Ford County Dust Bowl Oral History Project
A Kansas Humanities Council grant project
Interview: Irene Thompson
Interviewer: Brandon Case
June 24, 1998
Brandon Case: To begin, could you stare your name please?
Irene Thompson: Irene Thompson. I live at 200 Campus Drive, Apartment 3A in Dodge City.
BC: How long have you lived here in Dodge City?
IT: I came to Dodge City in 1952, so I worked 36 years at Miller School, 29 as Principal, seven as Teacher, and then I retired in 1988, and so, add that on to it, that’s I guess that’s the number of years. 52 and 98, is what about 36? 46, about 46 years.
BC: Now where did you grow up?
IT: I grew up at Kismet, little town down there on Highway 54, on west of Plains and East of Liberal. We’re 18 miles from Liberal; we’re seven miles from Plains. It’s a small town, it’s a rural high school, a rural grade school, it’s all it is.
BC: Could you spell it?
IT: It’s Kismet, K-I-S-M-E-T.
BC: That’s not in Ford County is it?
IT: No, it’s in Seward County, Rock Island Railroad runs through there.
BC: What year were you born?
IT: Well, I was born in 1923, September the 8th, and lived there most of my life, I mean until I started working. I think I moved away from home then, but I’ve always been in Southwest Kansas.
BC: You were a youngster during the Dust Bowl?
IT: Yes, yes. I don’t remember for sure just what years those would have been, I, for some reason ’32 sticks in my mind, but and, I imagine some of it started before that and some of it after that. And if it was ’32, I was probably about nine years old. But I do remember it, I do remember it, the dust would get so heavy it’d get so black it was just like storm clouds all over.
And Mom used to cook for teachers and there was a young man who was a Preacher there at Kismet, and he took his evening meal at home. And one day he come, going up to the house to eat and the storm came up, the wind came up, and he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, there was that much dirt and dust in the air, so it was pretty bad.
People had trouble keeping it out of their houses and lot of people took rags and chinks to use the knife to chink them, chink them around the doors and the windows to help keep the dirt out because it came in everywhere the air you breathe, everything. It’s a wonder more people didn’t die from Dust Pneumonia, because it was really bad. Just a cloud would come up, you’d think, oh maybe we’ll get a little bit of rain and it wound up being dirt, instead of rain. So, it made a lot of difference, it was hard to keep the house clean, and many people had to go up in the attic and clean out their attics because the dirt got so heavy on the plaster, many people said their ceilings would fall in. And so people had to get up there and scoop the sand and dust out. So, they were hard days. It was hard to breathe all the time, if somebody was sick, in particular, and had trouble breathing; sometimes they hung wet sheets up the window to help to keep the dust out. There was a lot of Dust Pneumonia in those days, I have a lot of allergies, and I blame that on the Dust Bowl days.
But I had a sister who was two and a half years younger than I, and we used to help Mother set the table, and so forth, get things ready for the evening meal, and we’d set the plates, turn the plates upside down so, if there was any dust in the air, it wouldn’t settle on the plates before they ate. And then when they sat down to the table, why then they turned the plate right side up. So, that was somethin’, those were difficult days. There would be sand dunes and piles of dirt that would be as high as the fence posts. And for years afterwards, you could see those in certain areas.
IT: But it was bad because there wasn’t any rain. Anybody who had broken out the sod and some of the sod should never have been broken out, and so we really paid for it, pretty hard times for people. They’d plant their wheat it would blow out, plant a garden and things like that. They had trouble getting anything to grow because of the lack of rainfall.
BC: Did your family plant a garden?
IT: Yes, we tried to have garden different years. And most the people had their own windmills in those days too, didn’t have city water. And so, most houses were not modern either, always had to “pass” out back some where. And to the, some called it the “Roosevelter”, because they gave jobs to people to go out to build, good toilets to put on, in their yards, and so forth. It was quite an improvement, from just slappin’ up some boards to make a place to go. And so that gave jobs to a lot of people during the Depression.
