Finnell lived on the arid Great Plains for almost four decades, studied the environ-
ment and tried to show others how to modify their farming methods to succeed before,
during and after the great dust storms of the 1930s.
Finnell was born Oct. 27, 1894, in rural Mississippi. At age 7, his family moved to
Indian Territory and settled near Hartshorne in what would become Pittsburg County
with Oklahoma statehood six years later.
After graduating high school in 1913, Finnell enrolled at Oklahoma Agricultural
and Mechanical College and majored in agronomy. He served as president of the Aggie
Society, business manager of the Oklahoma Agriculturist publication, ﬁrst lieutenant
third battalion in the OAMC Cadet Corps and as president of the Pittsburg County Club.
Finnell was also a member of the Farm Survey Team, Journalistic Club, Alpha Zeta,
YMCA, IOOF, and the Ancient Independent Order of Fiery Domes. This last group, for
those with hair colors from “cinnamon red to brick-yard blonde,” identiﬁed “Hooks”
Finnell as a founding member.
He also had part-time jobs working in the college cafeteria and as a student assistant
in the agronomy department.
Finnell graduated with his bachelor’s on May 25, 1917, a time of great excitement
and great anxiety. The United States had entered World War I the month before, and
many student soldiers were headed for military service.
Finnell married Margaret Elizabeth Thomas on May 5, 1918. He was hired in
November 1917 to serve as the station farmer at the OAMC Experiment Station farm
in Stillwater. He was the foreman and agriculturalist until July 1920, when the position
In September 1920, Finnell was appointed the vocational agricultural teacher in
Ravia, Okla. The Finnells would live and work there until June 1923. During this time,
the couple’s three oldest sons were born.
When the new Panhandle A&M College Experiment Station was established at
Goodwell in July 1923, Finnell became its ﬁrst director. The family relocated to the
western Plains and settled in Texas County, Okla.
The Finnells arrived in the panhandle almost a decade after the great sod plow-up
had begun. During World War I grain prices had soared, and many farmers began
plowing prairie grasses under and seeding the land to winter wheat. When grain
prices dropped dramatically after the war ended, farmers plowed additional acres and
increased the number of bushels harvested.
Rain was plentiful in the 1920s across the southern Plains and exceeded the regional
averages. As long as the rain fell, farm families prospered.
balance in nature has never existed for an extended
period of time on the southern Great Plains with its
relentless winds, hardy vegetation, sporadic moisture,
fertile soils, extreme seasonal changes and many
No one understood this ecological system better than
Henry Howard Finnell.
The abundance of the 1920s was
quickly replaced with the disastrous
decade of the 1930s. The rain stopped
but the winds did not, and much of the
region’s topsoil became airborne.
Prior to the 1930s, most research
efforts examining soil erosion in the U.S.
focused on limiting topsoil losses caused
by water runoff. Finnell would conduct
the country’s ﬁrst research to conserve
moisture in arid croplands and limit the
impact of wind erosion. Within a few
years, he would be the nation’s most
qualiﬁed expert on windblown soil.
Finnell had begun a series of investi-
gations in 1925 exploring measures for
preserving moisture in soils. By establish-
ing terraces at the Goodwell experiment
station and utilizing contour tillage, he
was able to maintain higher moisture
levels than was found in surrounding
plots of land. More moisture meant addi-
tional vegetation to hold the soil in place.
Developing a ﬂexible crop rotation system
was an additional feature of Finnell’s soil
He recommended area farmers move
away from annual plantings of winter
wheat. He suggested grain sorghums and
other crops in years when moisture levels
were low. Finnell also suspected that
farming methods utilized in the eastern
and central Plains were not realistic when
applied on the western prairie.
The agrarian society living on the
western Plains was about to learn this
lesson the hard way. The most adversely
affected area of the Dust Bowl, which
included parts of Colorado, New Mexico,
A vehicle is stranded in western Oklahoma.
Dust storms hampered trafﬁc by covering
roads with soil and limiting visibility.
LEFT: A dust storm engulfs Springﬁeld, Colo. Dust storms devastated communities
throughout the Great Plains during the 1930s.