 and that's including a $5 tip. It was a much better burger (real buffalo) than I'd get in Amarillo, and that didn't include the skinny on Ina K Labrier.

After a few minute she returns.

"It's all set. Just give her thirty minutes to get cleaned up for company. Take a tour of the town - maybe three. It's that small."

I like her sense of humor and I laugh. I add a bottled water to my items, pay her and thank her profusely. It was interesting to note that the water cost almost as much as my meal. Water (like everything else in Kenton) has to be trucked in.

I step outside and the town dog greets me, again. I pat him on the head - he licks my hand - undoubtedly smelling the buffalo burger - but he finds no treat and saunters away and plunks down under a shade tree.

I decide to take the advice and tour the town. I have time to kill and it's kind of a cool little burg.

I explore the ruins of an old stone building across the street - shoot several photos then I spot a small church down the road.

Kenton is picturesque - quaint - a throwback of a Western town.

If it wasn't for the modern cars and satellite dishes on the roofs of the houses, it could easily serve as a set from a 1950s movie, such as To Kill A Mockingbird - except there is no courthouse.

I learn later the county seat is in Boise City and is still a bone of contention between Kenton and the Sooner city to the east. Kenton used to be the county seat - but it was moved to Boise City shortly after statehood. Some "Kentonites?" think the town suffered for it and as a result it never really grew beyond its' present size.

From a photographers' perspective - I think it's a blessing.

I look at my watch and I've surprised I've spent almost an hour taking photos.

It strikes me that (as opposed to Amarillo) nobody seems to worry about this stranger and his camera shooting photos of their town.

No one calls the constable and in fact the people I encountered were quite friendly - and helpful.

Although there is no cell phone service in Kenton, apparently the grapevine is working well and several citizens come out to ask me if I was the man from the "Weather Channel" who was working on a Dust Bowl story. They were so nice I decided not to correct them.

I gladly and hastily jotted down directions they give me to abandoned 1930s-era sod homes, barns and windmills - all highly sought after locations on Florentine Films' shooting list.

I take the road east out of town a find Ina's place - right where the gal at the Merc told me it would be. I slowly turn into the gravel drive and pull up to a tidy painted stone and stucco house sporting a new metal roof and what looks like a CB antenna.

Out front is Ina Labrier - pretty in pink and waiting for me - standing on the sidewalk leading to her home - assisted by a walker. I hope she hasn't been waiting long.

This woman is in her 90s? I ask myself.

There's got to be something said for country living. I couldn't help but wonder.

"You must be that young man from the Weather Channel." she says.

I smile at her words. I'm in my early 50s and she thinks I'm a young man. My grand kids think I'm oh so old and yet - by her perspective I'm only a few years past half her age.

I shake her hand and introduce myself and tell her who I am, where I'm from and what I am doing.

"They told me at the Merc you were the one to talk to about the Dust Bowl days?"

"The Merc?" Did you see my dog?" she asks.

"Black and white border collie?" I reply.

"Yes - he's supposed to be here but he's a mooch - always hanging around the store - begging. I was worried he had been hit."

"He's there holding down the shade under a tree." I assure her.

"Oh - he's okay." she replies. "I feed him but he prefers to beg." she says.

She glances up at the blue sky for a second. It's a rare windless day in March and quite warm.

"Let me get us a chair and we'll sit out here and talk." she says. "It's such a pretty day and my parlor is kind of - not set up for company right now."

A parlor - I smile again as I contemplate a word that clearly defines the age Ina grew up in.

I hadn't heard the word used since my Mom's grandmother passed away some 30-odd years ago.

She motions me over to two plastic Walmart chairs like she's shooing flies. I set them up side by side.

She lowers herself into one and lets out a slight grunt.

I do that too. I wanted to say but don't.

For the next ninety minutes we talk about the Dust Bowl - which she recalls with amazing clarity. I scramble to keep up with her as I jot down notes. I find out she's 97 - and she's as sharp as a razor.

She remembers everything - as if it happened yesterday - places, dates, people who have long passed from this world and refers to them like I know them as well.

"Well you know how stubborn John was. He wanted to watch the storms roll in and there was nothing I could do about it."

It turns out she was in her twenties during the Dirty 30s - lived in Western Colorado not far from Kenton and taught in a little one room school house. She described the "black blizzards" and the mother of all dusters on April, 14, 1935 - now known as Black Sunday.