IT: WPA, uh-huh. But I remember one Sunday, my sister and I were over skating on the, the only sidewalk we had to skate on was over in front of the school; we lived about a block and a half or two blocks from the school, and so we’d go down there and skate in the afternoon or evening, whenever we had time. And this particular Sunday, why we were having such a good time, we got to noticing to the north and west a blackness in the clouds coming up, and that was the day of the “Black Blizzard”, the black storm, and you couldn’t see anything. It was a little scary, sometimes your lights would go out, didn’t have electricity; so had to use lamps or something to see by, so it was a difficult time. Soon as we saw those clouds, we ran home because we knew we had to get home, and we could get lost and might blow away. So….
BC: You made it.
IT: Yeah, we made it, yeah it was somethin’ else. Just seemed like everyday, the clouds would come up and dust and dirt would blow in, it would be one color if it came from one direction; and another color if it came from another direction. So down to the south and east of here, why there was quite a bit of red dirt. So it would be more red if it was coming this way. And from out this way, Colorado and all that, it was more brown, that’s why they call it the “Black Blizzard”, because it just covered the sun and it made everything get dark. Chickens didn’t know whether to go roost or not, whether it was, in my night time, it was quite a change, quite different.
BC: What was that day like?
IT: It was kinda scary. I don’t remember anything else about that day except I was scared about the black cloud hitting. When it just rolled up, these big ol’ billowing clouds of that brownish black dirt and before we got home even, it was hard to see, it was that heavy. And without anything to stop it, the sand, the dirt just built up by it, ya know, in stacks. And you can wade out through those fields, sand hills near the [inaudible] place, and there would be farm machinery and things that were buried in the dirt, fence rows and all. Those were difficult times.
BC: What would you do during a “duster”?
IT: Well, you couldn’t see to do too much, so you set around and played games or, we had a piano, we played the piano, we did some singing, we used to sing church hymns and so forth, that was always something to do. Another thing was to make some homemade fudge or something like that, or pop some corn, something to occupy your time because it really was scary, especially for little kids. I’m sure it was for our parents too, worried about ya know, if we were all going to blow away, or what was going to happen to us. So they were difficult times.
BC: How did your parents reassure you?
IT: Well, we sorta had a faith and a belief, and we were church going people. And they believed that we would be taken care of and if we didn’t have to worry about anything, that if we trusted in God, He would take care of our needs. And apparently He did because I didn’t know how poor we were ‘til after I was old enough to have money and do, ya know, have some things of my own. We had to manufacture our own games, we made things out of skates and wheels, and we used to play “I Spy” or “Hide the Thimble” and things like that. When you couldn’t play outdoors, it made a lot of difference. And it wasn’t, and the light wasn’t good enough to see to do anything like sewing or reading, so we had to sing or talk or play games or cards or things you could play, things you could do like that, inside.
BC: How did your family get by during that time?
IT: Well, just hard work. Uh, my dad worked on the railroad part time as a section man and then in later years he was custodian of the schools. But I don’t remember, ya know, as a child just what years and when he quit the railroad. But I can remember that when the freight trains would stop in town, and if they were refrigerated cars, if they were empty, the tops up here would be open. And so my brother was eleven years older than I, so my dad and he would go down to the trains and Dad had a connection with the railroad, so one of ‘em would get up in there and get down in there and shave chunks of ice out, get those chunks of ice and bring it home and we always had a cow and some chickens around, so he’d bring it around and we’d make ice cream, so that was a real treat, ‘cause we didn’t have ice, and that was a way we could get ice, so that was a lot of fun. Ice cream always tasted good. Seemed like we always had milk, butter, and cream, and things like that because, and with the chickens and eggs and so forth and the milk cow, why we managed pretty well. So….
BC: Were you living out on a farm?
IT: No, we lived, well they had lived in the country before we girls started school, and had done farming, and then we moved to town and built a house in Kismet there and lived there all our lives, well I should say while I was growing up anyway. So everybody worked at odd jobs and they still had horses around in those days, ‘cause I can remember coming home form school and seeing that they had a horse and plow out there to plow up the garden, get it ready to plant. And that was always a fun time ‘cause the kids like to run in the dirt, feel that cool dirt against your feet, if there was any moisture in it at all.
