Ford County Dust Bowl Oral History Project
A Kansas Humanities Council grant project
Interview: Juanita Wells
Interviewer: Brandon Case
February 27, 1998
Brandon Case: Could you tell me your name, and when and where you were born?
Juanita Wells: Oh, it’s Juanita; then, now or then?
JW: Juanita Wells, but I was Noble when I was a kid you know. And I was born in Finney County, in Garden City, April the 5th, 1928.
BC: So, just a little bit before the Depression started?
JW: Mmm yeah, it, you know I can just still remember how that dust blew. I know my uncle would come from uh, I own a farm now down by Offerle, that he lived down there, and he’d come out and stay a lot you know, he’d carry water up and throw it on the windows and it’d get neatly coated with dust and mud and that kept the dirt out of the house. It you know, that dirt that mud on the window, the dirt didn’t come in then.
BC: So, that was one way you kept the dirt out of the house?
JW: Uh-huh, so we could breathe inside ya know. So, and I can remember Mom always took a wet sheet and stretched it across the top of the bed and we all slept, just me and my brother, and Mom and Dad; and we’d all sleep in the same bed to keep, so we could breathe at night.
BC: How early are those things?
JW: I can’t, I just don’t remember when those dust storms started, really. I can remember that “Black Sunday” so plain you know, but uh, as far as the dust went, when it first started, you know it wasn’t that bad at first.
BC: About how old, what are…?
JW: I was seven when that dust storm, that “Black Sunday” was, but uh, I don’t know; I have no idea how, you know, when they really did start. I just remember there were dust storms and all the crops just covered up. The wind, the fence rows would just be completely covered clear to the top on them with dirt.
BC: You can remember the fence posts?
JW: Yes, I do. And I remember my dad at night would go out and look for the cows ya know, and he could follow the fence line because it was just like an electric fence, he’d see a light on that fence from the static in the air.
BC: About what age were you then?
JW: I just don’t remember, I really don’t remember you know; I have no idea. Like I said, I do remember that, that perfectly when I was in First Grade, and then when that…so I don’t know. I don’t know when those dust storms started. But I remember being in the First Grade and the dust storms just kept getting worse and worse and finally they just closed the school and we didn’t get no report cards and you know, and so when we moved to a new place, which was up on the Pawnee, then we didn’t have no report cards, so they put us back in the same grade we were in.
BC: You had to do it all over?
JW: Yeah, had to do it over.
BC: So, the dust storms really had an effect on you that way?
JW: Oh yeah, so uh….
BC: Where were you then?
JW: It was out between Kalvesta and Garden City, about half way between, is where our farm was.
BC: Okay, that’s where you grew up?
JW: Uh-huh, and you know all our neighbors they all pulled out way before we did, you know. They just couldn’t take it any longer, they just moved most of ‘em. There were some, some still live out there. They may not be the same generation, but some of the families have stayed out there, but most of them all picked up and left. And Dad intended to go to Missouri, he was originally from Missouri, and so he intended to go to Missouri; but he got as far as Kalvesta and they offered him a job so we stayed.
BC: So, that’s how you came to live there?
JW: Yeah, yeah. We stayed there. I lived there until I was married, in Kalvesta. Now we did live further along north in several different places. But I, you know, actually went to Pawnee Valley school and that is way up there by Savannah, ya know and pretty close to that and that’s where I went to school for the first five years, four years. And then we moved to Kalvesta, and then I went to, from then on went to Cimarron schools.
BC: So, that’s when you had to start over?
JW: Yeah, well, at...no at Pawnee is where I had to start over, because that was way out west of where we were to begin with.
BC: So your family moved around some during the Dust Bowl years?
JW: Yeah, yeah. So mainly my dad kind of worked for the same person, but they just moved us in different places, I don’t know. And there was dust storms yet when, some of them still when I was up there in school, when I was in Fourth Grade. I can still remember this teacher up there up at that Pawnee Valley school, would when the dust got real bad, and we had a lamp and she’d light it, she’d read us stories and we’d stay inside until somebody came and got us.
BC: Yeah, probably safer?
JW: Yeah, the parents pretty well knew when they’d better go get their kids, ‘cause it was getting that bad, so it was still going yet then, when I was in the Fourth Grade.
BC: About 1939 then?
JW: Yeah, maybe 1939 because, see I had to repeat the First Grade. So that was probably, well, I was trying to think when I really started at, six or seven; I probably started at seven, I don’t know.
