Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl

Season 1
THE DUST BOWL chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, when a frenzied wheat boom on the southern Plains, followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s, nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.
Peter Coyote
DocumentarySpecial Interest
English [CC]
Audio languages

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  1. 1. Episode 1: The Great Plow Up
    November 17 2012
    1 h 51 min
    English [CC]
    Audio languages
    In the early 20th century, homesteaders converge on the southern Plains, where wet years, rising wheat prices and World War I produce a classic boom. Then, in 1931, a decade-long drought begins, exacerbated by the Great Depression.
  2. 2. Episode 2: Reaping the Whirlwind
    November 18 2012
    1 h 52 min
    English [CC]
    Audio languages
    The crucible of dust, drought and Depression intensifies. Many people on the southern Plains give up and join a “migration of the defeated” to California. There they are branded as “Okies” and face vicious discrimination.

Bonus (1)

  1. Bonus: Uncovering The Dust Bowl
    Watch on supported devices
    October 28 2012
    English [CC]
    Audio languages
    Additional material and background from "Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl."

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Ken Burns
Ken BurnsDayton DuncanJulie Dunfey
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4.8 out of 5 stars

2426 global ratings

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Top reviews from the United States

SMReviewed in the United States on September 17, 2016
5.0 out of 5 stars
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Excellent documentary. Loved the personal interviews with men and women who experienced the Dust Bowl as children and lived through those hard times. My husband's parents and other older siblings experienced the Dust Bowl (he was one of 12 children in a farming family in Baca County, Colorado..and...right in the bullseye of the Bowl in the 30's). I heard his family's stories. My husband , born in 1940, was the second youngest of the 12 siblings, and was a teenager in the 1950's in Baca County. Some farmers went back to their old ways of plowing after the 1930's Dust Bowl days (like they plowed in the 20's to grow/harvest wheat crops that was a boom in the 20's and before the 30's droughts). Plowing up the farmlands again like before caused dust storms again in the 1950's. My husband experienced seeing many of those bad dust storms again in the mid-1950's. Some farmers, sadly, didn't learn the Dust Bowl lessons of the 30's. Currently, thankfully, many thousands of acres of farmlands in that vast area are not farmed, and natural grasses have grown back. Evidently, the government pays farmers there not to plow some acreages to keep away the dust bowl tragedies like the 30's.
But, my husband in the 1950's saw those dust storms return as a teen, and saw the invasions of grasshoppers again destroying crops, and the invasions of thousands of jackrabbits that ate crops, too. As a teen, he helped his dad supplement the family income to kill the invading thousands of jackrabbits. He said folks were paid $0.25/ head for killing jackrabbits to slow the destruction of the crops, their livelihood. He showed me newspaper pictures from the Plainsman Herald , Springfield, CO of the piles of dead jackrabbits from that time.
We take so much for granted now compared to what these heroic American folks experienced during those Dust Bowl years of the 30's shown in this documentary. So much courage shown in the stories and filmclips along with so much heartbreak for many. I was moved to tears by some of the heartbreaking stories, especially of children dying of dust pneumonia.
I highly recommend this and other documentaries researched and produced by Ken Burns. Excellent lessons in American history for me to take away to learn more invaluable life lessons, and have a greater respect for that generation of everyday folks living and surviving during the Dust Bowl years.
51 people found this helpful
Lee In MotionReviewed in the United States on January 30, 2017
5.0 out of 5 stars
~ "The Dust Bowl" by Ken Burns is well done and highly recommended for all to learn from! ~
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A very well done and informative documentary on the era in and around the "Texas panhandle" during the Great Depression.
Since the stock market crash of 1929, the farmers of the region had to "plow more" to make more money. The crops they grew were worth less, so they got less. They thought, well, if we just grew more, we can make up the difference. Wrong. In that region of the Country, you cannot do it because of the weather "streams" and wind, mostly.
The farmers did not take that into consideration. All they thought of was trying to stay afloat in the worst recession this Country has ever known since it's founding.
Over nearly 4 hours, we delve into the how, why and when the huge dust storms took place, with accounts from several survivors of the era.
Several family stories are told from the different cities effected. Ken Burns mostly focused on the survivors around the "epicenter" of the storms. I am sure there were more effected citizens than this documentary shows. Certainly.
So, it goes without saying that other nationalities were effected by the crisis, but were they farmers in the region?
I doubt it since it was the 1930s and the times in which the region lived.
The story is lengthy because Ken wanted to get many stories from different citizens living there. You cannot do a documentary on this Dust Bowl and only have one or two families discussing what they did, etc. There were far too many others that were effected. So, with that said., I think he did a superb job using the best available technology.
I really enjoyed it and I think you will as well. Very informative on what happened, why, and how it all seemed to get fixed toward the end.
I recommend at least one viewing for everyone to get a full grasp on exactly what transpired in "The Dust Bowl".

