Imogene Victor and her husband, John, stood on the porch of their farmhouse in Winona, Kan., one day in 1935 and prayed.
The billowing, rolling mass of dust in the distance had a red tinge to it. She remembers how huge it was, filling the sky with a height and breadth that made it the biggest thing she had ever seen. And it was coming right at them.
She doesn't remember noise, but when it reached the farmhouse and reduced the sun to a hazy wafer, the dust covered everything. It clogged nostrils, defied closed windows, piled up in two- or three-foot levels by fences, and invaded every nook and cranny of life.
AP writer Robert Geiger first coined the phrase, "the dust bowl." He was riding in his car on April 15, 1935, the day after Black Sunday. He had seen the worst day of dust storms that had covered the plains areas of five states - Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico - since the beginning of the 1930s.
He wrote: "Three little words, achingly familiar on a Western farmer's tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent - 'if it rains.' "
It hadn't rained in Winona for months and months. By the time Black Sunday came, western Kansas had experienced 12 days of storms without a break. "It left us bone dry," says Mrs. Victor, now 102 and living in the North Shore Health Care Facility.
"The clouds came, and sometimes it was as dark as night."
A combination of factors caused the Dust Bowl years in the US. What had previously been marginal grassland suited for buffalo was used to grow wheat and other crops extensively during World War I. Soil conservation methods were barely known. Bigger and better tractors allowed more and more land to be plowed. Soil replenishment was a mere agricultural whisper.
Then came a severe drought in 1931. The prairie winds, usually skipping across the grasslands that held moisture, began blowing away the exposed topsoil in bigger and bigger dust clouds. In 1933 there were 70 dust storms in the plains. Dust from Kansas was carried as far away as Washington, D.C.
Victor and her husband bought their farm - some 200 acres of slightly rolling hills - from her father. Before the Dust Bowl, the couple raised cattle, wheat, chickens, and pigs. "I did it all," Victor says about being a farmer's wife with no children.
She learned how to drive a car by driving a tractor first. "We lived through a lot of hardships, but we weren't alone," she says, remembering everything about farming fondly except the Dust Bowl years. "There were people everywhere doing what we were doing, and helping each other. Our faith in God is what kept us going." The Victors also switched gradually from raising cattle to sheep. And to help ends meet, Victor took eggs, cream, and butter into Winona to sell.
In those dusty, rainless years people wore gauze masks, and many wore goggles when they ventured outside. Indoors, they hung wet sheets over windows and around beds to cut down on the dust. Water was protected in sealed canning jars. Food was always gritty. In many kitchens, housewives kneaded bread in drawers opened just enough for their hands.
Humor helped deflect the misery, like this joke: One farmer fainted when hit by a drop of rainwater, but he revived when two buckets of dust were thrown in his face.
In humor or stolidness, the fine dust prevailed, sometime an inch thick on tables, and two feet thick by roads. Doors would be blocked by dust, and farmers had to climb out windows to clear it away. For unknown reasons, rabbits multiplied by tens of thousands, forcing whole towns to chase them into pens and kill them with sticks. "It was so awful," says Victor. "But there was no other way to do it because they ate anything."
Cattle died with "mud balls" in their stomachs. The dust caused respiratory problems. Farmers, broken in spirit and nearly penniless, fled the dust for California and the hope of jobs. In 1937, nearly 20 percent of the population of Los Angeles County was on relief, and the majority were from the Dust Bowl states.
Beginning in 1935, federal and state governments began programs of seeding large areas of the plains and rotating crops. Contour plowing was introduced along with other techniques to remedy shortsighted farming practices. In the spring of 1938 normal rains occurred.
"We farmed until the late 1950s," says Victor. The couple moved to Loveland in 1963, and her husband passed away in 1979.
What is the most remarkable change she witnessed? "Electricity," she says. "We started with kerosene, then natural gas, and when we got electricity we could hardly believe how wonderful it was."
Today, nieces and nephews surround Victor instead of farmland, and a prized possession is an autographed football presented by the Denver Broncos when she turned 100. "I worked hard all my life and loved farming," she says, her face softened by an easy smile. "It certainly didn't hurt me."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society