Ken Burns on the Generation that Survived The Dust Bowl

Friday, November 16, 2012

dust bowl

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.”

Ken Burns, the film's director, recounts the making of "The Dust Bowl," from the studios of our partner WGBH. The film airs on PBS on Sunday November 18 and Monday November 19. Check local listings

"You know, this film is filled with folks in their late 80s and early 90s, and it is our habit, particularly in our media culture to see them as some sort of fading dinosaurs," Burns says. "But in fact if you look through that, you realize you're looking at children, and teenagers, who are the last living witnesses, the last living survivors, to the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history - the dust bowl."

"You realize, as Faulkner said, that history is not was, but is," Burns says. The story of the dust bowl has a lot of resonance today - about the consequences of human actions on the climate, and the tragedy that it can cause. 

Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange came across Florence Thompson and her children in a pea pickers' camp in Nipomo, California, in March 1936.

The huge Black Sunday storm — the worst storm of the decade-long Dust Bowl in the southern Plains — as it approaches Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935. Daylight turned to total blackness in mid-afternoon.

Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein captured this photograph of Art Coble and his sons, south of Boise City, Oklahoma, in April 1936. It became one of the iconic photographs of the Dust Bowl and one of the most reproduced photos of the twentieth century. (Caption courtesy PBS)


Ken Burns

Produced by:

Elizabeth Ross

Comments [1]


"Man overreaching"

Examine the 1930's.
In hindsight what was more catastrophic for the nation and the world?
The Dust Bowl and other environmental events or an economic meltdown made worse by intense government involvement and the rise of Stalinism and Nazism in response to that economic meltdown and the inability of the United States to address it in time due to our economic quagmire?

Why are we quick to blame the overreaching of individuals trying to grow food but are quick to excuse the disasters of overreaching government involvement, like say spending over five trillion dollars in four years?
Oh, yeah..this is PBS.

In the Great Depression people escaped Texas for California and in today's great depression people are escaping California for Texas. Any PBS programming in the pipeline for the causes of that great migration from the coasts to the midwest?

Nov. 16 2012 10:29 AM

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