STATE magazine Fall 2012

hiStORy
“I’d like to sell you the idea there is nothing irregular or unnatural
about the weather. Anything the weather does anywhere is perfectly
regular, proper and natural. If we have a hard winter one year,
an easy one the next, thats natural to this part of the country —
likewise a cloudburst or a long dry spell.
— H.H. Finnell, during a
Kiwanis luncheon in Guymon, Okla., Feb. 3, 1949
Oklahoma A&M graduate Henry Howard Finnell
was the watchdog of the southern Great Plains.
By David C. Peters, OSU Library
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FALL 2012
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
was discontinued.
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.
A
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
migratory animals.
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 countrys 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
management suggestions.
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,
(continues)
A vehicle is stranded in western Oklahoma.
Dust storms hampered trafc by covering
roads with soil and limiting visibility.
LEFT: A dust storm engulfs Springeld, Colo. Dust storms devastated communities
throughout the Great Plains during the 1930s.
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Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma, would be
centered near Finnell’s home and research
plots in Goodwell.
Fourteen dust storms passed through
this region in 1932, and there were 72
storms in a single year by the end of 1937.
Visibility could be reduced to zero. The
40 storms that passed through Amarillo,
Texas, in 1935 lasted for a total of more
than 900 hours. The dust clouds contained
tons of fine soil particles and would reach
an elevation of 8,000 feet. Static electricity
levels increased dramatically, and some
dusters” were accompanied by lightning
and thunder.
The federal government started paying
attention after a huge storm moved east
in May 1934, and soil particles from the
western Plains fell from the sky onto the
White House.
“This particular dust storm blotted out
the sun over the nation’s capital, drove grit
between the teeth of New Yorkers, and
scattered dust on the decks of ships 200
miles out to sea,” said Hugh H. Bennett,
who was named the U.S. Soil Erosion
Service’s first director about a year earlier.
“I suspect that when people along the
seaboard of the eastern United States
began to taste fresh soil from the Plains
2,000 miles away, many of them realized
for the first time that somewhere some-
thing had gone wrong with the land,” he
said. “Although we were slowly coming
to realize that soil erosion was a major
national problem, even before that great
dust storm, it took that storm to awaken
the nation as a whole to some realization
of the menace of erosion.
In August 1934, Finnell took a long-
term leave of absence from the Goodwell
station when Bennett appointed him to
lead the soil conservation efforts at ground
zero of the Dust Bowl. Bennett then
placed Finnell in charge of Region VI with
headquarters in Amarillo, Texas, when
the USDA Soil Conservation Service was
created in 1935.
Finnell took a group of Goodwell
graduates with him to Amarillo. They were
straightforward, practical and blunt about
what needed to be done to save the soils in
the southwestern Plains.
In addition to retaining soil moisture,
Finnell advocated manipulating the top
surface of the ground with terraces and
contours to retain water and limit wind
erosion. He also encouraged the use of lister
cultivators to create grooves in fields to
disrupt the strength of the wind and store
water. Finnell supported the local farmers’
development of improved cultivation imple-
ments, including grooved discs for one-way
plows and chisels to break up the soil.
His 1935 budget was $60,000; by
1942, it reached $11 million. His hand-
ful of permanent employees grew to more
than 900. Much of the funding went to the
recovery of the most marginal lands, total-
ing nearly 1 million acres. Finnell would
oversee 25 Civilian Conservation Camps,
groups of men forming a soil-saving army.
H.H. Finnell surveys the site of a future
reclamation project near Dalhart, Texas.
Dust Storms in Oklahoma
and Texas Panhandles
1932 — 14
1933 — 38
1934 — 22
1935 — 40
1936 — 68
1937 — 72
1938 — 61
1939 — 30
1940 — 17
1941 — 17
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FALL 2012
The department completed meticulous
soil surveys for the 100 counties most
affected by wind erosion. They prepared
maps based on aerial photographs and soil
classifications. Armed with this detailed
information, Finnell recommended specific
erosion control practices to farmers for all
lands under cultivation or pasture.
Finnell also recommended that more
than 6 million acres of marginal land
in those counties be returned to grass.
Finnell found himself in the midst of a
balancing acting between federal authori-
ties that wanted to remove people from
the region and local rural communities
with many farm families bound and deter-
mined to stay.
Finnell and Bennett recommended the
creation of rural soil conservation districts
under local control to implement the
new soil preservation procedures. While
successful elsewhere, few of these local
districts were established in the Oklahoma
and Texas panhandles, where farmers
viewed their land as more of a commodity
than a resource and received economic
incentives to grow more wheat.
The process of returning marginal
areas to native grasses was not easy. It
took almost a decade of study to perfect
the propagation of these grasses. Native
grasses did not immediately repopulate
barren fields. It took decades for buffalo
grass, blue grama and other grasses to
become established again.
Finnell supported a variety of other
activities to limit erosion. He encour-
aged the ongoing planting of trees on the
western Plains. He discouraged burning
stubble in the fields, preferring instead
to retain it to hold the topsoil and create
resistance against the wind. Finnell was
instrumental in the development of grain
sorghum varieties to plant in rotation
with wheat.
At times, Finnell expressed frustra-
tion and pessimism about the progress in
the war against soil erosion. He believed
the region’s climatic conditions were only
30 percent of the problem; the rest lay
with inappropriate cultivation and poor
farming methods.
He was also a patient man who knew
that it would take time to make effective
changes with lasting benefits. Short with a
toothbrush mustache and southern drawl,
Finnell was not an imposing figure. He had
two hobbies: sailing and painting.
But with intelligence and energy he
fought to defend and conserve the natural
resources of the western prairies. He saw
it as a productive region that could remain
fertile for future generations with proper
agricultural management.
“The job has just been started, however,
and the final solution will not be found
in the work done by the federal govern-
ment,” he said. “Our land will be safe and
productive only when conservation prac-
tice becomes the everyday farming habit of
those who farm the Plains.
PHOTO STRIP: The story of the 1930s on the Great Plains is one of devastation,
innovation and overcoming. Dust storms forced western Oklahomans to abandon homesteads
and farm equipment as travel became near impossible. The destruction gave birth to farming methods espoused by
H.H. Finnell, including contour plowing and terracing, to trap water and preserve moisture in the soil.
Oklahoma A&M graduate Henry Finnell will be featured in the documentary
The Dust Bowl
by
Ken Burns. OSU Special Collections aided filmmakers with some of the research for the film,
which is scheduled to premiere in November on PBS.
All photos courtesy of OSU Special Collections
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