BC: What did you think of that when you had to repeat the First Grade?
JW: It didn’t bother me none, it was all new kids anyway, and so it didn’t really bother me.
BC: What was that year like after they cancelled the school, what did you do?
JW: Well, ya know we just tried to stick it out and then it got so bad. I can remember Dad going out and smoking out the rabbits. They were really bad ya know, and they were eating everything that they could get their teeth into. And I can remember we’d go out and dig a hole where they were at and smoke ‘em out, then we’d catch them ya know, then we’d eat ‘em. Ya know that was ‘course there wasn’t much to eat anymore by then.
BC: What did you eat? I mean how did your family get by then?
JW: Well you know we finally got on by, I think that was after, that was after we moved up north up there and went to school that he finally got on uh, oh what was it called?
JW: Yeah, and worked on that, and they give you commodities ya know. In which was mainly beans and flour, and I hate brown bread and I think that’s the reason I do, because that was mainly the kind of flour you got. You got some white, but mostly brown.
BC: You ate a lot of that?
JW: Yeah and I, and Mom, you know, and ‘course back then everybody, you didn’t buy bread, you baked it. And that’s mainly what we had was brown bread and I got so tired of it. But, so the kids would each get a new outfit to wear to school and we had to wear that one outfit the whole year, ya know. We took it off when we got home so we wouldn’t ruin it.
BC: When did your father get on WPA then? How old were you? What grade were you in?
JW: Like I said it must have been after we moved up north to Kalvesta, ‘cause I can still remember getting’ them commodities then. So, uh, and then they usually built bridges and that kind of stuff you know, that’s what the kind of work they got. I don’t know, it may have been when I repeated the First Grade, maybe, when he started that, I don’t know.
BC: Did uh, what did he do? What kind of work?
JW: Oh, he was a laborer, he done anything. Whatever they had work for ‘em to do, that’s what he did. Then when we moved to Kalvesta he went to work in a machine shop. He loved to work around machinery and he could always repair anything and then they, in fact, they sharpened the disks one way, and they called ‘em rollin’ ‘em, ya know. And everybody liked the way he sharpened ‘em better than anybody else, so that was his job, to sharpen all the disks. And you set there and watched ‘em go round and round on a uh, some kind of machine that they had, you know, until they were just like he wanted ‘em.
BC: Now, was that for the WPA that he was doing that?
JW: He was out of that by then. Yeah, we weren’t in that no more because the good years had started by then.
JW: Yeah, I can remember out when we was still out on the farm when the first rain came. I can still remember that just, you know, we was out, Mom had some garden out there and she was trying to, it was like uh, maybe it was rhubarb, something that came up every year. And it still hadn’t quite headed out and she was out there raking around in it and it started raining, that was the best smell you’ve ever smelled ya know, we could smell that rain.
BC: You still remember that?
JW: Yeah, I can, I really can. And Harold said that when he was in Missouri, they could always tell when there was a dust storm down in Oklahoma because the sky would get really red, from that dirt down there.
BC: Uh, what kind of commodities did you get? Did your family supplement that with other things?
JW: Well, we always had milk, ya know, we always had that. But, they also give Guard milk too or canned milk. I hated that stuff, but uh, we would still always, could get somebody that had cows, if we could buy milk from them, ya know. And Mom always had chickens, a lot of pet chickens, even when we stayed on the farm she had chickens, and she took them with her when she moved.
So like I said the “Black Sunday” I can remember that, my brother and I were out in the yard playing, and it just looked up and that blackest cloud and it moved so fast. It was within five minutes it was jet black, you couldn’t see. Mom said, “Get in the house”; it was on a Sunday, and by the time we got in the house, you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face, it was that dark. So, just like everybody did think it was the end of the world. I didn’t, but I was a kid too.
BC: What did you do that day? Do you remember?
JW: Well, there wasn’t much you could do. She lit lamps ya know, and we probably played with something that we had to play with, I don’t know. It was in the afternoon when it hit.
BC: Do you remember being scared much when those “dusters” would come up?
JW: No. I just hated ‘em, ‘cause I hated that dirt, and to this day, I hate dirt.
BC: Now, your father, prior to this, he, he’d be leasing out land or…?
JW: When we lived out there, he owned the farm, you know, but he finally lost it ‘cause he couldn’t finish making the payments, ‘cause there was nothing left, nothing to grow there, wasn’t nothing grow any more.
BC: He lost it?
JW: Mm-hmm, well whenever it was, sheesh, it must have been after they closed the school, so it was after that, that we moved from out there.