** Special Features are a few featurettes and some footage/interviews that were not used in the main feature on both discs **
** Sound is DD 5.1 English.
25 people found this helpful
Tom BrodyReviewed in the United States on November 16, 2017
5.0 out of 5 stars
Beyond excellent. We learn there were several reasons, not just one, for the Dust Bowl. Great on facts, great on human interest
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THE DUST BOWL A FILM BY KEN BURNS takes the form of two compact discs, with about 4 hours total running time. The presentation is about 40% still black and white photographs, about 30% black and white movies, and about 30% color interviews with present-day historians and with children of Dust Bowl survivers. The presentation is fact-based, and avoids journalistic fluff. In contrast, another disc on the same topic, "SURVIVING THE DUST BOWL" consists mainly of journalistic fluff and avoids facts relating to history, agriculture, and business.

THE DUST BOWL A FILM BY KEN BURNS is excellent in every way. I describe here only disc one. Disc one discloses the cause of the Dust Bowl. I was very pleased to see that the disc took care to describe the MULTIPLE CAUSES of the disaster known as the Dust Bowl. These include: (1) Naturally-occurring changes in the climate in the Oklahoma area, that is, from wet to dry; (2) The fact the dry climate lasted an unexpectedly long time; (3) The fact that charlatans tricked settlers to move to Oklahoma, with promises that the area had was excellent for agriculture and was a well-forested area where in fact, the area was bare of trees; (4) The fact that Oklahoma farmers switched from an old-fashioned plow that prevented soil from blowing away to a new-style plow that encouraged soil to blow away; (5) The fact that initial harvests of wheat were abundant, stimulated farmers to plow up even more land; (6) The fact that The Great Depression resulted in loss of customers, and forced wheat prices to a tiny fraction of the usual price; (7) Also, we learn that another contributor to the Dust Bowl was World War I, which cut off wheat supplies from Russia, and a consequent increase in wheat prices, and resulted in a huge increase in plowing up the land in Oklahoma. Regarding the second disc, I will only disclose that we learn that Dust Bowl refugees settling in California were treated like second-rate citizens. I recommend buying the very excellent book, CHILDREN OF THE DUST BOWL, which does a great job at explaining the life of Dust Bowl victims and the lives of settlers in California.

Disc One begins with rumbling sounds, and sounds of wind. We see several seconds of motion-picture footage of mountains of black clouds, sand rushing over bare ground, and a mother lifting a child and racing indoors to get away from a dust storm. Then, come color videos of old people (children of Dust Bowl survivors) making remarks such as, "It would blister your face, it woud put your eyes out . . . steady blow of dirt." Another old lady says, "It carried with it a feeling of. I don't known the word for it exactly . . . of being unreal but almost being evil." A middle aged narrator reads: "It was a decade long natural tragecy of Biblical proportions. Pillars of dust choked out the midday sun."

At 5 minutes into Disc One, we see video of a lady sweeping piles of sand out of her house, and the narrator says, "But it is also a story of historic perseverance." At 10 minutes, we see a map showing the midwest states in the U.S. (Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, etc.). We learn about the short grasses forming, "tangled roots 5 feet below the ground forming dense sod that could withstand the region's periodic draughts," and we learn the fact the the digging up of all of these tangled roots (of buffalo grass) contributed to the weakening of the soil, and to the loss of billions of tons of topsoil during the Dust Bowl. The narrator tells us that, "homesteaders can next, swarming onto the once considered unsuitable for crops because it had less than 20 inches of rain per year, unscrupulous promoters that promised that the very act of farming would increase the precipitation." The narrator continues, "the severe drought of the 1890s proved them wrong." (Here, we learn that long before the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma was already prone to severe droughts.) Then, we learn about Congress opening up new land, and that desperate Europeans settled there. The narrator tells us that the Oklahoma panhandle was the riskiest agricultural land in the US. At 13-minutes into Disc One, the narrator makes clear that a common expression in Oklahoma was, "IF IT RAINS." The narrator adds that if it did not rain, then people would be known as, "NEXT YEAR PEOPLE" because of their continuing hope that the rain situation would be better the next year.

