The Dust Bowl Interviews

by Amy Gastelum


In the fall of 2011, hordes of young people set up tent communities in front of government and financial buildings around the country to protest inequitable economic realities they were facing. Many onlookers, myself included, spent weeks trying to figure out the specific goals or demands of these protestors. The genius of Occupy Wall Street, though, was that there was no 10-point plan. The onlooker would never be fed a manifesto; she would instead be forced to really think about what was motivating these young people.

At the same time, I was reading The Grapes of Wrath, which turns 75 this year, for the first time. The fictional Joads got me wondering what my very real grandparents, who grew up during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, would have to say about surviving disappointment of a grand scale. How did they cope emotionally and practically? My curiosity led me to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where I met 16 elders who understand what it means to adjust expectations and rethink definitions of success.

Even though the Occupy Wall Street tents are gone, my generation has not yet recovered from economic damage caused by illusions fed to our nation by credit card
companies and mortgage lenders. Stories like those of the Joads and the people I interviewed are a clean, clear tonic to the greasy overindulgence that led to our most recent recession.

Charles Starks

Born in 1924, Charles experienced the Great Depression as the young son of an Oklahoma roughneck. After attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Charles returned to Oklahoma, and to oil, as a chemical engineer.

My grandfather was from eastern Kentucky, where the point of Kentucky comes together. If you look down on it, it looks like a brain—it’s so fused with gullies and so forth. He had a store there in this little town called Logville. I think it was in 1908 he decided things were getting bad there and he started looking around. My grandmother’s folks had already come to Oklahoma in the fall—when the weather was good, when it’s nice and there’s no insects—and they wrote back and told them it was heaven. Also it was flat, so it was easier to farm than in Kentucky.

They came with 35 other people in a train to Ardmore, Oklahoma, and from Ardmore they went on down to Wapanucka, where her folks had lived. It’s way down south by Ada, 50 miles north of the Texas border.

And my grandfather, when he came here, he had something like $13,000, which in 1913 was a lot of money. And so he bought a farm, only my mother called it a rock prairie. It was just flat rocks and grass all around it, so it wasn’t good for farming, but it was good for raising cattle. So that’s what he did until after the First World War: He bought and sold cattle.

You know, farmers during the First World War were encouraged to raise all the food they could, because they had to supply the Army, and they had to supply lots of places in Europe. The prices were good, and everybody was making money, and then after the war just shoo, down.

After the war, he decided that he couldn’t raise cattle for food anymore, so he sold that land and he bought a feed mill in Wapanucka, but the prices kept going down and going down. In the early ‘20s, the Depression was already here in southern Oklahoma. Farmers were losing their land. The tax income was so low that they had to close schools in February and start them again the next September. And he put his money in two banks. Banks had been known to fail. Both banks failed,
so he had no money, but he did have this feed mill.

At that time, two other people were burning their houses down just for the insurance. He didn’t have insurance, but somebody was burning the building next door down just for that reason, and it caught his building on fire and everything was gone now. He was terribly—they had nothing. Everything was gone, including the money that he came with.

What they did was they, my grandmother’s folks, had this 40-acre farm two miles north of Wapanucka, and they had died in the meantime and had divided it up among her and her siblings. And she asked them if she could have the land, and she paid them what she could. She had four or five siblings and some of them gave her their interest, and some of it she bought for a small amount of money. So they lived there, I guess, another 10 years or so.  He died when he was 64. My mother said he died of a broken heart because of all this turmoil.

At another time, he bought a restaurant in a town called Bowlegs, Oklahoma. My mother was 16 at the time, and she was working in that restaurant, and she met my father there and he was a roughneck. A roughneck is a guy you see where they’re putting pipes together on the deck of an oilrig and they’re squeezing pipe together or screwing it into the end of the pipe. They did whatever was needed. It was just physical labor, and sometimes they would have to go up to the top of the derrick and move the pipe around. It was dangerous; a lot of people got killed.

