LOOK: Beyond “Migrant Mother,” FSA images of Colorado during the Dust Bowl

The FSA’s images of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression offer an window into Colorado History.
6 min. read
Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Of the twenty-five hundred people in this camp most of them were destitute, March 1936. (Dorthea Lange/Library of Congress/LC-USF34-T01-009093)

Migrant agricultural worker's family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Of the twenty-five hundred people in this camp most of them were destitute, March 1936. (Dorthea Lange/Library of Congress/LC-USF34-T01-009093)

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.

Prowers County, Colo. Dust storm, April 1935. (Library of Congress/LC-USF343-001617-ZE)

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.

FSA (Farm Security Administration) supervisor, Baca County, Colorado, standing amidst some of the grass which was native to this section before the plow came along, Sept. 1939. (Russell Lee/Library of Congress/LC-USF34-034129)

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.

Sheep handler, stockyards, Denver, Colo., Oct. 1939. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress/LC-USF33-003414)

"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."

Purpose steers are locked in tent for shipment at a stockyard in Denver, Oct. 1939. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress/LC-USF33-003411)

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."

Buyers from the packing plant at stockyards in Denver, Oct. 1939. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress/LC-USF33-003414)

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.

Free lunch counter at farmers field day, U.S. Dry Land Experiment Station, Akron, Colo., Oct. 1939. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress/LC-USF33-003372)

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."

Potato pickers, Rio Grande County, Colo., Oct. 1939. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress/LC-USF33-003369)
Electrical prospecting for metallic minerals may be carried on by using the dual coil radiometer to measure the electro-magnetic field of the earth, as it may be influenced by the presence of an ore body. Students training for war jobs in the minerals industry, or for service with the armed forces, are shown hunting for ore. Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado, Oct. 1942. (Andreas Feininger/Library of Congress/LC-USE6-D-008683)
Speed in metallurgical analysis, to match the rapidity with which the nation arms itself, is possible through use of the spectrograph, a marvelous new machine used for study of materials through measurements of the arc of light they emit when heated. Three students in defense training courses at a famous mining-engineering school listen as an instructor shows them how the machine operates. Golden, Colorado, Oct. 1942. (Andreas Feininger/Library of Congress/LC-USE6-D-008688)
Picking potatoes, Rio Grande County, Colorado, Oct. 1939. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress/LC-USF33-003365)
Ernest W. Kirk Jr., with team of mules which was bought with FSA (Farm Security Administration) loan. Near Ordway, Colorado, Sept. 1939. (Russell Lee/Library of Congress/LC-USF34-034126)
Broom corn, Baca County, Colorado. One of the main cash crops of this region, August 1939. (Russell Lee/Library of Congress/LC-USF33-012404)
The mother said "I keep her dressed nice every day, because she is the only girl I've got." Great Western Sugar Company's beet sugar workers' colony at Hudson, Colorado, September 1938. (Jack Allison/Library of Congress/LC-USF34-015786)
Drought committee meeting with farmers. Springfield, Colorado, August 1936. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress/LC-USF34-005239)
Akron (vicinity), Colorado, U.S. Dry Land Experiment Station. Farmer looking at sorghum exhibit, Oct. 1939. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress/LC-USF33-003375)
Denver, Colorado. Two ingenious American steel fabricators who "took a quick look at a blue print and in less time than it takes to tell it" turned from making steel guard rails for a gold mine shaft to building parts for Navy escort vessels, May 1942. (Library of Congress/LC-USE6-D-010591)
Denver, Colorado. Workers giving ship steel a thorough rinsing after it has been "pickled" in the highest steel "pickling" vat in the world. The "pickling" operation, giving steel a sulphuric bath to remove mill scale, is a common sight at Seaboard Shipyards, and is something unique at the mile-high Denver fabricating plant and an illustration of American industrial ingenuity, May 1942. (Library of Congress/LC-USE6-D-010582)
Mr. Bosley, sitting on his tractor. Bosley reorganization unit, Baca County, Colorado, Sept 1939. (Russell Lee/Library of Congress/LC-USF34-034156)
Indian woman sugar beet worker from Oklahoma. Adams County, Colorado, Oct. 1939. (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress/LC-USF34-028741)

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