Dust and Drought

Dust Bowl, 1933, Alexandre Hogue

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Valley Farms, 1934, Ross Dickinson

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By the 1930s, the character of American rural life began to change. For the forty-five million citizens still living in the country in 1930, most had no electricity or indoor plumbing; they heated their homes and cooked on wood stoves, and lit their houses with kerosene lamps. During the Great War, in response to the call for food to feed Europe, Americans put ever more land into production, and with the tractor and other mechanized equipment, yields increased. By the end of the war farmers had purchased nearly 85,000 motorized farm vehicles. As work animals were replaced, yet more land was released from pasture to be planted in wheat or cotton or used for dairy production. In response to the demands of wartime, farmers had taken on debt to mechanize. As the war ended, huge surpluses quickly accumulated, prices plummeted, and farm foreclosures increased. The Great Depression of the 1930s was presaged by the agricultural depression of the 1920s.

The agricultural disaster of the dust bowl was brought on in part by poor farming practices as well as drought and a depressed economy. Farmers struggled to remain solvent by putting ever more marginal land into production as commodity prices fell. When drought struck in 1930, the ceaseless prairie winds lifted the dry topsoil off the land and bore it eastward in storms that reached altitudes of eight thousand feet, known as “black blizzards.” The Okies, immortalized in Dorothea Lange’s photographs and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, left Texas, Kansas, and Colorado for California by the thousands, victims of the broken pioneer promise.

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Activity: Observe and Interpret

Dust Bowl

Artists make choices in communicating ideas.  What information can we learn about the American landscape and plight of the American Farmer during the Dust Bowl? What clues does Hogue give us about his knowledge and understanding of the land that was once plentiful with grasses and wheat?  Observing details and analyzing components of the painting, then putting them in historical context, enables the viewer to interpret the overall message of the work of art.

Observation: What do you see?

What patterns do you see in the earth?

What do you think made the patterns? The linear pattern of dust blown by wind gusts is abruptly cut by curved wheel prints leading out of the picture frame, including a single remaining zig-zag of a tire tread. What made the tracks that lead off to the left? A lone animal or human?

Describe the condition of the fence. What could this imply?

Dust Bowl_Broken fence cropA wood and barbed wire fence bisects the fore and background sections of the painting. The once sturdy fence would have protected a farm’s land and livestock. Now that it’s cut, with sections of barbed wire laying loosely on the ground, it shows signs of an exit from someone with no concern for maintaining its function. The sharp diagonal of the central wooden support emphasizes the harsh line of sunlight above it, and line of tracks in the dirt.

What’s on the horizon?

A menacing dark red cloud of dirt nearly envelopes a last wedge of sunlight in the sky. Far in the distance we see the dwarfed silhouette of farm buildings. The whirring dust blurs the edges of a tall windmill, once used to pump live-giving water out of a well.

What’s missing from this painting?

What don’t you see that you might expect to find on a Midwest farm? There are no people, animals, crops or sign of water. The only vestiges of a plant are the dried brush in the lower left foreground.

Interpretation: What does it mean?

Dust Bowl shows us the extreme drought, soil erosion, and looming dust storms that bore down upon the Midwest plains in the early 1930’s. Hogue grew up in Texas and saw first-hand how the landscape was over-cultivated, then further stressed by the elements of nature. He witnessed many farmers and ranchers try in vain to save their farms, and then, in desperation, move West in hopes of starting again and making a better life.

Dust Bowl and two other paintings from Hogue’s Erosion series created a furor in Texas when they were reproduced in the nationally-distributed Life magazine in June 1937. While some argued that the dust storms were a freak of nature, experienced farmers knew that their damage was magnified by poor soil conservation practices. Hogue said “… if the paintings have the power to vivify the condition and incite action, I am truly flattered. As for their honesty and accuracy they are not nearly so appalling in detail as the actual photographs which can be seen in the pages of Life immediately following my reproductions.”