I take out my Nikon from my camera bag. I feel compelled to take some shots of her for the record.

"Can I take a few photos?" I ask her hesitantly.

"Is this going to be on TV? she asks. "I wish I could have had my hair done - but I guess it's all right." she trails off.

"No, I'm not the TV crew - they'll call in a few weeks and set up a proper appointment." I assure her. "These are just for my notes."

I try and be discrete - asking before each shot. Ina doesn't seem to mind and she seems to think it's a movie camera.

When we get back to talking about the Dust Bowl - she seems to forget I'm photographing her and gets this far-off look in her still sparkling eyes.

She describes the dusty-blackness, farm animals killed "outright" by the dirt and friends who died years later from ingesting silica into their lungs - much like Black Lung disease killed miners in the coal mines in Appalachia.

"We thought it was the end of the world." she says. "It was so black ..."

And to my surprise she softly sings:

"So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-getting’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.

I study her face - her hard life is written on it like a map. She gets wistful at times, her words catching in her throat as she recalls, husbands, family and friends long gone.

She looks up - and I'm holding my Nikon to my eye. I take the shot - she doesn't react.

The sun is starting to sink behind the mesa and I have to go.

I thank her, give her my card and tell her she'll be contacted by the production company. She takes it and shakes my hand.

"Do you know when this will be on The Weather Channel?" she asks.

"I think in in 2012 - but not exactly sure when." I reply.

"Well, I hope I'm alive to see it- young man." she says. "I'm not getting any younger."

Her half-serious comment takes me off-guard as the meaning sinks in.

I hope she lives to see it too.

-Steve Douglass

PS: As I write this (March, 2012) I couldn't help but check the Cimmaron County records to see if Ina Labrier was still with us - and as it turns out she is.

She's now 99 years young and probably still wondering where her dog is and watching The Weather Channel for her story.

Spring - the slow awakening.

Despite the drought - trees tapped into deep water are beginning to bud. Photographed just west of Amarillo.

-Steve Douglass

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

First Hand Accounts: A "Dust Bowl Diary"

Source material: "Dust Bowl Diary"
Anne Marie Low

In addition to the Great Depression, during the 1930s residents of the Great Plains endured the worst drought recorded in the history of the United States. Crops failed and livestock died. Huge dust storms turned day into night covering the area in clouds of dirt, soot, and dust.

Ann Marie Low lived in southeastern North Dakota. Born in 1912, Ann Marie kept diaries from 1927 to 1937. The diary describes the daily struggle with the dust storms that invaded North Dakota, and it conveys the hard work (usually without benefit of electricity) that was the lot of women on the farm.

The last entry in her diary, dated June 4, 1937, when she was twenty-five years old, records her frustration at her lost youth and the bleak prospects for the future: “This is a round that will go on forever. At least it will go on until my youth is gone. Somehow, I’ve got to get out!!”

April 25, 1934 Wednesday

Last weekend was the worst dust storm we ever had. We’ve been having quite a bit of blowing dirt every day since the drought started, not only here, but all over the Great Plains. Many days this spring the air is just full of dirt coming…for hundreds of miles. It sifts into everything. After we wash the dishes and put them away, so much dust sifts into the cupboards we must wash them again before the next meal. Clothes in the closets are covered with dust.

Last weekend no one was taking an automobile out for fear of ruining the motor. I rode Roany to Frank’s place to return a gear. To find my way I had to ride right besides the fence post to the next.

Newspapers say the deaths of many babies and old people are attributed to breathing in so much dirt.

May 7, 1934 Monday

The dirt is still blowing. Last weekend Bud (her brother) and I helped with the cattle and had fun gathering weeds. Weeds give us greens for salad long before anything in the garden is ready…

Still no job. I’m trying to persuade Dad that I should apply for rural school #3 out here where we go to school. I don’t see a chance of getting a job in high school when so many experienced teachers are out of work.

He argues that the pay is only $60.00 a month out here, while even in a grade school in time I might get $75.00. Extra expenses in town would probably eat up that extra $15.00. Miss Eston, the practice teaching supervisor, told me her salary has been cut to $75.00 after all the years she has been teaching in Jamestown. She wants to get married. School boards will not hire married women teachers in these hard times because they have husbands to support them. Her fiancĂ© is the sole support of his widowed mother and can’t support a wife, too. So she is just stuck in her job, hoping she won’t get another salary cut because she can scarcely love on what she makes and dress the way she is expected to.

