Ken Burns’ “The Dust Bowl” explores worst man-made ecological disaster in U.S. history

They recall the days turning black, the winds whipping through towns, taking with them their family’s livelihoods, the soil on which they farmed. In those natural disasters, thousands died but no one is sure just how many.

Survivors of the dust storms of the 1930s tell their stories in Ken Burns’ oral history documentary The Dust Bowl, premiering on PBS Nov. 18-19.

“They used to say no one will watch, no one has the attention span,” Burns says of films tackling history’s tough subjects. But he has proved naysayers wrong before with his award-winning long-form documentaries on the Civil War, Prohibition, jazz and baseball. The Dust Bowl is practically a short when it comes to Burns’ signature films, this one spanning just four hours spread over two nights.

The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, which destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that for many seemed to herald the end of the world. The facts here are terrifying.

“It was a man-made catastrophe,” Burns says. And, it lasted a decade.

During that time, the Great Depression raged, and initially people living in the Plains states thought they might escape the financial ruin ravaging Wall Street. But a newfound reliance on gasoline-powered machinery, which made over-farming much easier, and a drought led to the horrendously perfect storm.

Pillars of dust obscured the noon sun. The photos and clear footage Burns uses look as if the hand of God will strike through the clouds at any moment.

“While the rest of the country was suffering through the financial disaster of the Great Depression, the farmers of the Southern Plains were not only dealing with that, but also with something much more ominous and overpowering,” says Dayton Duncan, writer and coproducer, and a longtime collaborator with Burns. “Dust storms were taking their land and food, killing their children and turning the day into night. Plagues of grasshoppers and rabbits ravaged what little vegetation remained. It was as if nature itself had turned against them. But in fact it was the other way around: We had tried to impose our will on nature, and the results were catastrophic.”

The dust storms blew so hard and so persistently that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to swipe his finger across his desk in the Oval Office and touch bits and pieces of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and other states.

To find those who endured these years, Burns had put out a call on Midwestern PBS stations, asking for dust storm survivors. His producers went to old-age homes, and survivors opened up their family albums to him. Many shared their family’s stories of resilience.

Calvin Crabill’s father, like most people during the Depression, needed to make money to feed his family. His father worked in the Great Plow-Up, where millions of acres, once grasslands, were turned into farmlands.

“He had not stayed with this practice long because he thought turning over the fragile soil of the Southern Plains was all wrong, all wrong,” Burns says. “But desperate times in southeastern Colorado ensured that he, too, would have to leave for California, to sell his cattle and horses, a loss from which he never really recovered.”

Calvin left being a cowboy on the range and moved to Burbank as a child. He never fully adjusted to the richer people he now lived among. Even at his 55th high-school reunion, the sharp words of condescending richer classmates still burned.

The younger Crabill is a superb witness of the storms that not only upended his life, but which also changed the country.

“On the Plains, often there’s a sound, and it’s the wind in some way,” he says at a press conference. “You sense the wind because the wind blows so much there. But what was so awesome is that, suddenly, you had silence on the Plains, silence, almost deafening silence. And then when — they call them ‘rollers,’ — when that roller hit, all hell broke loose. It was deafening. But before it hit — and it came up slowly like this; as you see in the pictures, it came up like this — there’s silence, complete silence. And when it hit, it was deafening, and you couldn’t see or hear.”

Yet the storms took over and in their wake they left people coughing up black gunk. Children developed often fatal “dust pneumonia,” business owners unable to cope with financial ruin took their own lives, and thousands were forced from their homes in what became a mass exodus. Already malnourished, many perished. America’s breadbasket finally ran out.

The films show a bizarre incident of huge jackrabbits taking over a picnic. If this were not true, it would look like a corny 1950s horror movie. Yet jackrabbits invaded and for a day, people had to kill them.

It seemed as if the people of the Plains were under siege. When they finally decided to give up — something no one did lightly — and head west, they were often greeted with hostility at the California border.

“This is an American story,” Burns says, “about how there are no ordinary people, and how some of the anonymous among us lead incredible lives.”

The Dust Bowl airs Nov. 18-19 at 8pm ET on PBS (check local listings).


Top photo: Courtesy of Joyce Unruh; Green Family Collection

Bottom photo: Courtesy of Historic Adobe Museum