People could see the menacing clouds methodically moving toward town. It wouldn’t be long before darkness settled in, and it was still the middle of the day.
Not this time. It was another weather phenomenon all too familiar to West Texans: the dust storm.
“They were awful,” said Alta Cates, who moved to Lubbock from rural Scurry County in 1938. “They would come rolling in, and in some rare cases, the dust in the air was so thick you couldn’t see your radiator cap.”
While today’s South Plains residents weather occasional dusty days, severe droughts and less sophisticated agricultural techniques were the primary reasons for numerous howling dust storms that occurred throughout the 1930s and into the early 1950s.
“I started at Tech in 1950,” recalled J.C. Chambers, who was a 5-year-old when his family moved to Lubbock in 1936. “We had a convocation for all students at the old Barn (Tech’s first basketball facility) on campus. The dirt blew so bad that day you couldn’t see the other side of the gym.
“We had all those freshmen in here from Houston and Dallas, and I imagine about half of them wanted to leave school that day because they couldn’t believe what they had seen.”
Cates said the first extended drought began in 1918, culminating in a series of terrible dust storms during the 1930s and introducing the term “Dust Bowl” to the lexicon.
“The drought kept getting worse until the 1930s with the Dust Bowl,” she said. “The dust we got was from Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado; it was dust from other parts of the country.”
Worse, there was no escaping it. Air conditioning was virtually nonexistent, and homes were not as sturdy.
“That sand would come in and be an inch and a quarter thick on your window sills,” Cates said. “Houses just weren’t built then to withstand that dust. It would be so thick inside the house you could almost cut it with a knife.”
Chambers recalled similar experiences.
“In those days, there wasn’t much air conditioning,” he said. “Back in the 1940s, for pure comfort you would have most of your windows open. If you left town or went to work and one of those storms blew in during the middle of the afternoon, you would have a serious cleaning problem.”
Otice Green, who moved to Lubbock from Knox City to attend Tech in 1944, remembered those early dust storms and said the last truly ugly one he could recall in Lubbock occurred in the late 1970s.
“That one was so bad it just blanketed everything,” he said. “I went home and told my wife that we should just take some time off and travel south to find a place where the sand wasn’t blowing. Being in business for myself, it was a good way to get out of it. We started south and went to San Antonio, and everyplace between here and there, the dust was falling.
“We went all the way to Corpus Christi and stopped at the coast, and the dust was still falling on us.”
Improved agricultural techniques revolutionized farming during the 1950s, which drastically reduced the number of fierce dust storms.
“You can attribute a lot of it to the farmers,” Chambers said. “They are so much better prepared today. It doesn’t blow like it used to in those days.”
“Farmers have done a spectacular job,” Cates said. “The wind was not
any worse then than it is today, but the thing that made it so bad was we didn’t have cover crops for land, and it just blew the land away. We have an advantage today because of the job the farmers have done.”
But that is not to say the dusty days have gone away.
“The city has grown so large, and the way the farmers are planting now, we don’t have so many of them,” Green said. “I know we’ve had some wind the past few days, but it’s just an imposition. It’s not like when we had sand everywhere.”
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