Depression and the Dust Bowl
Throughout the 1930s, eastern Colorado along with the majority of the Southern Plains states, experienced extreme droughts. Baca County was among the areas hardest hit, near the center of what was named the Dust Bowl. Southeastern Colorado received only 126 total inches of moisture for all the years between 1930 and 1939. This was 205 inches less than the previous decade, and well below the 18 inches annually needed to grow wheat. No rain meant no crops, and no crops meant no protection for the soil when the spring winds arrived.
Dust was not uncommon in the semi-arid areas of Colorado when the high plains winds blew, so no one was really surprised to see a few “dusters” in eastern Colorado in 1931. They came back the next year with more vigor, and by 1933 the dust storms were so intense that everyday life became almost impossible for both people and livestock. One storm, beginning on May 9, 1934 and lasting for several days, was estimated to have removed 300 million tons of fertile top soil off of the Great Plains. The storms actually increased overall in numbers and intensity as the “dirty thirties” continued, with 1937 being the worst on record. Colorado’s black blizzards of the 1930s were different in many ways from those of previous years. These were more intense, lasted for days, and returned nearly every year during the “dirty thirties.” The storms destroyed millions of farmland acres and caused mental and physical anguish to residents. Towns had to turn on their street lights during the day; dust sifted into buildings, causing people to put wet sheets over doors and window to try to stop the infiltration. They ate meals under a tablecloth and had to wear goggles or masks of wet towels while outdoors. Dust covered roads, fences, and cars, piling as high as snow drifts; rail traffic was stopped. Cases of dust pneumonia reached epidemic proportions in southeastern Colorado in animals as well as humans. Red Cross workers and nurses were sent to Baca County with masks and goggles.
During this period of blowing dust, called by some the worst ecological disaster in the history of the United States, an ever-changing area of over fifty million acres encompassing primarily southeastern Colorado, western Kansas, northeastern New Mexico, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma became known as the Dust Bowl. There were no specific boundaries – it could change from year to year, season to season, and even day to day. In Colorado, Baca County in the southeast corner of the state was the hardest hit, but dust storms were not uncommon during the thirties as far north as Burlington in Kit Carson County and Julesburg in Sedgwick County.
As if all the dust storms were not enough, the Colorado plains suffered from recurring and serious infestations of grasshoppers during the thirties. Grasshoppers seemed to thrive in the dry soil; they caused problems in 1934 and 1936, but this was nothing compared to the billions that came in 1937 and 1938. They moved up to a mile and a half a day in eastern Colorado, and almost blackened out the sun. There were so many the ground appeared to be moving. The National Guardsmen, CCC, Soil Conservation Service, and workers from the WPA were all called out to help with the poisoning efforts. To make matters worse, even during this severe drought there were often brief periods of heavy rain, which in turn caused severe floods and even further damage to these counties denuded of vegetation by poor farming practices and the drought. The citizens of eastern Colorado were truly in distress.
The combined effects of the economic depression, the drought, the dust bowl, and other ecological disasters had a devastating effect on Baca County. Although some families were able to survive, primarily through the New Deal programs that were implemented, many residents of Baca County residents could no longer support themselves. With no crops, no income, no livestock, no rain, and in some cases no soil remaining, they left in hopes of finding a better life. Baca County lost 4,363 residents from 1930 to 1940, representing a 41.3% loss in population in a single decade. The population never rebounded and 1930 remains the peak population year for the county.
Although the drop in population was dramatic, it is clear that without the aid of numerous New Deal programs the numbers remaining would be even lower. There were several programs which dealt with direct relief to the needy residents of eastern Colorado and others which were aimed at recovery for the economy of the area. The New Deal programs which worked towards recovery provided loans for farmers and businesses, or initiated changes to banking practices to help protect depositors and prevent bank closures. Direct relief to families in need came in the form of cash payments and food and goods allocations. Farmers received relief in the form of payments to keep lands fallow and for livestock which were unsuitable for slaughter. Relief figures for the Depression years show that there were few in eastern Colorado who did not benefit in some way from the New Deal. In 1936, more than fifty percent of Baca County residents were on the relief rolls. Many of the relief cases were farmers, both owners and tenants. In fact, only four states had a higher percentage of farmers on relief at this period.
