The Dust Bowl Days: by George Chatham

The Dust Bowl Days: by George Chatham

As I shared in an earlier post the Elmer & Lela Chatham family left Baca County and moved to Power’s county sometime in the mid 1920’s. My grandparents (Fred and Ethel Chatham) moved from the “dug-out” on Fred’s homestead to Elmer Chatham’s homestead March 13, 1924. The reason that date is so exact is because my Uncle Frank Chatham was born before the next morning. My Aunt Ola relates that she couldn’t understand why Mom was so insistent that “If we’re going to move, we’re going to move today or forget it!” Apparently my Grandmother Ethel was aware Frank was on his way. My Aunt Ola says “It was snowing some when Dad got us all loaded in the wagon to head over the hill. That night my little brother Frank was born. The next morning we had snowdrifts 10 to 12 feet tall.”

The primary reason the family made the move from Fred’s homestead to Elmer’s homestead was because Elmer’s homestead had a “soddie” and Fred’s homestead still only had the dug-out (with the one room addition). Frank (b. 1924) and Vela (b. 1926) were both born on Elmer’s homestead. My Aunt Vela says the family stayed at Uncle Elmer’s place for several years until they moved up to “Clay creek”. Aunt Vela had finished the 6th grade at North Liberty when Fred, Ethel, and Vela moved to the “Clay creek” place. This would have been about 1937.

This was in the middle of the “Dust Bowl” days. The blowing dirt had blown out all the grass on both Fred and Elmer’s homesteads, so in order to find grass for the cattle, Fred moved to “Clay creek” where there was still grass and “live water” in the creek bed.

Ray, Oran, and Vernon stayed down on the homesteads, trying to keep the land from completely blowing way. The government was paying something like .50 cents an acre to “chisel” or “list” the ground in order to keep the soil from blowing away. My Dad said, on several occasions he and his brothers ran the tractor 24 hours a day for several weeks, trying to keep the land from blowing away.

There have been TV specials and books written asking the question: “What caused the dustbowl?” The long and short story is: In the early 30’s wheat prices were $3 plus a bushel, there was good rainfall, and so a lot of the native buffalo grassland was “broke-out” and planted to wheat. When the draught came and wheat prices dropped, much of the land that had been “broke-out” was simply abandoned by landowners and let to “blow”.

Even though I didn’t live through the “dust bowl” days of the 1930’s, I still remember a couple times even in the 50’s when school was let out early so the school buses could get us kids home before a dust storm (“roller”) hit. I remember one night the wind blowing so hard that the tar-paper roof on the old soddie was lifting up and down and my Dad went out and threw up two or three old car tires and filled them with dirt to keep the roof from blowing off. Mom took card board boxes and we slept with our heads in the box and wet tea-towels draped over them to keep us from breathing the dust that was coming in because of the wind and blowing dirt. Supposedly that was after the “dust bowl” days. I understand that the last five or six years some of the same blowing dirt and “rollers” have taken place. I don’t miss those days. It took and continues to take some sturdy souls to make a life in the “Great American Desert”.

The picture below is of the old “soddie” on Elmer’s homestead after a lot of blow-dirt had blown in around it. I don’t think anyone was living here then. The boards in front/left of the picture are the door to the storm/fruit cellar.

Chatham Soddie

Next Post: “Clay Creek”

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