The Day The Skies Turned Black

On April 14, 1935, the residents of the Panhandle town of Pampa lived through a dust storm like nothing they’d ever seen. Some thought it was the end of the world.

By Michael Marks & David BrownApril 14, 2020 9:00 am,

On April 14, 1935, Texans in the Panhandle left their goggles and face masks at home. It was Palm Sunday. And for the first time in a long time, the skies were clear.

This was the middle of the Dust Bowl – also known as the ‘Dirty 30s.’ Drought and overgrazing in the preceding decades had loosened topsoil across the Great Plains. Dust seemed to be everywhere, all the time: caked in nostrils, piled up on windshield wipers, drizzling from cracks in clapboard ceilings. It could collect in lungs and cause lethal ‘dust pneumonia.’

In Texas, the Panhandle was the area that was most affected. Day-to-day life continued as much as it could.

“It was what it was, that was their attitude,” says Louise George, a Panhandle historian who grew up during the Dust Bowl. “They didn’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves because they had to make a living for those kids and take care of their job and do it right.”

By and large, the people of the Panhandle were not overly prosperous in the 30s. They were farmers and ranchers, mostly. Some worked in the oil fields. Others made do with whatever odd jobs they could find — including an up-and-coming singer-songwriter from Pampa named Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie wrote a cycle of songs about the Dust Bowl and his time in Pampa, “Dust Bowl Ballads.” The album included songs like ‘Dusty Old Dust,’ ‘Dust Pneumonia Blues’ and ‘Do Re Mi’ – a song about Dust Bowl migrants fleeing to California.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, but moved to Pampa in his early 20s to help his father run a boarding house there. Dust storms had become routine for Guthrie and his neighbors by 1935. But the one that hit on April 14 was something else entirely.

The clear morning passed into an equally pleasant day. But by early evening, people could see something dark and massive billowing on the horizon.

“This one was different,” says Louise George. “It was hideous.”

It was the biggest, most menacing storm yet. The cloud of black dust had formed earlier that day over the Dakotas, picking up strength and dirt as it rolled southwest. By the time it reached the Panhandle, the storm was over 1,000 miles long, and blocked out the sun.

There was a scramble to get inside – at home, if possible, or in somebody else’s, if not. People would douse the outside of their houses with water to make the dust cling to the exteriors. They’d cram newspapers into doorframes and windowsills. It only helped so much.

“There are numerous accounts, including Woody’s own account – it was so powerful that when the storm hit, in the room they were kinda huddled in, there was only one light bulb hanging from the ceiling. And the dust penetrated the house so heavily that Woody Guthrie described looking at the light where it was only as bright as the glow of a cigarette,” says Mark Fernandez, chair of the history department at Loyola University-New Orleans.

Families sat together in small dark rooms and waited. There was nothing else to do.

“I remember how eerie the silence was,” George says. “Nobody had anything to say.”

There was a sense that perhaps, this was it – that on this Sunday evening in April, assailed on all sides by a darkness that felt relentless, the world might end. Guthrie alluded to the fear in the song ‘Dusty Old Dust:’

We talked of the end of the world and then

We’d sing a song and sing it again

We’d sit for an hour and not say a word

And then these words would be heard.

‘So long, it’s been good to know you

So long, it’s been good to know you

So long, it’s been good to know you

So long, it’s been good to know you

This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home

and I’ve got to be driftin’ along.

It was a day that came to be known as Black Sunday. When it was over, people stepped out of their homes the next morning. They saw fences buried in dirt, livestock choked dead by dust, tractors submerged in sand.

The economic loss was devastating. Thousands of families left to look for work elsewhere. Louise George’s father left the family farm in the Panhandle for Oklahoma. This was at the tail end of the Great Depression. Getting back on your feet wasn’t easy, but eventually, they did it. The world hadn’t ended after all.

“It took a while, but we were OK after the Depression,” George says. “We made it.”