May 21, 1934, Monday

Ethel has been having stomach trouble. Dad has been taking her to doctors through suspecting her trouble is the fact that she often goes on a diet that may affect her health. The local doctor said he might be chronic appendicitis, so Mama took Ethel by train to Valley City last week to have a surgeon there remove her appendix.
Saturday Dad, Bud, and I planted an acre of potatoes. There was so much dirt in the air I couldn’t see Bud only a few feet in front of me. Even the air in the house was just a haze. In the evening the wind died down, and Cap came to take me to the movie. We joked about how hard it is to get cleaned up enough to go anywhere.

The newspapers report that on May 10 there was such a strong wind that experts in Chicago estimated 12,000,000 tons of Plains soil was dumped on that city. By the next day the sun was obscured in Washington D.C., and ships 300 miles out at sea reported dust settling on their decks.

Sunday the dust wasn’t so bad. Dad and I drove cattle to the Big pasture. Then I churned butter and baked ham, bread, and cookies for the men, as no telling when mama will be back.

May 30, 1934, Wednesday

Ethel got along fine, so mama left her at the hospital and came to Jamestown by train Friday. Dad took us both home.

The mess was incredible! Dirt had blown into the house all week and lay inches deep on everything. Every towel and curtain was just black. There wasn’t a clean dish or cooking utensil. There was no food. Oh, there were eggs and milk and on loaf left of the breas I baked the weekend before. I looked in the cooler box down the well (our refrigerator) and found a little ham and eggs for the men’s supper because that was all we could fix in a hurry. It turned out they had been living on ham and eggs for two days.

Mama was very tired. After she had fixed started for bread, I insisted she go to bed and I’d do all the dishes.

It took until 10 o’clock to wash all the dirty dishes. That’s not wiping them—just washing them. The cupboards had to be washed to have a clean place to put them.

Saturday was a busy day. Before starting breakfast I had to sweep and wash all the dirt off the kitchen and dining room floors, wash the stove, pancake griddle, and dining room table and chairs. There was cooking, baking, and churning to be done for those hungry men. Dad is 6 feet 4 inches tall, with a big frame. Bud is 6 feet 3 inches and almost as big boned as Dad. We say feeding him is like filling a silo.

Mama couldn’t make bread until I carried water to wash the bread mixer. I couldn’t churn until the churn was washed and scalded. We just couldn’t do anything until something was washed first. Every room had to have dirt almost shoveled out of it before we could wash floors and furniture.

We had no time to wash clothes, but it was necessary. I had to wash out the boiler, wash tubs, and the washing machine before we could use them. Then every towel, curtain, piece of bedding, and garment had to be taken outdoors to have as much dust as possible shaken out before washing. The cistern is dry, so I had to carry all the water we needed from the well.

That evening Cap came to take me to the movie, as usual…I’m sorry I snapped at Cap. It isn’t his fault, or anyone’s fault, but I was tired and cross.

Life is what the newspapers call “the Dust Bowl” is becoming a gritty nightmare.

The Black Sunday Photo Project

Click to enlarge:

Archive photo: Source: Library of Congress

"Black Sunday" -1935

So what was it like? I asked myself as I tried to visualize Black Sunday.

Yes, we've had our recent wave of dust storms that kind of sort of gave me an idea what it must have felt like to live through the "Dirty 30s" but what about Black Sunday itself?

Imagine a wall of dirt, boiling, thousands of feet high, undulating and moving at you at 60 mph. As it closes it slowly blots out the sun - you can see a dark border - like a window shade being drawn across the landscape - passing over the grasslands.

No wonder Dust Bowl survivors describe it as looking "like the end of the world" coming.

When I interviewed one dust Bowl survivor he said:

"It started as a beautiful Spring day. We skipped church and decided to go for a picnic. We grabbed some sandwiches and bought some sodas at the five and dime and headed out north of town to a field filled with wild flowers.

We ate our lunch and were just enjoying the day - when suddenly a huge flock of birds - vultures - then crows - sparrows - and about anything that could fly - suddenly appeared in waves flying toward town.

