GGN Thread About Nothing #209: I Ain't Got No Home


Welcome to the 209th edition of the Thread About Nothing.

The promised land. That's what the southern plains looked like to settlers who came west in the early 20th century. Endless miles of lush green grass and rich tillable soil. What those newcomers didn't realize was that they were arriving during one brief moment in a land that went through long cycles of rain and drought.

Even as the Great Depression gripped the rest of the country, times were good for wheat farmers on the southern plains. Railroad companies profited from rail cars loaded with harvested wheat and urged farmers to plant more. Fortunes were made by speculators and banks encouraged farmers to take out loans for homes, land, and farm equipment. With record high wheat prices the race was on to plow up every available acre and reap the profits. And then in the summer of 1931 the rain stopped.

The wheat withered and the winds blew the exposed top soil away in great clouds of dust. Dust filled the darkened skies and breathing was difficult. Animals suffocated in the fields as dust filled the lungs of livestock and people alike. In 1935 in Ford County, Kansas, a third of all recorded deaths were from what was called dust pneumonia. The most vulnerable were the children.

What was hoped to be a freak occurrence lasted nearly a decade. Families, unable to pay mortgages or grow crops, had no choice but to abandon their farms. Homeless and hungry. they searched for work elsewhere but in the midst of the Great Depression work was hard to find. Entire communities collapsed as banks and businesses failed. During the 1930's, a quarter of the population left the region.

Some managed to stick it out. Under FDR's New Deal, relief programs and work projects were offered. Teams of soil conservationists trained farmers in new techniques such as strip farming, where plowed fields were alternated with grassland. Trees were planted to serve as wind breaks. The adoption of these and other methods reduced soil erosion by 65% and helped mitigate the damage of what was in part, a man made ecological disaster.

But for many it was too late. They lost their homes, their farms, and their hopes for prosperity. It had taken a thousand years to build up an inch of top soil on the plains. It took only minutes for a dust storm to blow it all away.

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Here's Bruce Springsteen with a song by Woody Guthrie. I Aint Got No Home.

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