Valley Farms

Artists make choice in communicating ideas. What information can we learn about California farm life and the American mindset in 1934 from this painting? What clues does the artist, Ross Dickinson, give us? Observing details and analyzing components of the painting, then putting them in historical context, enables the viewer to interpret the overall message of the work of art. Ross Dickinson was employed by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) when he painted Valley Farms in 1934. The Project asked artists to capture “the American scene.” For Dickinson, this meant landscapes of his home state of California and scenes of Americans at work.

Observation: What do you see?

valley-farms_fire-cropWith our bird’s eye view, we see a vast swath of colorful land. Tall, domed mountains loom over a small valley, their massive curving shapes standing in contrast to a small patchwork of fields, farm houses, and trees. The rusty orange colors of the mountains nearly overwhelm the verdant green farmland below. A river, reflecting the pale sky, flows from the foothills towards the foreground. A milky curve against the verdant valley, it crosses under a roadway bridge. The irrigated farms are a luxuriant, bright green, while the hills are colored an arid reddish-brown – perhaps indicative that this scene takes place during California’s dry summer season.

At first glance, the landscape appears calm and unchanging, yet a closer look reveals danger on the horizon. Dickinson has included two fires. The first in the foreground of the painting is small, probably set by a farmer to clear away debris. The farmer stands, casting a thin shadow, near the bright red flames. A second fire in the background is visible as a large, thick plume of smoke rising in the distance. The smoke bends towards the hills, perhaps indicating danger on the horizon. The scene sets up a confrontation between man and nature.

Interpretation: What does it mean?

Dickinson’s valley, with its stream, green fields, and farmhouses nestled amongst the trees, seems sheltered, but also threatened by the surrounding hills and their encroaching shadows. The flowing river ensures the livelihood of these farms. The large column of smoke in the background adds to the sense of foreboding. The precarious relationship between the farm and its surroundings in this work echoes the concerns of the nation in the 1930s. The fertile farming valleys of California became a destination for thousands of destitute mid-western farmers who poured westward in search of agricultural work, desperate to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl. However, they were met with a different set of hardships once they reached California. There were not enough agricultural jobs to go around, in part because of California’s large, modernized corporate-run farms, as well as the existing migrant agricultural labor force – Mexican immigrants. As a result, many families continued to live in poverty, in tents or shantytowns. The artist hints at this lack of opportunity as the artwork is devoid of people and animals, save for one lone farmer burning debris in the foreground. As the nation endured this challenging time, Dickinson’s Valley Farms captured the looming anxiety underlying America’s hopes for better days during the Great Depression.

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Historical Background

The Dust Bowl

You could see the cloud approaching, The storm looked death-like black, And thru our little city, It left its dreadful track – Woody Guthrie, “The Sherman Texas Cyclone”

As the majority of the country was dealing with the crippling economic effects of the Great Depression, yet another catastrophe awaited Americans living in the southwestern portion of the Great Plains region – the Dust Bowl. The 1930s and 1940s saw this region devastated by the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, a series of dust storms that ravaged the land due to a combination of drought and soil erosion.

The Great Plains region was settled by thousands of American farmers thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862, which encouraged westward migration by provided settlers with 160 acres of public land. In exchange, these “homesteaders” paid a small fee and were required to live on the land continuously for five years. Most of the farmers raised grazing cattle or grew wheat. Over the years, demand for wheat products grew and consequently millions more acres of prairies grass were plowed and planted for wheat production. At the same time, the introduction of mechanized farming during the Industrial Era had revolutionized the industry. Manual labor was replaced by machinery which could prepare more fields and harvest more crops than ever before.

Dust clouds rolling over prairies, Hugoton, Kansas, 1935, Courtesy of the Kansas Memory Project

Dust clouds rolling over prairies, Hugoton, Kansas, 1935, Courtesy of the Kansas Memory Project

