• Life amid the dust

    Ashland resident recalls living through the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history
  • When William "Bill" Wallace Forester looks at a dime in the palm of his hand, chances are his thoughts go back to late 1935.
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  • When William "Bill" Wallace Forester looks at a dime in the palm of his hand, chances are his thoughts go back to late 1935.
    "My mother had absolutely nothing in the house to feed her family," said the 82-year-old Ashland resident. "But she had found a dime. She told my 13-year-old brother, Dick, to go buy a box of oatmeal. He got a big box. That kept us going."
    Not only was the nation caught in the depths of the Great Depression, but the Foresters — mother Rose and her nine children, with young Bill at the tail end — were in the epicenter of the devastating Dust Bowl. They lived in Texas County on the Oklahoma Panhandle, where the family farm had been turned into a dusty desert by unrelenting winds blowing the topsoil off the land parched by drought.
    Family patriarch William Harrison "Harry" Forester had left just before Thanksgiving for the West Coast in a desperate search for work — any work — to save his family from starvation.
    Hitching a ride on the back of a neighbor's farm truck, he was the first in the family to join the great migration, made famous by the fictitious Joads in the classic "Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck.
    "For Thanksgiving, my dad ate a hot dog while sitting on a curb in Flagstaff, Arizona," Bill Forester said. "He said he was thinking about his kids back in Oklahoma, about his family. He was one miserable puppy. That was the nadir of his existence."
    Bill Forester and his surviving siblings were featured in Ken Burns' two-part television series, "The Dust Bowl." The four-hour PBS documentary ran on Nov. 18 and 19.
    A retired teacher and an Army veteran of the Korean War, Forester and his wife, Juanita, also a retired teacher, have two grown children.
    The Dust Bowl storms scoured the topsoil off some 100 million acres of farmland in the nation's breadbasket. They began in 1932 and reached their worst with a sun-blotting Black Sunday on April 14, 1935. That's the day the Forester family, on their way home from church, found refuge in a neighbor's barn.
    In addition to driving thousands of farming families off their land, the Dust Bowl resulted in Congress passing the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 to prevent future environmental disasters caused by poor farming practices.
    But Bill Forester will tell you that the Dust Bowl days also demonstrated the resiliency of families to persevere in the face of incredible hardships and survive.
    "Traditionally, those with subsistence farms like ours could grow bountiful gardens when the rains came, and you had a windmill," he said. "My mother was a canner and a drier.
    "I remember hearing the squeal of a hog being killed," he added. "We butchered animals, and cured bacon and hams."
    Before the dust storms, they had ample fresh milk and butter, he said.
    "We had some good times," he said. "Family life was more cohesive in those days. We ate our meals together."
    But the meals became leaner with the onset of the dust storms. They still could pull water out of the ground with the windmill to water the garden, he said.
    "The reason you couldn't grow a summer garden with that water was that during the Dust Bowl, the wind and the dirt and gravel would shred everything," he said. "Nothing would grow."
    From 1932 to 1935, the Foresters lived on what they called the "Little Red Farm" in northwest Texas County. He is unsure whether the family owned the small spread or rented. He does know it was close to farmland his parents owned in adjacent Cimarron County.
    When the topsoil-collecting winds began to blow, he recalled seeing flint arrow heads seeming to rise up out of the ground in the plowed fields.
    "The wind would leave the little arrow points sitting on what would, in effect, be a little mesa of earth," he said. "If the storm was bad enough to remove a quarter-inch of dirt, you would see arrow points and fragments of arrow points sitting on little mounds of dirt."
    The Forester children — five boys and four girls — collected bushels of arrow points, he said.
    "When the picking was that good, you only picked up the perfect ones," he said, adding the artifacts were left behind when they fled the Dust Bowl.
    Before the hard times, his parents would have a few tons of coal hauled in to heat their home and cast iron cooking stove.
    "But up on the Little Red Farm after the crops stopped and we had no money, we started burning dry cow chips," he said. "During a cow-chip collecting expedition, I couldn't carry much, but I could drive a team of horses slowly through the pasture while the rest of the family picked them up and put them in the wagon. We built a mountain of cow chips outside the kitchen door.
    "They work fine," he added. "We used them to cook good biscuits."
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