The View from Ground Zero: Sunday Oct 11, 2020 winds bring memories of Dirty Thirties

The term ground zero is usually associated with an explosion and describes the location closest to a detonation. In the case of an explosion above the ground, ground zero refers to the point on the ground directly below the detonation.   In recent American culture it often refers to the location nearest 911 terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Centers in 2001.   The term is also often used in describing the worst hit areas near earthquakes, tornados and other disasters or to describe other disasters with a geographic reference or conceptual epicenter.

Rarely is Colorado mentioned when conversations arise about the Dust Bowl.  However those of  who grew up in southeast Colorado’s Baca County are fully aware that ground zero of the 1930’s dust bowl included Southeast Colorado along with Southwest Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the upper Texas Panhandle and Northeast New Mexico. For Baca Countians, the Dust Bowl ground zero was their backyard.

Baca County Fairgrounds, Springfield, Colorado October 11, 2020
Courtesy of Melissa Lowe

This past week the present reminded us of the past. Although we usually think of the 1930s the dirt blowing past of Southeastern Colorado may have first been documented in the Lamar, Colorado newspaper in 1887.

Bent County Register (Lamar, Colorado) April 9, 1887.

Hard-hitting winds, with reported 60mph gusts, whipped across the Great Plains this past Sunday October 11th, reducing visibility, extreme temperature drops brought back memories of the Dust Bowl. Many people are familiar with the dust bowl because authors such as Tim Eagan and producers such as Ken Burns have spent significant time trying to capture the essence of that era.

Many reports from the 1930s talk about the blue sky suddenly turning dark when a storm blew through. However, when you look at the old grainy black and white photos it looks like dust is everywhere. Maybe the black and white photos our parents and grandparents took don’t provide the contrast or maybe shock that we see in the photos from the storm blowing through Baca County Sunday October 11, 2020. There is an amazing and distinct line between the blue sky and the ‘roller’ coming through Baca County this past week.

Springfield, Colorado 1935
The white building in the lower right hand portion of the photo

was my grandparents store in the early 1930s.
Courtesy of a shoe box in my mom’s basement
Springfield, Colorado 1937
Courtesy of a shoe box in my mom’s basement
Eastern Baca County, Sunday October 11, 2020
Courtesy of Leslie Hume

 Baca County Colorado,  is the most southeast county in the state of Colorado and is where I grew up, was included in the epicenter or ground zero, as shown in the maps below. This area, in the 1930’s became known as the Dustbowl.  In other words, Ground Zero for the 1930’s dustbowl. Memories of that time have passed down to the present generation. Those memories came to life this past Sunday, October 11, 2020.

Baca County Fairgrounds, Springfield, Colorado October 11, 2020
Courtesy of Melissa Lowe
Baca County Fairgrounds, Springfield, Colorado October 11, 2020
Courtesy of Melissa Lowe

The winds were scary in their intensity, and, for a time Sunday, the people of Baca County could sense what our parents & grandparents went through — for weeks on end — during the Dirty ‘30s.

Springfield, Colorado October 11, 2020
Courtesy of Cheryl Porter
Springfield, Colorado October 11, 2020
Courtesy of Cheryl Porter

So this happened today in Springfield, Colorado
Social media used many terms of description such as amazing, frightening, scary, and eerie as well. When dirt was whirling at its worst, the skies were dusky and dreary, making it hard to see trees and buildings only a short distance away. In western Baca County it was reported, “It was creepy when it hit the canyon, daylight just disappeared.” 

As is the case in Baca County the dust storm is a reminder that drought and the wind driven dirt is always on the mind of of area residents.  

Courtesy of Janelle Leonard
Courtesy of Janelle Leonard
Courtesy of Dean George
Courtesy of Dean George
Courtesy of Dean George
North of Springfield Colorado, October 11, 2020
Courtesy of Bonna Arbuthnot

North of Springfield Colorado, October 11, 2020
Courtesy of Bonna Arbuthnot

Courtesy of Kirk Guder

East of Walsh, Colorado, October 11, 2020
Courtesy of Judy Trahern

Growing Up in Baca County, Episode #5b John Havens

 As the dust storms increased many of the farm families and a few of the town residents had to pull up stakes and look for greener pastures.  As a kid working around the service station I observed first hand family after family load all their belongings into cars and onto pickups and head out to find new homes.

