Black Blizzards- The Second Dust Bowl, Abilene, Texas, 1954-1957

The Dust Bowl has always captured my attention and I especially love a well written novel set in that era such as Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust. My ancestors seem to have (thankfully) missed the “black blizzards” (huge, black dust clouds) that rolled across the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.


Photograph courtesy of http://www.fs.fed.us/greatestgood/images/gallery/depression-CCC/DepressiontheCCC/photos/photo11.shtml.

When the black blizzards rolled through it blocked out everything – even the sun. This photo was taken at 3:00 in the afternoon on Black Sunday in 1935:


Photograph courtesy of http://discovermagazine.com/.

You can see a video recreation of black blizzards at http://www.history.com/.

In the 1930’s President Roosevelt ordered the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant a “belt of more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene Texas, to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_Bowl) This did not stop the black blizzards from returning in the 1950’s although it did lessen their intensity. (https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hda01).

My grandparents- Eugene and Audrey DRAKE- and their children lived in Abilene, Texas during the mid-1950’s when the area had a revival of dust storms reminiscent of the 1930’s Dust Bowl storms. My dad was very young at that time. However, he can recall the black blizzards rolling through. He said when they hit, you couldn’t see anything around you. Everyone rushed into their homes and began stuffing wet rags into every crack and crevice possible to keep the dust out. If a crack was missed, dust poured into the home. Even with the wet rags in place, the dust was still a problem. It was like a black wall rolling toward you when the black blizzards rolled in.

1950’s Abilene, Texas

In the 1950’s, Abilene was a dry city so there would not have been any bars there. The Abilene Philharmonic Orchestra gave it’s first concert in 1950 and fine arts groups were active there during this time period. The city boasted a professional baseball team- The Blue Sox- which was associated with the Brooklyn Dodgers and operated in Abilene until 1957. Major employers in the area included the railroad and the military bases. In 1953, Abilene schools were still segregated. (https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hda01) This was the environment in which my dad lived and attended school in Abilene from 1954-1957. He went to school there between his 5th and 8th grade years. He does not remember the elementary school he attended. He said at that time the family lived on North 11th Street in Abilene and they were close enough to the school that he walked to school. I was unable to tell by looking online (especially being unfamiliar with the area) which elementary school he might have attended. He does remember attending North Junior High.

In addition to living on North 11th Street, the family also lived on Burger Street in Abilene.

He was very self-conscious and felt out of place being from the country and now attending school in a city. However, he said he was well-liked and remembers being invited, accepted, and involved in school social and academic pursuits while he was there. Financially, life was very difficult. One of his prized possessions was the 1957 school yearbook his mom saved up to buy for him.

Here he is in 7th grade, 1956-57 at North Junior High:

He was in Mrs. Boyland’s Homeroom 4. Here is Mrs. Boyland in the 1956-57 school year:

The Principal that year was J. M. Anthony. He struck fear in students at North Junior High.

Dad’s favorite teacher that year was the pretty Miss Cole, English teacher:

Outside of North Junior High, the drought raged on in Texas. In regard to the drought, one farmer had these things to say, “…the biggest difference was that in the `30s, it broke people financially. But the 1950s broke them spiritually.” Water arrived in town periodically in tanks on the back of trucks and people rushed to get it. One state official wrote a letter to his peer in July 1950 saying that residents in Abilene were accusing the government officials of being communists, presumably in response to the water shortage issues and other drought-related problems. 1951, 1954, and 1956 were in the top 10 of driest years on record in Texas. Crops wouldn’t grow, ponds dried up, and the ground was so dry it had 6-inch open cracks. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/14/texas-drought-dry-spell-1950_n_926703.html)

In the 1954-56 time period, San Angelo newspapers reported up to 70 mile per hour wind gusts causing horrible dust storms which killed people, uprooted trees, damaged property and crops, and killed livestock; wind spreading fires that destroyed buildings; wind gusts that blew down walls; and, horrific vehicle accidents caused by low visibility due to the dust in the air. At points there was zero visibility due to the dust blizzards. Instead of finding rain in their rain gauges, residents found inches of dust. The storms were often very fast moving leaving little time to take cover.
(http://www.gosanangelo.com/news/rick-smith-where-did-all-the-dust-storms-go) The drought finally broke early in 1957. That was also the year Gene and Audrey and their family moved out of Texas for the final time.

In researching my family’s stay in Abilene, I found two reasons why my grandparents chose Abilene as a residence. My father told me they went there to try and get better jobs and have a better financial situation. In addition to that information, I found a newspaper article on Ancestry.com that helped explain what drew my family specifically to Abilene versus another city. Audrey’s brother, Ralph, moved to that area in 1953 with his wife. Their brother, Carl, was also living there. It’s quite possible that the deciding factor in favor of Abilene was that there were close family members there. You can read about the article I found in my blog post at Days of Our Lives: Close to Home, Close to the Heart, Part 2 beginning at the section heading, “Carolyn Bennett”.

I’m glad my family had that time with other family members but I’m very thankful they moved back here to Oklahoma where my parents married and created my family. Life could easily have turned out so differently. I try to be thankful for every turn mine has taken.

Remember this coming week to treasure family and love each other. For more genealogy goodness, click on over to my Sister-In-Law’s blog at Down in the Root Cellar where she is participating in the same genealogy blog challenge I’m doing this year.

Lisa @ Days of Our Lives