OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, the geographic center of the 1930s Dust Bowl, are hoping that a recent documentary about what many call the nation’s worst man-made disaster could spark renewed tourism in the region.
PBS’ two-part television series, “The Dust Bowl,” concluded Monday night. The film by Ken Burns featured interviews with several Panhandle residents who lived through a decade’s worth of drought and wind storms.
Jada Breeden, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Guymon, a town in the center of the Oklahoma Panhandle, said she has been fielding more calls from tourists and others seeking information about the area since the documentary began airing. A native of the region, she acknowledged that even she learned a few things from the series.
“The wind is who we are,” said Breeden, whose grandparents lived through the Dust Bowl. “We’ve had a lot of interest. And I’m sure it’s going to pick up.”
The No Man’s Land Museum in nearby Goodwell has experienced jumps in visitors when other movies and documentaries have focused on the period, noted museum director Sue Weissinger.
The Oklahoma Panhandle was once called No Man’s Land after various treaties and federal declarations left no one in charge, though the term seemed appropriate due to the harsh climate, with 20 inches or less of rainfall in the typical year. After the area was opened up to settlement, farmers tilled up native grasses and planted wheat, disrupting the ecosystem to the point that the land suffered.
The Dust Bowl was blamed on poor farming practices and a severe drought that let the Plains’ high winds scrape up dirt and carry it, at times, thousands of miles away. Conservation efforts, tiered farming and better weather helped the area recover.
A drought has gripped part of the area for the past year, though not on the same scale as the 1930s. And unlike the Dust Bowl years, new farming technologies and conservation methods are helping to prevent the same kind of erosion during the ongoing drought.
“Our land isn’t blowing away,” Breeden said.
Across the border at the XIT Museum in Dalhart, a town in the far northwest corner of the Texas Panhandle, about 4,000 people visit each year and many are interested in the Dust Bowl, said museum director Nick Olson. The museum showcases artifacts from the XIT Ranch, a cattle ranch spanning more than 3 million acres in the Texas Panhandle that operated from 1885 to 1912.
“They look at our photographs of the black clouds coming across or the sand dunes and they can’t believe that could happen,” Olson said, adding that he also hopes the documentary brings people to the area.
The No Man’s Land Museum, operated by a historical society established in 1934, has photographs from the period and a collection of oral histories. It has few newspaper articles from the decade, Weissinger said, because local papers sought to concentrate on happier news - not calamity and the Depression.
“The articles are from the 60s,” Weissinger said. “People didn’t talk about the Dust Bowl as it was going on.”
The heart of the Dust Bowl included adjacent portions of Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico, but at times storms raged throughout the Midwest.
The Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Humanities held a summit in the fall for students in nine states, including California, to where many from the Plains migrated on the Mother Road at the height of the disaster.