We learn that World War I cut off Russia's wheat, and so the price of wheat in America increased, where the result was a boom in ploughing up the land in Oklahoma and in planting wheat. At 20 minutes into Disc One, we learn about a modern plow (the disc plow) that made farming more efficient but that promoted loss of topsoil to the wind. The video shows lines of tractors plowing up the land, and the narrator tells us that, "tractors were going all night long with headlights."

We learn that the earlier-used plow was a "LISTER" which dug a deep furrow that caught and held the soil, preventing it from blowing away. We learn that the lister was replaced with a new type of plow called a "ONE-WAY" which ripped up the soil allowing its easy dispersion by the wind. All along, we see videos of rows of modern tractors engaged in something called, "THE GREAT PLOW-UP."

At 27 minutes the narrator reads: "On October 29, 1929, a day that would be remembered as BLACK TUESDAY . . . " The disc shows still photographs of New York City at the start of the Great Depression, and the disc shows that there was not any corresponding disaster in Oklahoma. Regarding Oklahoma, on old lady named Imogen Glover in a color-video interview recollects, "We had the best crop we ever had in 1929." Then, we learn that as the Great Depression continued, wheat dropped from a dollar to 17 cents a bushel, and Oklahoma farmers responded by plowing up more land (thereby getting more wheat to sell, but also enhancing more blowing away of the top soil).

The narrator reads, "But when the bumper crop of 1931 was harvested, there was nobody to buy it . . . prices had collapsed to 25 cents per bushel, less than half of what it cost the farmers to grow it." We see still photographs of piles of grain stacked in a farm field. The narrator tells us again, the the people were, "NEXT YEAR PEOPLE." Then, at 34 minutes into Disc One, we learn that on JANUARY 21, 1932 came the first of many severe dust storms, with 10,000-foot high dust storms and 60mpg winds.

We see many videos of low visibility areas, closeup videos of scurrying chickens, and still photos of farmers next to barbed wire fences. We see a charming photo of two boys collecting a huge bucket of cow chips, for use as fuel. At 45 minutes into Disc One, we see still photographs of cracked earth in barren farmfields, and we learn taht there were 14 dust storms in1932, and 38 dust storms in 1933, and we see a video of a MONSTER DUST STORM that was a "boiling wall of dirt coming at you."

At 48 minutes into Disc One, we see a video of a 1930s automobile driving through a cloud of dust, and at 50 minutes starts a detailed account of STATIC ELECTRICITY caused by dust storms. At 52 minutes, we see the first of many photographs of DEAD CATTLE killed by dust suffocation. At 55 minutes, comes the first of many accounts of SUICIDES. At 56 minutes comes a fascinating three minute video account of thousands of jack rabbits and the killing of them by "RABBIT DRIVES" where hundreds of people clubbed them to death. At one hour into Disc One, we learn of a massive 350 MILLION TON DUST STORM of May 1934, which transported Oklahoma's soil to Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, and Washington DC. At 64 minutes, we hear the first of the idea of trying new ploughing techniques to prevent topsoil loss, and we learn of Roosevelt's goal of exploring these new ploughing techniques.

