Friday, September 18, 2009

Hungry Times

In the good old days there were some bad old years. The Irish Potato Famine and the American Dust Bowl are two such instances. Each of these "good farming gone bad" events caused immense physical and financial suffering, epic migrations and questions concerning government response.

My maiden name is O'Brien. My great-grandparents immigrated from Ireland to America during the famine but I had never actually read about it. Then I picked up Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850. Wow. What a mess! The vast majority of the Irish population were tenant farmers working on land owned by British landlords, and they depended heavily on potatoes to feed their large families. Then along came a blight that turned their potatoes into a black, stinky mush...for five years! This book is loaded with stories of starvation, disease, evictions, work-houses, famine ships, death and misery. It also delves into the Irish/English relationship at that time. How Britain's frustrating Corn Laws, which placed a high tax on imported grains, elevated the local costs of all oats, wheat, barley and rye, exacerbating the famine problem. Also mentioned is the attempted uprising against the British government led by William Smith O'Brien.

Many stories I will have a hard time shaking off. The baker who was obsessed with cleaning his clothes before going into the street for fear any remnants of flour dust would create a frenzied mob. The family that knew the farmer next door shot and buried two diseased pigs and waited until nightfall to dig them up and eat them. The men who cut off the tails of cattle or drained a few pints of blood from them, thereby not destroying someone else's property, and yet providing some protein to their families.

In fact, what makes this book so interesting are all the first hand accounts along with the many etchings as they appeared in London newspapers. If nothing else, Susan Campbell Bartoletti's book will make you ever so thankful the next time you are at the table and say, "please, pass the potatoes."

Ages YA

Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in the 1930s describes how life on the plains bottomed out as topsoil blew away.

On May 9, 1934, a dust storm carried an estimated 350 million tons of dirt two thousand miles eastward. Weathermen calculated that four million tons of prairie dirt fell on Chicago—four pounds for each city resident. The following day, the dust darkened the sky over Buffalo, New York, and Atlanta, Georgia. Three hundred miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, brown prairie dirt fell like snow on the decks of ships.
During World War I the federal government guaranteed farmers $2.00 per bushel of wheat. When the war ended, European demand for wheat encouraged what historians call "the Great Plow Up." In Oklahoma in 1915, only a few thousand tractors tilled the soil, but ten years later 50,000 tractors were working the fields. Then the disk harrow, with it's long row of circular blades, replaced the single-blade iron plow. Millions of acres of native grasses that held the earth in place were plowed under. Some farmers planted crops right up to their front doors. Then rain became scarce and winds began to blow.

Michael L. Cooper's straightforward book goes on to describe the policies of newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt, the all encompassing Great Depression and the migration of millions to mostly California. The book includes many first hand accounts and heart-wrenching photographs.

Ages 9-12

Activity: Can you correctly identify the most affected states on the Dust Bowl Map?

1 comment:

  1. These are two tragic events that are so hard to even fathom!

    You might look at my blog - we went to Ireland this summer! And, I know I have Irish ancestors, but haven't been able to track them down yet. Anyway, the most significant post is this one when we went to the jail/gaol and learned about its role in the famine & the uprisings: There's probably a website with more info.

    Also, on the Dust Bowl, we watched a movie on TV earlier this year. I wish I would have blogged about it as I don't remember the name! Anyway, that same week, we read Mike Venezia's book about Dorothea Lange, the famous photographer of the immigrants of the Dust Bowl to California.