This combination of factors presented a problem when drought struck in 1931. Large dust storms began to sweep across the region. The natural prairie grass could have withstood the severe drought, but the wheat that was planted in its stead could not. The drought caused the wheat to shrivel and die, exposing the dry, bare earth to the winds. This was the major cause of the dust storms and wind erosion of the 1930s. Dust blew like snow, creating poor visibility and halting road and railway travel. Work crews shoveled the dust from roadways and train tracks, but to no avail. Electric streets lights were dimmed by the dark dust, even during the middle of the day. Those motorists who dared to venture out during the storms found that their cars often stalled due to the static electricity the storms created. Small buildings were almost buried. The dust made everyday life miserable. Residents sealed their windows with tape or putty and hung wet sheets in front of their windows to filter out the dust that blew in through cracks in the windows. They covered keyholes, wedged rags underneath doors, and covered furniture with sheets. Everything in the household was covered in a fine layer of dust. Mealtime was especially difficult as cups, plates, dishes, and even food was covered in dust. The dust created health problems for many people; respiratory illnesses were very common. For those living in the Great Plains, life as they had known it had come to a virtual stop. In 1935 homesteader Caroline Henderson wrote to the Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace to inform him about the grave conditions in which she and thousands of others were living:

There are days when for hours at a time we cannot see the wind-mill fifty feet from the kitchen door. There are days when for briefer periods one cannot distinguish the windows from the solid wall because of the solid blackness of the raging storm. . . . This wind-driven dust, fine as the finest flour, penetrates wherever air can go. After one such storm, I scraped up a dustpanful of this pulverized soil in the first preliminary cleaning of the bathtub! It is a daily task to unload the leaves of the geraniums and other houseplants, borne down by the weight of the dust settled upon them . . . A friend writes of attending a dinner where “the guests were given wet towels to spread over their faces so they could breathe.” At the little country store of our neighborhood after one of the worst of these storms, the candies in the show case all looked alike and equally brown . . . Dust to eat, and dust to breathe and dust to drink. Dust in the beds and in the flour bin, on dishes and walls and windows, in hair and eyes and ears and teeth and throats.

Wind carried the dust hundreds of miles away. By 1937, the dust had reached the Gulf Coast and Middle Atlantic states. The number of dust storms increased from 1934 to 1938.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Farmers and local government officials attempted to combat the effects of the storms using soil and water conservation methods like contour lines, a technique which uses terraces and contour planting to minimize water runoff to one end of the field or runoff off the field completely. This technique doubled the odds of a good crop by capturing as much moisture as possible. Despite these efforts, the amount of acreage subject to these storms continued to grow. In her letter to Secretary Wallace, Caroline Henderson succinctly summed up what, or who, was to blame for their current predicament:

We realize that some farmers have themselves contributed to this reaping of the whirlwind. Under the stimulus of war time prices and the humanizing of agriculture through the use of tractors and improved machinery, large areas of buffalo grass and blue-stem pasture lands were broken out for wheat raising. The reduction in the proportionate areas of permanent grazing grounds has helped to intensify the serious effects of the long drought and violent winds.

The Artwork: Dust Bowl

Caroline Henderson was not the only person in the region to realize the cause of the dust storms. Artists have traditionally use their art to express their opinions on the events in the world around them. This is precisely what Alexandre Hogue did when in 1934 he painted Dust Bowl and other paintings in his “Erosion” series in reaction to the Dust Bowl. The artwork, Dust Bowl, depicts Hogue’s view of the terrible drought ravaging parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico beginning in about 1932. A native Texan, Hogue kept a life-long emotional connection to the vast, flat landscape of the Texas panhandle. The land that he knew so well soon began to dry up and blow away. Crops failed year after year. Hogue’s image shows how severe dust storms buried fields, fences, and buildings. The pale sun shines through dense clouds of red dust. Like the federal agencies trying to combat soil erosion, artist Alexandre Hogue blamed farmers for plowing up the wild grasses that had previously held the fragile prairie soil in place. Hogue was vehement in his belief that the Dust Bowl was created by farmers who mistreated the land, arguing:

I am not a farmer but have spent many seasons on the seats of listers, harrows, cultivators and binders . . . when I say I have seen the country defiled by suitcase farmers and other selfish ghouls who have taken all but put nothing back, I am most certainly telling the truth.

