‘Black Blizzards’ of the Dust Bowl Era

1930s 'Black Blizzard' approaching the Slaton Town Square.

It was the late 1920s and all the rage among the young children were prairie dogs.

“There was a large area approximately six or eight blocks between the Tudor residence and the Ben White and Robert Shankle’s residence,” Darwin wrote in Slaton Stories. “This area housed a huge Prairie Dog town, which provided a favorite playground for the children and a sport of ‘trapping Prairie Dogs’ in wooden boxes that had trap doors and then trying to tame them for pets.”

For the older kids in town the late 1920s was a grand era for Slaton Tiger Football. In 1927, according to Slaton Stories, the school was celebrating the Slaton Tigers district championship win. That same year, they went on to defeat Canyon for the bi-district honors.

The next year, in 1928, Mrs. R.L. Wicker organized the Slaton City Line Home Demonstration Club for the adults in town. “The purpose of this club was to improve living conditions in and around Slaton,” as is stated in Slaton Stories. “When the club was organized, one of the worst sandstorms ever was blowing,” the article stated. This was a pre-cursor of the Dust Bowl that affected the Great Plains. Various accounts noted the terrible dust storms that plagued Slaton and the entire plains region of the United States and Southern Canada during the late 20’s and well into the 30s.

During the Dust Bowl Era, “black blizzards,” swept across the plains and no Slatonite was spared from the darkened skies and painfully sharp dust shards that lashed homes, buildings, vehicles, animals and people.

“We could see it,” long time Slatonite Annie Schutte recalled of the dreadful dust storms that wreaked havoc on the still growing small town. “They were like dark clouds,” she said. “Then black as night.”

“They were scary sometimes,” Long time Slaton resident Mary Enloe said in a recent interview about the storms. “My mother thought the world was coming to an end some days and, on some days, we believed her,” she said of the storms.

“I have many interesting and pleasant memories of my childhood in Slaton,” Darwin wrote. “Having a horse and endowed with a roaming nature, I gave my parents many anxious moments, leaving by horseback at dawn, and not coming back until dark – riding over the wide open country and exploring every ravine – wash and hill in the canyon,” he wrote.

Darwin’s parents had reason to worry though. Those years brought the beginning of darkening skies and the sweeping away of the plains as dust storms forced topsoil to travel far beyond West Texas as far as the Atlantic coastline.

In its original state, Slaton, and a vast majority of the Great Plains, was covered with natural grass and shrubbery that held the soil in place. As the city grew and agriculture became an important addition to the railroad town, the topsoil became more exposed to the danger of erosion by the winds that frequently raged across the rolling plains.

Then, beginning in the early thirties, a severe drought gripped the area.

According to The Texas History Handbook, in 1932 there were 14 recorded dust storms. In 1933, the number of dust storms increased to 38. By 1936, the number of dust storms reached an astonishing level of 68 and, throughout the decade, the frequency and severity of the storms continued to increase at remarkable and treacherous intensities.

“Nothing would grow because we didn’t have any rain,” Shuette said. “It was just as black in front of your face as it was anywhere else,” she said of the many years of raging dust. Schuette remembers one particular storm when she was forced to rush indoors with her two young children and hide in the basement until it passed. “During that storm my husband was working in the fields,” she said. “Because it was so dark, he couldn’t find his way home.”

“They would come in on a big roll,” Enloe said, “We had to go in and the rest of the day was dark.”

“We had to kill our cows,” Schuette said. “We couldn’t find any food to feed them because we just didn’t have any rain.”

“By 1928 the depression was making farming almost impossible,” Mary Grace Privett wrote in Slaton Stories. “Farm prices had sunk to a new low,” she wrote. According to Privett, her family had very successful crops in the early twenties. This financial gain helped the family in purchasing land east of Slaton in 1924. “I recall my father using a Ford tractor to break the sodded land that first year. He plowed all day and night and sometimes I would keep the tractor going while he ate,” she wrote. “I remember being so proud, as an eight-year-old, to be able to help.”

Privett wrote that she attended East Ward School in Slaton and graduated from primary school wearing, the original school colors, purple and white capes and hats. Soon after Privett completed primary school, however, the family’s struggles during the depression and dust bowl era eventually became a daunting departure from a desolate farm for their family.

“Our departure from the farm began on Thanksgiving Day when a terrible sandstorm blew out the ungathered cotton,” Privett wrote. “My father, who was coming home from the gin in an empty wide-bed wagon, sustained a broken hip when the bed was blown off the wagon by those same high winds. He lay for several hours near a playa lake in our pasture before he was found covered with mud.”

With sand blasted skin, blood shot red eyes, and some people left to the point of near starvation because of the storms and the ongoing recession, the early 1930s became a very trying and difficult time for most, including Schuette. “I measured everything so we wouldn’t waste a spoonful, and that’s how we made ends meet,” Schuette said. “All we knew was to buy what we had to have. Most people today don’t have a clue what it was like, but it was tough times. Very tough times,” she said.

However, Slatonites tried, as best they could, to survive the turbulent thirties. On some days, as people waited for the storms to pass, many recalled the 1920s and all the blessings they once had. For Ray Darwin, one of those recollections was the prairie dogs they, some time ago, tried taming. “There were many fingers and hands pierced by their sharp teeth. The mothers disapproved of this pastime as the prairie dog town was also a favorite place for rattlesnakes; however, to my knowledge there was no fatality.”

But, of course, the 1920s became just that, only memories that drifted through the consciousness of Slatonites like the lingering scent of rain.


About slatontx

The ramblings of one of the few remaining small town newspaper reporters left in the world!
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1 Response to ‘Black Blizzards’ of the Dust Bowl Era

  1. Dave Walker says:

    Those dust storms weren’t anything to sneeze at in the 40’s and 50’s either. I can recall my mother scooping dust out of the house with a dust pan and there was no way to keep the dust from coming in the house. Just seeing those clouds gather and advance was an awesome site to behold.

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