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

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
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...