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Oklahoma Horizon TV Show 1544

This week on Oklahoma Horizon, we look at some of the conservation work going on around the state.
Oklahoma Horizon TV Show 1544

Oklahoma Horizon TV Show 1544

 

For more information visit these links:

America’s Library

Dust Bowl

Black Sunday

Oklahoma Conservation Commission

Blue Thumb

The New Deal: Crash Course

Works Progress Administration

Civilian Conservation Corps

Public Works Administration

Oklahoma Historical Society

Show Details

Show 1544: Oklahoma Horizon TV
Air Date: November 1, 2015

 

Transcript

p class="Dialogue">Rob McClendon: Here’s what’s coming up on your “Horizon.” Well, this year marks the 80th anniversary of an event few Oklahomans now remember. It was called Black Sunday – a day that the sun was blotted out by the dust in the sky. It was an environmental disaster that was the tipping point for our country to take conservation much more seriously. Today, we look back on that event and the positive changes it led to. Stay with us for “Oklahoma Horizon.”

 

Male Announcer: “Oklahoma Horizon” is made possible by the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education.

Female Announcer: Oklahoma’s investment in CareerTech provides more than nationally recognized technology education and training. It produces solid financial returns for the state’s economic future. Oklahoma CareerTech, elevating our economy.

Male Announcer: And the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, helping good people grow good things. And now, from the CareerTech studios in Stillwater, here’s your host, Rob McClendon.

Rob McClendon: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining us here on “Horizon.” Well, probably no single event has shaped our state as much as the Dust Bowl. Forced off the land by environmental forces and economic collapse, thousands of poor Oklahoma families fled westward, but others stayed. And today, we will look at the lessons we can learn from both.

Rob McClendon: As the first tanks rolled through Europe during the First World War, America’s farmers were plowing the Plains. Demand for U.S. wheat had never been higher. When America entered the conflict, Washington urged farmers to produce even more with the slogan, “Food will win the war.”

[Movie excerpt: Then we reaped the golden harvest. Then we really plowed the Plains.]

Rob: Prices more than doubled, and farmers flocked to fields hoping to cash in, but the demand was a bubble that would burst. After the war, prices plunged, and farmers armed with tractors, responded to falling prices by planting more, hoping increased volume could offset decreasing prices.

[Movie excerpt: We had the manpower. We invented new machinery. The world was our market.]

Rob: Over 5 million new acres were planted in the 1920s by farmers hoping to survive the downturn, but it wasn’t to be. When the stock market crashed in 1929, America’s heartland was already in trouble. A drought was just beginning, banks began to close and equipment lay idle in the field, and then the winds began to blow.

[Movie excerpt: A country without rivers, without streams, with little rain.]

Rob: Left little to hold the tilled ground in place, and dust storms became common. By the end of 1931, a survey showed of the 16 million acres of land cultivated in Oklahoma, 13 million was severely eroded, and our state was to face a test like no other.

Rob McClendon: Well, between 1935 and 1940, over 300,000 Oklahomans, a third of our population at that time, moved out of state in search of work. Now, those who left faced the hardships of the Great Depression and those who stayed, well, they choked on clouds of dust. And none worse than on April 14, 1935, a day known as Black Sunday. And just like many Oklahomans, the story of that day is the story of my family.

[Music.]

Dene McClendon: I’ve never seen anything as dark in my life as that was.

Rob McClendon: It was a day my mother will always remember.

Dene: We were all at church one Sunday night. A man came in from outside and told us there was a bad cloud coming up, and we better get home while we could.

Rob: Black Sunday, April 14, 1935.

Dene: Oh, it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. And Daddy told me to hold his belt, in the back, you know. He was going to lead us all home. So we were all lined up and holding on to each other. We were at the yard fence, before we could see the light in the window. When Daddy saw the light, well, he said, “Oh, Mamma’s got a light on, so we’re all right now.”

Rob: Before it was done, Black Sunday left a coating of Oklahoma topsoil on ships in New York Harbor. One of the worst sandstorms of the Dirty ’30s but certainly not the only one. It’s estimated over the course of the decade an area 500 miles long by 300 miles wide lost its topsoil.

Dene: Because it would blow in, even though you had the windows closed, you know, and the doors closed. It would still blow around ’em and get all over your house. You could leave your tracks in the floor. If you had a sandstorm one day, you’d get it cleaned up, you know, and got the house cleaned up, but you’d probably no more than get it cleaned up, and here would be another one.

Rob: And while people shut themselves indoors, plants and animals weren’t so fortunate. What did that do to crops? What did it do to your family’s farm?

