BOOK REVIEW By Nancy Ohnick
Farming the Dust Bowl, A First-Hand Account from Kansas
By Lawrence Svobida
With a new introduction by R. Douglas Hurt
I have had this book on my shelf for quite awhile and was just recently prompted to read it after reading a short mention of it on a wonderful new website I discovered, www.kansashistoryonline.org. The writer captured my attention when he wrote: “Svobida’s book warrants a place alongside John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in the contemporary literature of the nation’s Dust Bowl days.” Since I live in Meade County, KS, and we are the place of Svobida’s farming experience, I suddenly felt compelled to snatch it off the shelf and give it a go.
The introduction by R. Douglas Hurt was a little hard to wade through, but it objectively sets the scene during and after the Dust bowl, giving statistics related to government attempts to aid the dust bowl farmer. Reading the introduction to this book, my eyes were suddenly opened to the fact that motorized farm equipment was one the biggest contributing factors in the cause of the dust bowl. Drought and wind were certainly the forces of nature, but the fact that man could now breakout the prairies at such rapid rates left the land vulnerable as never before in history.
In 1929, Lawrence Svobida came to Meade County a strapping young man in his twenties. He came from the western edge of the Corn Belt in Nebraska with a burning desire to be a wheat farmer. He came to prove himself on farmland his father had purchased in 1914. I looked up their deeds in the County Courthouse and found that his farm was located seven miles north and about four miles west of Meade. A quarter of ground there is still in the Svobida name.
Frank Svobida’s first wheat crop in Meade County grew to amber waves of grain only to fall to devastating hail storms before it could be harvested, and I guess you could say that his entire farming experience was downhill from there. Throughout the text the reader experiences with Svobida year after year, and crop after crop of failure. The tenacity of this young man is nothing short of inspiring as he continues to battle the elements and maintain a positive attitude. Page after page your hopes rise with his every crop only to be dashed to ruin by elements of nature over which he had no control.
Farming the Dust Bowl was written in 1941. Frank Svobida was not a professional writer. This book is written in plain and simple language as he recalls in excellent detail every crop experience he had from 1930 through 1938. When he finally gave up he was convinced that the Great Plains Region was a desert and would never recover from the devastation of the dirty thirties.
I, for one, found this book hard to put down. My father experienced this time period in Southwest Kansas, and I have heard stories of it all my life, but riding on Lawrence Svobida’s tractor day after day in that blinding dust made it hit home as never before. His experience gave me a new admiration and respect for those who made it through the dust bowl and continued to farm in our county… I for one would have given up long before Svobida did.
As you look around at Meade County’s landscape today it’s hard to imagine the devastation of the 1930’s, conservation methods have evolved from that time and continue to help the farmer conserve the land, even though cycles of drought and wind are inevitable. Through the pages of “Farming the Dust Bowl” you will gain a new appreciation for conservation and the tenacity of the Kansas wheat farmer.
If you have a love for the history of the High Plains, visit our sister site: Old Meade County
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