And then I saw it - this dark line on the horizon. It looked like a clear glass jug filling up with muddy water - but it wasn't water. It was dirt.

The closer it came the blacker it became. Prudence being the better part of survival Dad decided we'd better head back into town. We had seen our share of black blizzards but this storm was like nothing we had ever seen.

It looked like the end and it was coming our way.

We quickly packed the car and headed toward Spearman - hoping the Model T could outrun the storm. We rattled toward town - not even slowing down for the bone-shaking ruts. I watched through the back window as the duster gained on us - and finally overtook us, however we were just on the leading edge so visibility wasn't zero.

By the time we hit the main road we could make enough speed to put almost a mile between us and the duster. I breathed a sigh of relief when we got to the edge of town.

Daddy, who always liked watching the weather, turned the Ford around to watch the storm roll in - now that we were close to buildings to take shelter in. Mom took us into the General store where dozens of town folk had gathered to take shelter.

I remember worrying about my father, although I could see him through the window sitting in the Ford.

It started getting darker and dustier and harder to breathe. The store owner took some cloth off a roll and we cut it into strips to put over our mouth and noses to filter out the dust.

Just before it was almost so dark we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces - and I was sure our father was lost - he and about ten other men came through the door and into the store, followed closely by a wave of thick dust.

And then midnight struck at midday. The dust was so thick that even the lamps inside could barely be seen. It was like living inside a coal bin. Father huddled behind the counter with us and w
e waited out the black. It would be four hours before we could see our hands again." - Spearman Texas dust bowl survivor.

With this story this story etched in my mind - I began my "Black Sunday Photo Project." my attempt to re-create (digitally) what the day might have looked like.

To accomplish this - I poured over hundreds of historical photos and descriptions and through using a combination of digital photography and Photoshop - do my best to create the photos I would have taken if I had lived during Black Sunday.

My first idea was to I call my good friend Ken Hanson - who owns several vintage automobiles of the Dust Bowl Era - a 1927 Ford Model T - a 1934 Ford Flat Head Ford Truck and a 1931 Model A Ford.

We took out the Model T first, on a dusty day in March. We found some rutted back roads and I shot several hundred frames. I then imported them into my computer and set to work. Using some amazing NIK filter plugins I began digitally altering the pristine color images that more matched the vision of Black Sunday inside my head.

This first image shows the Model T as it may have looked - straddling the road and watching the storm approach, much like a modern-day storm spotter would. I imagined "dad" as being the 1930s version of a storm chaser: I added noise and sepia to age the photo digitally.

My second attempt was at illustrating the Ford fleeing the duster. I combined a shot of Ken's Model T with a shot I had taken years earlier of the top of a severe thunderstorm. I also softened the image to match the not-so-sharp lenses of the day - like maybe one on a box Brownie.

My next attempt hardly required any editing - the Model T enveloped in dust. Ken just drove down the dirt road until he had kicked up enough dirt. I did add some sepia filters and some noise to muddy the image.

And finally I tried to replicate the look of the approaching Black Blizzard - using a frame I had shot of a Dust Bowl era abandoned building I found in Dallam County. I merged that photo with another I had taken of an approaching storm front.

Again I digitally aged it - sepia toned it although most images from the era are black and white - unless they weren't fixed properly or faded by the sun. I also added some faux-lint and a few faux negative scratches just for good measure.

One more - again using a severe thunderstorm I photographed as a stand-in for our black duster. Also shot in rural Dallam County, in the northwest Texas Panhandle.

Stay tuned for more photos soon.

-Steve Douglass

Monday, March 12, 2012

The most famous Dust Bowl era portrait ...

The photograph that has become known as "Migrant Mother" is one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo, California.

Lange was concluding a month's trip photographing migratory farm labor around the state for what was then the Resettlement Administration. In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience:

"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions.

I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.

She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it."
(From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

The images were made using a Graflex camera. The original negatives are 4x5" film. It is not possible to determine on the basis of the negative numbers (which were assigned later at the Resettlement Administration) the order in which the photographs were taken.

There are no known restrictions on the use of Lange's "Migrant Mother" images. A rights statement for the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information black-and-white negatives is available online HERE.


Related Links: Dust Bowl Heroine Update


Music of the Dust Bowl Era - Woody Guthrie "This Land is Your Land."

Unmistakably the most recognized song from the Dust Bowl era ...


