Although dust storms were common across the southern Great Plains in the 1930s, the spring storms between 1935 and 1938 proved especially violent. One of the most notorious “black blizzards” occurred on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935. Originating in South Dakota and pushing southward, it affected portions of five states, including the Texas Panhandle. It hit with such intensity and suddenness that many people believed the end of the world had come. The phenomenon inspired Woody Guthrie, who lived in Pampa at the time, to compose the song “The Great Dust Storm,” which described the approaching cloud as “deathlike black” and “the worst dust storm that ever filled the sky.”
Pampa native Frank Stallings Jr., author of Black Sunday: The Great Dust Storm of April 14, 1935 (Eakin Press, 2001), writes that the storm began rolling across the region in midafternoon, “instantaneously turning sunshine into midnight.” Thousands of Sunday drivers and picnickers, enjoying a clear, sunny day, were suddenly engulfed in darkness. The air became so thick with dust that “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.” Car lights could barely penetrate the “absolute blackness.” People had trouble finding their way from the front yard to the front door, and parents feared their children would suffocate.
In most parts of the Plains, the worst of the storm lasted only a few hours and, amazingly, caused no direct fatalities. But the frightening event left an indelible mark on the memories of those who experienced it. The storm left another legacy: While covering the phenomenon, Associated Press reporter Frank Geiger coined the phrase “dust bowl,” which would give the Thirties era its name.