Hogue received a positive reception for Dust Bowl when it was exhibited around the country in 1935, appearing at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the Kansas City Art Institute, Rockefeller Center in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Hogue’s Dust Bowl and other paintings from his “Erosion” series were even featured in the popular national magazine Life in June 1937. Yet, Hogue faced a backlash of criticism from native Texans after the article titled “The U.S. Dust Bowl: Its Artist is a Texan portraying ‘man’s mistakes,’” was published. A local organization in the Texas Panhandle, the West Texas Chamber of Commerce, attacked Hogue’s paintings in print for exaggerating the seriousness of the situation and thus damaging the local economy. Hogue responded with a letter to the editor of The Dallas Morning News: “My paintings are as much a statement of what may happen as what has happened – a warning of impending danger in terms of present conditions. Certainly this is not disloyalty.”

In the artist’s 1938 application to the Guggenheim Foundation for a fellowship to continue his Erosion series, he expanded upon his opinion in the Life magazine article, writing:

When I paint the [drought] and its devastation of a once luscious country, I do so with authority, having spent much of my early life, both before and after the dust menace, working and painting on a Panhandle ranch near Dalhart [Texas]. This ranch, owned by my brother-in-law, Wiley Bishop, has been, like many others, literally ‘plowed in’ on all sides by the ‘suit-case’ farmers whose uncontrolled loose dirt, pushed before the wind, has gnawed away every spring of grass that dares show above ground. How well I remember the repeated warning of the ranchmen uttered twenty years ago, ‘If you plow this country up it will blow away.’ . . . Some may feel that in these paintings . . . I may have chosen an unpleasant subject, but after all the [drought] is most unpleasant. To record its beautiful moments without its tragedy would be false indeed. At one and the same time the [drought] is beautiful in its effects and terrifying in its results. The former shows peace on the surface but the latter reveals tragedy underneath. Tragedy as I have used it is simply visual psychology, which is beautiful in a terrifying way.

Escaping the Dust Bowl

Dust Bowl_tire tracks cropFor the vast majority of those living in the Great Plains farming the land was their life, their source of sustenance, their source of income. Without it, they had nothing. Their options were extremely limited. Many people who were unable to make a living on the ravaged land left for places like California where they had heard tales of fertile land and plentiful job opportunities in the agricultural industry. This is implied in Hogue’s painting by the footprints and tire tracks leading away from the farm. Yet, many stayed on their land. Some aspects of the New Deal, like the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), would work to address drought relief. The farmers who stayed hoped that with each passing season, the rains would arrive and the next year’s crop yield would be better.

The rains eventually did arrive. From 1938 to 1941 the region received a sufficient amount of rain, providing enough moisture to effectively stimulate growth and recovery. The record-breaking rains of 1941 effectively ended the Dust Bowl. The rains coincided with the beginning of World War II, and once again agricultural prices began to rise and life began to return to a state of normalcy in the Great Plains.

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The Great Okie Migration


Migrant agricultural worker’s family, 1936, Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress

The impact of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl on rural Americans was substantial. The damaging environmental effects of the dust storms had not only dried up the land, but it had also dried up jobs and the economy. The drought caused a cessation of agricultural production, leading to less income for farmers, and consequently less food on the table for their families. The increased mechanization of farming began to consolidate smaller farms into large farms. Many farmers lost their land in bank foreclosures. Poverty became rampant. In his fictionalized autobiography, American folk singer Woody Guthrie commented on the dire straits: “They was hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of families of people living around under railroad bridges, down along the river bottoms, and in old cardboard houses, and in old, rusty beat-up houses that they’d made up out of tote sacks and old dirty rags and corrugated iron that they got out of the dumps and old tin cans flattened out, and old orange crates.”

They went out there for one reason, and absolutely one reason, and that was because they thought that they could get some work out there. – Woody Guthrie

The survival of their families at stake, these Okies faced a difficult decision – stay on their land in the hopes that the drought would end, or leave in search of more fertile land with plentiful job opportunities. Tens of thousands of displaced and destitute people, dubbed Dust Bowl refugees by the press, journeyed west to California in search of farm labor jobs, in an event nicknamed the Okie Migration. These migrants came from a broad swath of southern plains states including Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. The two artworks featured here, Dust Bowl and Valley Farms, represent the journey migrants took from the Dust Bowl states to the fertile farmland of California.

