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Surviving the Dust Bowl

Newton woman recalls 1930s life in Kansas

Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 11:11 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 11:17 a.m. CDT
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(Submitted photo)
The prairie near Marie Bookout's home in Kansas was a barren wasteland during the Dust Bowl years.
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(Submitted photo)
Marie Bookout (left) and her family pose for a portrait in Ness City, Kan., during the height of the Dust Bowl.
Caption
(Submitted photo)
Marie Bookout of Newton

Although Newton’s Marie Bookout has lived in Iowa since she was in fourth grade, the years that have passed haven’t erased her memories of enduring the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as a child in western Kansas.

“I was a little kid when we lived in Kansas,” Bookout, 84, said. “[Her father] drove the gas truck and he’d fill it up and take it out in the fields to the combines. If they saw one of those dust storms coming, it’d be like a tornado now, but it’d just be a solid wall of dust.”

Such dust storms became the hallmark of the ecological phenomenon that swept across the American plains during the mid-1930s and was thusly deemed the “Dust Bowl.” Spurred by extreme drought and the utilization of farming practices that eliminated the prairie’s deep root structure, dry and dusty conditions left fields vulnerable to wind erosion.

Bookout’s family took extreme measures to evade the dust, even within the walls of their prairie home. 

“After one of those storms, you’d have dust everywhere,” she said. “It just came in through nowhere.

“If there was a storm when mother was cooking, you know, you’d have to keep lids on all the pots and pans, of course,” she recalled. “She would set the table and put a tablecloth over all the plates and forks and knives, and we’d have to stick our heads under the tablecloth to eat supper.”

It wasn’t just their food that Bookout’s family was concerned about – breathing in the dust was even more dangerous than eating it.

“Daddy built me a bed with sides on it, and mother would lay a damp sheet over it every night before bed,” Marie said. “You’d wake up after one of those dust storms, and you’d have dust [an inch thick] on the outside of it. My mother worked herself half to death to keep me from breathing in dirt. Just imagine having to rinse that sheet out every day, and then having to do it all again.”

Depending on the direction of the wind and the severity of the storm, Bookout and her family could predict where the devastating dust storms originated.

“We could tell almost the exact location of where the dust was coming from just by looking at the color,” she explained. “If it was red, it was from Oklahoma; if it was yellow, it was from Texas. ... If you were there, you could tell.

“Lots of times they’d say, ‘That dust is from Texas,’ and that’d mean it came clear over Oklahoma to get here.”

The dust took a toll not only on farmers, but on the prairie wildlife as well.

“The men would all get together and drag the [dead] critters up from the corners of the fields and burn them,” she said. “We had to beat the rabbits to death to keep them from eating the food the people needed to eat. My family tried to farm, tried the corn and the wheat and could do pretty good with the wheat. Mother always had a milk cow or two, a hog, chickens and a garden. If you could feed the animals, you could exist.

“You know, it was an awful lot like that ‘Grapes of Wrath’ movie,” she added. “It showed what a hardship it was to make a living.”

Staff writer Nicole Wiegand may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 422, or at nwiegand@newtondailynews.com.

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