While writing The Dust Bunnies, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a child during the Dust Bowl. What interests and hobbies would I have had? And would I still have them despite devastating climate conditions, poverty, and hunger? What would I think about my family? Would I love them? Resent them?
I reached out to author and historian Bob Burke, a Dust Bowl expert who has written 127 historical non-fiction titles, on what it was like to be a child during this time. He offered insightful responses that further provoked my empathy for children who survived the Dust Bowl.
Elizabeth: What was it like to be a child during the Dust Bowl?
Bob Burke: It was difficult and dangerous as a child during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Days that began with the Stock Market crash of 1929 and worsened as a searing drought hit the southern plains in the middle of the United States. Dust blew in such quantities that trains stopped, businesses closed, and chickens went to roost at noon because it was so dark. Tractors and other farm equipment and cars were buried by mounds of blowing sand. There was little food and school was sometimes closed for a week. Families who lived far from town were isolated by piles of sand on roads that were far from modern in the first place. Farmers could not grow crops to feed their animals or gardens to feed their families because of the drought, blowing sand, and blistering heat. People began to leave Oklahoma. They lost their property because they could not sell enough crops or cattle to pay mortgages. Families also believed they would die from inhaling dust if they stayed in the region affected by the dust storms. When a baby was born, a wet cloth was placed over its mouth and nose for the first few weeks to keep dust from clogging its airways.
Elizabeth: I’ve heard that children had to wear face-masks when they were outside. Is this true?
Bob Burke: Children had to stay inside if a dust storm was coming. If they went outside to do chores, they had to hold a cloth over their nose. It was commonplace for adults and children to wear homemade masks. There were stories of animals and humans suffocating to death when they were caught in a thick dust storm. Their lungs filled with dust and they choked to death. But in the worst of dust storms, even the improperly built homes on the plains provided little protection for children. Often, there were cracks in the walls or floors and dust churned up by high winds found its way onto the food and furniture inside. There was no way to escape the wrath of the dust. Kids went to bed at night with sand on their nightclothes and sand in their beds. It was awful.
Elizabeth: How did children spend their time? How did they manage duties between home and school?
Bob Burke: There was little school for kids living in rural areas. It was too dangerous to travel for miles to school and risk being caught in a dust storm. There was no television or weather forecasting, so one never knew when a dust storm was coming until a huge black mass appeared on the horizon and covered the sun, blocking out light necessary for human and plant growth.
Many parents tried to spend the time indoors to have their children practice reading or math. This was not very successful because few parents had even a high school education. They wanted their kids to do better, but they were not equipped with the knowledge to teach their children. Often, without radio or TV, the only entertainment was reading the Bible, playing inside with brothers and sisters, or listening to the old folks tell stories of a better time.
Elizabeth: What was the biggest struggle for children during this time?
Bob Burke: The biggest struggle for children during the Dust Bowl days was to keep from getting depressed by seeing their parents stressed because of having no money and seeing their crops and gardens dry up and their animals die because of the lack of food. Many times, children of this era went to bed crying at night because they heard their parents praying in the other room for a miracle. Imagine staying inside all day some days with no radio, TV, video games, or books.
Elizabeth: What was the most interesting thing about being a child during this time?
Bob Burke: The only good thing that came out of the Great Depression was the closeness developed by members of families who lived through the daily struggles and survived to a better time. Children never forgot their parents and grandparents’ stories of the “old country” or of frontier times. Living through that era also made people tough. When problems came along later in life, they had the courage and intestinal fortitude to meet difficulties head on. Depression era Americans were the toughest, if not the greatest generation.
Bob Burke, attorney, author, and historian, has written more historical non-fiction books than anyone in history (127). He is a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame. He has six children and nine grandchildren.