From Boom to Dust
Students will learn how the events of World War I helped spark the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the resulting New Deal by watching a video and participating in a round robin, responding in writing to images and sound bites from the Dust Bowl, and observing a wind erosion demonstration. Grades 9-12
Activity 1: Video Exploration
Activity 2: Voice Thread Analysis
Activity 3: Soil Erosion Trays
- FDR's Fireside Chat on the Dust Bowl
- Two paper plates or pie tins
- Hair dryer
- 6" x 6" piece of sod
- 1 cup dry soil
black blizzard: the term for dust storms during the time period of the Great Depression
bushel: a unit of measurement used in US agriculture that is equivalent to a volume of 64 pints, but is generally standardized by weight for different products; a bushel of wheat weighs 60 lbs, a bushel of corn weighs 56 lbs
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 in the United States for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families as part of the New Deal
drought: a long period of time in which there is very little or no rain
Dust Bowl: name given to the Great Plains region that was devastated by drought during the Great Depression during the 1930s
erosion: the process by which the surface of the earth is worn away by the action of water, glaciers, winds, waves, and other natural forces
New Deal: the set of programs and policies designed to promote economic recovery and social reform introduced during the 1930s by President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Soil Conservation Service (SCS): federal agency now referred to as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that provides technical assistance to farmers and other private landowners and managers
topsoil: the upper layer of soil that is rich in organic matter and best suited to growing healthy crops
Did You Know?
- The Dust Bowl of the 1930s encompassed approximately 150,000 square miles.1
- More than 2.5 million people fled from the Dust Bowl region.1
- Nearly 10% of those fleeing the Dust Bowl went to California.1
Background Agricultural Connections
World War I required the ramping up of agricultural production and manufacturing, which pumped new life into the American economy. Unemployment numbers fell drastically between 1920 and 1929. The United States replaced Russia as a global agricultural supplier, and the prices for grain rose to an all-time high. Agricultural workers on the Great Plains, specifically in the southeastern region, including Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma, began taking out loans to buy more land and the latest farming equipment. Tractors allowed farmers to plant and harvest an acre in three hours rather than the three days it took by hand with manual labor. Millions of acres of native grassland, previously used for grazing, were converted into wheat fields to keep up with the rising demand.
Following WWI, there was a steep decline in demand for goods. Industries struggled, and the price of crops dropped by as much as 40%. To compensate for the price drop, farmers tilled more land and grew more crops. Instead of bringing in extra revenue, the added production further depressed the market. In 1929 the price of grain dropped abruptly from $3.00 to $0.40 per bushel. Farmers who had taken out loans faced foreclosure. From 1929 to 1932, four million farms were lost to foreclosure.
When the stock market crash known as Black Tuesday hit on October 29, 1929, the United States experienced a financial collapse that ushered in the Great Depression. In the early days of the Great Depression, life in rural areas was not as difficult as in urban areas because rural people could produce their own food. But when drought struck the Great Plains in the 1930s, rural areas were the next to suffer.
Across the Great Plains, people had plowed up the drought-resistant native grasses to grow grain. With prolonged drought the grain
withered and died, and the ground lay barren, exposing nutrient-rich topsoil to the elements. The lack of vegetation meant that no roots were left to stabilize the soil, and the result of these conditions was what we now call the Dust Bowl. Topsoil was carried by the wind in dust storms deemed “black blizzards” because the dust was so thick it would blot out the sun. The wind carried off an estimated total of 350 million tons of soil (a volume that would fill enough dump trucks to circle the earth twice). When the worst black blizzard on record hit in 1934, towers of dust 10,000 feet high moved soil from Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma 1,500 miles east to the Atlantic Ocean. An estimated twelve million pounds of soil or “dust” hit Chicago (four pounds of soil per citizen) during this one storm. Some ships out at sea in the Atlantic Ocean were left with a quarter inch of dust on their decks.
Topsoil was not the only thing leaving the Dust Bowl. Continual black blizzards contributed to the poverty of the people in the affected states, and more than 2.5 million people fled the region—most taking Route 66 west. Nearly 10% of people fleeing the Dust Bowl relocated to California. Franklin D. Roosevelt, (FDR) was aware of farmers’ suffering (30% of the population at that time were farmers) and the country’s struggle. When he took office in 1933, FDR had already assembled the “brain trust” responsible for formulating the new policies that became known as the New Deal. The New Deal included work relief programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that provided jobs to the unemployed, poverty relief programs like the Social Security Act that provided income to retired workers, and programs like the National Industrial Recovery Act that provided funding to fight soil erosion and more.
The goal of these New Deal programs was to ensure that the country recovered economically as well as environmentally. In 1935 the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was formed specifically to reduce soil erosion and promote soil conservation to prevent the formation of any more dust bowls. In 1994 the SCS was renamed the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). The goal of the NRCS today is to help farmers provide a sustainable, nutritious, abundant food supply and protect healthy ecosystems that support a diversity of life. The NRCS continues to work to protect healthy soil and clean water, while also tackling rising issues such as clean air, clean energy, and climate change and exploring new conservation technologies.
