Caroline Henderson: Letters From The Dustbowl

“We are both near enough to pagans to have a good deal of that instinctive love for the earth, I think that has had much to do with our continuing the long struggle here.”

Caroline Henderson to Rose Alden, December 1932

 PBS – “From the time she was a young girl, Caroline Boa Henderson dreamed of having a piece of land she could call her own. The eldest child of a prosperous Iowa farm family, she studied languages and literature at Mount Holyoke College, where her senior class prophecy predicted that her future would be found “somewhere on a western ranch.”

In 1907, Caroline followed that dream to the Oklahoma panhandle. She took a job teaching school in Texas county, staked out a homestead claim on a quarter section of land, and moved into a one-room 14’x16′ shack, which she dubbed her “castle.” “Out here in this wilderness,” she wrote to a college friend, “has come to me the very greatest and sweetest and most hopeful happiness of all my life.”

Will and Caroline Henderson stand next to their house, holding cats. Green and abundant growth. Texas County, Oklahoma. 1920s. Credit: Eleanor Grandstaff Collection

A year later, she married Will Henderson, a farmer and former cowboy she’d hired to dig her well. They soon had a daughter, Eleanor, and Will built an addition to their home. During the wheat boom, they were relatively prosperous, allowing them to expand their land to a full section (640 acres). Caroline grew flowers, had a telephone installed, and subscribed to a daily newspaper. With the bust, they lost the phone, the paper, the garden, their farm animals, and all their crops.

Between 1931 and 1937, Caroline attracted a national following as a writer when a series of her letters and articles was published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. In her “Letters from the Dustbowl,” she provided a portrait of the farmers who stayed to face the stark conditions on the southern plains, writing in turn about the daily occurrences on her farm and the harsh realities of eking out an existence in a land of dust and Depression. She infused her articles with lyrical descriptions of the sweeping, starkly beautiful land that claimed her: “the whiteness of our Monday’s washing against the blue of the summer sky, . . . the hush of early morning broken by the first bird’s song.” Beyond that, she called attention to the changing place of agriculture in America, a nation that was becoming increasingly urban and industrial in its economy and vision.

Caroline stopped writing for publication in 1937. In letters and postcards to her daughter, she returned often to familiar themes: area wildlife, her livestock, her pets, her connection to the land. In December 1965, she and Will left their farm to live with Eleanor in Arizona. They returned to the Oklahoma panhandle one last time the following spring. Will died three days later, on March 17, 1966. Caroline died on August 4. In accordance with her wishes, the homestead was placed in trust, with the condition that it never be plowed again.”

The Atlantic Archives – 1936

Letters From the Dust Bowl

When drought struck Oklahoma in the 1930s, the author and her husband stayed behind to protect their 28-year-old farm. Her letters to a friend paint a picture of dire poverty, desiccated soil, and long days with no sunshine.

Editor’s Note: For 28 years, Mrs. Caroline A. Henderson and her husband have been farming in Oklahoma. For the past five years, her household has been one of many that have fought as best they might the devastating effects, first of the unprecedented drought, and then of the resulting dust storms. Her letters, written to a friend in Maryland, open a vivid and pathetic chapter of American agriculture.]

EVA, Okalhoma 
June 30, 1935

DEAR EVELYN: —

Your continued interest in our effort to ‘tie a knot in the end of the rope and hang on’ is most stimulating. Our recent transition from rain-soaked eastern Kansas with its green pastures, luxuriant foliage, abundance of flowers, and promise of a generous harvest, to the dust-covered desolation of No Man’s Land was a difficult change to crowd into one short day’s travel. Eleanor has laid aside the medical books for a time. Wearing our shade hats, with handkerchiefs tied over our faces and Vaseline in our nostrils, we have been trying to rescue our home from the accumulations of wind-blown dust which penetrates wherever air can go. It is an almost hopeless task, for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over. ‘Visibility’ approaches zero and everything is covered again with a silt-like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on the kitchen floor. I keep oiled cloths on the window sills and between the upper and lower sashes. They help just a little to retard or collect the dust. Some seal the windows with the gummed-paper strips used in wrapping parcels, but no method is fully effective. We buy what appears to be red cedar sawdust with oil added to use in sweeping our floors, and do our best to avoid inhaling the irritating dust.

In telling you of these conditions I realize that I expose myself to charges of disloyalty to this western region. A good Kansas friend suggests that we should imitate the Californian attitude toward earthquakes and keep to ourselves what we know about dust storms. Since the very limited rains of May in this section gave some slight ground for renewed hope, optimism has been the approved policy. Printed articles or statements by journalists, railroad officials, and secretaries of small-town Chambers of Commerce have heralded too enthusiastically the return of prosperity to the drouth region. And in our part of the country that is the one durable basis for any prosperity whatever. There is nothing else to build upon. But you wished to know the truth, so I am telling you the actual situation, though I freely admit that the facts are themselves often contradictory and confusing.

Early in May, with no more grass or even weeds on our 640 acres than on your kitchen floor, and even the scanty remnants of dried grasses from last year cut off and blown away, we decided, like most of our neighbors, to ship our cattle to grass in the central part of the state. We sent 27 head, retaining here the heifers coming fresh this spring. The shipping charge on our part of the carload was $46. Pasture costs us $7.00 for a cow and calf for the season and $5.00 for a yearling. Whether this venture brings profit or loss depends on whether the cattle make satisfactory gains during the summer and whether prices remain reasonable or fall back to the level that most people would desire. We farmers here in the United States might as well recognize that we are a minority group, and that the prevailing interest of the nation as a whole is no longer agricultural. Hay for the horses and the heifers remaining here cost us $3 per ton, brought by truck from eastern Oklahoma.

The day after we shipped the cattle, the long drouth was temporarily broken by the first effective moisture in many months —about one and one-quarter inches in two or three gentle rains. All hope of a wheat crop had been abandoned by March or April…” Full Letter Here

Henderson’s firsthand accounts of the Dust Bowl years are preserved in the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections through the letters that she wrote to friends and family members, along with other writings that she published in Practical Farmer and the Atlantic Monthly. View Collection Here

Watch more of “The Dust Bowl”

4 comments on “Caroline Henderson: Letters From The Dustbowl

  1. So moving and so heart-breakling… it was a terrible time exacerbated by man’s thoughtless exploitation of the land, and here we are, still doing it in other ways, all over the world, and still exacerbating the climate changes….

    • I love that Caroline wouldn’t allow her land to ever be plowed again…for some reason that moved me to tears. I cannot even imagine how horrific it must have been to have lived through the dust storms. It breaks my heart to see that we are still just as careless and clueless when it comes to our interaction with the Earth. We seem determined NOT to learn and I don’t understand why… :-/

  2. Just the most epic footage–and personal stories. I have a docu titled this on my DVR list–I’ve watched most of the–oh, 6 hour thing, of which this MIGHT be a part…I’m pretty sure is a part…anyway. I am just fascinated with it all–especially as a Grapes of Wrath fan, book and movie, book to a greater degree, naturally.

    Crazy what over producing soil can do…

    • It is the interviews with people who lived through it that make the documentary so great, isn’t it? I pulled this up on Netflix the other night with no idea what it would really be…ended up watching all 4+ hours of it. I thought I knew most of the story but at the end of the documentary they mentioned that we no sooner began fixing the land when people immediately returned to abuse it and caused another mini-dustbowl by 1950….AGH! Do we never want to learn?! And then I wonder…what practices are we using today that might come back to bite us a few years down the road..? Humans…the smartest species of dumbasses there ever was, eh? ;-)

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