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“Even the Grasshoppers Were Starving” during the 1934 Drought

W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, March 1995

Like rubbing salt in a wound, the nationwide drought of 1934 dramatically increased suffering among many Americans already left destitute by the Great Depression. The Great Plains states were hit especially hard, and following the terrible windstorms that created the Dust Bowl many farmers left their land in search of a better life. Utah also felt the effects of this drought. From June 1933 to May 1934 rainfall in the state was only 51 percent of normal. Utah Lake contained only one-third its usual volume, and Bear Lake was fourteen feet below its average level.

Gov. Henry H. Blood expeditiously responded to the demanding circumstances and with help from the federal government was able to lessen the suffering. The governor's initial action involved appointing George Dewey Clyde, an irrigation engineer with the Agricultural Experiment Station in Logan, as state water conservator. Clyde immediately conducted an investigation of Utah's 1934 water prospects. He found that the state's supply of irrigation water was about 35 percent of 1933 levels and in several counties only 25 percent. He also noted that on average around four million acre-feet of water ran through Utah's canals each year, yet in 1934 he doubted if even one million acre-feet would be available. Clyde projected that only one crop of alfalfa was likely to mature due to lack of water. Sheep and cattle also faced desperate circumstances with fodder scarce and waterholes drying up. Even culinary water supplies were running low in some areas. The situation was critical.

Governor Blood endorsed Clyde's report and turned it over to Robert Hinckley, Utah's director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Hinckley sent a telegram to Washington, D.C., detailing Clyde's findings and the state's drought conditions. Within thirty-six hours President Roosevelt had approved a grant of $600,000 for Utah. These funds were quickly depleted and, following another appeal to FERA officials, the state received an additional $400,000. In a little over three months a state committee had distributed the money to a plethora of projects. With federal funds workers sunk 276 wells, developed 118 springs, lined 183 miles of irrigation ditches and laid 98 miles of pipeline. Utah officials also lobbied for long-term solutions to drought problems. Those efforts eventually resulted in the construction of Deer Creek and Pine View dams and other reclamation projects across the state.

June, July, and August 1934 brought devastatingly hot and dry conditions. Individual citizens responded to the problem with local conservation efforts. They also prayed for rain incessantly in Mormon wards and other churches, historian Leonard J. Arrington wrote. And in northern Arizona the Coyote Clan of Hope organized three snake dances in Hotevilla on August 24, followed by an eight-day ceremony in an attempt to bring rain to the parched land. "Even the grasshoppers were starving," Arrington noted.

Rain finally fell in Utah in early November. It came too late to rescue the summer crops, but it did benefit the ranges and pastures. Utah farmers and ranchers certainly appreciated the state and federal efforts to mitigate the suffering brought on by the drought, but in the end it was the rain that offered the most welcome relief.

See Leonard J. Arrington, "Utah's Great Drought of 1934," Utah Historical Quarterly 54 (1986): 245--63.