Migrant Life in California

Since the days of the Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century, California had earned a reputation as a land where fortunes were made and opportunities were abundant. A favorable climate, plentiful resources, and a visually arresting landscape were all compelling attractions for many Americans. This idyllic setting in captured in Ross Dickinson’s Valley Farms. Dickinson was a young artist employed by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) when he created this scenic image of California’s farm country. Water, green grass, and swelling earth conjure the “promised land” described in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joad family in Steinbeck’s novel, nearly 40 percent of migrants wound up in California’s San Joaquin Valley picking cotton and grapes.

Popular songs and stories extolled the virtues of California, exaggerating its plentiful attributes and depicting the state as a veritable promised land. Famed folk singer Woody Guthrie believed that it was the tales of California sunshine and plentiful employment which drew people to the Golden State. In his 1943 autobiography, Guthrie wrote:

Most of the people in the Dust Bowl talked about California. The reason they talked about California was that they’d seen all the pretty pictures about California and they’d heard all the pretty songs about California, and they had read all the handbills about coming to California and picking fruit. And these people naturally said, ‘Well, if this dust keeps on blowing the way it is, we’re gonna have to go somewhere.’ And most of em, I’ll dare say seventy-five percent of em, was in favor of going to California because they had heard about the climate there. You could sleep outdoors at night, and any kind of seed that you put down in the ground, why, it’s grow back out again.

Additionally, America’s major east to west thoroughfare, U.S. Highway 66 (more commonly known as “Route 66”) assisted the westward migration. A trip that spanned half the width of the country was not undertaken lightly in the days before interstate highways. But Route 66 provided migrants with a direct route from the Dust Bowl region to California’s Central Valley.

“They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred.”—The Grapes of Wrath

The mass of migrants that arrived in California did not receive a warm welcome from the state of California, which was already overwhelmed by the amount on people on the state’s relief roll. They were met at the state border by patrolmen who told them to turn back – that there was not enough work for them in California. Additionally, the established population of California was hostile towards the migrants due to differences in regional culture. They viewed the Okies as culturally and socially inferior, backward and uneducated – a view echoed in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The term “Okie” originally had the derogatory connotation of “poor, white trash.” As the character of Tom Joad stated in The Grapes of Wrath, “Okie means you’re scum.”

Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath was informed by his travels through California’s Central Valley when he was hired by the San Francisco News to write a series of articles about the migration called “The Harvest Gypsies.” Steinbeck traveled for two weeks exploring both the farms and the migrant labor camps in which the migrants lived in poverty. The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s attempt to expose the suffering of the migrants and the corrupt agricultural system which exploited human beings for a profit. Steinbeck’s observations formed the basis of his argument that the migrants should be given a fair chance at becoming productive members of the California farming industry:

If, as has been stated by a large grower, our agriculture requires the creation and maintenance of a peon class, then . . . California agriculture is economically unsound under a democracy. The new migrants to California from the dust bowl are here to stay. They are of the best American stock, intelligent, resourceful; and, if given a chance, socially responsible. To attempt to force them into a peonage of starvation and intimidated despair will be unsuccessful. They can be citizens of the highest type, or they can be an army driven by suffering and hatred to take what they need. On their future treatment will depend which course they will be forced to take.

Hostile treatment from the established population and limited economic opportunities was not the idyllic life migrants had imagined. The fact remained that there was simply not enough work for the approximately 2.5 million people that migrated from the Dust Bowl region during this time period. Many people lived in squalor – in roadside encampments and migrant campsites in tents and in the backs of cars or trucks. According to Guthrie, migrants camped “three or four families on a hillside, and three or four families on another hillside, they had a little old spring of water running around there somewhere, and they’d use this little spring of water, or little hole of water to do their washing in, to shave in, to take a drink of water out of, to wash their teeth in. They used that spring of water as sewage disposal. They used it for everything in the world.”

