Ford County Dust Bowl Oral History Project
A Kansas Humanities Council grant project
Interview: Arthur W. Leonard
Interviewer: Brandon Case
June 23, 1998
Brandon Case: What's your name?
Arthur W. Leonard: My name is Arthur W. Leonard, and I was born and raised here in Dodge City, and I'm eighty years old. My parents came out here in a covered wagon years ago and settled over south of Louis. My father was an inventor, and we started the tire shop in 1914, so it's been a long time ago. You want to narrate a little bit more on that?
BC: Sure, your experiences before the dust bowl then.
AL: Well, yeah, I was born and raised there, and back in the Depression, why, nobody had any money in 1929 when the crash happened. Why after that, we not only had the crash out here, but we had poverty and dust and dirt and every thing imaginable. And it got worse as it went along; it never got any better. Everyday it was hot and dry. And we got some moisture, but not much. And people began to learn how to live with the dust. They'd wear a dust mask over their face to keep the dust from getting in their lungs. But anybody that lived back there in the dust storm days, especially in this part of the country, have lung problems. They have black spots on their lungs. The doctors wonder what that is, and that's nothing more than deposits of dust from the dust storm days.
Most of the houses in the city, in the buildings, why, you had to clean the dust on top of the rafters because if you didn't the ceiling would fall down. It got so bad. And when I was a kid, that's how I earned part of my money, was cleaning up dust off of porches and yards and going up in the ceiling and scraping between the rafters to get the dirt out. And I did that, and of course, no body had any money back there then. There wasn't very much and what you had was very precious. Candy bars were not more than a nickel, and we had penny candy, and we had what we called lollipops. Candy bars were twice as long then as they are now for less money.
Conditions back there then were more or less a hand-me-down situation in the family where people had four or five children or maybe more. Why, they never threw anything away: shoes, clothes, overalls, they handed it down to the next person until it was completely wore out. And we lived in what I always called the "corduroy days," where people wore corduroy pants and you swished back and forth when you wore your knickers. I even wore knickers when I was a kid, and it was one of those things. As you growed up during the dust storm days, you learned to take care of yourself. You learned to save your money. Mother always said you should always save everything you can save, for some day you'll need it. And she was right. It was pretty bad.
Automobiles and tractors and one thing and another--there was a lot of electrolysis in the air from the dust storm days, and a tractor wouldn't run unless you pulled a chain behind it around the tractor. And automobiles sometimes--you had to get maybe two air cleaners on the automobile to keep the dust out of the motor cause it just tore the motor all to pieces. It'd get in the oil and just grind the motor up. It was hard on an automobile, the dust was.
And of course it was hard on everybody else too. Conditions in the homes and one thing and another, you had to learn how to take old sheets and make strips out of them, and then you made your glue out of flour, and you glued around the windows, and you glued them shut. In other words, so the dust couldn't get in, but the dust got in anyhow. And when you went to bed at night, why you turned the pillow over. Even though it was covered, it'd have dust on it. It got underneath there some way, and the bed got it. In the morning after a dust storm day, you have to eat in the kitchen, if you was lucky to have food, you had to clean off the kitchen table. The dust would be on top of the table and all over the house. Dust cleaning in the house was a continuous job, it never quit. It just went on and on and on.
Back in those days people were more congenial and they got together more and they played cards, and they played pitch, and pinochle and games like that, and they had more parties at the houses around because they didn't have any money and so they'd have gatherings. People would go from one house to another or they would just single out something and attend it. It didn't make any difference. On Sunday, we had the band played in the park, and other days we also had the band playing.
BC: Did you ever have any dust storms that came when you were out there listening to the band?
AL: Oh, yeah, sure.
BC: What would people do then?
AL: Nothing, they just listened to the band! A little dust then would be a great thing now. They would think it was terrible, but back there then, nobody paid any attention to it anymore. They got used to it.
People tried to grow their own food in their gardens, and they had an awful time because it was so dry. They needed a lot of water, and so they grew a lot of their own food. People ate lamb's quarters, and that was "poor man's greens" we called it. And dandelion greens, we ate those, and we had what we called "hasenpfeffer": that was stewed jackrabbit. That was German. My mother was German descent and they had stewed jackrabbit. We had a lot of that.
BC: Do you recall some of the jackrabbit hunts?
AL: Oh, yes, I was on 'em, and they were very pitiful. The jackrabbit hunt was very. . . .matter of fact, one day I just went home. I couldn't take it any more. The poor things was just dying and yelling and they was clubbing them to death. It was pitiful to see it, but they had to do it cause the jackrabbits was eating up all the grain. They just take a field and just wipe it out. There was so many jackrabbits, and they breed terrible fast, and so there was millions and millions of jackrabbits. Oh, yes I was on a lot of jackrabbit drives.
