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The American Experience
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Hello and welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough.

The realities were obvious. It was flat, treeless country where you couldn't count on rain, and the wind blew all the time. On old maps it had been sensibly labeled The Great American desert.

But steel plows could cut the heavy sod, and with the introduction of a new variety of winter wheat called Turkey Red, the prospects for farming on the southern plains seemed limitless. "The rain will follow the plow," it was said in good faith. For a while there truly seemed no end to the bounty. Until the 1930's, "the bad time."

One rainless, baking summer followed another. The winds gathered terrible force and the powder-dry land just blew away.

People saw everything they'd worked for destroyed, fields in ruin, children choking on dust. Desperate farmers--families by the thousands--gave up and moved on, taking to the road. `The Grapes of Wrath" will always come to mind. "I like to think how nice it's maybe gonna be in California," says Ma Joad.

Actually the great majority of farmers, at least three out of four, stayed where they were. They hung on, refusing to give up. And it's their story that follows, told largely by sons and daughters who were there and remember.

Much of the nation never fully comprehended. Places like Oklahoma, Texas Colorado were all so far away. But how many today think of the Dust Bowl as just something that came and went in another time.

The wind still blows on the plains and for all the strides made in holding back erosion, the soil, true wealth, keeps blowing away--in some places as much as eight tons of soil per acre every year, all carried off by the wind.

"Black Blizzards" they were called. Dark clouds reaching miles into the sky, churning millions of tons of dirt into torrents of destruction.

J.R. Davison: We could see this low cloud bank it looked like. You could see it all the way across. And we watched that thing and it got closer. Seemed to kind of grow you know and it was getting closer. The ends of it would seem to sweep around. And you felt like you know you were surrounded. Finally, it would just close in on you. Shut off all the light. You couldn't see a thing.

Melt White: And it kept getting worse and worse. And the wind kept blowing harder and harder. It kept getting darker and darker. And the old house is just a-vibratin' like it was gonna blow away. And I started trying to see my hand. And I kept bringing my hand up closer and closer and closer and closer. And I finally touched the end of my nose and I still couldn't see my hand. That's how black it was. A lot of people got out of bed, got their children out of the bed. Got down praying thought that was it. They thought that was the end of the world.

Narrator: Dust storms engulfed whole towns, ensnaring residents in a whirlwind of stinging, blinding dirt. Thousands would get sick from a mysterious illness. Scores would die.

Imogene Glover: When those dust storms blew and you were out in `em well you spit out dirt. It looked like tobacco juice only it was dirt.

Margie Daniels: When I'd see one of these black clouds rolling in. I remember thinking -- why is it so dark? Why is it so dirty? What have I done now? What did we do to cause this?

Surviving the Dust Bowl, by producer Mark Davis.