BC: What did you raise?
IT: Oh, the main things like lettuce, onions, radishes, potatoes, uh I don’t remember if we had corn or not, I think we tried to raise some corn, but seemed like with a garden, you could always go out to the garden to get somethin’. If you had lots of tomatoes, that was good eating too, and so the kind of usual things. Uh, in the fall we’d just plant turnips and that would ya know, you had turnips or you had potatoes, you had some meat, you had your basic foods in a way. And you always made fresh baked bread, made bread, and that was always filling and good. That’s one of the pleasures or one of the pleasant things I remember as a child, coming home from school and smelling the bread baking in the oven. I was always ready to eat some bread and butter.
BC: You had bread all the time?
IT: Mm-hmm, so we could fill up on bread. Folks usually tried to get some fruit when they could, when peach trucks or different trucks would come to town to sell things, they’d try to do that. But there were some years they just wasn’t any of that. But we always managed to have biscuits and gravy or bread and gravy or somethin’ like that.
BC: Did your family receive commodities?
IT: No, we didn’t. We um, the folks were both proud people and they went with whatever they could do. I remember Mom worked for a dollar a day cleaning houses if anybody had the money to pay for it. ‘Course, there were a few years when a lot of people didn’t have the money to pay for somebody to clean the house. She also used to do ironing, and of course if you sent your ironing out, you only sent the hard pieces to iron, like khaki shirts and pants and things like that, ya know. It seemed like she did ‘em for 25 cents a dozen or something like that, which was a very, ya know, minimal amount, but that’s what kept food on the table, it kept us going.
BC: Now, did you have any other family down in that area?
IT: Uh, for a while, in my earlier years. My Mother’s Father and aunt and uncle, well and Grandpa and Grandma I guess, but they all came to Seward County or Western Kansas to homestead. And they came together. And Mom came as a teenage girl out, they had taken the train from Davenport, I think it was, Nebraska, down to Harper County, I can’t think of the name of the town now, one of those little towns that’s down there, Barber not Harper County.
IT: Not Hartner, Hazelton maybe. And then she and her dad, she’d lost her mother as a little girl, and her dad and grandma and grandpa and uncle and aunt all came out by wagon to Kismet to settle.
BC: What did they do?
IT: Well, that was way back before my time, when they came. So it was the farm out North of Kismet that belonged to the Snyder’s that was my mother’s name, and the folks lived out there a while, and the rest of ‘em were gone. And then when her dad died, to settle up the estate, why she got a part of it and she took her part of the money that they had from the farm and built the house there in Kismet were she lived in. So it was added on to several times, different things done to it, to modernize it, but started out as a very meager home but we were glad to have it.
BC: Did any of your neighbors leave during the Dust Bowl years?
IT: Some of ‘em did, some of ‘em, a lot of ‘em went to ya know, to California. A lot of ‘em left the farms ‘cause they couldn’t make it and where the dirt was choking them to death, and but I don’t know, I don’t know where all the people went. But if they could go anywhere, they loaded up and took off, just left the homesteads and places. Until later years, when ya know, I guess the people that had the money bought up some of these places, why they came out ahead through the years, but you had to have money to do it, nobody had much money to do that with.
BC: How, did any of your neighbors [inaudible] then?
IT: Uh, first time I don’t remember it a lot, like, like somewhere is where people would just loaded up, because if you had enough and a roof over your head, that was better than taking a chance on what you might find somewhere else. And my folks weren’t ones much for moving around, they thought you ought to get in a place and stay and try to make a go of it.
BC: Did they, literally did they just sort of disappear?
IT: Sometimes, they did mm-hmm.
BC: Did any of them come back?
IT: No, lot of ‘em settled other places. Even east of here was better than out West, ‘cause it was, ya know, I don’t know how far into Kansas the dust storms came, but I know the Southwest part of Kansas and the Southeast part of Colorado and all of that was really bad.
BC: How old were you when you can recall your first dust storm, about when was your earliest recollection?
