The year was 1935 and a spring Sunday, April 14, was to become a moment of infamy for Colorado when a massive dust storm blotted out the sun. Black Sunday, as it became known, was one of the most impactful events in a string of environmental catastrophes making up the American Dust Bowl era, which intensified the Great Depression’s effect across the west.
Dorthea Lange’s image series titled “Migrant Mother” has become perhaps the most iconic depiction of life during that period. Lange and a slew of photographers were hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government body, to document this difficult chapter in America.
The FSA’s archives were recently (and handily) organized online by Yale University. While Lange never snapped notable shots in Colorado, the collection’s map view reveals that the state is absolutely represented during that era.
The Homestead Act of 1862, says one account by History Colorado, brought unprecedented numbers of European settlers into the American West, encouraging them to set down roots both as families and crops. In the 1910s Baca county, in the state’s southeast corner, saw a population boon as a result of this legislation in combination with the invention of the tractor.
But all of that new production created more than corn and potatoes. As they worked, Colorado’s new farmers scraped away native grasses that had held soil down for centuries. With little stability, dust rose in the wind like biblical locusts.
“In 1931, Baca Country had 237,000 acres under wheat production,” says one account by History Colorado, “by 1936, the number had fallen to only 150 acres.”
Denver, too, saw impacts of the struggle. At that time the National Western Stock Show was already 30 years old. Feeling the effects of the depression, says the show’s history, “the National Western marked time in a mode of austerity.”
The FSA’s images offer an undistorted glimpse back into the ’30s and ’40s in Colorado and across the country. Roy Stryker, who organized the team of photographers, said his team was instructed to show things how they were. They never spoke about art or film stocks or process.
“The word ‘composition’ was never talked about, never mentioned,” he said in an interview. “It was a taboo word.”
Instead, he said, his team focused on their subjects. They were encouraged to ask questions, check facts and develop as best they could a sense of everyday life.
Arthur Rothstein, one of Stryker’s pupils, was perhaps the most prolific Colorado documentarian of the FSA effort. His portfolio of portraits allows photo and local history nerds today to look right into the eyes of people living nearly a century ago.
In his own oral history Rothstein, a native New Yorker, said he discovered something profound about the American people in his travels across the west:
“Each man is an individual,” he said. “The one thing I found in traveling through the United States was that every man and every woman was different. They all come from different backgrounds and different nationalities. There was no homogeneous quality about Americans, and it was a fascinating experience to learn this.”