The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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July 21, 2012

Man recalls Dust Bowl years

OSWEGO, Kan. — The hedge trees all lost their leaves in the middle of the summer. The sun was blacked out, the air thick with dust.

It was 1936, and 16-year-old Allen Richardson’s family was farming 800 acres they’d homesteaded in 1915. On rolling prairie in rural Labette County, they had built a farmhouse, barns and outbuildings, and fences for livestock.

“Nineteen thirty-six is the year I remember most,” said Richardson, now 91, as he sat this past week at his kitchen table.

“It was hot and dry. Dust even came in the house. It was all over the table, just everywhere.”

Although the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, southwest Kansas and southeast Colorado were hardest hit, “no one escaped the effects of the drought,” said Kelly Woestman, a history professor at Pittsburg State University who teaches a unit on the Dust Bowl.

“The farmers who lived in this part of the country would also tell you they were impacted. It’s just various levels. If your ground is dried out, it’s a drought.”

Although their family farm was affected, it could have been worse, Richardson said.

“The dust out west covered up fence rows, tractors. Here, we had hedgerows planted at the edge, which kind of blocked it. Out there, it was just open country, and the wind went to blowin’ and the dust went everywhere,” he said.

Woestman said winds were blowing 60 miles an hour.

“Chickens went to roost because they thought it was nighttime. You couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, headlights wouldn’t pierce it, and every crack of your house full of it,” Woestman said.

Richardson had learned early to work the bundle wagon to feed threshers and to walk behind a pair of mules to plow the ground.

“But 1936, that was the only year I hired out to neighboring farmers for money,” he said. “The corn was all burned up shoulder high.”

He and a cousin worked that summer for 10 farmers, bringing the corn in and chopping it up for cattle feed. It was not fit for human consumption. They earned $2 a day — big wages back then, as ordinarily farm help earned about $1 a day.

One of eight children who grew up during the Depression before tractors and other motorized equipment was widely used on farms, “everybody pitched in,” Richardson said of those days on the farm.

“We were used to hard work,” he said. “Still am.”

Every day, he still drives out to the farm from his home in town to check on his herd of cattle, which numbers about 70 head.

But Richardson recalled farmers having it better than just about anyone during the Depression years.

“We had gardens, we had milk cows, we knew we would eat,” he said. “We also had electricity — 32 volt — and bathrooms and water.”

He’s not sure of the year of mass exodus to California — the “Grapes of Wrath” years. He didn’t see it happening as much in this area.

“Folks around here didn’t leave. Some lost jobs, some lost farms. People stayed here, tried to find other work. And then the government came with the WPA deal, which helped,” he said.

The government also established the U.S. Soil Conservation Service in the 1930s, and began discussions of the need for soil-preserving techniques like planting windbreaks, utilizing terracing and the need for crop rotation.

But agricultural losses during those years because of drought had been extreme, and many farms were abandoned. Richardson’s parents went West, but they had a different reason for going: His sister had just died of tuberculosis, and his mother had developed a spot on her lung.

In 1940, Richardson took over the family farm. He was 19.

“The doctor sent Mother and Dad to Mesa, Ariz.,” Richardson said, choking up at the memory.

“Dad turned his whole operation over to me. It was a lot of responsibility,” Richardson said.

At one time, he had 3,000 head of cattle as well as wheat and oats. He was soon joined in the farm operations by a wife, Ruth Miller, to whom he was married for 67 years until her death five years ago. The couple raised five children, and lived on the farm until 1976.

He looks back on the Dust Bowl as a time in his life in which people “just did what they had to do.”

In fact, the Dust Bowl wasn’t the first time the family had challenges on the farm. In 1916, the year after they homesteaded, area rivers flooded and didn’t recede for 22 days.

“It just wiped everything completely out. But they went back and farmed,” Richardson said.

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