IT: Probably that Sunday, when I was probably eight or nine, but I don’t know for sure. I would guess that, it seems that I can remember for a long time the dust, fighting the dust and all. And when you did Spring house cleaning, you had to take old rags and things out from around the doors and your window’s cracks s and things, ya know. Any opening that dust or dirt came in, you tried to fill it, fix it in with rags and so on. So you’d take ‘em out and clean ‘em, and then the first time it started again you’d have to put ‘em right back in to keep the dirt out. I think the worst of it was for two to three years, I don’t know for sure just how many years it lasted. I know it was quite a while before the droughts, but had real bad dust storms also, I remember the jack rabbit drives here. I won’t talk about them because I didn’t participate in any of them. But the jack rabbits took over and one year seemed like the grasshoppers took over. But they used to do these jack rabbit drives and now they’d be yelling “inhumane” and so forth, but they used clubs. They would have these rabbit drives you know, we’d drive ‘em into a smaller area and club ‘em to death because they had taken over, they’d eat all the crops and everything, just took everything in sight. So, they had to get rid of ‘em.
BC: Did they come into town much?
IT: Yeah, you could see ‘em around mm-hmm.
BC: What year was the grasshoppers, about?
IT: Oh, I don’t remember particularly about the grasshoppers, as much as I do about the jack rabbit drives. I used to know when I was a little kid, but I don’t know, I never participated, we didn’t go out on any, but I heard people talking about them. And they used to have pictured and a lot of pictures of that one Sunday when it was so black, I know I’ve seen those. They called it the “Black Sunday”. And some people actually thought the world was coming to an end.
BC: They thought it was coming to an end?
IT: Well, they didn’t see how things could change, ‘course people had come in and settled, and broke the land, and then when they got the land al broken up, with the one way plough, and no rain, and all it could do was blow and sit. And every time they looked at it, just the tops all just kept blowin’ off and blowin’ off. So it was a lot of the land shouldn’t have been broken out. ‘Course, later then they learned better ways of farming and how to conserve moisture and keep the soil from rolling. But, the one way ploughed all the same way and the wind would catch that sand and really, if you’d got a stand of wheat, that wind would blow through it and just like electrocute the plant, it just you know, would kill it. So, they had trouble getting wheat to grow, gettin’ it up to where it’d get enough moisture and enough growth to it that it wouldn’t blow out. So, a lot of their crops were out.
BC: Did you get much wheat from the local farmers or maybe flour?
IT: Well, yes they did and ‘course each town had a grocery store, ‘cause you didn’t travel much in those days to go anywhere for groceries. So, most of ‘em, in fact Kismet had two grocery stores at one time, they even had a bank. Now all I think they have is a little “Kwik Shop” or somethin’ like that now, “Kwik Shop” or “Kwik Store”, whatever you call ‘em, like we have in local areas. Yes, well, I don’t know where all the wheat went, but I know that cream and some things were shipped to Kansas City by the railroad. And I remember people taking their cream cans down and sending them in, getting’ a check back for the cream cans and maybe they’d take their eggs to the store and sell them for groceries. So, that’s kinda the way they survived. Then we’d get together and have a hog butchering day, and anyone helped out, why they got a share, got part of it for their helping. And so we could have meat during the year.
BC: Sounds like everybody just did what they had to do.
IT: Yeah, that’s right, anything they could do to survive.
BC: What would have been your experience of school during those years? When the dust storms came?
IT: Well, no, just tried to stay inside, out of the wind and if it got too bad, if it got too bad why people walked over after their kids. And ‘course, sometimes the buses were held up. And I remember one time we had a blizzard and the kids were in town two or three days before they could get home.
BC: That was in winter then?
IT: Mm-hmm, yeah, right. Sometimes you had dirt with that too, but not like the good ol’ dust days.
BC: Now, you mentioned about some of the allergies that you have now. Were other people’s experiences the same?
IT: Oh, I think so. I think a lot of people had ‘em. I remember a lot of people died with Dust Pneumonia, their lungs just filled up and they couldn’t make it, yeah. It was hard because you, most, a lot people got handkerchiefs and tied them around their nose and mouth to try to keep the dust out, so they wouldn’t breathe so much of it, because it was difficult. And then, if you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, how did you know where you were going. So, it was pretty tough for a few years.
