Ray Countians found ways to cope with Dust Bowl-era drought

‘Farmer and sons ... dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma. 1936.’ Photographer: Arthur Rothstein, FSA Collection.

By Linda Emley

It’s been a long hot summer in Ray County. History always repeats itself and this is not the first hot summer we’ve had.

I had a friend suggest that I write a story about the droughts from the 1930s, so I got out the old newspapers and started reading. We all remember hearing about the “Dust Bowl” in history class. It was called the “Dirty Thirties” and the worst years were 1934 and 1936.

This appeared in The Richmond Missourian on Aug. 3, 1936. “Drought Organization Meeting Is Planned. Members of the township committees and others interested in the county relief program will meet in the assembly room of the courthouse at 9 o’clock Wednesday morning to settle upon an emergency drought organization in Ray County. David Meeker, state extension agent for Northwest Missouri, will be here to assist with the details of our organization. Reed T. Miller, Ray County rural rehabilitation supervisor; W.W. Chenault, Jr. and R.R. Coffman, of Ray County W.P.A., will cooperate with Ira A. Thornton and R. J. Martin, county extension agents, in conducting the meeting.

“The following subjects will be discussed: Setting up of local organization to handle the drought situation; Utilization of drought and grasshopper damaged corn by use of silos, shocking, etc; Seeding small grains for fall pasture; Fall control of grasshoppers, in small grains and fall seeded alfalfa; Saving of all available roughage; Use of substitutes, such as molasses, for standard concentrated feeds; Planting fall garden for home use; and saving seed corn for next year. The meeting may include the organization of a set-up to handle feed loans and drought employment, in case such arrangements are made available for Ray County at a later date.”

I live on a farm, but I’m not a farmer, so I didn’t know if any of these suggestions could help us in modern-day Ray County. I used a lifeline and phoned a friend who is a farm loan underwriter for a hedge fund and has many years of farming experience.

I had him review the options available in 1936 and actually some of them would still apply today. We don’t have to worry about grasshoppers anymore because crop spraying has taken care of them. We no longer save seed corn because hybird corn varieties are used. You can save soy beans for future use after they have been cleaned for storage. Shocking corn is no longer used except for some local Mennonite farmers.

Most of the other mentioned options could be used in one form or another. He also mentioned that federal crop insurance is required if you participate in a federal agricultural sublimity program. Since most farmers participate in sublimity programs, they have a variety of different packages available based on productivity and price to chose from that will be very helpful this year.

So how bad was the weather in 1936? “Missouri Weather Bulletin. This was the hottest week of record in Missouri for so late in summer, according to present reports. At a great majority of stations’ maximum temperatures were well above 100 degrees every day, registered as high as 112 degrees at one station on the 22nd and as high as 108 degrees at various stations on one or more dates. (Note – by this date in 1934, the drought and heat had broken and temperatures were running considerably below normal.) Again there was no rainfall of consequence except in a few spots, mostly in the northwestern corner of the state. The rainfall so far in 1936, taking a state average, is considerably less than in 1934. Rainfall Jan. 1 to Aug. 25, in 1934, 17.03 inches; in 1936, 12.69 inches. Rainfall, April 1 to Aug. 25; in 1934 12.16 inches; in 1936, 8.91 inches. Rainfall , June 1 to Aug. 25: in 1934, 7.86 inches; in 1936, 3,94 inches. Rainfall, Aug. 1 to 25; in 1934, 3.83 inches, in 1936, 1.00 inches. However, the extreme hot June in 1934, which was much hotter than June 1936, gave the 1934 drought an early and rapid start.

The temperatures in 1934 and 1936 were very similar to this year, but we shouldn’t complain because we have a modern convenience called “AC”. We go from our cool house to a car that soon cools down and drive to a store or office that is waiting for us with cool air blowing. There are some jobs that don’t have air-conditioned buildings and we still can’t cool the great outdoors, so there are people who work outside that have had a long hot summer.

I’ve heard stories of the good-old days when it was really hot and country folks would put up cots in the yard and sleep under the stars at night. Sounds like fun unless you remember that we did not always have a way to keep mosquitos away. This country girl likes to enjoy a cool breeze on a summer night, but I’m thankful that I get to go back inside the nice cool house when I’ve had enough of the great outdoors.

There’s some talk about water shortage this year and I found an article about how Vibbard took care of it way back when.

From The Richmond Missourian on Aug. 27, 1936. “Water Shortage Is Acute. A shipment of 10,000 gallons of water was ordered this week by residents of the Vibbard community because of the acute shortage of water in that vicinity. Practically all the wells at Vibbard are dry. A small flow of water from two springs has been virtually the only source of water supply there for the past several days. L.M. Ward, Vibbard merchant, was in Kansas City and conferred with H.F. McElroy, city manager, who agreed to the shipment of water to Vibbard. In 1934, water was shipped to Vibbard from Kansas City.”

The same newspaper had an article that could apply today. “The area Camporee scheduled to be held at Independence on Aug. 29-30 has been postponed to the weekend of Sept. 12-13. This decision was reached after a conference with the members of the Health and Safety Committee of the Council and the United States Weather Bureau. We assure you that the decision was not made until every thought and consideration was given the matter. The weather is terrifically hot, which presents a real problem as far as competitive events are concerned. You all know the Camporee site, it affords no relief from the heat. The ground and grass are very dry which causes a real fire hazard. We cannot afford to take any chances with the heath or safety of our scouts. Certainly we all regret that it is necessary to postpone this great area event. May I make this personal appeal. Please do not let your interest lag in the preparation for the Camporee. You may rest assured that it will be held on Sept. 12-13. We will count on you and the Camporee Staff will keep the faith.”

Just like in 1936, some events had to be altered this summer, but this too shall pass and we will live to see another day.

Remember the drought years of the 1930s? Tell your story to Linda at

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