Sky of blue, sea of grain
Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away.
— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
If you are driving along the highway from Springer to Clayton in northeast New Mexico, stretching out before you is an ocean of grass. Tall stems of gama grasses in bunched tufts of gold and green bend and sway against the pressure of the wind. Here and there along the route, modern farm equipment attests to the tilling of the soil. Despite the occasional presence of ruins dating back to the 1930s, it is hard to imagine that this land, now so bountiful, was once buried under a canopy of dust that obliterated prosperous farms and devastated entire communities. Some of the towns in this region of Northern New Mexico never recovered from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Some of the towns that flourished then no longer exist. Today, parts of Harding, Colfax, Mora, and Union counties contain the Kiowa National Grasslands, one of 20 grasslands in the western United States established by the Department of Agriculture, beginning in 1960. Were it not for the efforts of a few dedicated individuals, including photographer Dorothea Lange, the region might look very different today. How Lange ended up documenting the Dust Bowl in New Mexico is a story tied to a national legacy.
“The instigator of the Dust Bowl was the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave 160 acres of free land to settlers,” said Jerry Phillips, a researcher at the Herzstein Memorial Museum in Clayton. An exhibit at the museum features images by Lange and other photographers. “To invite settlers to come out here, settle in this country, and do dry farming, a lot of real estate agents, railroad land agents, were a little unscrupulous. They sent a lot of propaganda— in the form of brochures and different printed information— not only back east, but even to Europe.” “ ‘GoWest, young man,’ is what it boiled down to,” said Jimmy Hall, a retired employee of the U.S. Forest Service.
Profits derived from selling land to settlers from the eastern U.S. and Europe, who were eager to purchase land in the Plains, drove sales of land that was not conducive to farming because it was not located near viable water sources that could be exploited for agriculture. Up until the late 1920s, farming in New Mexico, particularly of wheat crops, met with some success. “AfterWorldWar I, the price of everything went down. And they hit the Depression, theWall Street collapse in 1929, and then things started turning dry,” Hall said. “If you look at a 10-year span of rainfall in this area you might find one year that’s above average, two years that are average, and then the rest of them are below average. Once the drought set in, they still tried to raise crops. As people look at it today, they say the Dust Bowl was created by the farming practices they had back then.”
These farm implements should never have been used for they destroyed a naturally rich grazing area, reads the caption of one of Lange’s images in the collection of the Library of Congress that shows drifts of dust amid abandoned tools. There were a number of factors that contributed to the formation of the Dust Bowl, including overgrazing and short-sighted farming techniques.
Top, Dorothea Lange: Dust storm. It was conditions of this sort which forced many farmers to abandon the area. April 1935; Library of Congress LC-USF34-002812-E [P&P] Right, Dorothea Lange: Dust Storm near Mills, New Mexico, May 1935; Library of Congress LC-USF344-003788-ZB [P&P]
“They started askingWashington for help,” Hall said. “Of course, Washington was ignoring this part of the country because of problems elsewhere, with all the people out of jobs. An individual by the name of Hugh Bennett of the Soil Erosion Service had an idea about caring for the land. He was lobbying Congress, and he knew there was a big dust storm headed east. He wasn’t having any luck with getting anything out of Congress.” According to Hall, while speaking to Congress on April 27, 1935, Bennett went over to a window just as the skies darkened and the air grew thick with dust, and said, “Gentlemen, there goes Kansas.” Congress subsequently passed legislation that lead to the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service. Bennett ran the bureau until the early 1950s.
The USDA created the Farm Security Administration (which began as the Resettlement Administration) in the mid-1930s. The FSA documented the devastation of the land and the lives of migrant families with the goal of using photographic evidence to persuade Congress to fund relief efforts. The result was a series of compelling images of dust storms, abandoned farms half buried by the storms, and poignant portraits of the survivors. Among the best-known photographers who worked for the FSA are Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Russell Lee.
Lange, who photographed for the Resettlement Administration in the mid-1930s under Roy Stryker, made iconic images of migrant families and documented the influx of refugees into California. Lesser known but equally compelling are her images of abandoned New Mexico farms and prairie lands enveloped in dust. Lange took a photojournalistic approach to her work and helped put a human face on the Dust Bowl. While Lee captured the efforts of migrants to start over, Lange documented a stark record of human figures obliterated on the landscape by dust and caravans fleeing storm-ravaged areas. Much of her work in New Mexico was done in the area of Mills, a town about halfway between Abbot and Roy, right in the middle of what is now the Kiowa National Grasslands. The titles are descriptive, providing her images with heart-wrenching contexts. The town of Mills, New Mexico. The grain elevator in background at right has been long ago abandoned. The bank is closed, reads the caption of another image in the Library of Congress collection. A child stands in the foreground, the only living figure in what looks like a ghost town.
It takes images from a photographer of Lange’s caliber to appreciate how successful reseeding efforts have been in this region. Today, though the wind still blows, the grassland has come back and the dust has vanished, a few scattered ruins the only record of its bygone wrath.
Dorothea Lange: The rolling lands used for grazing near Mills, New Mexico, December 1935; Library of Congress LC-USF344-002768-ZB [P&P]
The Kiowa National Grasslands in Northeast New Mexico
Dorothea Lange: These farm implements should have never been used for they destroyed a naturally rich grazing area, Mills, New Mexico, May 1935; Library of Congress, LC-USF34-002816-E [P&P]