Dene: There wasn’t any crops. That was a bad year. I think that was the year that Grandpa and Daddy put their cotton together, and it made one bale from both farms – Grandpa’s farm and ours. And of course it affected the feed crops, too, that fed the animals.

Rob: And while times were tough for farmers that owned their own land, they were even harder for the 60 percent of farmers that rented. Called sharecroppers, they were already on the edge of poverty. And when the black blizzards blew in, they lost not just their crops, but their way of life.

J.D. McClendon: I can’t even remember when I wasn’t working in the fields really. Because I was so young, I don’t even remember it.

Rob: For my father’s family, the Dust Bowl was just the final straw that broke their economic back. During the 1930s, the federal government paid farmers to take land out of production in an effort to raise the price of cotton. And with no need for sharecropper labor, families like my father’s found themselves homeless.

J.D.: I remember when we made cornbread out of bran that we had for the horses, to feed them, you know, because my uncle bought the feed for the horses, and so we used it to make cornbread out of several times, you know. And lots of times, as has been times in my life, we just didn’t have nothin’ to eat, hardly. You just cinch up your belt a little bit and dream of better days, really.

Rob: Hitting the road, my father’s family was one of over 300,000 Oklahomans that left the state in the 1930s in search of new opportunities. With few available, his family struggled, living behind a road sign, even spending a winter in a tent. School became a luxury and shoes a rarity.

J.D.: Didn’t have shoes to wear, went barefoot. Started school barefooted really, you know, didn’t think anything about it, well, we thought something about it, but hey, what could you do about it?

Rob: Okie soon became a derogatory word, and discrimination became all too common. But determined to endure, families like my father’s suffered through the indignations, often with humility and sometimes with defiance.

J.D.: Well, you had to use a little muscle sometimes, you know. And they knew it, and so they left you alone.

Rob: Creating a character that survives even today.

Rob: Well, times did get better. Federal programs put people to work and new environmental practices did a much better job of keeping the land in place. But it took a war to really break the grip of the Great Depression as farm laborers left their fields for the factory. Now, a little later in our show we’ll further examine how our country worked its way out of the Great Depression, but when we return, the environmental lessons learned from Black Sunday.

Male Announcer: You’re watching “Oklahoma Horizon,” featuring some of the good things that are happening in the great state of Oklahoma.

Rob McClendon: Well, you simply can’t talk about conservation without talking about agriculture – an industry literally rooted in the soil. But the conservation needs of this state and its second largest industry have varied across both time and geography. To explain, here’s our Austin Moore.

Austin Moore: Earnest Harold spent his childhood in the Oklahoma Panhandle at his father's side.

Earnest Harold: He bought his first tractor in 1930. He had farmed with a six-horse team before that. Back then, 40 acres was a good day’s work.

Austin: He remembers rough years, even before the Dust Bowl descended.

Harold: We didn't have that much dust until '34 and '35. Along in there is when it really got bad. Before then it was just Hoover poverty [laughs].

Austin: On April 14, 1935, Earnest went with his father to a community rabbit hunt 6 miles north of Hooker.

Harold: We had ’em within a couple of hundred yards of the catch pen when the Black Sunday hit. We could see it coming. It was just a rolling black cloud. When it was at its most extreme you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. But it was so windy you couldn't stand up. You could, I'd laid down and hung onto sage bush.

Austin: But for young Earnest, there was nothing to worry about even in these conditions.

Harold: I was with my dad, you know. No fear.

Austin: And while dust storms dominated the headlines of the 1930s, the untamed fury of our rivers wreaked its own devastation.

Austin: Water was a wider challenge than most realize for Oklahoma in those years. While the western edges of the state languished with too little water, the water that did come in all parts of Oklahoma often came too fast. In 1932, a flood on the North Canadian River left five dead and 3,200 homeless in Oklahoma City. In 1934, 14 inches of rain fell near Hammon in only six hours, swelling the Washita River and claiming 17 lives. Agriculture learned better farming practices to deal with the droughts. And to deal with the rivers, we built dams and with them created power and water supplies for a growing population. So today, water quality is at the forefront of conservation challenges in our state.

Tashina Kirk: Anywhere you live, you’re living in a watershed. Anywhere you stand, you’re in a watershed. Anything you do in that watershed has the potential to get back to a body of water.

Austin: Tashina Kirk works for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission looking to protect the watersheds that feed our public thirst.

Kirk: Land’s not flat. There’s contours and ravines and valleys and hollers and, anything you do, if there is not something there to keep that action from getting to the stream, then it’s gonna get in the stream.

Austin: I met Tashina in eastern Oklahoma where the Neosho River feeds into Grand Lake. There she was working with Samuel Victor Jr., a local rancher, to improve the water flowing across his land.

