Women of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl




I have had the extreme pleasure of being a half-breed, by culture only, between Oklahoma and Texas. My father was born in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, in 1923, and he made a name for himself in north Texas, mainly Dallas. I was born in Dallas County and grew up in both states. My daddy told me nothing about the hardships of the Dust Bowl that he grew up in, but he made sure I treasured everything life offered to my growing mind. There was no looking back to those dense Dust Bowl skies at my father’s end of the world when he became an adult. 

I live on the Red River on the Willis Bridge in Texomaland, and I cross into Texas and Oklahoma on almost a daily basis. Oakland, outside of Madill, Oklahoma, has the feed store with all my wolfdog’s supplies, and Whitesboro, Texas, has the nearest banks, tacos, Subway, McDonalds, Sonic, Wendy’s, Golden Chick, etc. The Chickasaw Travel Center in Willis, Oklahoma, is always on our beer minds. I always wanted to live in the Texas Hill Country, but Oklahoma and Texas hog tied me and will not let me go. I stand straddled over the Red River while its history yells at me. 

The Dust Bowl mostly scorched and scalped the prairies of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, and West Texas, but it affected 19 states. Oklahoma took the brunt of the Dust Bowl, and especially the panhandle of Oklahoma, with fearless courage. Women on farms raised their families despite the dark, dank, mental, and physical toll they took on during the Dirty Thirties of the Dust Bowl, compounded with the Great Depression that lasted for 10 years. They raised children and buried loved ones through it all, but yet, they did not daunt. 

The Oklahoma Oral History Research Program from OSU digitally published the Collection of Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry: Oklahoma Women and the Dust Bowl in 2001. It is the source of information in this article, but this OSU program has a strict copyright protection for its digitalized oral history, so I will keep the hours I have listened to these women who stood fast so many years ago. I have turned their accounts into stories we can all relate to historically so that I do not violate copyright laws.

It has only been 21 years since the recording of these remarkable stories of tenacity that came about for Oklahoma women from the 1930s to 1940. I begin with what life was like right before the Dust Bowl in 1929. Then I move on to the experiences grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives held so dear to their hearts while supporting their fathers, brothers, and husbands and encouraging their children to move forward in education with nothing on the books as far as capital goes.

Yet, they found fun! The Dust Bowl years were not all doom and gloom, and their men, so many years ago—they gave their women all the credit for leading them through the Dust Bowl. These women also raised a generation of Okies who raised great people like us.


1929, Before the Dust Bowl

Okies, at the time John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, were quite angry at the picture he painted of the conditions created by the Dust Bowl, which were inaccurate. Influential book! But Okies did not appreciate Steinbeck at all. The Oklahoma panhandle was the hardest hit by the Dust Bowl, but it didn’t hit the panhandle until April 14, 1935. In 1929, it was still the Roaring ‘20s, and life was good in the U.S. and especially financially healthy for Oklahoma farmers and ranchers.

The Women in the Dust Bowl Oral History Project interviewed Margaret Holland as part of the project on November 14, 2000. Margaret was born on January 30, 1917. She described Oklahoma farm life in 1929. Few farms and ranches had electricity or running water back then. Margaret’s daddy didn’t have a tractor, but he could do anything; he could tear down any machine and rebuild it, she reported.

Margaret began working the fields when she was six, driving teams of mules and horses. She was too short to reach the bits to take off her horses for lunchtime oats, so her horses had to eat lunch with their bits on. Her daddy had bought some proved up land with a two-room house. He built a long kitchen and pantry and added more bedrooms plus three porches. She had eight brothers and sisters. Her daddy believed education was paramount. They had a country school.

But Margaret’s daddy insisted on establishing a consolidated school in Putnam, Oklahoma. He made some enemies doing that, but he had nine children to educate. He explained you make enemies when you start changing things. He could take the bed off of his truck, and he put a school bed on his truck. He drove his school truck taking farm   children to Putnam for many years free of charge and paid for his gas.

Margaret’s community had country barn dances, and everybody went to those. From 1934 to 1945, Bob Wills played barn dances all over West Texas and Oklahoma. They home danced too, and Margaret and her sister could “Charleston” real good. When their mama went to town, she told the kids not to dance on the parlor rug, but they did anyway.

One day, Margaret’s daddy came home and said, “Kids, I brought you something”, and he had one of those wind-up record players. Mama and daddy couldn’t get the kids in bed on time after that. They butchered all their own beef, chickens, and hogs. They enjoyed picnics and served fried chicken, beef roast, and potato salad. Her mama had a treadle sewing machine.

Margaret’s mama never used a published sewing pattern in her life. She would open up a catalog and tell her kids to pick out what they wanted to wear. Then mama would get newspapers and cut her own patterns. Margaret learned to sew beautifully too. After the Dust Bowl came, her mama made feed sack dresses out of the same kind of feed sacks, like all chicken or all hog feed sacks from the same lot. Those feed sack dresses were surprisingly pretty and lasted forever.


The Dirty Thirties aka "Dust Bowl"

Margaret remembered when things began to dry out. She said, “When you have a farm, you just have to depend on the good Lord.” She remembered lots of seasons without good grass or lots of food. Their corn was not very good then, but her daddy ground the corn, and it made real good cornbread. Like everybody else, her family struggled to get along. Folks were in pretty bad shape when the Dust Bowl came.