BC: How old were you on your first one?
AL: Oh, I really don't know. I was pretty young.
BC: Do you remember how old you were when you experienced your first bad dust storm?
AL: Well, I would say, the worst one was on Black Sunday. I think it come around two o'clock, I'm not sure. . .around that time in the afternoon. It was Sunday. . .I was working down at the tire shop when we stayed open on Sundays. I was working down at the tire shop, and I was crossing the street when it happened, and when it hit, I couldn't even find the tire shop. It was so bad. When it came in, it rolled; it didn't just dust. It rolled over and over and over and over and over when it came in, and it was coal black; it was coal black, and it was terrible that afternoon. It was hot and dry.
Dodge City was probably in the middle of the dust storm from the North and the South. Dodge City--we call it the Bible Belt, from Texas to Canada, there's a strip that's called the Bible Belt--and it seemed like that dust storm just blew over the Bible Belt east and west. That's the way it was.
There's a lot of people that tried to farm crops and they couldn't get them to grow because they didn't have any moisture you know. They conserved every bit of moisture they could. My uncle invented a dammer to dam the water. He was quite an inventor too. He made the first starter on the international tractor. His name was Tenbrink. He lived west of town. He invented that. He invented a lot of farm machinery.
Most of the farms had a blacksmith shop back in those days, and they made a lot of their own farm machinery and equipment. When something broke down, they repaired it themselves. They didn't have any money to have someone repair it, so they repaired it themselves.
They used a different type of farming back there then than they do now. They plowed pretty deep. They don't do that any more like they used to. They don't need to. There was a deal leaving the stubble on the ground to keep the wind from blowing the dirt away. Then the government initiated the groves of trees--the shelter belts. Every so many miles, they put in a shelter belt. The wind would hit the shelter of trees and raise up in the air. It was supposed to stay off of the ground to keep from taking the dirt. Then they contoured their farms; in other words, they didn't work it like normal, around the hillsides and one thing and another, and they tried to catch all the water they could. This dammer my uncle invented made round holes in the ground to catch the water so it wouldn't run off. It was real neat. So that was a few of things that was happening back there then in those days.
My dad was the one that invented the V-belt for an automobile, and we repaired big, long combine belts, a hundred-feet long for trash machines and combines. We were in the rubber business. We were rubber people.
BC: Did a lot of people use that dammer that your uncle invented?
AL: Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Everybody was using it. Yes! The dammer was a real important tool because it caught what moisture was so it wouldn't run off, see. It'd catch the moisture and sink down in, and that's what they wanted, see. You bet. The dammer was a real important tool.
BC: How did the farmers and others that you knew manage to salvage their crops back then? What were some things that they did?
AL: Well, you must remember a lot of the things that was happening back there. We had the WPA. We had a lot of farm programs. I can't think of the names of them, but we had a lot of farm programs, and the government controlled the amount of hogs you could raise. They killed a lot of hogs back there then, when they should of give it to the poor people, but they didn't. They just slaughtered them because they had too many hogs. They should of give the meat to the poor people, but they didn't. Then the government had what they called commodity warehouse--commodities.
They had different cities--the size of the city is what controlled the amount of food you got. It didn't seem like it make any difference. Everybody applied for commodities, and they had what they called dried fruit. They had prunes, and they had raisins. They had apples. Everything that you could dry they had dried. And beans. Everybody ate every kind of bean there was. They had beans, and also they had some canned goods, too, [that] they give out. And cheese. That cheese was big thing. They give a lot of cheese out. And bacon, they give a lot of bacon out. A lot of bacon back there in those days. And people signed up for those commodities. And we didn't have any money, and their wealth was more or less their family and their business. That was their wealth. It wasn't in dollars or gold. It was just plain human beings. Being a human being was their wealth.
People were more congenial than they are now. They were more friendly. Of course, they had a lot of time on their hands, and one thing and another.
BC: Were there a lot of people in Dodge that received a commodity?
AL: Oh yes! Oh yes, yes. A lot of people did. The big joke about it was back there then was they'd take prunes or dried, pressed grapes and make wine out of it! They were making booze out of the pressed grapes! And every farmer and everybody back in those days made home brew. Very few farmers didn't know how to make home brew. They made their own beer.
BC: That was back during prohibition, too.
AL: Yeah, back during prohibition, yeah. So they made their own beer and everything. A lot of the food they had they concocted, you know, or did the best they could. They never threw anything away, you know, nothing. Nothing ever went. Everything left over from meals you got it the next meal.
Sauerkraut was a big deal back there then. Most of the people out here made their own sauerkraut and pickles, dill pickles. They pickled a lot of pickles. Dill pickles, whenever they could get them, they pickled the pickles. Every chance they got they canned everything they could can because they knew if they didn't, they'd starve. They wouldn't have any food. So they canned back in those days.