Samuel Victor Jr.: I have branches to this creek that I have never ever seen run dry. And three years ago they did run dry. And so that was a, that was a big wake-up call for a lot of us. A lot of years the quality of the water in the creek in the summertime is extremely poor. And you would see the cattle loafing and be around the water and then go walk about three-quarters of a mile to a pond.

Austin: Working in partnership with the Conservation Commission and with a little help from the most recent Farm Bill, Sam was able to create an exclusion zone around his creeks and drill wells to water the cattle elsewhere. This provides cleaner water for the livestock, and allows undisturbed native grasses to filter any runoff headed for the river.

Victor: Obviously, the results for the cattle is much better. But it is a whole lot better for the grass. It allows the grass to recover itself much better and allows us to take care of it better. And the capacity allows us to run much more head of cattle.

Austin: However, the economic benefits reach well beyond the pasture.

Kirk: If you’re drinking water [laugh], somebody had to clean that water. The action of cleaning that water has a large economical cost. If the water’s cleaner that cost goes a little bit down. A little bit further down. And if we keep it cleaner, that’s going to impact your water bill.

Victor: Nice shiny machinery and everything is wonderful. And cattle is all wonderful and that. But they will all be gone one day. But the land is always here. And it’s all going to depend on how I take care of it and whether I leave it in better shape than what it was.

Austin: The land continues to provide challenges, but hard times produce wisdom that tends to endure.

Harold: An old friend of mine years ago, he said, what you learn one year will make a darn fool out of you the next year, on what kind of seed to plant and on that type stuff. But good farm practices last on.

Rob: Well, so while recent droughts may seem like an eternity for those who must endure them, they are, in fact, just a blink of the eye in the long lens of history. If you’d like to put a historical perspective on drought and the impact it’s had on our culture, just head to our website at okhorizon.com, where we’ll show you the role climate has played in on our economy.

Female Announcer: Still to come on “Oklahoma Horizon,” conservation work for the ages, but first, a blue thumb.

Rob McClendon: Well, not all conservation work is done in rural Oklahoma. Our J.D. Rosman takes us to Tulsa to look at a program called Blue Thumb.

J.D. Rosman: Water for drinking, for recreation, for agriculture – streaming forth opportunities for everyone.

Jeri Fleming: Anyone who cares about the outdoors, anyone who cares about water quality, cares about keeping our streams and rivers clean can get involved.

J.D.: Jeri Fleming works with Blue Thumb, a collection of volunteers dedicated to preserving and improving Oklahoma’s creeks and rivers.

Fleming: It’s a service that the citizens of the state of Oklahoma are getting that they’re really not having to pay for, but that’s really providing some valuable information.

J.D.: Volunteers take and test samples for everything from oxygen content to chloride levels. Graham Branin has been volunteering with Blue Thumb for the past 15 years and says caring and claiming ownership for the water around you is vital.

Graham Branin: Oh, yes, I think ownership is critical. Getting that sense that it’s yours, it’s like your own home or it’s part of your family, that’ll definitely impact how you treat it.

J.D.: And Blue Thumb Coordinator Cheryl Cheadle says volunteers have been driving this organization for more than 20 years.

Cheryl Cheadle: Now we have volunteers monitoring from the Panhandle to the swamps in the southeast.

J.D.: She says urban streams face even greater difficulty.

Cheadle: People that live in a watershed, the more impervious surfaces like streets and parking lots, the more well-kept lawns, then it gets kind of obvious that that stream might have more challenges.

Branin: I really feel that it’s my responsibility to do what I can to educate folks and to make sure that I know what’s going on in the creek and try to improve it.

J.D.: Protecting our most pivotal resource because we all need it.

Cheadle: We all live downstream and the same way we hope the folks upstream are taking care of other water bodies, then we want to take care of this water body. Not just for us and not just for the sake of the creek, but for other people who count on it as well.

Rob McClendon: Want to share something you’ve seen here today? Well, all of our episodes are streaming on our YouTube channel at OklahomaHorizonTV, or you can subscribe to our weekly free podcast on iTunes.

Rob McClendon: Well, to look at the Dust Bowl solely as an environmental disaster is an oversimplification. Our drought was compounded by the Great Depression – a time when one in three Oklahomans were on some type of government relief. But during these dire days began two programs that improved lives and our environment and in doing so gave us buildings and landmarks we still enjoy today.