BC: So, when the schools closed, it was just for the dust storm?
JW: Because of the dust storms, uh-huh.
BC: It wasn’t closed for good, just that year.
JW: Ya know, I don’t know, ‘course we moved away, so whether they ever opened back up, I don’t know. They may not have, ‘cause there may not been no kids around, ‘cause everybody else was leaving too. They left because they couldn’t make their payments on their farms neither, ‘course there was no money to buy grain with and it wouldn’t grow anyway.
BC: Where’d they go?
JW: I don’t know, where the rest of ‘em went. Like I said, we were headed for Missouri but got as far as Kalvesta and stayed there.
BC: That’s the farm you lost?
JW: Yeah, between Garden and Kalvesta.
BC: So, you had a lot of different school mates over the years?
JW: Yeah, I did, I really did.
BC: Do you recall many…
JW: But, ya know, back then kids didn’t treat kids like they do now. Ya know, kids now, I feel sorry for kids going into a different school because other kids can be so critical of them, and they shun ‘em. They won’t make friends with them. That’s until you get into high school or junior high, it’s not bad ‘cause little kids can make friends, but when you get up that age other kids now, at that time I had, I had no problem when I went to Cimarron to high school. You was just another kid coming in and nobody shunned ya like they do now-a-days.
BC: Do you remember seeing many of your friends leaving and packing up all their belongings?
JW: Not after we moved up there, no. There was people that in fact, I’m still good friends with one of ‘em that I went to school, when we moved up there with. Our birthdays are in the same month and we always still keep in touch at Christmas and on our birthdays.
BC: Did they leave like that down there around Kalvesta?
JW: No, see and if they did, it was before we ever got there.
BC: Sure, sure.
JW: So, like I said, the Dust Bowl was still on, but not as bad the time we got to Kalvesta. So, when we were still over there, so….
BC: Your father worked for the same person then after you moved?
JW: Well, well he kinda, he done some odd jobs for some and then we moved up on the Pawnee up there, then he worked for the same guy, so, and he just uh, whatever there was supposed to be done, if there was hay to put up, that’s what he did, ya know. And irrigation, he did a lot of irrigating, ya know, irrigating the crops. And at that time they irrigated them with a ditch you know, that run water in it and piped it out of them. So it isn’t like the irrigating they do now days, go out and turn a faucet on and it’d sprinkle the whole section.
BC: Uh, did you remember your father talking much about those times, how would he communicate to your family about that?
JW: I don’t know. I don’t know whether he did, if most kids didn’t pay attention to what they were talking about, ya know, I don’t know.
BC: Do you remember there being a lot of worry in the family?
JW: I’m sure there was, but we were small enough at that age, my bother was two years older than I was and uh, at that age we were small enough that we didn’t worry about things like that. So….
BC: Now, you were saying earlier that the family all slept together during the dust storms.
BC: How old were you when that was?
JW: Well, I don’t know. I was probably maybe just starting school, before I started to school, ya know. Us kids would sleep at the foot of the bed ya know, but that was the only way you could stand to breathe in there, because the dust would get so bad, you know. So….
BC: So, that was during the bad years? 1934?
BC: 1933, 1934. Did you and your friends do anything, or did your family have anything that told you what to do when a “duster” came up like if you were out?
JW: No, we just knew we better get in the house before it was dusty and you couldn’t breathe proper. Besides that, the wind was usually so bad, and it was right on the prairie where it was at. So, but….
BC: How bad was the wind?
JW: I don’t know; it just blowed and the dirt blowed.
BC: How often would that be?
JW: Some days it would just go on for days, then it would let up and it would all clear up then. But then when another one of them came up again, you were always worrying about when it was going to hit again. So, there was nothing like that one Sunday - that one was the worst one.
BC: Do you remember hearing stories about people getting lost out in the dust storms?
JW: I don’t know if they did or not.
BC: Were your classmates?
JW: I can’t even remember who the kids was I went to school with because I was that young. Ya know, if just didn’t took to me, so I don’t know.
BC: So one way you kept dust out was with water on the windows, that was one way?
JW: Yeah, we kept the dust out, Dad would just take buckets of water and throw them on the windows in the Spring, and it would just coat ‘em all in mud, it did keep the dust out.
BC: What are some other ways that you’d keep dust out?
JW: Go around and poke paper into all the cracks, you know, and everything, you just, you just stopped everything, you couldn’t open the windows or anything because we had to keep the dirt out.
