The Dust Bowl, created during the so-called Dirty Thirties, is considered one of the worst man-made environmental catastrophes in American history. In his latest film, director Ken Burns tells the story of the migrant farmers who in the early 20th century moved to an area of Oklahoma once called “No Man’s Land."
With infrequent rain, this part of the country was a risky place to eke out a living, but in the 1920s the southern plains experienced an unusual wet spell and a boom in wheat production followed. Millions of acres of soil were plowed for the first time and virgin grasslands were converted to wheat fields. The boom eventually went bust and those who remained in the region struggled to survive through a decade of drought and a series of devastating dust storms.
Here’s how the historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg describes what happened, in Burn’s film following the "Great Plow-Up":
“This is one of the worst sustained environmental disasters in American history. It’s not something that happens in just one year, it’s not something that just lasts for three or four years, it’s a decade. Because of the combination of extreme drought and extreme high temperatures, this is the worst ten year period in recorded history on the plains.”