What drought? Dust Bowl was historic

Steve Chapman

John Cryer

Ary Cryer, John Cryer’s mother, poses for a picture with John’s brother, Marvin (right) and his sister, Helen, circa 1926. The dark cloud in the sky is dust from one of the dust storms of that era.

John Cryer, 5, and his brother Marvin, 10, pose with the horses and barrels they used to fetch water from a neighbor’s farm.

Modern dry spell can’t compare with Dust Bowl says local who lived through it
Drought has hit Lawrence County hard this summer. Most of the county is currently experiencing a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map, and two weeks earlier, the county was hit with extreme drought. Temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, combined with a lack of rainfall, caused several corn crops to fail and also took a toll on pastures where cattle normally graze.
However, if you ask Mt. Vernon resident John Cryer, who lived through the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, how the current drought measures up to what he experienced in his boyhood, his answer is quite simple.
“There would be no way in the world you could compare it,” he said.

Dust Bowl caused by over-farming of ground, displacement of native grass
John Cryer was born on March 16, 1929 to John Cryer, Sr. and his wife, Ary, in Dimmitt, Texas, near the Texas/New Mexico border. His first memories were of living in a home underground to protect them from the extreme dust storms that plagued the midwest in that decade. His father later built them a wooden house above ground. Cryer said large-scale crop growers from out of the area came and, in the name of “progress,” planted wheat crops in the land, but in doing so, displaced the native grasses whose roots bound the soil.
“The people came in from New York and different sorts of places and plowed that ground up and planted wheat,” he said. “They made tons and tons of money on all that wheat.”

Dusty conditions caused several hardships
However, in the 1930s, the plains area would suffer from their driest decade in 40 years. The lack of rainfall caused the topsoil to turn into a dry, crumbly dust. Without the native grasses to hold it in place, strong winds stripped the soil from the land, causing the dust storms that epitomized the era.
“The wind would come up in the morning,” Cryer said. “It would start to get hot, and then the wind would start blowing … and then the dirt would pick up.”
Cryer said he remembered seeing the wind blow tumbleweeds against fences, behind which dust would pile up.
“A cow could actually walk over that fence,” he said.
The family owned three or four milk cows, Cryer said, and they kept them alive with water they brought home from a neighbor’s property, as well as milo, a kind of plant often used in sorghum. Because of the dust, Cryer said, they also had to give the cattle special care.
“We’d have to scrape the dirt out of their backs,” he said. “Their backs would get sores, and we’d have to take a brush and brush the dirt out of their backs. Sometimes, their eyes would get sore from the dirt (also).”
Dirt also plagued the family’s living conditions, Cryer said. After the family moved into the house Cryer’s father built, he and his brother slept in their bed, he recalled, his mother had a unique way of making certain he and his brother didn’t breathe in the dirt in their sleep.
“At night … she would take a sheet, and wet it and … tie it to the top of the bedstead to keep us from choking at night,” he said.

Government tried different ways to bring dust under control
Cryer said the government experimented with various ways of ending the dust storms, including plowing deeper into the ground to bring up clods to put over the dusty topsoil and planting corn instead of wheat. Eventually, he said, right before he joined the Navy, groundwater was discovered, which was used to irrigate the fields, helping to end the dusty conditions.
After he got out of the Navy, Cryer eventually became a plumber, and while he was on a forced vacation from his job in the 1960s, he came to Mt. Vernon to visit his half-sister, Artie Rothwell. While in the area, he bought a 130-acre dairy farm. At this farm he said, raising cattle was much easier than what he had grown accustomed to as a boy.
“To me, it was easy,” he said. “It was no problem, because I was used to working.”

Modern drought and Dust Bowl era simply incomparable
Reflecting on the current drought, Cryer said today’s drought in Lawrence County simply cannot be compared with the Dust Bowl for several reasons. One he said, is that in Lawrence County, there are numerous trees, which help to keep the soil in place, as well as a greater presence of surface water in creeks, springs and rivers, whereas in Dimmitt, the only natural vegetation was grass and water was mostly underground. Moreover, in the more than 80 years since the Dust Bowl ended, there have been numerous changes in technology, and there are also goods and services today, especially medical care, which were not available back then, as well as a greater population. Cryer said neighbors lived miles apart when he was growing up. However, he is certain that if he had grown up in modern day Lawrence County, as opposed to 1930s and 1940s Dimmitt, Texas, life would have certainly been radically different.
“You just can’t imagine how much easier it would have been,” he said.


Lawrence County Record

312 S. Hickory St.
Mt. Vernon, MO, 65712


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