BC: What were some other ways that you and your neighbors survived, like people here in Dodge City? Besides the commodities and canning, what were some other things that people did . . .
AL: The people?
BC: . . .to survive?
AL: Well, my dad was a great promoter of Dodge City. He was the one that promoted the two-mile race track. That was before the depression. He was the one got Barney Oldfield out here. He was an early day race-track driver. And he got him to come out here. I can remember the motorcycle races. They had a nightclub out there. It was called the Wintergreen. Then they had, what you call--where they shot things in the air--what do they call it. . .?
AL: Shoots. Yeah, things like that. And fishing. You went fishing whenever you got a chance. And back there in 1934-35 we had what they call a walk-a-thon. That was in the heart of the depression. That was sixteen miles you walked. And I come in twenty-third.
BC: What for?
AL: Well, the winner got so much money. It was a prize. The first, second, third, fourth, fifth, up to about seven or eight winners, they got so much money. It was a walk-a-thon. I didn't have any shoes. I had an old pair of tennis shoes, and they was about two sizes too big for me, and you could hear me clapping on the street when I walked. You had to walk heel and toe. You couldn't run, you had to walk--straight walk. So I have a picture of myself in this thing, of me being in the walk-a-thon. A lot of people didn't know we even had a walk-a-thon, but we did.
BC: Did you just have one?
AL: Yeah. Sixteen miles was what the mileage was on it. You went out from Dodge City, and you went east and then north and around north and back west and down Fourteenth and back in again. It was sixteen miles. Then you ended up by the county jail was where I think it ended up.
Baseball was a big sport back there then. Everybody played baseball. That was for amusement, and people would congregate, you know. Sometimes you know there was enough almost in a family. The Hessmans had enough in the family to have a baseball team. They had quite a few in their family; they had their own baseball team. But the churches, different churches had baseball teams and one thing and another, and they played baseball. There wasn't much else to do.
We had some horse races once in a while and car races back there then, and that was about it.
BC: People created their own amusement.
AL: Oh, yes. People made their own amusement. Everybody learned to play cards. If you didn't know how to play cards, why you was out! Then a lot of times people liked to congregate on Sundays. My mother, she liked to play tiddlywinks and checkers and dominoes. She liked kids.
On Saturday we did some boxing, though. I boxed when I was kid till I was about eighteen or nineteen. I boxed Golden Gloves. We had some great prize fighters here. Angus Snyder was second to the world championship till Dempsey knocked him out in Wichita. We had a lot like Hoot Burger and other boxers here in Dodge. These names we've forgotten if we don't put them down because they lived back in those days.
BC: Now, how old were you when the dust bowl first started?
AL: Oh, I was born in 1917, and the dust storms started in 1931 or '32 somewhere in there. This gradually kept getting worse and worse, then the Black Sunday came and after Black Sunday it petered out. We didn't have as much from then on out. In '38 and '39 we got more moisture and things were changing and everything. In the '40's the war started and, of course, that made a big difference.
BC: Do you recall what the talk was like back then when the dust bowl was first starting, what the talk was about town about what was happening?
AL: Well, the people were moving, a lot of the people that lived here that weren't tied down left the country--went to California, especially in Oklahoma. What was it--The Grapes of Wrath--that book? Read that and it'll tell you what happened in the dust storm days. It just went on and on. There wasn't much conversation because you was used to it, you know. That's all, you just got used to it. Most people wore dust masks as much as they could or put a handkerchief over their nose or something to keep from breathing the dust in. But you got it anyhow; it was just impossible to keep from getting it.
Yeah, one day it'd roll in from the North and the next day it'd come in from the South--it'd blow back. There wasn't any certain direction. Most of it was North and South. There wasn't any east, maybe a little dust out of the West, but they wasn't any out of the East. We don't get any rains or anything out of the East in this country.
BC: Did people keep their sense of humor about it?
AL: Oh, yeah, sure. I think people were happier really back there then than they are now. They was a lot more happier. And families got together a lot more often than they do know. I think they lived a different life. See, we had a double shot of it. We not only had the Depression, but we had everything that went with it, the dust, you know, and everything like that. We really got socked when the dust started coming up. And there wasn't any way to keep it out of your house. That's impossible. There wasn't a house made that could hold it out. It'd just blow in. Somehow it'd get in the house.
And then . . . for coolers, we had an old boy that invented a cooler. His name was Jack Bledsoe. He run a Coney Island here in Dodge City, and he made a cooler, and it worked. He never did put it in the manufacture stage, but he was one of the inventors of a cooler. He was real good at inventing things.
BC: Now you talked about how the dust would get in the house. How did your Mom deal with that?
AL: Well, it's like I say: it was just a continuous job of cleaning up. It just went on and on. You'd dust one room and go to the next one. Then dust the next