This idea that not everything was as perfect as it seemed is echoed in Dickinson’s painting. The artist introduces disquieting details, as if to suggest that danger exists even in paradise. The tiny fire in the field at lower right, probably set to burn dry brush, echoes a massive column of smoke across the hills in the distance. The hills themselves have the orange-red look of the rainless months, when California’s mountains become tinderboxes, and fires cans sweep down into valleys. Dickinson dramatized his home state’s eternal confrontation of nature and man by exaggerating the steep slopes of the hills and the harsh contrast between the dry red wilderness and the green cultivated land. The artist stressed the centrality of water in California by including a river which winds through the verdant valley. Dickinson’s painting captures the fear underlying America’s hopes for better days during the Great Depression.

“Migrant Mother” (Destitute pea pickers in California), 1936, Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress

“Migrant Mother” (Destitute pea pickers in California), 1936, Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress

At this time the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography program set to work to create a pictorial record of the impact of the Great Depression, focusing on rural Americans.  Photographers, like Dorothea Lange, were hired to provide visual evidence that there was a dire need for assistance and that the FSA could provide that assistance. The approximately 80,000 FSA photographs created from 1935 to 1944 helped awaken many Americans to the plight of the thousands of Dust Bowl refugees. Lange’s photograph known as “Migrant Mother” is perhaps the most iconic image of the FSA photographs. The image depicts Florence Thompson and three of her children in a migrant labor camp in Nipomo, California. The mother, gaunt and sun-burnt, her clothes dirty and tattered, stares off into the distance cradling an infant as two of her young children cling to either side of her, hiding their faces from the camera lens. Lange was photographing migrant farm laborers when she came across the “Migrant Mother” and her children. She later wrote of the encounter:

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.

The conditions that the FSA photographers documented helped to raise awareness of the dire situation in which many Americans found themselves. Various agencies and programs created by the New Deal would provide aid to the nearly 2.5 million people who had migrated from the Dust Bowl region by 1940. These programs, along with the dawn of World War II, would put Americans back to work. Factories once again roared to life, spurring America’s economic recovery and paving the road to its position as a world power in the twentieth century.

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Primary Source Connections

“The Harvest Gypsies,” John Steinbeck, October 5-12, 1936
Read the articles at PBS.org

The San Francisco News hired John Steinbeck to write a series of articles about the Dust Bowl migration. The articles, collectively called “The Harvest Gypsies,” formed the factual basis of Steinbeck’s later novel, The Grapes of Wrath. He traveled for two weeks through California’s Central Valley, exploring the migrant labor camps, shantyvilles, and farms.

“On Drought Conditions,” Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 6, 1936

Part of Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats,” this particular speech reveals what the president witnessed firsthand during his tour of the many states devastated by drought. For many, this was the first time the extent of the devastation had been made plain to the American public. Listen to the speech in the video below, or read a transcript at the FDR Presidential Library.

Literary Connections

Song Lyrics – “I’d Rather Not Be on Relief,” 1938, Lester Hunter (migrant from Shafter FSA camp, CA)
Original manuscript at the Library of Congress

Child in doorway of shack of migrant pickers

Child in doorway of shack of migrant pickers, 1939, Marian Post Wolcott, Smithsonian American Art Museum

“I’d Rather Not Be on Relief” was sung in the Shafter Farm Security Administration (FSA) migrant worker camp in the late 1930s. The FSA was a government program under the New Deal which built camps to house migrant workers who moved out to western states like California to escape the Dust Bowl. Several of the problems migrant workers encountered are represented in the words of the song.

We go around all dressed in rags
While the rest of the world goes neat,
And we have to be satisfied
With half enough to eat.
We have to live in lean-tos,
Or else we live in a tent,
For when we buy our bread and beans
There’s nothing left for rent.

The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, John Steinbeck
Find it in a Library

The classic American novel follows a family of tenant farmers who due to economic hardship, drought brought on by the Dust Bowl, and other Depression-era related circumstances are forced to migrate from their land in the Mid-West to California in search of a better future.