- Ask students to raise their hand if they have ever heard of the "domino effect." If possible, demonstrate by setting up a series of domino blocks in a visible place in your classroom. Explain that when the dominos are set up, they are all stable. Ask your students, "If I tip one block over, what will happen?" (The remaining blocks will also fall.) Demonstrate by knocking the dominos over.
- Begin explaining to your students the historical background and context of the lesson. As you do, point out key events and set a domino up for each one you describe. For example, point out that during WWI, the United States replaced Russia as a global agricultural supplier and grain prices rose to an all-time high (set up a domino representing increasing demand for US grain). When farmers received high prices for their grain, they were motivated to buy and till more land (set up another domino). The invention of the tractor drastically decreased the amount of labor required to grow crops (domino). Following WWI, grain prices dropped, so farmers needed to plant and sell more in order to make a profit (domino). Millions of acres of perennial grasslands were tilled to plant annual grains (domino). In the 1930s, an extended drought began, and the crops failed (domino). When the crops failed, there were no plants in the tilled fields and millions of acres of bare soil lay vulnerable to wind erosion (domino).
- Once the dominos are set up, ask your students if they can guess what major historical event was caused by the "domino effect" of all these minor events. (Dust Bowl) Introduce the lesson, explaining to students that they will be learning about an important agricultural event that influenced US history in many ways.
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Video Exploration
- Cut apart and pass out the corresponding Round-Robin Q&A Cards. Explain that each card has a question and an answer to someone else’s question. Use the master copy as a key—questions and answers zigzag from the top left in descending order. The answer on the first card matches the question on the last card.
- View Surviving the Dust Bowl with students, and ask them to listen for the answers to their questions as they view the movie.
- To start the round robin, ask one student to read the question on his or her card. The student with the answer should respond by reading the answer and then reading the next question. This process will continue until all the questions and answers have been read. As the students answer the questions, discuss the lingering effects of WWI that helped spark the Great Depression, the causes of the Dust Bowl, and the resulting New Deal. Try to help students discover parallels between the 1930s and other times of recession.
- Ask students to respond to the following writing prompt about the Dust Bowl and Great Depression: Whose responsibility do you think it is to prevent another Dust Bowl? Explain.
Activity 2: VoiceThread Analysis
- Prior to starting this activity you will need to get a free account and create a VoiceThread.
- Post a variety of Dust Bowl photographs, diary entries, or sound bites to a VoiceThread using the Library of Congress Primary Source Set on the Dust Bowl.
- Have students respond in writing to the VoiceThread, taking time to analyze each post and step into the individual’s historic shoes. Ask students to consider the question,“What might it be like to live during the Dust Bowl?” while responding.
Activity 3: Soil Erosion Trays
- Play the audio file of FDR’s Fireside Chat on the Dust Bowl.
- Explain to students that they are going to gain firsthand knowledge of soil erosion by observing the following experiment.
- In the front of the room, prepare two paper plates or pie tins. Pour one cup of dry soil on the first plate to represent dry, tilled soil. Place a piece of sod on the second plate to represent soil with ground cover.
- Conduct a wind erosion demonstration. Place both plates on newspaper and use a hair dryer on low to simulate wind on both plates.
- Discuss how root systems reduce erosion, and how the conversion of perennial grasslands into annual croplands helped create the Dust Bowl.
Pose the following question as a writing prompt: What would it be like to lose 65% of your family’s income? What things would change in your life?
Watch the movie Dust Bowl: Grantsville, Utah and discuss the causes of the Utah dust bowl. Watch the 1955 CBS Documentary Dust Bowl to hear more firsthand accounts from survivors of the Dust Bowl.
Have students read either The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan or Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck to help them make deeper connections to the Dust Bowl.
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- The Dust Bowl was caused by a combination of farming practices that left the soil bare and a prolonged drought. It forced many farmers off of their land and caused many others to leave their homes to escape the dust storms.
- The New Deal included programs like the SCS to help support farmers in implementing soil conservation practices.
- Today, the NRCS continues to support farmers and other landowners in managing their soils responsibly.
Recommended Companion Resources
- Agricultural News
- Black Blizzard
- Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp
- Creamed, Canned and Frozen: How the Great Depression Revamped U.S. Diets
- Dust Bowl: CBS 1955 Documentary
- Dust Bowl: Grantsville, Utah
- FDR's Fireside Chat: Dust Bowl
- Growing Today for Tomorrow
- Hugh Hammond Bennett: The Story of America's Private Lands Conservation video
- Hungry Planet
- Living Soil Film
- Nutrients for Life eLessons
- Out of the Dust
- Survival in the Storm
- The Grapes of Wrath
- The Great American Dust Bowl
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