Have you thought about what it must have been like for your ancestors who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s? My dad’s family experienced the Dust Bowl, the era of incredible dust storms that choked the plains of Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas from about 1932-1938. He told of the drifts of sandy dirt on the roads and breathing through a damp handkerchief in the midst of a dust storm. The third in my series The Adventures of Cowboy Bob, here is a fictionalized telling of one of those storms.
By Diana Elder, based on accounts from Bobby Gene Shults, Charles Leslie Shults, and Christine Shults Decker
Ettie nervously eyed the ominous dark cloud that hung low on the horizon. Les and the boys were hunting in the woods and if they didn’t get back soon they might get caught in the whirling dust when it hit. Western Oklahoma had taken the brunt of the dust storms when they first started, about 1932. Now it was the spring of 1935 and Ettie feared another summer of dust was beginning, even in the wooded eastern part of the state where the family now lived. Their three room log cabin was chinked with old rags and papers to keep out the worst of the wind and cold, but dust had a way of getting through the smallest of cracks.
Bob was tired. He’d been out hunting with his older brother and dad for hours. His eight year old legs felt like lead as they worked their way through the woods back to the clearing and their cabin. He knew his mom would be waiting with a hot meal and his growling stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten for hours.
Coming out of the woods Bob felt a gust of wind peppering his face with tiny bits of sandy dirt. His legs found new life and he raced for the cabin. Nothing was worse than getting caught outside in a dust storm. His mom already had the white sheet covering the food on the table and the damp handkerchiefs ready for everyone. He grabbed one and held it up to his face. He’d learned that he’d be coughing and sneezing for hours if he didn’t use a handkerchief to filter out the worst of the dust.
Bob ate as quickly as possible. The dust settled on everything and his mother’s tasty stew quickly became gritty. Even though it was noon, the black dust blocked out sunlight so his dad lit the kerosene lamp. There was nothing to do but wait it out. The only good part about the dust storms was when his dad, Les, told stories about his childhood to help pass the time.
“Tell us about the panther, daddy,” six year old Helen begged, settling down next to her brothers.
“Well,” Les drawled, “when I was just your age, my baby sister would get spasms at night. One time her face was turning black and my daddy sent me for the doctor, about half a mile away. I hated going out at night. The doctor lived on the other side of the woods and those woods were full of wild cats and panthers.”
“I started out running as fast as I could. I knew those woods like the back of my hand, but at night even the trees looked big and scary. I was halfway there when I heard it, the screech of a big cat. If you thought I was running fast before, now I flew like the wind. The screeching always just behind me.”
“I burst out of the woods and pounded on the doctor’s door.”
“Come quick, Lola’s spasming again,” I stammered, out of breath. The doctor grabbed his bag and we were back in the woods again. I kept as close as I could to the doctor, out of the corner of my eye, I was sure I saw the shining eyes of a panther. He leapt from tree to tree, always just behind us.”
“Boy was I glad to back home safely, at least until the next time Lola got sick.”
Bob, C.H., and Helen sat in rapt attention, hanging on every word. If they had to stay inside until the storm ended, listening to their dad’s stories made the time go by quickly, and he had so many good stories. When it sounded like the wind had died down some, the family gingerly opened the door to see a thick coat of blackish, sandy dirt covering everything. First order of business was to uncover the garden with the new seedlings just starting to come up. Then back to the cabin to wipe the dust off of every surface in the cabin and sweep the dirt floor clean.
Everything was soon back to normal, until the next dust storm.
Writing the Story
The dust bowl was a momentous era in United States history and photos and stories abound. Immersing myself in memories of those who lived through the dust storms helped me visualize what it might have been for my dad and his family. My dad would talk of the dust storms and how his mother covered the food with sheets to keep it clean but his history included just a short mention of the dust storms: “In summer dust storms began. Clouds of dust hid sun so needed lights to see in house. Needed damp cloth over nose and mouth to be able to breathe inside house.”
I scoured the histories of my aunts and grandpa to find more clues to what it might have been like for my dad and his family. I have Aunt Christine to thank for pinpointing their location in Oklahoma and the description of the cabin: “They went east to Tahlequah, east of there they had to ford the Illinois River (no bridge) to get to Eldon, which was a small store, gas pump and Post office. The road ended at Eldon, from there you followed the ruts about five or six miles to the top of a very steep hill. They lived in a three room log cabin, dirt floor, cracks were chinked with old rags and papers to keep out wind and cold.”
I turned to Google Earth to see the lay of the land and try to figure out just where that cabin might have been.
The story about the panthers comes from my grandpa’s history.
“When she [Lola] was young, she had spasms quite frequently. We lived about a half a mile from a doctor, it was always at night and I had to go in to get the doctor while my mother and dad tried to keep her alive. She had turned black in the face and we thought she was dying. On the way over to the doctors, there were lots of wild cats and panthers, probably not quite as many as I thought there was.”
Thinking about writing a story? Just do it. You’ll draw closer to your family by putting yourself in their shoes. Learn about the major historical events that would have affected them, then imagine how they might have lived day to day. Read accounts that others have left. Your family probably experienced similar ups and downs of life.
Best of luck in your family history writing!
Other stories in the Adventures of Cowboy Bob series: