The Plow That Broke the Plains

I love history. As they say, if you don’t learn from it, you’re destined to repeat it. The video below, circa 1937, is a fascinating look at how men forsook the crucial observational stage when making the best laid plans of mice and men and in doing so took an enormous swathe of stable prairie, steppe and grassland environments and literally turned them into dust.

As the narrative comments:

Settler, plow at your peril!

This version is without the epilogue.
A version with the epilogue is here, but in lower quality.

Document: "The Plow that Broke the Plains" (Film Script)

By Pare Lorenz

I: Prologue

This is a record of land…
of soil, rather than people
a story of the Great Plains:
the 400,000,000 acres of wind-swept grass lands that spread up from the Texas Panhandle to Canada…
A high, treeless continent,
without rivers, without streams…
A country of high winds, and sun…
and of little rain…
By 1880 we had cleared the Indian, and with
him, the buffalo, from
the Great Plains, and established the last frontier…
A half million square miles of natural range…
This is a picturization of what we did with it.

II: Grass

The grass lands…
a treeless wind-swept continent of grass stretching from the broad Texan Panhandle up through mountain reaches of Montana and to the Canadian Border.
A country of high winds and sun…
High winds and sun…
without rivers, without streams,
with little rain.

III. Cattle

First came the cattle…
an unfenced range a thousand miles long…
an uncharted ocean of grass,
the southern range for winter grazing
and the mountain plateaus for summer.
It was a cattleman’s Paradise.
Up from the Rio Grande…
in from the rolling prairies…
down clear from the eastern highlands
the cattle rolled into the old buffalo range.
Fortunes in beef.
For a decade the world discovered the grass lands and poured cattle into the plains.
The railroads brought markets to the edge of the plains…
land syndicates sprang up overnight
and the cattle rolled into the West.

IV: Homesteaders

The railroad brought the world into the plains …new populations, new needs crowded the last frontier.
Once again the plowman followed the herder and the pioneer came to the plains.
Make way for the plowman!
The first fence.
Progress came to the plain.
Two hundred miles from water,
two hundred miles from home,
but the land is new.
High winds and sun…
High winds and sun…
a country without rivers and with little rain.
Settler, plow at your peril!

V: Warning

Many were disappointed.
The rains failed…
and the sun baked the light soil.
Many left…they fought the loneliness
and the hard years…
But the rains failed them.

VI: War

Many were disappointed, but the great day was coming…the day of new causes- new profits-new hopes.
"Wheat will win the war!"
"Plant wheat…"
"Plant the cattle ranges…"
"Plant your vacant lots…plant wheat!"
"Wheat for the boys over there!"
"Wheat for the Allies!"
"Wheat for the British!"
"Wheat for the Belgians!"
"Wheat for the French!"
"Wheat at any price…"
"Wheat will win the war!"

VII: Blues

Then we reaped the golden harvest…
then we really plowed the plains…
we fumed under millions of new acres for war wheat.
We had the man-power…
we invented new machinery…
the world was our market.
By 1933 the old grass lands had become the new wheat lands…a hundred million acres…
two hundred million acres…
More wheat!

VIII: Drought

A country without rivers… without streams… with little rain…
Once again the rains held off and the sun baked the earth.
This time no grass held moisture against the winds and the sun…this time millions of acres of plowed land lay open to the sun.

IX: Devastation

Baked out-blown out-and broke!
Year in, year out, uncomplaining they fought the worst drought in history…
their stock choked to death on the barren land…
their homes were nightmares of swirling dust night and day.
Many went ahead of it — but many stayed until stock, machinery, homes, credit, food, and even hope were gone.
On to the West!
Once again they headed for the setting sun
Once again they headed West.
Last year in every summer month 50,000 people left
the Great Plains and hit the highways
for the Pacific Coast, the last border.
Blown out-baked out-and broke…
nothing to stay for. . .nothing to hope for …
homeless, penniless and bewildered they joined the great army of the highways.
No place to go . . . and no place to stop.
Nothing to eat . . . nothing to do …
their homes on four wheels … their work a desperate gamble for a day’s labor in the fields along the highways…
The price of a sack of beans or a tank of gas All they ask is a chance to start over And a chance for their children to eat.
to have medical care, to have homes again.
50,000 a month!
The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.