At 66 minutes into Disc One, we learn about New Deal jobs, which mitigated some of the poverty in Oklahoma. We learn that the US government paid a million dollars to buy one million cattle to kill them and bury them. At 72 minutes ("ta-ta-dahhhhh!") we see Dorothea Lange's most famous photograph. At 76-80 minutes, we learn more about SUICIDES. The narrator reads, "In 1935, the number of black blizzards doubled in no man's land." At 82-95 minutes come accounts of "DUST PNEUMONIA," which killed many children. We see photographs of sick children and photos of funerals for children. At 1 hour, 47 minutes, we learn of the firs tuse of the term "DUST BOWL" and that this was in a newspaper article. The article was by Robert Geiger and it appeared in a story about Guymon, Oklahoma. At 1 hour and 48 mintues, we learn about the goal of leaving Oklahoma to California, and we learn about Woodie Guthrie. But the exodus to California is covered in Disc Two. In Disc One, the music is gentle banjo and mandolin music without any singing. In Disc Two, we hear Woodie Guthrie singing.
11 people found this helpful
RaRReviewed in the United States on October 25, 2019
5.0 out of 5 stars
Powerful Images
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I was born near the panhandle of Oklahoma in the 1950's. When I watch this program, I get a very clear picture of what life was like during the dust bowl for my Grandparents and my parents. Well written, great photos and videos and a great overview of that period in history. One gentleman talked about rinsing out a glass before filling it with water and drinking. I still do that today when I pull a clean glass out of the cupboard! Makes me wonder if my behavior in 2019 was learned from folks who did it out of necessity during the dust bowl.
4 people found this helpful
Grace E.Reviewed in the United States on December 4, 2016
5.0 out of 5 stars
Gritty Reality. Life lessons. Respect Mother Earth.
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Two years ago I had read Timothy Egan's book on the Dust Bowl. Devoured it in 2 days. I had no idea the Dust Bowl had gone on so long, or the intensity of the catastrophe.

Then, I found this. Thank you Ken Burns.

From the personal interviews, to the stark vivid photos, not to mention clips of Timothy's commentary in the series, I actually felt I had missed a part of history. I wept several times. I felt their pain, desperation, and profound losses. The loss of their precious children. Watching the jackrabbits, cattle perishing, grasshopper invasion, had me almost wondering ''what next?'' Such brave survivors. To those Oklahoma families treated so poorly in California, my apologies from the ''Republic of.'' Raw truths are real eye openers.

I cannot judge those who stayed, or left. There was a huge life lesson in this story. One I hope would be learned, so that my grandchildren can have a planet not consumed by greed, lack of respect for the Earth, or suitcase farmers. The ending with the water pumped in 100 feet down, with only 50 years left me feeling sad. Tick tock.

Wonderful series. Gritty reality at it's best.
10 people found this helpful
RosebudReviewed in the United States on April 5, 2021
4.0 out of 5 stars
Not Ken Burns' Best but Still a Well-made and Informative Documentary
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Burns' does a great job of presenting the hardships encountered by family's dealing with both the extended drought and dust storms of the 20's and 30's as well as the Great Depression (I couldn't imagine living through both events simultaneously). The one complaint is that the first two hours contain a lot of repetitive information and marked the first time I ever started to get bored with a Ken Burns' documentary (a lot of time is spent on interviewees describing the dust storms in detail and it unfortunately gets repetitive and monotonous). However, the strongest element of this documentary comes in the last two hours when we get a detailed account of how F.D.R.'s government initiatives and programs helped millions of dust bowl families by creating work programs, investing in infrastructure projects, introducing new farming techniques, etc. Anyone complaining about "big government" should be forced to watch the last two hours of this documentary, so they can understand the positive transformative effects government can have on individuals and the economy as a whole.
CliffReviewed in the United States on May 1, 2017
5.0 out of 5 stars
Very good film about the hardships faced and stories told.
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Born, raised and lived near Lamar, CO. my whole life this touches home. I'm young and have only seen what the latest drought has caused and as miserable as it's been, they had it much worse in the 1930's. Very good documentary and stories of the hardship folks faced. It also comes full circle explaining what the conservation districts/national grasslands were developed to do and that we are still using these same practices so many years later.
3 people found this helpful
john doeReviewed in the United States on December 21, 2012
5.0 out of 5 stars
this tells it like it was.
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my dad joseph franklin alcorn, was born in 1857 yes that's right, 1857. he had twin boys me and my brother paul alcorn at age of 75. so we were born in 1931. so those times were fresh in our minds. this video is as real as it gets. although we were only 6 years old when dad died at age 81 my age now . shortest 4 hour movie i ever watched. buy it.........
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