BC: Did they, did the people go to local hospitals or would they…?
IT: Well, most people just stayed at home. If they got too critical they’d take you to a hospital, but in those days you usually didn’t go to the hospital unless you were dying, or they couldn’t treat you at home; because most of the time they treated you at home.
BC: Do what would you do as far as playing, sense of humor, as a youngster then?
IT: Well, we had a rim that we fastened up on the garage building, a well house, I don’t know what it was now; I guess it was a well house, maybe. Anyway, a building that we had, and we had a rubber ball about this size, it wasn’t a basketball size, but we’d play basketball with that, and had a lot of fun doing that. I remember building roads and taking out skates and fixing a board on ‘em and making ‘em like a truck or somethin’ like that, ya know, that you could haul things on it, pulling ‘em on the road, around. We used to take washers and throw at holes in the ground, like you pitch horseshoes, only toss the washers, and if they got, made the hole, you got so many points, or somethin’ like that. ‘Course marbles and jacks were all popular. Sports, we used to play “Red Rover” and “Ante Over”, throwing the ball over the house and down to the other side, and back and forth. “Kick the can”, ‘Red Rover, Red Rover, I dare you to come over’, and you call the name, and so forth. They don’t have much of that anymore for the kids. Jumping rope, that was popular too. But whatever you had, I just, I don’t remember having a regular sized basketball, it was just a small, about this big around, that we used to play basketball with. And so you had to kinda manufacture your own games, ‘cause nobody had much money to buy any thing with, if you did, you bought groceries or clothes.
BC: The necessities?
IT: Mm-hmm, yeah. We have a, I have a picture of my sister and me when we had our first we called ‘em our first “store bought” dresses, because Mom always had someone sew for us, either way, or she made them for us, our clothes. And so, I ‘spect she ordered them out of a catalogue, ‘course “Ward’s” and “Sears” were very popular catalogues I those days; and she probably ordered ‘em ya know, and so we had our pictures taken. We always had a Sunday dress, we always had somethin’ that we kept special for Sunday, and the minute we came home from school, we had to change out clothes to our play clothes, which would be our older clothes, so that we’d have something decent to wear. ‘Course you had to wash it out and we washed it out and wore it the next day.
BC: How did your mother deal with keeping the place clean and keeping clothes clean?
IT: Well, it was difficult and I don’t remember way back particularly um, I know when she had a washing machine downstairs in the basement, we had to carry water up to get it out. We didn’t have a drain or anything down there. But she always had her, ya know, her tub of blueing water, water you put blueing in, and water that she had Clorox in, so you had your different waters and you ran the clothes through, but you always hung ‘em on the line, even when it was freezing. Sometimes they’d freeze, freeze dry, but it was a lot of work. Making bread, sweeping, trying to keep the house clean, ‘course most, most houses didn’t have carpets on the floor, if there were carpets they were those grass like woven rugs that maybe you’d have under the Dining Room table or something like that. Otherwise it was pretty much hardwood floors or linoleum, which you could wipe up.
BC: You had a carpet then?
IT: A small one, which ran under the Dining Room table, that’s about all I remember.
BC: Did any of your family come down with dust pneumonia?
IT: No, not that I recall, there was a lot of sickness, but my mother had Hay Fever real badly and but I don’t know of any of the immediate family that had Dust Pneumonia. ‘Course the flu was prevalent too, and people did die with the flu, and then when ever you were sick, we tried to help one another out. And I know Mom was called in many times to go ove and help with the mother and new baby when new baby came, why she’d be called over to help.
BC: As a mid-wife?
IT: Sort of, she didn’t really mid-wife, but she’d help the doctor and then be there to help the mother then for a while. Nobody went to the hospital in those days; you took care of everybody at home, even if your parents or grandparents were invalids, what ever. Well, it was, you know, we would take care of ‘em, that was just the expected thing to do.
BC: Now did, some people left during the “Dust Bowl”, did the size of your high school class change over…?