Rob McClendon: Standing atop a rocky outlook over glimmering waters, Tucker Tower is an iconic landmark that can been seen from most any vantage point on Lake Murray. Limestone slabs cut by hand and stacked skyward – an ideal lookout to see the beauty of this area outside Ardmore, Okla. But it’s inside the tower, lining the walls, the story of how America worked its way out of the Great Depression and is best told by the Oklahoma History Center’s Bob Blackburn.

Bob Blackburn: We started really in 1933 with the CCC, one of my favorite programs in American history, especially when you think about what it did for that generation and what it’s done for us ever since. In the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps, was a brainchild coming out of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, one of the earliest of the New Deal programs trying to provide direct relief for the unemployment and the suffering. And it was not welfare – it was, let’s go to work, let’s do something that helps the community. And these kids, aged 18 to 25, would go off into a military-type setting, and they would get training from Army personnel. So they would drill. So they were learning discipline. They were learning how to work together. They were learning skills. And then the objective of the CCC was as the name implied – conservation. Let’s build shelter belts. Let’s take care of erosion. Let’s go into communities and do something together to conserve the quality of life in a community with an amphitheater or a public library or a public swimming pool or bridges that needed to be repaired so people could get from here to there. And so the CCC was one of those early programs that made such a vital difference. And then on the other side of that coin, the public side to the private side, those kids were learning lessons about life. And they had the ability to send $25 of their $30 monthly pay home to the family. That money was used generally to put food on the table, to provide the necessities of life at a time when people were wondering where is my next meal coming from? And leading to the desperation of the Joad family in “Grapes of Wrath” and saying I’ve got to get out of here, I’ve got to leave my home, I’ve got to leave my family, my roots, my church and hit the road into the great unknown. That’s an act of desperation. That’s what we were dealing with in the early 1930s.

Rob: So essentially recognizing at the time that a public works program was better than public assistance.

Blackburn: Exactly. And that was the beauty of the CCC. And then that would continue with the Works Progress Administration, the WPA as it’s better known. Now, that came a little later in Oklahoma because we had a governor at the time, Alfalfa Bill Murray, who was an old time populist, state’s rights advocate. He didn’t want, did not want the federal strings on grants. And the WPA, the PWA, the Public Works Administration, as well as the Works Progress Administration, provided block grants for the states. And then the theory is that the state, then working through a subunit such as the Parks Department that was created in the 1930s, cities and counties would then raise the money for the materials and the PWA, WPA would provide the money for the labor with the idea we are going to put people to work. We’re gonna put a shovel in their hand. We’re gonna get them on a project building a city hall, a convention center, a county courthouse, a bridge, a road – whatever it was that would improve the quality of life. That’s how that money would be spent. And it was not geared to efficiency so much and mechanization, but it was geared to employing people. So, yes, you may have been able to hire a crew of people on a tractor to do something in a week, but instead they would employee 30 people and take a month. And so the mission was really a duo thing. It was to do something with the community and then to provide employment for these people who wanted to work but had no opportunity to work. Instead of taking a hand out, they were given a hand up.

Rob: Employing more than 90,000 Oklahomans. But just as importantly, what the CCC and the WPA did was prepare what’s been called the greatest generation of Americans for the storm clouds of war that was soon to be on their horizon.

[Fighter planes].

Blackburn: Well, of course when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the nation had to come together immediately. And you saw that with the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, the leadership in the Congress and the nation rallied for one purpose. I believe that the 1930s lead-up to that had an impact because instead of everyone out on their own, survival of the fittest, if you were hungry too bad if you couldn’t find it. The weak shall perish, and the strong shall survive. Well, instead of that you had these programs that draw us back together, using facilities that are part of these programs to build infrastructure. It was for us, not for one company, not for one person, but it was for all of us. And that sense of community was at the heart of the CCC and the WPA and the PWA, in trying to work together for the common good. And with that culture there at the grass roots level, when it’s time to go to war, when we have to be united, one voice speaking and determine to win, then we were ready.

Rob McClendon: Next time on “Oklahoma Horizon,” we look at the downturn in the energy sector and ask when will prices improve?

The majority of firms were expecting at least some stabilization or maybe growth in the second half of the year. And that, for the most part, went away in the third quarter and now firms are expecting further decline heading forward related to the change in the oil price outlook.

Rob: Energy and our economy; on Oklahoma’s show for the heartland, “Oklahoma Horizon.”

Rob McClendon: Well, that is going to wrap us up for today, but you can see more of any of our stories on our website at okhorizon.com; you can follow us throughout the week on Twitter at OKHorizonTV; or just become a Horizon fan on Facebook. I’m Rob McClendon. Thanks for including us in your day. Hope to see you back here next week.

Male Announcer: “Horizon” is made possible by the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, helping good people grow good things. Thank you for watching “Oklahoma Horizon.”