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Dust Bowl swirls anew with Ken Burns

On April 15, 1935, a gigantic dust cloud bears down on a peaceful little ranch in Boise City, Okla., where the topsoil has blown away. Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is turning his lens toward the Oklahoma Panhandle for a new PBS documentary on the Dust Bowl and its impact. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Ken Burns’ ‘The Dust Bowl’ is compelling, intense look at ecologic disaster, not dry history



Ken Burns’ incredibly detailed and illustrated new film “The Dust Bowl” does what untold numbers of books and films about World War II have already accomplished.

Namely, it underscores what a resolute and hardy people our 20th-century ancestors were, persevering through wars and natural disasters that took their children, ruined their livelihoods and challenged their very will to survive.

How the farmers on our country’s southern Great Plains managed to survive an eight-year drought and destructive dust storms is the heart of Burns’ new four-hour film, which premières on PBS tonight and Monday.

As he has in documentary films on topics from the Civil War to baseball, the filmmaker weaves his magic in two ways.

First, he and his team of researchers find seemingly every picture, piece of film and snippet of critical information about the period. Then they humanize it with experiences of real people from the period.

The people come to life through their letters, writings and recorded conversations to explain the horror of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

Many will learn as much as this reviewer did about its causes and extreme conditions that hit hardest in the panhandle of Oklahoma and surrounding states in what residents there called “The Dirty Thirties.”

As the opening episode explains, it all started in the teens and 1920s when rising wheat prices, a war in Europe, unusually wet years and generous federal farm policies created “the Great Plow-Up” that transformed 5.2 million acres of native grassland to wheat fields.

Newcomers rushed into the Great Plains in eight states, from the Dakotas to Texas and New Mexico.

Instead of the old horse-drawn plows used in the past, which left tall, soil-holding furrows, new ones pulled by rows of tractors left the turned soil flat and susceptible to erosion from the plains’ howling winds.

Art Coble and his sons seek shelter from an approaching ‘duster” in the desolate landscape south of Boise City, Okla., in this iconic image from April 1936. (ARTHUR ROTHSTEIN/FARM SECURITY ADMINISTRATION)

The freak-of-nature storms came, as part-time journalist Caroline Boa Henderson of Texas County explained, after it simply stopped raining. Suddenly, there was no wheat, no grass, no moisture to keep the soil from being picked up and blown for hundreds of miles.

The scope is breathtaking, as demonstrated by an incredible parade of black-and-white images showing the storms and people who lived through them.

Pictures and some snippets of film reveal dark, threatening clouds filled with black dirt approaching, then night-like conditions descending. It’s a phenomenon that people in the Great Plains put up with for hundreds and hundreds of days in the ’30s.

There are also powerful photos of children sent to school with masks made of cloth and grain sacks over their mouths.

Survivors detail deaths of a baby sister, a grandmother and others who succumbed to what residents there called “dust pneumonia.”

Throughout, there are pictures and stories from the farmers, families and businesses devastated by the Dust Bowl and the Depression that soon followed.

They tell of times when the lack of real crops meant whole families lived for months at a time eating only eggs and lard-smeared bread.

Livestock, meanwhile, starved and suffocated by the ever-blowing dirt and sand, with blown drifts as high as a barn’s roof.

Eventually, there was an exodus of “Okies,” the derogatory term used by many for those who fled the Great Plains.

Especially visceral were the pictures and shaky film snippets of rabbit drives, when people old and young alike used sticks to beat the life from hordes of rabbits swarming in search of food. Also moving were the images of clouds of locusts that arrived near the Dust Bowl’s end.

The first night is the more effective of the two, detailing the monster storms residents thought they could beat by relying on better days in the coming year.

The second night loses a bit of punch, feeling repetitive as the storms continue and worsen. It also wanders off topic by following some of those “Okies” to California.

But it becomes surprisingly timely after a segment on the smaller and shorter reprise of the Dust Bowl in the “Filthy Fifties,” which led farmers in the region to tap into the region’s underground aquifer for irrigation.

It’s then that the film poses the question of whether that practice might be a shortsighted effort to provide water to a semi-arid land, given the fact that the once-vast source of underground water is already well on its way to depletion.

When that water is gone, could a Dust Bowl return?

It’s a good question raised by an equally good look back at that first one that was so long and so deadly in those Dirty Thirties.

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415


What: “The Dust Bowl”

When: Episode One: “The Great Plow-Up,” tonight at 8.

Episode Two: “Reaping the Whirlwind,” Monday at 8.

Where: PBS