IT: Oh, not a whole lot, I just had ten in my high school class. I think there were some classes that were a little, a little, that had a few more. I graduated in 1941; there were three boys and seven girls in the class. And we didn’t have Kindergarten; we just had Grades 1 through 6 in the Grade School; and there were two Grades to a room like First and Second, Third and Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. Then the Seventh and Eighth was sorted with the High School and then 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 were together. And they bused the children in from the rural areas to go to school, so it was a rural consolidated school. That was before unification and all that came along.
BC: You were talking about the conditions then; did they talk about it too, then?
IT: About the conditions in which we lived in and so forth?
BC: Of the dust storms.
IT: Oh, well we, Dad just talked about that we didn’t need to worry about it; we’d be taken care of and so forth. Like I say, I didn’t know how poor we were until, ‘til later on in life. But I remember, I mean I think I had a pretty happy childhood, pretty happy life. Like I say, we had to make due with a lot of things. And you didn’t, ya know, they’d, you’d pay your grocer, they’d give you a little sack of candy to take home, and we were always tickled to death over that. And they always had somethin’ to fill our sock with at Christmas time; I don’t know how they did it. And maybe put in a nickel or dime in change that might be found at the toe of your sock too, along with an orange or an apple, and some hard Christmas candy and some nuts. So, they really tried to provide for us, and make it, make life as enjoyable as they could.
BC: Did you have a Christmas tree for Christmas?
IT: Yes, some sort. Later on, ya know, they got stick in tumbleweeds and decorated them and they made pretty trees out of ‘em. But a lot of times, people went out and cut down trees for ‘em. But I don’t remember too much about it when I was real small, except it was always a special time, we always had to go to bed early so Santa Claus could come. And then we’d get up early the next morning o see what Santa had brought ya.
BC: Did your family have those tumbleweed Christmas trees?
IT: I don’t remember having any at home, I’m sure we must have substituted once in a while, but I don’t remember any until later on. They made pretty trees when they learned to spray ‘em, and put colored bulbs on ‘em.
BC: What about the other holidays, how would you celebrate those?
IT: Oh, in the, about like they do now, except in the small towns, the thing to do then was to tip over the toilets or move machinery around or do things like that, that didn’t cause a lot of destruction, but orneriness. And they usually had the kids help clean up the next day because they knew the kids had put the stuff out, so they’d have to go around and help ‘em clean up, but not too much different.
We always had Thanksgiving, Christmas, picnics were a special treat, but of course when the wind was blowing so much, you didn’t enjoy your picnic. My mother never did like picnics, and I think that’s partially because of the wind, and her Hay Fever.
But we used to go Sandhill, Sandhill plum picking down on the river too. This time of year they’d be getting ripe. And, wear long sleeves and overalls or something to cover ya, so you wouldn’t get all scratched up or bitten. And, pick the Sandhill plums, and oh that was good eating, made good plum butter and good plum jelly, especially with home baked bread. So, opportunities like that, why you took advantage of and tried to get, ya know, like the plums, so you’d make jelly and butter out of it.
BC: Did your mom do a lot of canning?
IT: Yes, everybody canned. And if you could buy anything by the bushel, you did so that you could can it up, because it was cheaper, that way you’d always have somethin’ to open to eat. I don’t remember ever going hungry. I know we didn’t have much change or money to do anything with, but we always managed some how. If we had to go to the doctor or to the dentist, our folks took us.
BC: Now, through that time, did you keep a journal?
IT: No, I didn’t. I wasn’t too much of one for write everything down.
BC: Do you remember about what time of year the dust storms usually were?
IT: Spring probably, it always seemed like we had more wind in the Spring anyway. It would seem like it would be worse then, especially when we hadn’t had any showers, we needed the rain. It’d blow up a storm, the dirt would blow, and your windows and things, if there was a little bit of moisture in it, it would collect mud, it really splattered, got good and covered.
BC: Did your father have a same; do the same type of work throughout?
