FILM LEGACY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION
The Plow That Broke the Plains, a documentary film produced by an agency of the federal government, was intended to tell the story of the drought and dust storms on the Great Plains in the 1930s. In doing this it reflects many of the then-current views of the reasons these calamities were visited upon this land and the people living there. The sparse, impressionistic, and often poetic language of the commentary, the eloquent music, and the striking photography all serve to intensify the sense of despair and desperation felt by farmers and their families caught up first in the economic disaster of the Depression and then, particularly in 1934 and 1936, beset by widespread drought accompanied by devastating, punishing, even lethal dust storms—the black blizzards of the 1930s.
Dust storms and periods of drought are a fixed part of the Great Plains environment, but human memory is short, and by 1930 the farmers' experience in the region had spanned only two or three generations at most. 1 Few settlers had made farms in the lands west of the Missouri River before 1870, but in the years that followed—despite heat waves, drought, dust storms, blizzards, tornadoes, prairie fires, plagues of grasshoppers, high freight and interest rates, and low prices for wheat and corn—farms had multiplied in the Great Plains states with marvelous abandon.
In 1870 the federal census reported 116,172 farms in those states that lie wholly or in part within the Great Plains as film director Pare Lorentz pictures the area: North and South Dakota, Montana, Ne