The street lights were invisible.
It was hot. It was dry. “It got so dark that you couldn’t see your hand before your face, you couldn’t see anybody in the room.” Confused animals milled around. Wells were choked and fields levelled.
All this happened on Sunday, April 14, 1935, as a thousand mile-long storm made up of the dust that had once been fertile earth blew across the once-green Great Plains. It was Black Sunday, writes Erin Blakemore for Mental Floss—the day that gave the Dust Bowl its name.
An Associated Press reporter named Robert Geiger was in the worst-hit part of the plains, writes historian Donald Worster, and he filed the following with the Washington Evening Star: ”Three little words, achingly familiar on a Western farmer’s tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent—if it rains.”
Geiger coined the name for an era, Worster writes, even though he was likely only misstating the more common “dust belt,” the term he used in his followup article a day later. Worster writes:
Some liked the name as a satire on college football—first the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl, now the Dust Bowl—or they thought it described nicely what happened to the sugar bowl on the table. Geiger more likely had recalled the geographical image of the plains pushed forward by another Denver man, William Gilpin. In the 1850s, the continent, Gilpin had thought, was a great fertile bowl rimmed by mountains, its concave interior destined to one day become the seat of empire.
However it came about, the name stuck, reshaping the identity of the southern plains. The term even appeared on official maps—though, Worster writes, the Dust Bowl was “an event as well as a locality.”
On Black Sunday—the name of the storm as well as the event—the day was initially “clear, warm and windless,” writes Jesse Greenspan for History.com. But some of those who went outdoors to enjoy the respite found themselves sheltering in their cars when the storm rolled in. It was huge, and it stayed overhead for hours.
People had already lived through a number of the “black blizzards” made of baked dirt which were both a cause and a symptom of the drought. But Black Sunday was among the worst.
“Panic set in,” Greenspan writes. “One woman reportedly even contemplated killing her baby rather than have it face Armageddon. It’s unclear whether anyone died, but among those injured was a man who went blind. Other people couldn’t stop coughing. Birds, mice and jackrabbits fled for their lives; many didn’t make it.”
But the era-making storm, and the term that arose from it, also inspired federal aid, Greenspan writes. The government began paying farmers to stop cultivating lands that were barely producing, and “incentivized improved agricultural practices, such as contour plowing and crop rotation, which reduced soil loss roughly 65 per cent. By then, however, many families had given up hope.”
In the words of Woody Guthrie, who weathered Black Sunday at the age of 22:
We saw outside our window where wheat fields they had grown
Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown.
It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down that highway to never come back again.