An American Exodus LANGEAn American Exodus:A Record of Human Erosion, 1939, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor
Find it in a Library

“Produced by incomparable documentary photographer Dorothea Lange with text by her husband, Paul Taylor, An American Exodus was taken in the early 1930s while the couple were working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) The book documents the rural poverty of the depression-era exodus that brought over 300,000 migrants to California in search of farmwork, a westward mass migration driven by economic deprivation as opposed to the Manifest Destiny of 19th century pioneers. This facsimile edition of the original volume reintroduces this sought-after work of art — a pioneering book that was among the first to combine photographs with oral testimony — to a contemporary audience, providing an insight into the struggles of the Depression as well as offering a profound and timeless look at the human condition.” – Goodreads

Artwork Connections

Pioneers of the West, 1934, Helen Lundeberg

Helen Lundeberg created this painting while employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal program that employed artists during the Great Depression. Like other WPA artists, Lundeberg depicted a hopeful view of the United States during a time of turmoil and uncertainty by showing a dreamlike image of western expansion. The group of pioneers, with their backs to the viewer, follows an ox-drawn wagon into a valley. The monumental figures appear strong and assured in their forward progress.

Ajax_2001.95_1aAjax, 1936-1937, John Steuart Curry

Curry created this painting of green pastures and fat cattle to reassure Americans worn down by the Dust Bowl years. A prize bull fills the canvas, grazing contentedly in meadows that fall away on all sides. Cowbirds light daintily on his back, feeding on the insects that would otherwise torment him. This image slyly evokes the myth of Ajax, the Trojan hero who went mad and slew all of his army’s cattle, thinking they were his enemies. Curry’s Ajax stands between the viewer and the herd, his one wary eye suggesting that the cows might get their revenge.

Autumn in Iowa Autumn in Iowa, mural study, Bloomfield, Iowa Post Office), ca. 1940, John O. Robert Sharp

John Sharp’s mural study celebrated the old-fashioned community spirit of harvest time, with women dressed in homespun picking apples, a spirited young boy enjoying a bite atop his perch, and rugged men bundling wheat from the fields. Visitors to the post office would have found comfort in this nostalgic view of earlier days, when crops were abundant. At the end of the Great Depression and the worst years of the dust bowl, this image promised the citizens of Bloomfield that nature runs in cycles, and that better crops and greater prosperity lay ahead.

Manifest Destiny, 2004, Alexis Rockman

2011.36A-D_1a_Manifest Destiny

Dust Bowl is artist Alexandre Hogue’s commentary on who was to be blamed for the Dust Bowl. Hogue argued that is was humans and their lack of respect for nature and mistreatment of the land that caused the environmental disaster. Seventy years later, artist Alexis Rockman also uses art as commentary in his painting Manifest Destiny, which comments on the effects of global warming – a man-made environmental problem, just like the Dust Bowl. The painting combines empirical fact with plausible fiction, offering the viewer an apocalyptic version of the future. The painting comprises four contiguous panels extending twenty-four feet in length, and depicts the Brooklyn waterfront several hundred years in the future.



The Great Depression: Crash Course US History – PBS (14 min) TV-G

The Depression happened after the stock market crash, but wasn’t caused by the crash. This PBS video will teach you about how the depression started, what Herbert Hoover tried to do to fix it, and why those efforts failed.

The New Deal: Crash Course US History – PBS (15 min) TV-G

This PBS video teaches you about the New Deal, which was president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to pull the united States out of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The video discusses some of the most effective and best known programs of the New Deal.

The New Deal – History Channel (3 min) TV-PG

President Franklin Roosevelt creates a series of programs designed to help America cope with, and recover from the Great Depression.

Dust Storms Strike America – History Channel (3 min) TV-PG

Families were driven out of the once fertile great plains by massive dust clouds – one that rose to 10,000 feet and reached as far as New York City.


“The Ghost of Tom Joad,” 1995, Bruce Springsteen
Listen to the song on YouTube

Springsteen’s folk song was inspired both the character of Tom Joad from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, and by Woody Guthrie’s song, “The Ballad of Tom Joad.” The song’s lyrics are a contemporary parallel of the difficulties faced by destitute Dust Bowl-era migrants.

Shelter line stretching ’round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleeping in the cars in the southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest

“Dust Bowl Refugee,” Woody Guthrie, 1940
Listen to the song on YouTube

“Dust Bowl Refugee” is one of several semi-autobiographical songs that chronicle Guthrie’s experience as an Okie during the Dust Bowl. Guthrie would be come a major influence on later musicians such as Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan.