1932- announcement in the Texan newspaper.

Rabbit drives became popular in the Plains states because because the rodents were considered a major nuisance, gobbling up all the remaining agriculture - ripping alfalfa out by the roots and not to mention - during the hard times rabbits became a source of food - for poverty-stricken families of the Dust Bowl.

Newspapers and county agricultural groups began sponsoring "rabbit roundups and drives " that grew to be quite popular. On any given Sunday - moms and dads, ranchers and church goers would meet in a field to round up and club the rabbits.

The warm weather of the early 1930s coupled with the lack of rainfall eliminated many of the natural conditions that killed young rabbits. By 1935 the Wichita Beacon estimated there were 8,000,000 rabbits in 30 western Kansas counties. The worst years were 1934 and 1935. Desperate farmers called them "Hoover hogs" after the U. S. President Herbert Hoover who was generally blamed for the Great Depression. The rabbits were eating what few crops had survived, depriving cattle of badly needed feed.

Several counties tried offering bounties of one to four cents per rabbit, but Hodgeman County stopped paying bounties at 44,000 rabbits when the cost became more than the county could bear. Strapped farmers couldn't afford to waste precious ammunition shooting them.

Cattlemen estimated that feed for 200,000 cattle was saved by these attempts to control the jackrabbit. The remains of the rabbits were used as feed for other animals. Relatively few were eaten by humans because of the fear of a disease known as "rabbit fever," introduced into the rabbit population earlier in the 1930s. Some rabbit pelts were sold for about three cents each.

Rabbit drives were a means by which farmers could directly improve their economic condition, which was being attacked by a variety of destructive forces in the mid-1930s. Though gruesome by today's standards, the drives fostered a sense of community as farm families struggled to survive during the worst years of the Dust Bowl and the Depression.

Today these rabbit drives would seem quite barbaric, but when faced with starvation became quite the necessity to those living in the Dust Bowl.

Despite the carnage - there are still plenty of jack rabbits in the Texas Panhandle - but with careful land management - seasonal culls and restrictions on hunting their natural enemies - the massive hoards of rabbits like those of the 1930s will hopefully remain a thing of the past.

Around Amarillo (now) a bigger pest are the(unfortunately cute) prairie dog. Tourists love them - but farmers hate them with a passion.

There are hundreds of thousands of them in and on the outskirts of Amarillo. They eat the wheat, burrow into the land an leave large holes for cattle and horses to step in and break their ankles.

It's illegal to poison them - but not shoot at them- especially if you are on your own land outside the city. Unfortunately this has had the effect of driving the prairie dogs into residential neighborhoods, which has caused a bigger problem - plague - carried by fleas that inhabited the dogs.

"Melt White had disobeyed his daddy and gone to the rabbit drive. He did not take part but watched at the edge of the slaughter, As citizens of Dalhart closed in, the boy cringed at the sounds: swinging clubs, whoops and hollers, and the anguished howls - he told his mama he heard the rabbits cry - as they died.

He ran to his house with the tarpaper roof and carried with him the nightmares that never left."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dirt farming ...

Photographed just west of Amarillo, Texas. The drought continues to drag on.

-Steve Douglass

Driving in the gritty city

More dust forecast - sneeze-cough-wheeze.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dust so thick ...

Click to enlarge:

Another Amarillo duster - third one this month and it's only March 6.

Today was a warm and pleasant day until around 3PM when the winds began to blow - kicking up a thousand feet thick layer of dirt around the city.

As the sun set into this layer - it was at times so thick - it worked like welders' glass and so filtered the light - one could see sunspots.

The dust is very pretty at sunset - but other than for making some spectacular sites - most of us in the Texas Panhandle are quickly growing weary of it.

Thursday night they are forecasting a snow - maybe a few inches which (hopefully) wil settle the dirt for awhile.

Pray for snow.

-Steve Douglass

Wow - I just learned that NASA solar telescopes recorded ( at about the same time I was photographing this) a "Coronal Mass Ejection" which was "One of the largest since July 2000 and may already having impacts on radio, GPS and other communications.

It may also bring the northern lights or aurora borealis down to the southern U.S. in coming nights."

Music of the Dust Bowl Era - Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Refugee

"All that's between us and the north wind is a barbed wire fence."- unknown.

