The Dirty Thirties: Dust Bowl Dreams and the Depression Era

From the desk of Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

    Somewhere in the Missouri Ozarks, just east of Oklahoma….

Photogrpaher: Jack Delano
used courtesy of American Memory
Library of Congress collection

            A quarter or less bought admission to a movie theater and a loaf of bread cost less than a dime.  After the Roaring Twenties tapered off into a whimper after the stock market crash in October 1929, President Herbert Hoover’s promise of a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage failed and the new President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt assured Americans the only thing to fear was fear itself.  Whether you call the era the 1930's, the Dirty Thirties, or the Great Depression, it was memorable in a terrible way. The weather showed no mercy to farmers and the Dust Bowl, once fertile farmland, became a sad region of broken dreams and heartbreak.  Families left the land their ancestors farmed and became fruit tramps.  In the major cities, bread lines offered a little respite for hungry people and gangsters like Al Capone had a heart of gold, offering soup kitchens and clothing for the working man.  Sandwiched between two world wars, the 1930’s are a memorable decade, a period of hard times and often harsh lives.  I grew up hearing first hand memories from my grandparents and I watched their frugal ways with understanding. 

            In my newest historical novel, Dust Bowl Dreams, releasing Monday September 17 from Rebel Ink Press, I delve into the 1930’s.  The setting is western Oklahoma, some of the country hit first and hardest by the drought.  Inspiration came from stories handed down like heirlooms in my family, a deep love for Oklahoma and my long standing admiration for Charley Floyd, better known as Pretty Boy Floyd, the well-known bank robber and one time Public Enemy Number One.  The novel’s not about Charley but he makes a cameo.

            Here’s the blurb:


Life’s never easy for a good-hearted man who decides crime is the answer to his troubles.

No rain in the summer of 1933 is bad news for Oklahoma farmer Henry Mink. The local banker wants the mortgage on the farm paid and unless Henry comes up with the dough, his widowed mother and four young siblings won’t have a home.  Jobs are scarce so he decides to rob a bank.   His sweetheart, school teacher Mamie Logan, doesn’t like the idea and neither does Henry’s kid brother Eddie but Henry’s out of options.

He leaves home and robs a bank at nearby Ponca City. When he returns home, he pays off the mortgage but new troubles show up. Mamie is his greatest joy and they become engaged but by fall, Henry has no options left but to rob another bank.  If he can pull off one another big job, he figures he’ll be set until the hard times are over but few things in life go as planned.  His desperate efforts will either secure his future or destroy it forever.

If Henry’s family survives and Mamie’s love endures, he’ll need a miracle.


And here’s an excerpt:


            They walked behind the house and past the big barn.   A foot worn path led into the field, but a fork veered off right.  As they drew closer to the spring, the path narrowed and the number of trees increased.    Beneath the cover of the trees, out of sight of the farmhouse, Henry put his arm around her slender waist.  They managed to walk together down the single file trail to the spring and settled onto the rustic bench near the water.  Henry straddled it so he could face her but Mamie sat in a side saddle posture.  Before he could lean forward to snatch a kiss, she reached over to rub his cheek with the back of her fingers.

            “Tell me you were just being silly a while ago,” she said. “I’ve been worried sick you meant what you said.”

            Her touch kindled tenderness, but deep in his crotch Mamie’s fingers lit another fire and he inhaled hard.  “I did mean it, girl.  When I got back to the house, Richardson from the bank sat there, fedora on his knee, badgering Mama for money.  He’s planning to foreclose and take the farm unless we come up with the money by the end of July.  We sure as hell don’t have it and I don’t know of any other way to get it.”

            Mamie’s eyes darkened almost black.  “I could ask Daddy, Henry.  I don’t know if he has it or not, but he might.”

            “No,” he said, spitting out the word with force.  Then he used a softer tone to add, “I appreciate it but I ain’t taking your family’s charity.  I’ve made up my mind.  I’ll rob a few banks, pay off the mortgage for Mama, get ahead, save some money and then I’ll quit, no harm done.”