IT: Well, let’s see, with the farming and working with the railroad sections, he was a section man, then he was a custodian for years with the schools. So it was mainly labor, but he enjoyed his work at school ‘cause he enjoyed the kids and he was real good with the kids. They liked him, respected him, always called him Mr. Thompson. But yeah the folks believed that you ought to be neighborly and help one another out and most people did in those days. Somebody had a serious illness or critical illness someone would go over and stay, and they’d stay up with them at night or something like that to help be supportive, also take some food over to help out. Everybody, I think was concerned for everyone else, being a small community, you looked out for one another, and then the church people too, always looked out for each other.
BC: Did the church attendance increase during that period?
IT: Oh, I think probably we did. I know the churches had a hard time making end’s meat. When people didn’t, ya know, didn’t have money to contribute, but a lot of times they paid the Preacher by bringing him a chicken or a ham, or something like that, food, or something from the garden. And ya know, whenever you butchered, you always had to get rid of certain parts of the meat right away, see there was always liver and heart and head, and all parts practically were used, ya know, so they’d share that with the Preacher or with other people in the community. ‘Cause they needed to be used up right away. They used to make some kind of, they ground up the meat or something, to make what they called “head cheese”, that used to make the best sandwiches. I don’t know how it was done or anything about it, but I can remember eating “head cheese” sandwiches. And also, cooking sausage down and putting it in a big crock and putting the fat, ya know, the drippings, that’s how you preserved it. Then you’d take it out. I guess the way we worry about fat now days, it’s wonder any of us ever lived, with all that meat cooked down to the fat and you took it out and cook it.
BC: Mm-hmm. What are some of the ways that people kept hope alive during the “Dust Bowl” years?
IT: Well, talking with one another, I think, and sharing their troubles. Uh, a belief in God and a faith that things would change and that He would help to see them through the difficult times and that it would surely rain again. It had been beautiful country; it would surely change back to the way it used to be. And ‘course the people got educated a little bit on better ways of farming, and there’s more conservation. They put in a lot of shelter belts in those days too, and that was to help break the wind, if we had shelter belts, it made quite a difference. Also, the, it helped protect the pheasant birds, and ya know, animals and so forth, helped them survive too.
BC: Did any of your siblings work for the WPA or any of the programs at that time?
IT: Not that I’m aware of. My mother at one time worked for the School Lunch Program and it was under WPA, the payment, and she didn’t like that one bit. She had a fit when she got her first check and saw that, and took it in to the Superintendent. He said, “Well, you worked for it, you earned it, that’s not been given to you, you earned every penny of it, and that just happens to be where the money comes from, where the money comes. So you go ahead and cash your check, you can be proud of your work.” But she had enough pride, she didn’t want anybody handing her anything, she wanted to make it her way.
BC: Did a lot of your neighbors?
IT: Yeah, a lot of ‘em had to have help, they did, yep. I don’t know what all they. they used to get, but mattresses and blankets, and get nice big grape fruit, and food and things like that. They could get cheese, they had lot of commodities that people would get, and I guess that’s how a lot of the lunch programs started, through the commodities, by feeding the kids at school. That way they got one good meal a day at least.
BC: Were there many folks in the area that got into the different government programs?
IT: I think so.
BC: Did you have any people you knew in high school that did?
IT: I know that some of ‘em, some of the boys went to what they called “CCC Camps”, because they needed to help their families make a living. And I think a lot of Meade County Lake and probably several lakes around, but the cabins and some of the facilities and so forth, around there, were all built by those boys. And they got paid so much a month, got their meals and they worked, so it was keepin’ ‘em off the street, and keep them out of trouble. And so, some of them even left high school to go to CCC Camps. Or if they had graduated and didn’t have a job, their income would come to their family, so it was helping their family out.
BC: You said you didn’t know how poor you were back then. At what point did you realize that?
IT: Well, I suppose as I got older, when I graduated from high school and started working. I can remember when I got a chance to work at a grocery store at Mullinville, I was gonna get ten dollars and board and room, and I thought, oh boy, that was wonderful. That was before I started working in school and I thought that was really somethin’, ten dollars a week and board and room.
BC: It was a step up?
IT: Mm-hmm. Then when I had to go to school, summer school, and so on, I found out what things cost and what it was like to make it on your own.
BC: What were some of the things you could do to, back then, to protect yourself from the dust?