So they got married in 1927, and things went fine until late 1929, when things went bad and people didn’t buy as much oil, and there wasn’t as many oil wells being drilled and the price went down. At one point it was 15 cents a barrel compared to, what, $90 a barrel today? Even so, after accounting for inflation it was really depressing. The prices were really bad. A lot of people from Oklahoma, particularly from western Oklahoma, went to California—hence the name Okies. And it’s still a bad name in California. We call ourselves Okies.

And I think, you know, my own feeling is that depressions and recessions are caused by some kind of bubble, and I think the bubble then was caused by the tractor, because so many people were released from farm work but there were no jobs for them. In 1910 or ‘11, the first tractors—the price was reasonable and efficient tractors were available. The Fordson tractor was part of that and that was a widely used tractor. A tractor could replace 10 to 20 people, one tractor, in addition to horses and not having to raise food for the horses. It takes a long time to create jobs, and there were just none available except part-time jobs like my father had, and it was really hard times in western Oklahoma where it was compounded by the Dust Bowl and bad drought, blowing winds. I never saw any of the dust bowls. My mother tells me about not being able to see.

My folks, so they moved around. Times were hard because my dad was always away looking for work. He probably worked six months out of the year just because there wasn’t so much going on, and he had to go all over the place and we would go to one small town after another, after another and go back to the farm to live with my grandparents for awhile until he found a job. That kind of a thing would just happen over and over again.

We went to a lot of places—I think 19 before I was in the fourth grade—and my mother always, wherever we went, she would always try to rent a big house so she could rent out rooms. In one case, she rented a big tent and we lived there right by the rig that he was working on, and she would rent out spaces. The one in the tent she rented out for eight hours at a time so that three people could sleep and they would share the same bed. That was really hard going, hard times.

But it was, you know everybody was poor. The people who had money—my aunts told me that at the time those banks closed, the banker had, before it closed, taken money out of the bank and did something with it, and my aunt said his children who were all in school were totally and completely, absolutely ostracized. And so the people who had money weren’t gonna be in good shape either, they were kind of shunned. A lot of things were done just as best you could. It was just a matter of struggling along.


Nell Lewis

Nell Lewis was my grandfather’s grade school teacher in Marland, Oklahoma. She avoided marriage until her career was established, saying, “I wanted to be able to take care of myself. I didn’t feel the need of someone lookin’ after me.” Her independent spirit continues to drive her endeavors in things like needlework, despite her failing vision.

I was born July 24, 1917. You didn’t think I’d remember, did you? If you go to the doctor, any old person, that’s the first thing they’ll ask ’em, to see if your brain doesn’t connect to part of your sails up there. They don’t operate like they did once. I’m getting a lot of that from age and the medical side, too, from the stroke. And I fight it. Oh, I fight it. ‘Cause I don’t wanna be that way. But there’s a certain amount you can’t change in your brain.

I was born in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, on the line of Arkansas. In Webbers Falls, they raised cotton. We hated cotton. We kids hated cotton. We didn’t want to do anything with cotton. Dad didn’t like cotton. It’s a lot of work. You plant rows of cotton and you plant thick, but then you can’t grow it thick, and then you have to go in and chop it out ever so far so each stalk will have a space of its own, and the stalk will have a lot of pieces of cotton on it.

My sister was three years older than me, and my brother was four years older than she was. Four, three, and then nine years between my younger brother and me. There had been two others that died at infancy. That’s the reason (my parents) moved away from Webbers Falls. See, it was beside the Arkansas River and mother thought—oh what kind of disease she thought the children were getting from the water. And she told dad, “We’re movin’ away from here.” And she’s always soft-spoken, but that meant business when her babies died. So that’s how come we moved from Webbers Falls. We moved when I was 2 years old to a town named Bradley, Oklahoma.