Yes, we ramble and we roam
And the highway that’s our home,
It’s a never-ending highway
For a dust bowl refugee.

Additional Smithsonian Resources

Exploring all 19 Smithsonian museums is a great way to enhance your curriculum, no matter what your discipline may be. In this section, you’ll find resources that we have put together from a variety of Smithsonian museums to enhance your students’ learning experience, broaden their skill set, and not only meet education standards, but exceed them.

Subject: Art

Approaching Research: Dust Bowl” (PDF) – Smithsonian American Art Museum
Process notes for students on how researchers investigated a question about an artwork, step-by-step.

Myths in Words and Pictures – Smithsonian Education
The symbolism of Achelous and Hercules features lesson ideas and online interactives.


Agricultural Adjustment Act: (AAA) a New Deal federal law which paid farmers subsidies to not plant part of their land and to kill excess livestock. The reduction in agricultural production reduced crop surplus to effectively raise the value of crops.

binders: farming machines used to cut grain, such as wheat and tie it into bundles.

contour lines: a farming technique which uses terraces and contour planting to minimize water runoff to one end of the field or runoff off the field completely. This technique doubled the odds of a good crop by capturing as much moisture as possible.

cultivators: farming machines used to loosen soil and destroy weeds around crops.

Dorothea Lange: (1895-1965) American documentary photographer and photojournalist. She is best known for her pioneering Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Dust Bowl: the term given to both the series of dust storms of the 1930s and the region in which those storms took place in the south central United States.

Dust Bowl refugees: the term given by the news media to the masses of migrants that left the Dust Bowl region for places like California.

Farm Security Administration: (FSA) created in 1935 as part of the New Deal, the administration was created to combat rural poverty during the Depression.

Great Plains: a vast grassland region of the United States that extends from roughly the U.S.-Canadian border, southward to Texas.

harrows: farming implements that are comb-like, dragged over plowed land to break up dirt clods, remove weeds, and cover seed.

Homestead Act of 1862: signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, the Act encouraged westward migrant to settlers by provided them with 160 acres of public land. In exchange, the settlers were required to live on the land for five years before taking ownership of it. The Act was revolutionary for its time, as it actively encouraged women, immigrants, and former slaves to participate.

John Steinbeck: (1902-1968) American author. Born in California, he is best known for his Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, about the plight of migrant workers during the Dust Bowl.

listers: corn planting machines used to create high ridges in the land for soil conservation during the Dust Bowl.

Okies: a term for those who migrated from the American Southwest (primarily from Oklahoma) to California. Used with disparaging intent, the term was perceived as insulting, implying the worker was ignorant, poor, and uneducated.

Okie Migration: the mass exodus of primarily farming families during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression era.

Public Works of Art Project: (PWAP) a program established to employ artists during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal series of social programs. The program ran from 1933 to 1934.

Route 66: established in 1926, the highway has become one of the most famous roads in America, with multitudes of cultural references in songs and movies. It served as a major thoroughfare for those who migrated west during the Dust Bowl.

suitcase farmers: farmers who did not live on the land they farmed and spent minimal time planting and harvesting crops, or who outsourced the labor. When the price of wheat fell, many farmers were unable to make a profit and abandoned their fields. The farming practices of the suitcase farmers were widely blamed for the Dust Bowl.

wind erosion: the erosion, transportation, and deposition of topsoil by the wind, especially in dust storms.

Woody Guthrie: (1912-1967) American folk singer and songwriter known for his politically charged lyrics. He was a prolific songwriter, penning more than 1,000 songs in his lifetime, including his most famous “This Land is Your Land.”


U.S. History Content Standards Era 8 – The Great Depression and World War II

  • Standard 1B – The student understands how American life changed during the 1930s.
    • 5-12 – Explain the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl on American farm owners, tenants, and sharecroppers.
    • 9-12 – Explain the cultural life of the Depression years in art, literature, and music and evaluate the government’s role in promoting artistic expression.
  • Standard 2A – The student understands the New Deal and the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
    • 7-12 – Explain renewed efforts to protect the environment during the Great Depression and evaluate their success in places such as the Dust Bowl and the Tennessee Valley.

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