A Colorized version of a 1930’s Baca County Dust Storm

   Even these many years later I remember three families who moved to southern Louisiana.  At least three families moved to Idaho, some to Oregon, some to California.  Several families moved to western Colorado, others to the Canon City/Penrose area.  It was not quite like a scene from Grapes of Wrath, but the Vilas community suffered the loss of many fine families.

   For those who stayed, times were hard.  Many farmers found work with the WPA, building bridges, roads and public buildings.  They would plant crops only to have them wiped out by the dust storms.  Then there were plagues of grasshoppers and the increase of jack rabbits.  Those critters increased in population until the famers had to organize rabbit roundup to reduce the population.  On one occasion Army Worms invaded an area near Vilas.  They stripped every garden as they moved from South to North for several miles.

   It was unbelievable how the dust swirled around houses and barns and drifted much like snow.  Farmers had to shovel the snow (dust) away from their front doors to gain entrance.

   There was one crop that seemed to thrive quite well during those days and that was broomcorn.  Tons of it was raised in Baca County, and if my memory serves me right, the town of Walsh became known as the Broomcorn Capital.

   But raising this crop was not easy.  It was strictly a dryland, crop and farmers spent long hours in planting it, weeding it, and then harvesting it.  Since no machine has been invented to cut the crop, it had to be harvested by hand.  Broomcorn cutters came from eastern Oklahoma, Western Arkansas, Southwest Missouri and other areas to cut broomcorn in the Fall of the year.

   One farm couple I was personally acquainted with hired 8 to 12 men during broomcorn harvest.  This couple had to get up by 5 a.m. and have breakfast ready for these men. They turned their double garage into a cook shack during this time.  They served bountiful meals, prepared lunches for the men to eat in the field, and another wellcooked evening meal in the cook shack.

   Since they no longer had livestock, they turned their barn loft into sleeping quarters, and the men ascended by ladder to their beds.  This had been their accommodations for several years, and no one had complained.  Then the Government stepped in and told this farm couple they had to have a stairway to the loft.  They complied with the order, and the first year of harvest one of the hands fell down the stairs and broke his leg, and the farmer had to pay the medical expense.  Also, the government said they had to have outhouse facilities at the end of so many rows of broomcorn.  The farmer decided there was getting to be too many rules and regulations, so they quit raising broomcorn.

(A comment by Kathy)

I know we have to have rules, but sometimes the rules cause more harm than good.  These men were out of work, the farmer out of income, and the community had one less industry.

    The WPA was a worthwhile program and saved a lot of people from starving and gave people a pride in earning a living for their family.  Today we are still enjoying some of the great buildings, bridges, and monuments that these people built.

Free Dust Bowl Teaching Resources

August 2018 NOTE: This resource will be updated extensively later this fall as I am currently preparing a resource “The Dust Bowl: The View from Ground Zero.”  Stay tuned.

Growing up in Springfield Colorado in the 1930’s, my mother was a child of the Dust Bowl.   I asked her once if she remembered Black Sunday any more than some of the other dust storms  and she said,

not really they were all about the same.

Dustbowl in my hometown, Springfield Colorado, May 21 1937, Source: Box in my Mom’s Basement

I have heard stories my entire life about the Dust Bowl and the Dirty Thirties so I am so excited about resources such as the online complements to The Dust Bowl produced by Ken Burns.  This resource is an interactive story about the dust bowl. The Interactive Dust Bowl includes video clips and scenarios for students to work through.

After each video clip students have to make a decision to either keep farming or move onto something else.  Interesting that all my relatives decided to stay.  I hope others can learn about this era and the hardy folks that called the dust bowl home.

NOTE:  This post originally appeared on kentbrooks.com  This post is a teaching or technology resource rather than a pure story.  However,  it adds value to the archive my Baca County friends and neighbors are creating to archive the Baca County stories we have heard our entire lives.