During the Depression, we didn’t realize it from the table. Mother always set a good table, and you know they had soup lines? We didn’t know what soup lines were ’cause we were eatin’ like we’d always eaten. But we didn’t have the clothes that we wanted. We didn’t get to go to the movies like we wanted. There was a lot of things we didn’t get during the Depression, but not food.

We had a garden. Mother always canned a lot of stuff, and mother even canned meat. Dad always raised a lot of animals. He always killed a calf, pigs, sheep, and mother raised the chickens. So that’s the kind of meats we had. And dad could really fix the meat, the hog meat. He could really make good bacon and stuff out of it. My dad was a big man. Dad liked a lot of food. He managed to get food.

There was a lot of things we didn’t get during the Depression, but not food. 

Dad’s dad died when he was 12, and they had land and they had a big house and all, and they had several little houses on the farm that the blacks lived in and did most of the farming. Dad didn’t learn to be a hard worker, because grandmother had lost two husbands and a son, and she spoiled him. He had the three sisters, but there was more importance in a male than there was a female. When he wanted money, all he did was go to grandmother.

And see, mother grew up working. She had to if she ate. My mother’s mother and dad died when she was 7 years old. Her sister was the oldest and she was 18, and there were several in the family. And mother was down toward the end of the line, and they learned to ship for themselves. It couldn’t have been easy. It could not have been easy at all.

My dad didn’t have to do that. They had quite a bit more than what mother’s family had. And so mother said he’d get everybody working in the fields and then he’d go to town and spend the day in town. And I knew my dad never learned really truly to put everything out in a job.

Since her mother and dad died when she was seven years old, mother started working out when she was 12, in a home. She started cooking, washing, so she learned to cook real good real early in life. So then later, when she got older, her two brothers just younger than her wanted to move away from the family house and get jobs of their own, so they asked mother if she would go with them and do the housework, the laundry, the cooking, and stuff for these two young boys. They were all three young. So she said yeah, she would. And you wonder how children would manage today, wouldn’t you? But you do the best you can in situations like that. You do the best you can and sometimes you surprise yourself that you’ve done more than you thought you could do. It depends on the individual, on the tenacity of their working on something. You know what? I was just like a bulldog. When I get my teeth into something I won’t give up.  It’s just part of my nature. Cause right now I cannot see worth a hoot. I can’t see in fact at all. I can hardly see your eyes, but I have been trying to do some sewing. I’ll have to take it out half a dozen times but I’ll get back and try it again. I just don’t want to say I didn’t do it.

I’m getting near the end of my life. There’s no use outguessing it or anything like that. I’m 94 now.

I graduated from high school, Ponca City, in ‘35. That’s when we were having the dust storms. The wind would blow the sand up against the fence and it would collect against the fence, and at night in the house it’d be kind of suffocating. Not that bad, but it was just all in the air. You’d look out and it’d just be kind of a gray brown. The air would be full of it. And the wind would blow that sand up and get it high against the fences. Just pile up against the fences. It was hard on anybody that had any problems with their lungs because that dust would get in. Some of the women would dampen a sheet and hang it over the doors to keep the dust out, try to keep the inside of your house a little more moist. And you didn’t have fans because you had no electricity to run the fans. The towns had it, but if you lived out in the country you didn’t have electricity. And you go to church and you had those kinds of fans that you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. I can’t remember never goin’ to church. Seems like we always went.  My mother saw to that.

I’m getting near the end of my life. There’s no use outguessing it or anything like that. I’m 94 now. I have a little niece that she likes me a whole lot. She works for the racetrack with the racing hill. The other day she said, “Nell, I’ve got you lined up. I’m going to come up after you and take you down, we’re gonna watch a race and then we’re gonna go out to eat. We’ll make a full day of it.” I said, “Honey, I’m getting too old. I can’t make a full day of it. I absolutely can’t. I get tired. And when I get tired I don’t want to do anything. Don’t even want to talk.”


Editor’s note: These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 8, on April 15, 2014.