Life was unbelievably tough in the Dust Bowl
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
At the turn of the 20th century many poor immigrant families were being lured to the Great Plains with promises of cheap land and instant success. Wheat was the new gold. What followed was the transformation of millions of acres of drought resistant prairie grass into thirsty wheat fields. Then the wind and heat turned promises and dreams to dust.
Tony Tonozzi was born Joseph Andrew Tonozzi in Bristol, Colorado, in 1920. His parents had immigrated from Italy and spent time in the coalfields of Illinois. When their daughter developed respiratory problems they moved west for the drier climate and the dream of their own farm. Here Tony describes when life on the farm became a struggle to survive.
Gallacher: What was it like growing up in the Dust Bowl?
Tonozzi: Those black clouds would come up and the chickens would go to sleep and we’d get in the house and start putting wet newspaper over the windowsills so the dust couldn’t filter in. When we’d go to sleep at night we’d put wet rags over our faces to breathe through. In the morning there would be two or three inches of silt on the front porch and we’d have to scoop it off.
Gallacher: You said that the chickens would go to sleep?
Tonozzi: Because it got so dark. It got so dark during the day that we had to light the kerosene lamps. It was because they were plowin’ all those dry lands up and putting them into wheat. It did good for a while but then it left it all ready to blow.
Gallacher: How did your family grow a garden during that time?
Tonozzi: We had a well. It was a deep-water well, and we sold water. We had some water for irrigation so we were able to grow a garden, lots of tomatoes and peppers. There was a lot of canning. We had to keep the garden going, but it was awful dry.
The crops didn’t flourish at all. And then we got a grasshopper plague down through there for two years. We’d have a big trough about 15 feet long on a skid. We’d hook a horse on the end of that and put water in the trough with kerosene.
We’d pull it through the fields and it had a curtain on the back, and the grasshoppers would jump onto the curtain and fall down into this kerosene for water. We’d get enough grasshoppers to put them in a ditch and then we’d set them on fire. But the grasshopper plague lasted for two years.
Gallacher: How did you keep the grasshoppers from eating your garden?
Tonozzi: Oh, they got in there. We scattered this poison wheat meal and they would eat that. It had a banana smell to it, and they really went for that. You’d see them lying all over.
Gallacher: Tell me about the flood.
Tonozzi: Oh, we lived on kind of a flat area in southeastern Colorado. This storm came up and Dad was out in the horse yard and he saw this coming, this white sheet of hail. He turned the horses out of the corral and the flood had already hit us. Dad couldn’t get back to the house, which was about 200 feet away. The water was three feet deep and it had six to eight inches of hail floating on top of it.
So he climbed this tree and stayed there from about four o’clock in the afternoon till 10 o’clock at night. But he said, “I had a little mouse in the tree that was my friend.”
In the morning we discovered that the storm had washed out our whole basement where all the hams, canned goods and wine were kept. It washed our bees away and killed some of our cows and chickens.
Gallacher: What did you do that year?
Tonozzi: Well, the Red Cross came in there, but Dad was too proud to go to Bristol to get anything from them so he sent me with the wagon to get hams and grain for the chickens we had left.
He had some money hid down in the basement in a coffee can and about a month later he found that coffee can out in the field.
Gallacher: How did those hard times influence your life?
Tonozzi: They made me learn to not waste anything. My wife and kids know that about me. Back then everything was used. The depression days kinda left an impression on you that you didn’t want to waste anything.
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