It was a disaster of mankind’s own making. By the 1930s, chronic overfarming in the Great Plains had devastated the native grasses that had held topsoils in place. As the plants were uprooted, the dirt dried and loosened, setting the stage for an environmental catastrophe.
In 1931, a drought hit the region—it would last eight years—and the exposed soil was blown away by a series of gigantic dust storms. Mountain-sized dirt clouds became a common sight all over Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Nobody who lived there had ever experienced anything like it: skies were blackened, barnyards were buried, and millions of farmers became homeless refugees. As the crisis raged on, people piped up with some wild ideas about how to finally put an end to this “dust bowl.” Here are five of the most peculiar suggestions.
1. PAVE OVER THE GREAT PLAINS.
Many well-meaning citizens assumed that if they could just cover up the loose dirt somehow, it would stop getting blown around so much. New Jersey’s Barber Asphalt Company reached out to the federal government and offered to pave over the afflicted area. Their price? Five dollars per acre. Sounds like a bargain—until you consider the fact that the dust bowl had engulfed around 100 million acres. Meanwhile, a Pittsburgh steel manufacturer wanted to install wire netting over multiple counties, and a company known as Sisalkraft proposed blanketing the ground with its rugged brand of waterproof paper. A similar idea involved laying concrete down over every field in the region and leaving a few holes for future crops.
2. COVER THE TERRAIN WITH BROKEN-DOWN CARS.
One North Carolinian’s suggestion ideally would have killed two birds with one stone. As environmental historian Donald Worster wrote in his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, “Mrs. M.L. Yearby of Durham, North Carolina saw an opportunity to beautify her own state by shipping its junked autos out to the plains to anchor the blowing fields.”
3. BOMB THE SKY.
Explosives expert Tex Thornton tried ending the drought with dynamite. In a sales pitch given to the citizens of Dalhart, Texas, he explained that if the explosive was launched skywards and detonated aerially, immediate rainfall would follow. Embracing Thornton’s idea, the town gave him $300 to cover his expenses. Judgment day came on May 1, 1935, when the would-be hero set up shop by a local lake. Thousands of curious onlookers watched from afar as Thornton tied balloons to his dynamite sticks, which had been fitted with timed fuses.
Things quickly went awry once a violent dust storm arrived on the scene. The high winds made it too dangerous for Thornton to even think about releasing the explosives, especially now that a crowd was present. So in a last-ditch effort to deliver the goods, he buried his dynamite and set it off under the ground. Thornton’s Plan B backfired spectacularly: The blast just propelled extra dirt into the dusty atmosphere.
After a few more attempts, rain did come to Dalhart—as well as in regions too far away to be affected by his explosions. A victorious Thornton left Dalhart supposedly saying, “I’m mighty glad that the people of Dalhart and the Panhandle got moisture—and if I had anything to do with it, I’m doubly glad."
4. USE DEAD REPTILES AS YARD DECOR.
Contemporary folklore claimed that if you hung a deceased snake belly-up over a fence post, it would rain the next morning. When all else failed, some farmers actually tried this during the dust bowl years. Ironically, live snakes would have been far more useful to them. Back then, famished jackrabbits regularly turned up in droves to devour the few crops that were still being grown on the Great Plains. In western Kansas, the situation was so bad that citizens responded by organizing what became known as “jackrabbit drives.” Those involved formed huge lines and marched side-by-side for miles on end. Using their own bodies, they’d corral every rabbit in sight into an enclosure and club them to death. Yet if the species’ natural predators—like certain snakes—had been a bit more common, this drastic measure might not have been necessary. Who knows?
5. BRING THE RAIN WITH A FAUX MILITARY BATTLE.
Many of the more intense showdowns in the American Civil War, including Gettysburg, were followed by severe rainfall. This and other accounts over the years helped give rise to the once widespread belief that artillery caused downpours—a notion that was still fairly pervasive in the 1930s (and was broadly the same hypothesis that Thornton was working with).
One soldier from Denver petitioned the federal government for $20 million worth of ammunition, after which he would round up 40,000 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps for a couple of phony battles. After some non-lethal cannon fire, the rains would return—or at least, that was the plan.
“Try it, if it works, send me a check for $5000 for services rendered,” wrote the soldier.
This story originally ran in 2016.