Nebraska and the Great Plains are relatively dry places, but the region is not a desert. Much of the plains get an average of 20 inches of rain a year, while a desert is defined as a region that gets less than 10 inches of rain. But 20 inches of average rainfall is nowhere near the 80 inches that some parts of the Pacific Northwest receive in a year.
So, rain means more on the plains than it does elsewhere. In a true desert, people don’t expect rain. In wetter climates, they don’t have to worry about it. On the Great Plains, we worry about rain all the time. And when the rains don’t come – as they didn’t during the 30s – about the only thing you can do is find ways to laugh about what you’re worrying about most.
That’s why the Depression was a rich time for tall tales about water and other conditions. Here are some.
People told tales about seeing birds flying backwards during dust storms to keep from getting sand in their eyes.
There were a whole series of jokes about dust and real estate. Kansas farmers had to pay taxes in Texas because that’s where their farms had blown.
Other farmers would have to wait until spring to plow when the south winds would blow their farms back up to them. Others didn’t have to worry about rotating their crops – the wind rotated the soil for them.
Fish swam up stream during the 30s and leave a cloud of dust behind them. Either that or they wore goggles to keep the sand out of their eyes.
Housewives scoured pots and pans by holding them up to keyholes during dust storms for the sandblasting effect.
Some farmers developed ingenious ways of measuring the speed of the wind. They stuck a crowbar through a hole drilled in an outside wall. If the crowbar bent, then the wind was normal. But if the crowbar broke, well then, it was best to stay inside until the wind died down some.
One farmer and his son went to town and met another farmer on main street during the drought years. “Looks a bit like rain,” said the second farmer hopefully. The other replied, “Well, it doesn’t matter much one way or the other to me; I’ve seen rain. But,” he said pointing to his teenage son, “the boy here …”
Others remember how a 30s dust storm was so thick that a salesman saw a prairie dog 20 feet above ground digging frantically to get back to earth.
Or in another dust storm, the prairie dogs thought they had been buried. So, they dug UP through the dust to get out. Later, the dust storm settled, and for three hours afterward it rained prairie dogs.
Years after the Depression fathers told their children about how they had to walk to school. The first time they told the story it was a mile to school. The next time, it was a mile and a half. The next time it was two miles … always into the teeth of a dust storm … and it was uphill … both coming and going.
In the middle of the dry years, it got so hot that hens were laying hard boiled eggs.
As Nebraska folklorist Roger Welsch has written, “Nowhere are water and life more appreciated than where they are a gift, not an assumption.” When the gift doesn’t arrive, we turn to humor, “jokes that are not meant to bring forth laughter but give a common ground for the sufferers, jokes that blur the pain and sharpen the hope.”
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.