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When documentary maker Ken Burns presented his films on the Civil War and the Lewis & Clark expedition, he relied on historical records to bring those stories to life. For his upcoming four-hour film, “The Dust Bowl,” he brings to viewers the experiences of those who lived through the Dirty Thirties, and its defining moment, the dust storm of April 14, 1935, known as Black Sunday, that swept through the High Plains.
On Sunday, he and his writer and co-producer Dayton Duncan were in Amarillo at KACV-TV for a screening of clips for the survivors of that ecological disaster.
Those survivors are in their 80s and 90s now, and in a series of interviews with Burns and Duncan they recounted their experiences.
In Goodwell, Okla., Burns said, he visited with brothers who shared the story of how their 3-year-old sister died from the dust storms that raked the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, eastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas. The brothers, now 79, 87 and 90 years old, took Burns to the gravesite at Rolla, Kan., and there, as the wind whipped sand around, telling the story overwhelmed the brothers.
“Their emotions were real,” Burns said. “Still, it was hard for them to talk about it.”
(See Ken Burns talk about the importance of preserving history and the wisdom of the elderly here.)
At Sunday's screening, Bill Chafin, who grew up in Pampa and worked there selling oil and gas equipment until retiring to Amarillo, shared the memory as an 8-year-old returning with his parents from Amarillo to Pampa on Black Sunday.
As they were driving on a calm afternoon, the black cloud appeared in the distance, and “twirling, twisting balls of dust” forced them off the road. Soon they were in the midst of that cloud, Chafin said, recalling his mother saying the dust was so thick that one could not see his hand in front of his face. (To see another interview with Chafin, click here.)
Chafin said he tested his mother's words and stuck his hand out to see if he indeed could not see it.
As a child, Chafin said, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression became synonymous to him, even though the Depression started in the late 1920s, including the 1929 stock market collapse, the collapse of farm prices a year later, and a massive drought that touched 46 of the 48 states.
Technological advances in farm equipment and a string of rainy years on the High Plains led farmers to turn grasslands that had been used for grazing into cropland primarily for wheat. After the price of wheat fell in 1930, instead of cutting production, farmers tried to make up the difference by planting more acreage, leaving fields exposed when the drought hit in 1932.
Duncan, who wrote a book, “The Dust Bowl: an Illustrated History,” which will be released in October, said the exposed lands and the withering drought combined in ways that were “worse than you could ever imagine.”
A comparatively unsung hero was soil scientist Howard Finnell, whose research into conservation methods during the drought led to the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service, Duncan said. Finnell directed government programs to limit the damage of the Dust Bowl, and was convinced that agriculture could survive in this region.
For Burns, the stories of the survivors presented a new lens to examine that era. Previously, he examined the 1920s and 1930s with his documentaries “Baseball” and “Jazz.”
“The Dust Bowl” is about the strength and resilience of those people who met hardship and persevered through bravery and generosity, Burns said.
That era is known for the exodus of Oklahomans to California, but, as Duncan notes, 75 percent of the population in 1930 remained through the Dust Bowl, which ended when the rains returned in 1938, and were counted in the 1940 national census.
Burns said his interest in making films began at age 12, but he turned to documentary filmmaking when he attended Hampshire College.