For almost 70 years, after the Civil War, Oklahoma farm families always had plenty to eat and good shoes to wear. Now, everybody helped everybody else as best they could, sharing shelter, food, clothes, birthing babies, or caring for the sick. Someone’s mother always showed up to help. One neighbor even sold his horses so his neighbors could move to Cali because the mother had Dust Bowl pneumonia. Margaret’s town began to dry up. People left or kids got married and moved.

Oklahoma farmers were quite reluctant to accept government help. Margaret’s family and many families did not go hungry, though. There just was not an abundance of food. The next stories come from the Women in the Dust Bowl Oral History Project interview with Betty Kirtley, Opal Blancett, Lucile Hart, Pearl Morrison, and Mildred Stringfellow on January 10, 2001, in Cimarron County in the Oklahoma panhandle.

By the time the Dust Bowl came, Oklahoma farmers were already hard-core to the bone. One of these women remembered that during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, her daddy had gone to town, which was miles away, because they were out of heating coal, and a blizzard blew in. Her daddy had to walk while leading his team of horses all the way home, and it took him almost a whole day and night while he was freezing. He had to get home with the coal, and so he did.

The dust storms came in waves, and you never knew when one would stir up. On April 14, 1935, at four in the afternoon, the sky turned black as coal in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. There would be no light until late the next day. A kerosene lamp looked like a match flame; the air was that thick with black dust. Mothers started praying and thought it was the end of the world. This first dust storm there was much windier than the ones that were to come next.

April 14, 1935 is called Black Sunday. Mothers quit teaching their daughters to cook. Instead, daughters learned to fight dust 16 hours a day. Few farm families were fortunate enough to have electricity and an Electrolux sweeper. Some farms had houses with ill-fitting windows, but even if they had brick homes with tight fitting windows, the Dust Bowl did not discriminate. The women had to hang and change wet sheets in the windows constantly to catch the dust. The dust blew in day and night.

When you woke up in the morning, you could see the outline of your head on your pillow in dust. The winter was the only time farm families could eat beef during the Dust Bowl—not near enough consolation. Four families would quarter a cow. They would wrap the beef in a sheet and hang it on their windmill towers so it would stay frozen. Then, they would cut off what they wanted as needed. Folks ate a lot of potatoes, beans, gravy, and cornbread. Not one child dared say that he or she did not like their food. *

No one had cash money. One lady’s mama gave piano lessons for eggs and cream. The women would pay the traveling salesmen in chickens, and he would keep them until he got back to the city and trade them for cash. It was that or nothing for him. Back then, teachers in farm country stayed with farm families. Some teachers couldn’t take it and quit.

One of the ladies in this interview said a naughty word in school one time, and her teacher washed her mouth out with soap and salt. Soap on farms back then was homemade lye soap. Was her daddy ever so mad! He made living conditions uncomfortable, and that teacher quit. When the teachers quit, the children had to wait for another teacher to arrive. One prominent theme I heard listening to these interviews was the lack of new Easter outfits. The women surely missed getting new Easter dresses during the Dust Bowl.

On washday, which was with a washtub and washboard, the women and their daughters would try to get the laundry done and dried before another dust gust blew through. But many times, they would have to rush to get the clothes off of the line when they were still wet so they would not have to wash them over again. Washday took all day for large farm families. Many families had kerosene cook stoves, which were common stoves then. They would heat the wash water up on their kerosene stoves.

Mothers despised their dangerous kerosene cook stoves. Kerosene cook stoves emit carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide. But the danger that posed the most risk was an explosion. Stove explosions occurred most often when cooking or filling it with kerosene. Mothers set the table with plates turned upside down until they served dinner or supper. These women said they ate a good bit of dirt along with dinner.

Even before the Dust Bowl, children at the age of six began working the fields or the pastures of cows. Little girls and boys would rise at dawn, milk the cows, eat breakfast, and then take off to the fields. Most farm families had no electricity or running water. When the Dust Bowl came to the heartland of the U.S., farm life became unbelievably tough. Yet they made it through with prayer, courage, angst, and laughter.

*An interesting fact about Russian thistle soup. Dust bowl cuisine included this soup. It is made from young shoots of the iconic praire tumbleweed. The tumbleweed came from Russian immigrants in Scotland, South Dakota, and originated in the Ural Mountain region of Russia. 

Sources

  1. Oklahoma Historical Society. Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume 93, Number 1, Spring 2015, periodical, Spring 2015; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (https://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc1725810/: accessed May 25, 2022), The Gateway to Oklahoma History, https://gateway.okhistory.org; crediting Oklahoma Historical Society.
  2. Holland, Margaret. Interview. Conducted by Steven Kite, 14 Nov. 2000. https://dc.library.okstate.edu/digital/collection/Dustbowl/id/3105/rec/15
  3. Kirtley, et al. Conducted by Steven Kite, Shelly Lemons, 10 Jan. 2001. https://dc.library.okstate.edu/digital/collection/Dustbowl/id/3109/rec/1

Photos Credits

  1. Black Sunday April 14, 1935. The dust storm that turned day into night. Many believed the world was coming to an end.
  2. Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas Dust bowl surveying in Texas
  3. Image ID: theb1365, Historic C&GS Collection.Location: Stratford, Texas.Photo Date: April 18, 1935 Credit: NOAA George E. Marsh Album.
  4. Red Cross volunteers wearing dust masks, Liberal, Kansas. (Kansas State Historical Society)
  5. A black blizzard over Prowers Co., Colorado, 1937. (Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma)
  6. "Fleeing a dust storm". Farmer Arthur Coble and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Arthur Rothstein, photographer, April, 1936. (Library of Congress)




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