Friday, March 2, 2012

1950s documentary on The Dust Bowl

"Maybe we sinned in ways we do not know."

"I think we have the thing licked now and we won't see anymore Dust Bowl Days."

Out of the dust - a wild rose.

Click to enlarge:

The long drought takes it's toll - on the grasses - the leaves - even the weeds.

When the winds come everything turns to dust and blows away.

Still, there is hope when Spring returns - the rains will come
and this desert rose will bloom again.

(C) Steve Douglass

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Music of the Dust Bowl Era - Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Blues

Nobody told the story of the Dirty Thirties in music better than Woody Guthrie. Give it a listen - it will take you back there.

-Steve Douglass

Into the great wide open ...

Click to enlarge:

When the winds come whipping through Texas and they happen upon a freshly plowed field - it will sometimes lift the topsoil straight up into the Panhandle sky - making for an amazing sight.

They call it a "haboob" a middle-eastern term, usually look like a rolling wall of dirt.

I caught this one as it was just beginning to lift into the atmosphere and before it began to roll.

Beautiful but not when you are enveloped by one.

Photo by Steve Douglass
All rights reserved.

Panhandle duster - from the air.

Click to enlarge:

A couple days ago we had a particularly bad dust storm. Great plumes of dirt were lifted into the sky by strong SW winds and deposited it on Amarillo and the surrounding plains.

An Amarilo NWS service employee shot the above image on his iphone - looking out the window on the duster below as he flew over the Texas Panhandle.

Somewhere below is yours truly - and several hundred thousand people - all swearing and wiping the grit from their watering eyes.

Photo courtesy Stephen Bilodeau NWS Amarillo - all rights reserved.

Flying on a dusty day ....

Click to enlarge.

Normally during our dusters - not much flies if it doesn't have to. I found this Red Tailed Hawk hunkered down on a telephone pole riding out the storm I could see through my telephoto lens his eyes were closed to keep out the grit - and as a result I was able to get very close.

Normally hawks fly away at the approach of my car- but not that day. The wind was so loud I'm sure he had trouble hearing me - or he just didn't care.

I set my camera at the sweet spot - carefully framing where I thought he would fly- and exposed for a silhouette - back-lit by the weak sun trying to pierce through the dust storm.

With one hand on the camera shutter and one on my car horn I triggered them both holding them down.

He bolted as I shot five quick frames.

This was the best.

Photo by (C) Steve Douglass
Requires permission for reproduction.

Red flags are flying ...

The Sun struggles to cut through the dirt - and all that can be seen is a vaporous halo where ol' Sol used to be.

Photographed just south of Amarillo, Texas, February 29, 2012.

Click to enlarge photo
(C) Steve Douglass

Another day in Amarillo, another duster forecast. Yes, we are used to the winds of February and March. The atmosphere here is almost always in motion.

Early settlers understood this and used the wind to pump life-giving moisture out of the aquifer.

Thousands of windmills dot the landscape from South Texas up into Canada. Today we are harnessing the wind and turning it into electricity as evident by the many wind- charger farms that are multiplying like Texas jackrabbits.

But since the drought began - about two years ago- and since the dying grasslands have no grip on the soil - whenever the winds get up, so does the earth. On days like these you can feel it on your teeth, your ears and especially your eyes.

It seeps into our cars, our homes and our lungs. It gets into everything and it is getting steadily worse.

A few days ago (overnight) we received some much needed rain. It came in the form of drizzle and by the morning we had received almost a quarter of an inch.

But by mid-morning the winds got their back up - soon gusting upwards to sixty miles an hour and in no time the moisture we needed so badly - had been stripped away.

By late afternoon it was like walking in a brown dream. Dust hung everywhere and settled over the city like a brown blizzard.

The highways quickly became accident-ways as brownouts caused by blowing soil made for multi-car pileups.

But still - with all the grit in the air - with all the mobile real estate which we all ingested in one way or another - it was nothing compared what Dust Bowl survivors endured.

Imagine not being able to see inside your own home - or having to breathe through a damp rag because to ingest the air was like trying to inhale inside a flour sack?

That's what happened on Black Sunday - April 14 1935.

Today the winds will gust, the dirt will fly and it will continue to strip away the soil until there's not much of it left.

Then again will come the true dusters - like that of Black Sunday.

Pray for rain.

-Steve Douglass

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