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The 1930s were times of tremendous hardship on the Great Plains. Settlers dealt not only with the Great Depression, but also with years of drought that plunged an already-suffering society into an onslaught of relentless dust storms for days and months on end. They were known as dirt storms, sand storms, black blizzards, and “dusters.” It seemed as if it could get no worse, but on Sunday, the 14th of April 1935, it got worse. The day is known in history as “Black Sunday,” when a mountain of blackness swept across the High Plains and instantly turned a warm, sunny afternoon into a horrible blackness that was darker than the darkest night. Famous songs were written about it, and on the following day, the world would hear the region referred to for the first time as “The Dust Bowl.”
The wall of blowing sand and dust first blasted into the eastern Oklahoma panhandle and far northwestern Oklahoma around 4 PM. It raced to the south and southeast across the main body of Oklahoma that evening, accompanied by heavy blowing dust, winds of 40 MPH or more, and rapidly falling temperatures. But the worst conditions were in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, where the rolling mass raced more toward the south-southwest - accompanied by a massive wall of blowing dust that resembled a land-based tsunami. Winds in the panhandle reached upwards of 60 MPH, and for at least a brief time, the blackness was so complete that one could not see their own hand in front of their face. It struck Beaver around 4 PM, Boise City around 5:15 PM, and
Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, who was born and grew up in Okemah, Oklahoma, moved to Pampa, Texas in 1931. Many of his early songs were inspired by his personal experiences on the Texas High Plains during the dust storms of the 1930s. Among them is the song “Dusty Old Dust,” which also became known as “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” In the original lyrics, he sings, “Of the place that I lived on the wild windy plains, in the month called April, county called Gray…” (Pampa was, and is, in Gray County .) Also among the lyrics:
“A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic and blocked out the sun,
Straight for home all the people did run,
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-getting’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.”
The lyrics are highly representative of the events of Black Sunday in the Texas panhandle, and suggest that Black Sunday may well have been the specific event that inspired those words more than any other.
Robert E. Geiger was a reporter for the Associated Press. He and photographer Harry G. Eisenhard were overtaken by the storm six miles from Boise City, Oklahoma, and were forced to wait two hours before returning to town. Mr. Geiger then wrote an article that appeared in the Lubbock Evening Journal the next day, which began: “Residents of the southwestern dust bowl marked up another black duster today…” Another article, also attributed to “an Associated Press reporter” and published the next day, included the following: “Three little words… rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – ‘if it rains’.” These cases generally are acknowledged to be the first-ever usages of the phrase by which the events of the 1930s have been known to history ever since: The Dust Bowl.
The blowing dust that blasted the High Plains in the 1930s was attributed not only to dry weather, but to poor soil conservation techniques that were in use at the time. In March 1935 (several weeks before Black Sunday), one of President Roosevelt’s advisors, Hugh Hammond Bennett, testified before congress about the need for better soil conservation techniques. Ironically, dust from the Great Plains was transported all the way to the East Coast, blotting out the sun even in the Nation’s capital. Mr. Bennett only needed to point out the window to the evidence supporting his position, and say, “This, gentlemen, is what I’ve been talking about.” Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act before the end of the year.