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By JuliAnn Graham

t’s hard to imagine life without lights and indoor plumbing today but many members of Tri-County Electric Cooperative in the Oklahoma Pan- handle and surrounding areas can imagine such a life because they lived it. They lived it as children or young adults during the 1930s when the dust was blowing and people were dying from it. Documentary fi lmmaker Ken Burns shines light on these cooperative mem- bers and others who lived through the time period in his upcoming fi lm called “The Dust Bowl.” The two-part, four-hour fi lm, which airs on PBS stations across the nation Nov. 18 and 19, is what Burns calls an ‘emotional archaeol- ogy’ or ‘emotional truth.’ He and Dayton Duncan, writer and co-producer of the fi lm, tell the story of that time period using the people who lived through it. The stories are sometimes tragic and sometimes humorous. While other parts of the country were dealing with the Great Depression, folks in the Oklahoma Panhandle and surround- ing areas were eating dust and losing their farms and livestock, even losing their children and el- derly to the dust. Many of the people featured in the “The Dust Bowl” fi lm are members of Tri- County Electric Cooperative, everyone in this article is a member of the cooperative.


Death equaled reality to Don Wells of Boise City, who was 11 years old on April 14, 1935, when one of the worst dust storms of the time hit, giving the day the name Black Sunday. The loss of his father on that day marks those years permanently for him. His mother was left with 10 children in a two-room house.

“I haven’t seen or read anything that describes the Dust Bowl as worse than what it was,” Wells said. “We had no running water, no bathroom and wall-to- wall mattresses at night.”

Another who recalls dust and death is Dale Coen of Elkhart, Kan. Watching

him tear up as he speaks about his little sister Rena Marie who died of dust pneumonia more than 70 years ago brings home the truth of the Dirty Thirties. Coen lived on a farm in the sand hills about 17 miles from Elkhart, Kan. He said rather than dust storms, they had sand storms with dirt from other places mixed in. He was one of seven children, the youngest of which were twins named Ralph and Rena Marie.

“Rena Marie slept close to me at night so I could take care of her,” Coen said. “During the summer, I was with her close to 24 hours a day. She was the only girl in the whole family and we had been looking forward to our sister for a good many years.”

Coen said one night at supper Rena Marie broke out into a sweat like she was having a heat stroke. She was already suffering from dust pneumonia. He said it wasn’t many days after that she passed away. She was two years old. “I never cried until the next day after she had died. Then I went out by myself and I cried and cried. We never have actually accepted it because it was unreal.” Despite the tragedy of his younger sister Rena Marie’s death, Coen said his parents never lost hope. He said his father always said things will get better; there’s always tomorrow. Never losing hope for next year is a theme that replays itself throughout the fi lm.

Times were hard. Milliard Fowler of Boise City, who was born in 1913, mar- ried the late Esther Carson in January 1934.

He said, “That was probably the worst time economically and the dust— people were leaving by the dozens. People didn’t have any money then. I only had $20 when we got married and I gave half of that to the preacher. My wife didn’t have anything.”

Despite the hard times, hope and humor were still part of life in the ‘30s. “We had a lot of fun and life went on even in spite of the dirt storms,” said Virginia Frantz of Guymon. “When people think about the dirt storms, they think that’s all we did all the time was just watch the dirt. But you had your own life to live. And that’s what my story “Keepin’ it Together” tells. While there are dirt storms that go on it’s not a major part of my book. It’s in the background. It shows how the family had to go on and live and do what they had to do to survive during that time.”

Frantz said being interviewed for the fi lm helped inspire her to fi nish her book “Keepin’ it Together.” She had been in the process of writing it for some time. Although it is a work of fi ction, she said her own experiences during the ‘30s colored the writing.

One of the more humorous stories in the fi lm was told by Imogene Glover OCTOBER 2012 23

of Guymon. She lived on a farm near Hardesty during the ‘30s. Glover tells about her grandfather giving her and her brother some dimes, which she hid in the dirt and he swallowed. Her mother’s method of retrieving her brother’s dimes is quite funny. Although humorous, it also tells the effect the Depression had on her family.

Burns ties the many stories of his subjects together and does it well. Called the greatest documentarian of the day by the Baltimore Sun in March 2009, Burns said the fi lm illustrates the dramatic collision of human nature and Mother Nature while showing the humanity of the people who lived through it. “I think I was struck most of all by their [the interviewees] humanity,” Burns said. “They shared stories that seem familiar —stories that remind us that we share this collective kinship with each other as nothing in our daily lives sug- gested us to. We have nothing in common. But these people remind us that we have everything in common.”

If viewing our digital edition, click here to view a preview of Ken Burns’ documentary from PBS. Access our digital edition at or fi nd our Free App at the Apple Newsstand.

Burns said the people who survived the Dust Bowl were heroic. “What I think the most important thing is, obviously the extraordinary courage and humanity and persever- ance of the people,” Burns said. “What they told us is unbearable. All of us have tragedies in our lives. All of us have sufferings and dislocations and people drift away and die and quarrel but they seem to have had an un- usual share of burdens and the way they negotiated them

was very heroic.”

Burns said the documentary used no actors except for voice overs in some parts and the interviews needed very little off-camera dramatization. Everyone who was interviewed for the fi lm received a copy of their entire interview on DVD. This may be an important piece of family history for some folks as several of the people interviewed for the fi lm have already passed away. Meet the people who can tell stories about what it was like before the lights came on, when the dust was blowing and seemed like it would never end. Watch “The Dust Bowl” documentary. For a preview of the fi lm, visit www. The fi lm airs on PBS stations around the nation on Nov. 18 and 19, 2012. Check local listings for times and channels. OL

Rena Marie A Poem by Jay D. Coen

They said she was their dream come true…the one they’d wait- ed for.

A love rose shared for a time, that left them wanting more. Rena Marie, so full of life, who brought sunshine and joy. A gift from God, this little girl, in a house now full of boys.

She was the apple of their eye… their love for her so true. This little girl with golden curls…of course their love she knew.

A blessing in such tiny form… though numbered in her days, She’s touched the lives of many folk, in oh so many ways.

The times were tough, the dirt clouds rolled, most days seemed without end.

It seemed that Mother Na- ture now would never be their friend.

Rena Marie Coen

Dust was part of daily life…they wished it wasn’t so. It stole the lives of many folk, seemed Rena had to go.

“Our hearts were left so deso- late,” is what my Grandma said. Her life she would have given free, if she could go instead. With broken hearts they bade goodbye…so lost to see her go. How can we ever feel their pain…how can we ever know?

I’ve heard the story all my life, a story fi lled with pain.

A family though with faith to know they’ll see her once again. I’m proud this is my history…a story that is mine.

This story of a little girl who’ll be loved for all time.

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