BC: And how would your mom keep the house clean?
JW: Well, you just went back and re-cleaned it everyday after a dust storm.
BC: Before that big one, the big “Black Sunday”, what’s the earliest dust storm you remember?
JW: I don’t remember; I really don’t.
BC: Now what are some other things that with that dust, how would that dust change your usual way you did things? How would that dust, those dust storms, affect your day to day life?
JW: Gosh, I don’t know, I don’t know; I just don’t remember.
BC: Now was that after “Black Sunday” that your father got the job with the WPA?
JW: I think so.
JW: I’m sure it was because by that time it was so bad and it just, ya know.
BC: You were living in the town of Kalvesta by then?
JW: Yeah, I think we were, I’m sure we were, ‘cause I can still remember them bringing stuff.
BC: Were there any other times that you remember canceling school?
JW: I’m sure we went home a lot of times early because ya know, because it was dusty and if it was real bad in the morning, we just didn’t go to school, so ya know, we had missed all ready so much that when it got so bad, then they just decided that this wasn’t worth it no more. So, like I said, whether the school ever re-opened, I don’t know because we moved away.
BC: Now that was a good move for the family?
JW: Yeah, because, well ya know, we did get to where there was something that he could work at, where out there on the farm there was nothing. Ya know, because we didn’t have anything to have none with.
BC: After the ‘30’s, well when that first rain came, then did your father go back to farming?
JW: No, unh-uh, well I think he might of done tried to, but it just didn’t work out, ya know, because it was so, by then, you don’t have any money anyway for that.
BC: Now, did your family go back into farming, you mentioned you have a farm?
JW: That’s my mom’s folks’ who that was, that’s where she grew up, down by Offerle.
BC: So, they stayed in then?
JW: They didn’t have it as bad as we did out there. It was bad, but it never killed the crops like it did out there in western Kansas. It was just so bad out in there, it just covered everything up.
BC: Did you know many, or do you recall many families that didn’t make it?
JW: Yeah, I know one family that, now I believe there is probably some others, but one family I know still that, it’s not the same generation, but they’re still out there, and I can’t remember what their name is anymore.
BC: They made it through the Dust Bowl?
JW: Yeah, and they stuck it out, ya know, but he was a big operator too, so he, ya know, had a lot better chance, he had a lot more land. In fact, I think he went into some Government office or something. That might have been how he survived, ya know.
BC: So, the family here, the farm from your mother’s side, they kept that all through the ‘30’s then?
JW: Yeah, they didn’t lose the farm that’s homestead down there, they homesteaded it back in, I don’t know, I can’t remember now because that house was built in 1910 and it’s still standin’.
JW: And uh, but that ain’t the first house, ‘cause the first one burnt, so they homesteaded it back in 1880s somethin’, ya know.
BC: You were involved in farming then through the 1940’s or 1950’s, on just your mother’s family?
JW: Just them, yeah, my mom’s folks, mm-hmm.
BC: Do you recall in the 1950’s, there was a drought?
JW: Yeah there was, and I can remember then I thought, “Oh golly”, ‘cause we had some little kids at that time, ya know, but it was nothing compared to what that was.
BC: Do you remember some dust storms then?
JW: Back in the ‘50’s? Yeah, I do. I do remember how the dirt blew in, and I hated it. So, and like I said, I can remember I told Harold, and like I said, he didn’t have that down there in Missouri. They didn’t have that dust storms. And, I told him, “Oh golly, I sure it ain’t comin’ again."
BC: So, that was in the ‘50’s, where were you living?
JW: Here in this. We built this house, yeah. And we had a little house, a littler one right over here. And we built then this wall this way, we built first, and then we built on and so it was a little house and we moved it on.
BC: That was, you had a few “dusters” blow in then?
JW: Yeah, that was when we lived in that little house that I can remember the dust storms, yeah.
BC: As you look back on the 1930’s, what do you think is the greatest lesson that you learned, and that people learned back then?
JW: Well, I don’t know. You know, I ‘spect it’s the farmers are getting so greedy anymore, wanting more land, and plowing up pasture ground, and you know, it could come again. ‘Cause our water supply is getting so low anymore, I tell ya, lately. They better at least leave some of that grass grow and forget about planting crops on it.
BC: Hope we have learned.
JW: Yeah, it should be a lesson, if anybody has ever been in it or read about it, but they better think about it a little bit.