            “It’s wrong,” Mamie said with a troubled expression. “You know it is, Henry.”

            He did, but damned if he’d admit it now.  “What’s wrong is people getting kicked off their families’ land where they’ve lived for generations,” he said.  “Banks are wrong to wring the last nickel away from folks.  It’s not right for kids to go hungry or old people to do without.  I don’t aim to get rich robbing banks, just take back enough to get through these hard times.  If I can help a few people on the way, I will.  And I don’t plan to kill no lawmen or shoot anyone.”

            “Oh, Henry,” Mamie said and sighed. “I know almost everybody’s having a terrible time and no one has enough money.  I don’t think the banks are being fair either, but two wrongs won’t make it right.”

            “Money’ll go a long way toward fixing it,” Henry said.

            “There’s not enough money in the world to make up for it if you get hurt,” Mamie said.  “Or if some sheriff hunts you down to take your life.  You could end up in prison down at McAlester or dead like Pretty Boy’s bandit friend, Birdwell.  Your mama would just be heartbroken if anything happened to you.  So would Eddie and the girls.  Think about them, Henry.”

            Mamie might be a smart young lady, but she didn’t understand, not yet anyway.

            “I am,” he said. “I’m doing this for them.  I can’t let them be put out on the road without a home or go live with stingy old Uncle Ed.  And I’m worn out watching them go to bed hungry or do without almost everything.  They all need shoes and I don’t think poor little Vi’s ever worn a brand new dress.”

            She grasped his hand and held it so tight it hurt but he liked the connection.  “Let me help them, then.  I can sew.  I saved some of my teacher salary and I could buy some cloth.  I wouldn’t have enough to pay off the farm, but I could make the girls some nice little dresses or something.”

            “Honey, I appreciate it but I can’t let you spend your money on my folks.  Mamie, you don’t understand how poor we are, do you?”

            “I think I do.”

            “What’d your family have for supper?”

            His question seemed to surprise her, but she answered.  “Mama fried up some salt pork and ‘taters.  She opened up a jar of corn she canned last summer and made a nice apple pie with some dried apples.  Why?”

            “We ate green beans seasoned with old bacon grease and onions with cornbread,” he answered.  “I don’t think any of us ate enough to fill our bellies or even liked it much, but by God we ate everything Mama cooked.  Hunger don’t allow for being picky.”

            Mamie’s expression shifted.  “That’s all you had?”

            Henry nodded. “Yeah and some nights, it’s even less. Mama meant her garden to see us through summer but the pickings are pretty slim.  She waters it with the dish and bath water or it’d be gone, too.  We don’t have anything left to butcher and the few chickens still alive and kicking won’t lay eggs.  The milk cow died last winter and we haven’t kept pigs since Daddy died.  I’d hunt but it’s too damn hot for the meat to be much good and ‘sides, everyone else’s about hunted the game till it’s gone.   I pull a few fish out of the river once in a while, but not many fish left either.”

            He spoke with bitterness in a harsher tone than he’d ever used with Mamie in an effort to drive his point home.  To Henry’s surprise she didn’t bluster with outrage but scooted across the bench and put her arms around him.  Mamie put her head down against his shoulder and he held her against him. 

“Henry, I didn’t have any idea it was so bad,” she said.  “I guess my head’s been in the clouds and I missed what’s right in front of me.”

            “You haven’t been home from the school year very long,” Henry said. “Things changed for the worse over the winter, honey.”

            “I feel awful, though,” she murmured.  “Maybe my kids in town, in Alva are just as hard up and I didn’t see it. None of the families I took turns boarding with were as poor as your family or they didn’t seem like it.”

            “Maybe, maybe not,” Henry said. “This ol’ Depression’s hitting everyone hard, but I think farm folks like us, just barely getting by anyway, got hit the worst so far.  It ain’t your fault you didn’t see it.  Your family’s doing better than most and you should be glad.”



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