IT: Well, like I say covering your mouth and nose when you walked, ‘course you had a scarf on to keep your hair from blowin’ away. And it was usually better to have on long sleeves then it was to be in a sleeveless blouse, because the sand and dirt would pepper against ya. And I don’t know, I don’t particularly like to go bare footed, I don’t know if that has anything to do with trying to go bare footed in those days or not. But we were pretty well covered when we went out, for protection.
BC: Do you remember any ways that, jokes that people would tell to kinda help get them through?
IT: No, I can’t think of any right now. I’m sure there probably were some, but uh….
BC: You mentioned earlier about the vacuum, the cleaning and dusting, were there any people that did that, offered that service?
IT: Oh, I suppose they would help maybe, but, but they didn’t ya know, you didn’t advertise offering a service, you, but if your neighbor needed help, like with butchering, same thing with somethin’ like that, why they would help one another. Um, I remember the way we cleaned rugs, we didn’t have a sweeper; you took brooms to ‘em and beat ‘em. You hung them over the line, hanging them on the clothes line out there, and take something and beat ‘em, to beat the dust out of the rug. So it wasn’t anything like the carpeting you put down today. And of course your Kitchen floor, you scrubbed and mopped, and that was the best way to get up the dust actually. ‘Course, you try to sweep the worst of it out first, but it started so badly, ya know, after all that wind, it, had so much static electricity in it too, it made it difficult. So, you’d get the worst of it out that you could with sweepin’ and sometimes then you’d use a damp broom and then mop it.
BC: You moved to Dodge City in 1952? There were some dust storms in those years; do you recall anything comparable to that?
IT: No, nothing as bad as the “Dust Bowl” days. It’d been years when they didn’t get rain and they didn’t get crops and so forth, or they got hailed out or something. But it wasn’t a complete depression that there was with the “Dust Bowl” days, when year after year they’d plant crops and nothing would come, then it’d blow out, but without rain the tops would blow away. And but you know, if you’re a farmer at hear you keep hoping and just think every year is just going to be another year, a better year. But many of them gave up hope and just left, just left the country to find a place to work or where they could grow things to eat at least. We used to try to be self-sufficient, where you’d have everything you needed on your farm. From the chickens and the eggs, to cattle to beef, pigs for pork and so forth. And you always had some kind of meat that way, you always had eggs, milk and cream, and butter, and you got flour. Oh, yes, one of the things about the, those hard times, people bought their flour in colored sacks. And they would pick out the material because it came out in real pretty material, and they’d pick out how much they needed for material for a dress, so they’d buy ‘em to match and then when the wheat, I mean the flour was used up, then they had a sack to make clothes out of. So they did everything from under-shorts to shorts, to slacks to dresses. You didn’t wear a lot of slacks, mostly overalls and things like that in those days. But make a dress out of those sacks, you had a new dress, and it was pretty sturdy and held up pretty good, you know, as long as you’re going to buy flour anyway, why buy something in a pretty sack you could use the material for. So, we used everything possible.
BC: When you look back on the “Dust Bowl” years, what is the greatest lesson that you learned?
IT: Stick-to-itiveness probably and patience, and faith that things would work out. Hard work for one thing, I think the work ethic has changed a lot. A man’s word was good, if you shook hands on something that was as good as a signed contract or better than some signed contracts today. But then, the man wanted to be known as good for his word. And you’d hear people say, “Well, now so-and-so said such-and-such, or if he shook hands on it, he has to take care of it. You don’t need to worry about it, that’s a contract.” And I think it was important in those days to be a man of your word. And so people depended on that and it took, ya know, there wasn’t much choice, you help one another or you didn’t thrive. When somebody had something, I remember in when there was some rationing going on during the War, and people used to save their coffee stamps and sugar stamps and shoe stamps for families that had more kids or somethin’, so they could get shoes for their kids and sometime one used a lot of coffee and another family didn’t, so they’d trade for their stamps. So we learned all kinds of tricks of the trade. You didn’t throw anything away because you could use rags for everything, even around the car or farm machinery or closing up holes in the house.
BC: Well, that’s pretty much the questions I have.