BC: Now, the one thing that came out of the ‘30’s was the SCS, Soil Conservation Service. Did your family, mother’s family, try some of these practices?
JW: Now, I can’t remember what they even done. Did they…
BC: Shelter belts?
JW: Yeah, no they didn’t have any shelter belts down there.
BC: Different farming practices?
JW: Oh, they probably did. You know, they farmed with horses a lot. I can remember that when I was a little kid, but I might have been like four of five years old when they were farming with those horses. I can remember them hitchin’ ‘em up, you know, and everything, and then they finally got tractors and such, but if….
BC: Yeah, not farming much land that way.
JW: Like I said, I don’t think the dust storms, ‘cause they always had crops down there, but we didn’t out there.
BC: Well, how did people keep hope alive then out in that country?
JW: I don’t know. It just, ‘course there wasn’t a lot of trees or anything anyway back on them, unless they was on the creek bank, but we didn’t live on a creek bank. It just killed everything, I mean just covered it up, silk weeds and everything were just covered up, it blew that bad.
BC: It was covering the fence lines?
JW: Yes, I remember that. It covered it up level and the cows could just walk over and go.
BC: After the rains came, how did that change for you and your family, or did it?
JW: I don’t know, must not changed a lot or we wouldn’t of left, but ‘course those rains, I don’t think those rains, I don’t think started, ya know, at first. But it did, that was more than anything we’d ever had before of rain amount then.
BC: Yeah, especially for seven long years.
JW: Yeah. But it must not have done too good, or we wouldn’t have went ahead and left.
BC: When did you leave out of there?
JW: Well, like I said, that was the year that I was a “Firster”, and so then when we got up there to Kalvesta, and we stayed during the summer in Kalvesta. And then we went ahead and went on up the Pawnee and that’s where I went to school and I say we had to go back to the First Grade again, because we had no report cards, they didn’t give us any, so we couldn’t verify that we’d even went to school, which I don’t think it hurt us to go over again anyway ‘cause you know, we missed so much anyway, but it didn’t hurt to probably retake it.
BC: What was your school like then down there? Would you, would it close depending on the weather or the “dusters”?
JW: Well, like I say, the teacher would read to us if it got really dusty, ya know. And then the people on the ranch would come and get us and take us home, if it had gotten bad enough. But we all weren’t allowed to leave. We had no vehicle because the teacher lived on the ranch too with the guy who owned the ranch. So uh, whenever it was time to go get kids, he went and picked ‘em up. Whenever the dust storms were, he’d send somebody over to pick em’ all up. If it was some other neighbors they’d come and get their kids too. But, a lot of ‘em lived right out there on that ranch.
BC: You mentioned a little about the rabbit drives, the rabbits?
JW: Yes, I remember the rabbit drives very well. That was somethin’ else, you can’t imagine how many rabbits. And they had to drive ‘em because they were eating the crops up. By then, they were just raising crops, and ‘course that was down in the valley, and they raised more crops there then out west, ya know, ‘cause they had water. And, oh my, people just, you even can’t imagine how many people would go out, and they had sacks and us kids would go right along with them, and you’d chase ‘em up into a big fence that they had built so they couldn’t get out, ya know. And then they killed 'em, that’s what they had to do, kill ‘em.
BC: I guess you were involved in some of those?
JW: Rabbit drives, yeah, I wasn’t in the killing part, but yeah. Yeah, we thought it was fun. I’m sure they didn’t, they wasn’t havin’ much fun.
BC: Back when the rains started, 1939 or so, your family was still up there on the farm?
JW: Oh, yeah, they were, we’d stayed up clear on the Pawnee until let’s see, I must have been a Fifth Grader I believe, when we moved back to Kalvesta, and that’s when he went to work for, with this machine shop. And we lived there until I got married.
BC: Do you remember many of the farmers coming back then or the land being worked again?
JW: Oh, yeah, it got real prosperous then, ya know, and they built a big elevator out there, it wasn’t big, but it was big for out there, ‘cause it had none. And, that’s how I met Harold. He was out there working on that elevator, building that elevator. It was a guy from Ellinwood that built the elevators.
BC: That was in the 1940’s, I mean once they got through the Dust Bowl?
JW: Yeah. So, I worked at a restaurant out there as a waitress, and whatever, it was a family owned ya know, and whatever there was they also liked the way I washed clothes, so I got to wash all the clothes, but I also served a lot of meals too, and I had even cooked the meals.
BC: Well, that’s pretty much the questions I have. E.L. 8/19/2006