Dust Bowl Memories in Oklahoma

25 Jul

An article came out in the newspaper recently which mentioned that film maker Ken Burns is asking for resources on a new project about the dust bowl. This made me think of the stories that my grandfather, Lewis Swart, told me when I was growing up.

His stories were part of the reason I became a historian.

My granddad was born on November 2, 1921 near Rocky, Washita County, Oklahoma. He was raised on the family farm southeast of town. His parents were Herman and Bessie Kleiner Swart.

He said that when a dust storm would come up from the west that the chickens would think it was nighttime (even in the middle of the afternoon), and they would head to the hen house to roost.

He also said that they would find cattle out in the fields that were dead. They would cut them open and find the lungs were full of mud. The cattle had suffocated from the dirt and dust.

His mother would hang wet sheets over the windows to keep the dust out of the house.  The entire family slept with wet washcloths over their faces to keep from inhaling the small dust particles.

I grew up learning to put dishes upside down in the cupboards. Could this be a habit stemming from the dust bowl days?

Lewis L. Swart

Lewis L. Swart

The photo above was taken for his high school senior photograph. He graduated in 1939, and was the first son in his family to do so. He had two older sisters and two older brothers.

Grandpa worked for a time after high school graduation with a local Electric Co-Op. He helped dig holes for utility poles along Oklahoma roads and highways. This was during the time after FDR started the Rural Electrification Association in hopes to bring electricity to rural parts of the country, including Western Oklahoma. I think alot of people don’t realize that farm families in Oklahoma lived without electricity until the late 1930s and some didn’t have this luxury until after the war.

My grandmother, born in 1929, said that her father would go get the battery out of the Model T to power their radio for a little bit on Saturday nights.

He volunteered for service in the U.S. Navy in September 1942, and served as a machinest aboard the USS Belknap, which was part of the Pacific Fleet. A kamikaze hit the ship one morning in January 1945, and my granddad sustained shrapnel wounds from the impact. He was later awarded the Purple Heart.

His five brothers also served during WWII. Luckily, all six men came back to Oklahoma after the war.

Back home in Oklahoma, he worked as a farm hand for his sister’s brother, Ammon Owen, and later for his Aunt Emily and her husband, T.A. Cotton, who lived out in California. I suspect they had moved to California during the depression. [Edit: 6/2/10 – The Cottons moved to California around 1943.]

My grandparents went on their first date in August 1946, but didn’t marry until August of 1957.

I’m not certain what years grandpa worked out in California [Edit: 6/2/10 – He worked in Ca. in 1946 & came back in the fall of 1947.], but once back in Oklahoma he worked as a carpenter and touted, “I built half of the houses in Burns Flat.” There’s a photo of him (I’ll have to look for it) on scaffolding, helping to build a grain elevator in Rocky in 1946.

I know he worked for several months in Goodwell, Oklahoma in 1951 (or 1953?) to help build the dairy barns at the Panhandle A&M College (now Panhandle State).

He was hired on as a carpenter at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, and my grandparents moved from Rocky to Fletcher in 1968. Their house would follow in 1972!

He retired from the Post in 1989 and has been enjoying retirement for the two decades. He’s still a hard worker, and stubborn just like all other Swart men I know.

He still has the habit of keeping scraps of string, wire, bicycle inner tubes, old license plates, scraps of wood, pails of old nails and screws, etc. He says, “You never know when you’re going to need that.” I think this is from his younger days as a child living during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. He’s still as frugal as ever, and to this day, my grandparents haven’t bought anything on credit. (They’ve also saved every check they’ve ever written during their married lives.) In their eyes, if you can’t pay for something outright, you don’t really need it. Or if you do, you save up until you get it. They don’t spend money they don’t have. (Which might be a good lesson for Americans to learn AND practice. We wouldn’t be in this economic mess if people lived like my grandparents and others in their generation.)

My granddad is still telling his stories at the age of 87. He has this rare ability to remember what the weather was like for any given day. Sometimes he’ll hear on the weather report that a record was set on this day back in 1936, and he’ll tell me what he was doing that day. He might’ve been out on a wheat harvesting crew or whatnot, and he’ll say when it finally rained and how much it rained. It’s fascinating. I hope that I am blessed with memory like he is.

He broke his leg over a month ago, but seems to be coming along alright. Although he wasn’t too happy when his doctor told him not to put any weight on the foot for six weeks.

Thank God for grandpas.

Here I am listening to another of my granddads fantastic tales. Hes a great story-teller.

Here I am listening to another of my granddad's fantastic tales. He's a great story-teller.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 25, 2009 in Genealogy


One response to “Dust Bowl Memories in Oklahoma

  1. Chester Kight

    May 26, 2014 at 3:53 am

    Not sure how I got here, but I have really enjoyed reading many of the articles. My brother was born the same year as your grandfather. My mother came from Rocky, and my father from Cordell, where my brother was born. – Too bad we didn’t find you a few years sooner; my double cousin June Blivins was a geneologist in her spare time, and wrote several books, including “Cook Ancestors and Decendents” (Rocky, Oklahoma), and “Kight Kids’ Ancestors” (Cordell, Oklahoma). My family (myself, my wife, and two kids) spent over six years in germany and loved the country, and I feel a special connection to anyone from there.


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