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Column: Seventy-five years ago, the ‘black blizzard’ arrived

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Jan. 6, 2007.

WORTHINGTON — When did you last hear someone talk about black widow spiders?

I haven’t heard talk about black widow spiders for a great long time. People used to talk about them. They said if a black widow bites you, you may die.

I was reading the other day that — for reasons not known — black widow spiders thrive during droughts. If it stops raining for a great long time, the black widows appear, like Asian beetles on a warm day in winter.

Newspapers pay close attention to anniversaries of wars and battles. Pearl Harbor. D-Day. Armistice Day. Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the Fourth of July.

We are nearing a milestone anniversary of a different kind. For veterans, it is a battle they never forgot. They will tell you stories still which may make you shudder.

Jan. 21, 1932.

Let me tell you how the writer Timothy Egan described what happened:

“The winds had been fierce all day, clocked at sixty miles an hour … as the thing lumbered around the edge of Amarillo, Tex …

“Nobody knew what to call it. It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick, like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard — a black blizzard, they called it — with an edge like steel wool.”

That was the first of the dust storms. Seventy-five years ago this month. That was when the ’30s became dirty.

They call them dust storms. It is a wrong name. They were not dust, like something you may find on a dining room table. They were dirt. It was what you find in a cornfield. It filled the air so that you breathed dirt. People suffered and died of what doctors came to call dust pneumonia. Dirt filled people’s lungs. People and creatures got dirt in their mouths, their stomachs, their digestive tracts. Great black clouds of dirt soared 10,000 feet high, and the wind caused the dirt to tear at the eyes of men and beasts.

Great swaths of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska blew away. Dirt drifted against fences in banks, like snowbanks. Dirt buried tractors in fields. The dirt, with the wind that pushed it, stripped paint from houses and cars.

Oh — it was never quite that bad in Minnesota, or in Iowa. But all our region suffered dirt storms. The earth grew dark. The sun could scarcely penetrate the dirt clouds.

The local region missed the worst storm. That was April 14, 1935, the day still remembered as Black Sunday. Lloyd Refsell wrote in the Nobles County Times:

“Aren’t we all tickled the moisture arrived a few days before the high winds of Sunday and Monday! If the topsoil had been dry, there would have been a record-breaking dust storm, sprinkling rich local black topsoil, instead of far-flung red dust from Kansas. What blew off the streets was bad enough.”

There was no missing the big storm of May 1934. That storm carried thousands of tons of dirt — the sun was dimmed over New York City for five hours, the Statue of Liberty was veiled. President Franklin Roosevelt, discussing drought, watched dirt enshroud the White House.

Oh my! There were plenty of people saying, “This is the beginning of the end.”

I never knew — this is Timothy Egan again, writing in his book, “The Worst Hard Time” — the wind, the dirt, the drought created fierce static electricity. “Men avoided shaking hands because the static electricity was so great it could knock a person down … car owners used chains, dragging them along the streets as a ground for electricity … [Ike Osteen] listened to the incessant crackling of electricity around the windmill. Poking his head out … he saw currents running down the windmill and along a wire — a crackling blue flame.”

I remember standing at the end of a pew in church. I was still young enough to do that. I could see on the other side of the window everything was black. No one spoke. Church went on. I could tell, as a child will sense these things, everyone was troubled and something very bad was happening.

Seventy-five — 74 — 72 years ago. The dirt storms of 1932 continued into 1938. And people sometimes talked about black widow spiders.