In the 1920's and 1930's, the southern prairies of the United States were turned into vast fields of wheat. 5.2 million acres were planted by families who moved in from the east. Hundreds of new towns were founded. This time was called a 'land boom.' Lots of valuable land was available and people rushed in to claim it. Since the price of wheat was so high, lands for grazing cattle were taken for planting. Other lands were overgrazed by cattle and left bare. Farmers had very little knowledge of soil conservation methods.
The country fell into a time called the Great Depression beginning in the late 1920's. Banks failed and wages fell. Families had no money because men lost their jobs. The price of wheat also fell. Farmers cleared more land thinking they would plant more wheat. Many people who had moved to the area just to make a profit, not to settle, left the land. They were called 'suitcase farmers.' Large areas of cleared land from Texas to the Dakotas lay bare and empty. Nineteen states were affected.
Next, eight years of drought occurred. The area was called the 'Dust Bowl.' Strong winds swept over the plains. Dust storms were common because there was nothing to hold the soil. Huge drifts of dust buried buildings and came through every crack in people's houses. People had to make masks to cover their noses and mouths to keep from breathing in the dust. In 1935, 850 million tons of the top layers of the soil blew away. This period was called the 'Dirty Thirties.'
In 1932, 14 dust storms occurred, and in 1933, the number rose to 48. Record temperatures occurred in 1934 with 29 days of temperatures above 100 degrees. On April 15, 1934, the greatest storm happened. The day was named Black Sunday.
The government feared the area would become a desert. It tried several ideas to help the land and the farmers. President Roosevelt set up the Civilian Conservation Corps to begin forming shelter belts. A shelter belt is 'a line of trees or shrubs planted to protect an area, especially a farm field, from strong winds and the erosion they cause.' The government showed the farmers new ways of plowing to slow erosion. It even bought some of the farms which were totally in debt.
During this time of poverty, 400,000 people left the prairies of the southern part of the country, took their families and moved west. Many became migrant workers. They moved around to farms and orchards along the west coast picking whatever fruits and vegetables were in season at that time. They usually lived in small shacks and moved every few months.
Scientists have tried to explain the cause of the great drought which caused the dust bowl. In 1930, weather patterns over the two coasts of the United States changed. The Pacific became cooler, and the Atlantic became warmer. The air current called the jet stream usually carried rain up from the Gulf of Mexico to the plains. In 1930, this changed. The current moved south and the rain didn't reach the Great Plains.
By 1944, World War II plus periods of rain, brought success and good crops back to this area of the United States. Wheat prices went way up. Farmers were producing large amounts of wheat. In the early 1950's, a short drought of two years occurred. This time was called the 'Filthy Fifties.' The dust problem was less severe because farmers had learned new methods to prevent erosion. The government had also bought almost 4 million acres of land to remain permanent grassland.