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

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."
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