Geographically speaking, Mansfield is at one edge of the Midwest and the great Dust Bowl area of the 1930s is at the extreme other edge a thousand miles away. It’s not likely that you would ever connect these two locations together in one thought.
Yet there was a time—actually several specific dates during the Great Depression era—when the dust of Kansas and Oklahoma passed through the skies over Richland County. The farmers of Montana and Missouri watched their cropland go airborne, and it blew to Mansfield by special airmail delivery to settle in town as fine dust.
And while Okies migrated west to escape their dying earth, the very land itself picked up and migrated east in epic gritty storms of Biblical proportions that would color the life of Mansfield homemakers.
Death on the Plains
In our time, when global ecological scrutiny and analysis is so persistent and public, the causes and ramifications of the 1930s Dust Bowl don’t seem all that difficult to understand. Back then however, the farmers of the Great Plains couldn’t imagine how it was that their terrific good fortune of bumper crops from rich prairie soil could turn so quickly to catastrophic life-threatening disaster.
They were simply doing what farmers have done in every land and every epoch of human history since hunter-gatherers evolved into agriculturalists: break the earth, plant the grain, watch it rain, let it grow, and harvest the crop. In the 1930s however, there were two of the steps in this system that backfired: the rain didn’t fall and, once the earth was broken so the protective prairie grasses were stripped away, the dry ground disintegrated in the sun and blew away in the wind.
The tremendous dust storms began in 1932, and by 1933 there were twice as many of them. Tons and tons of topsoil lifted 10,000 feet in the air and took off in 60 mph winds. As the storms mounted in the far Midwest they looked like a mountain range marching across the landscape.
By the time the first monster storm reached Ohio in 1934 the sky over Mansfield turned a weird yellowish-brown, and the wind was filled with fine grit that gave the air a musty smell that left a faint taste in your mouth.
When the sun shone clear again the next day the cars were all covered with dust, the cat left footprints on the walk, and housewives learned very quickly not to leave their wash out on the line.
Inside the house everything was covered in a thin film of prairie dirt.
That first dust storm to hit Mansfield in 1934 was kind of a conversation piece: a rare quirk of nature that seemed in many ways to give the city a sense of participation in national current events.
When it happened again in 1935 it was not so entertaining.
On the first day of spring the dust of Kansas moved into town like a heavy fog.
People drove with their headlights on and the light shone with a weird blue-green cast. When the sun hit high noon it had that ominous dim mineral hue.
The phones at the Police station, the Library and the newspaper rang all day with folks in trepidation. They wondered if it was an unscheduled ecipse. They were hoping it wasn’t the end of the world.
It certainly had that epic sort of Biblical plague grandeur. The atmosphere held 7000 feet of towering grime.
A professor of geology and minerology at the University of Dayton conducted experiments that day by collecting dust on a plate glass and quantifying the particles. His calculations indicated that the weight of grit falling upon Ohio came to 10 tons an hour to the square mile.
Mansfield landed somewhere around 160 tons of soot every hour.
It was called “the despair of housewives.”
When that cloud left town folks heaved a great sigh and said the worst was over. They were wrong.
About a year later the dust rolled in at 10 AM, and train traffic stopped dead. It seemed thicker this time, and it tasted “like homegrown spinach.”
There was reason for hope this time however, because the forecast called for rain; and if there was one thing that could clear the air it was a good downpour.
Unfortunately, when the storm broke later that afternoon it was not the cleasing, refreshing shower that folks were hoping for. What fell from the sky were “mud drops.”
People caught in the rain looked like they walked out of the swamp. Cars, windows, houses all turned weird, sickly yellow.
Everyone agreed the dust was bad, but the mud was far worse: it killed plants.
When the forecast that summer reverted again to simple dust, it was considered a blessing. A ball game in July at the Armory was called on account of visibility: not from nightfall, but from dustfall.
An Ill Wind
The dust storms of the 1930s were considered an inscrutable curse to most folks who experienced them; but every ill wind always manages to profit someone. In 1935 it was Mansfield.
The largest employer in the city at the time was Westinghouse, and the plant on Fifth Street was where the company’s line of household appliances was manufactured.
Electrical appliances were a hard sell in the early years of the Great Depression, when people were often hard pressed to pay for electricity, so Westinghouse appliance sales sagged dangerously.
They tried everything to make their vacuum cleaners more attractive to consumers: hired new designers to give the device a streamline sexy appeal; lowered the price to $37.50.
What sold the most vacuum cleaners in the end however, was the new demand for cleaners created by the dust storms of 1934-1936. People who used brooms to sweep their floors simply pushed the dust around: they needed vacuum cleaners.
Those terrifying blasts that devastated the Plains were bad for morale, but good for business; good for Westinghouse: fortunate for Mansfield.