The single largest reason for “removing” someone from the relief rolls was assignment to the WPA. Federal funds totaling $1,064,021 were approved for WPA construction projects in Baca County. This figure does not include the local sponsor’s match, any state-sponsored construction projects (such as privies), or any of the numerous WPA service projects, such as the sewing, canning, and hot lunch programs. As the majority of WPA funds were required to go towards wages, these figures represent a significant boost to the local economies.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in May 1935, would continue efforts to both improve schools and provide jobs in rural Baca County. The WPA was the major source of public jobs for the unemployed during the latter part of the thirties. Its main goal was to put the unemployed back to work and off of the relief rolls. “Small useful projects” were designed to provide employment for a maximum number of needy “employable” workers in the “shortest time possible.” These jobs were especially vital in rural Baca County where there was no other work available for the farmers and ranchers devastated by drought. The WPA funded numerous road and school projects throughout the county.
The majority of WPA construction projects in Baca County were transportation related, specifically the grading and graveling of farm-to-market roads. Culverts and bridges were included in many of these transportation projects although some larger bridges were built as separate WPA projects. Baca County had numerous WPA stone bridges and culverts built over the county’s dry creek beds and arroyos, which were sometimes prone to flooding. Some of the bridges were even constructed for the purpose of raising the road bed out of the dust in low areas.
The ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl also led to a dramatic shift in government policy related to land use. Since the 1860s, the federal government had been focused on settling the plains. As the prime agricultural land was taken, the government expanded homesteading legislation to promote settlement of more marginal lands. As a result, the population of southeast Colorado boomed in the 1910s and 1920s. Fields of wheat replaced native grasses and pastures were overgrazed. When drought hit in the 1930s, there was nothing to hold the fine topsoil in place, resulting in the severe erosion and dust storms of the 1930s. Agricultural experts meeting to discuss the Dust Bowl crisis in Pueblo, Colorado in 1935 estimated that winds had blown 850,000,000 tons of topsoil off the South Plains that year. The Roosevelt administration created a series of New Deal programs including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, Resettlement Administration, Farm Security Administration, and Soil Conservation Service to address the environmental crisis and change land use in eastern Colorado. One method of achieving this was the Land Utilization Program.
Under the Roosevelt administration, the Homesteading movement initiated by President Lincoln came to a halt. With the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the government closed remaining public lands to homesteaders. This land was in the arid and semi-arid West, which was suffering due to overgrazing and dry land farming techniques. New Dealers determined that too many people were trying to make a living on too little land, so no more settlement would be allowed in these marginal areas. The act also authorized the Interior Department to establish grazing districts and manage a grazing permit system.
Established in 1934, the Land Utilization Program (LUP) was one of a range of New Deal programs intended to help alleviate rural poverty and restore the economic vitality of the agricultural industry. The program’s creators argued that rural poverty was tied to soil erosion. They believed the loan defaults, tax delinquency and farm failures were the result of misguided settlement patterns and improper land use, rather than individual failure. Through the LUP, the government would purchase submarginal and eroded lands, restore them, and then convert them to grazing, forestry, wildlife or recreation areas. According President Roosevelt, “Many million acres of such land must be returned to grass or trees if we are to prevent a new and man-made Sahara.”
Under the Land Utilization Program, the federal government purchased marginal lands in Baca County. New Deal agencies worked to restore the lands, encouraged grazing over farming, and promoted soil conservation methods.
The government eventually purchased more than 4,700,000 acres of submarginal farmland and overgrazed rangeland in the West. The land was rehabilitated and turned over to federally-managed grazing. Through the local grazing associations managing the purchased lands jointly with other publically and privately owned lands, the improved land use affected more than 30 million acres.
In 1953, the management of these lands was transferred within the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) to the Forest Service. On June 20, 1960 the land was reformed into the National Grasslands. The federal lands in Baca County became part of the Comanche Grasslands.
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