By ROB W. ANDERSON
Oklahomans who lived through the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s would rather forget their ordeal, but people of today should always remember the environmental disaster, and the suffering human beings endured.
Northeastern State University Professor of History Dr. Brad Agnew met with members of the Indian Territory Genealogical and Historical Society Monday to discuss the Dust Bowl and Great Depression era, and the many farm families impacted by the natural disaster.
Agnew spoke of reviewing author Timothy Egan’s book, “The Worst Hard Time,” and said Egan’s writing helped provide insight for an hour-long documentary, “Oklahoma and The Great Depression,” which aired on Tulsa ABC television station KTUL-TV/Channel 8, as well as on the Oklahoma Public Broadcast System’s as OETA. Egan was writing the book to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the series of economic programs enacted in the United States during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.
“I didn’t meet any of the individuals featured in Egan’s book, but the people I interviewed said almost exactly the same thing as those high-plains residents he featured. Many of them appeared in Ken Burns’ two-part series on the Dust Bowl that premiered on PBS in the fall of 2012 and is available on online,” said Agnew. “I consider myself pretty well-informed about the Dust Bowl, but reading Egan’s book broadened my understanding of the conditions facing those confronted by the drought, depression and the despair of the dirty ‘30s. [Egan] has the ability to breath life into a period that many people would prefer to forget. Unfortunately, we forget this era at own peril.”
Five of Oklahoma’s 77 counties were in the Dust Bowl region, which shared the natural disaster effects with Texas, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Agnew’s documentary and talk Monday focused on man’s connection to his environment and the turmoil created by the dust storms, which at times threw so much dirt up into the air that there was zero visibility.
Agnew said people living in the Panhandle counties would go to bed with dampened towels over their noses and mouths to avoid breathing in dust. Livestock and people who got lost in the dust storms were said to be found dead with their lungs full of dust.
“As I read [Egan’s] book, I couldn’t help considering the parallels between that era and our own time. It seems to me that today’s emphasis on cropping techniques, at the expense of the environment, is similar to what Melt White, a major figure in Egan’s book, called the ‘rape of the high plains’ by farmers determined to plow under more grassland to increase their production of wheat,” he said. “The book, however, was more than thought-provoking. It was a good read - full of human interest, brought up from real-life flesh-and-blood characters confronted by the environment disaster of devastating and prolonged intensity.”
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