Letters from the dust bowl show one womans voice


Cassie Buchman

History professor Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz speaks about the life of Caroline Henderson, an influential writer during the Dust Bowl period, for the Booth Library’s exhibit, “Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry” Tuesday afternoon.

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

A recent event explored the stories of a woman from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl who wrote letters portraying her experiences during that 10-year period.

Caroline Henderson lived through the Great Depression and carried on against the backdrop of the Dust Bowl. Henderson shared the experiences through letters she wrote.

Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, a historian of the 19th century and of women’s and gender history and a history professor at Eastern presented her research on Henderson Tuesday night in the Witters Conference Room in the Booth Library.

Henderson pursued her degree in an era when women had limited access to higher education and graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1901, becoming a teacher. After finishing her teaching career in Iowa, Henderson moved to western Oklahoma and became a farmer.

Since Henderson did attend college, and become a teacher, she was not like many other women from the Dust Bowl.

“I would argue that Caroline Henderson isn’t exactly an ordinary person and that’s part of why we can recover her experience,” Laughlin-Schultz said. “But still it has been really a thrill to dig into her archives.”

Reference librarian Janice Derr asked Laughlin-Schultz to be the speaker of the event.

Hosting the event was one of the requirements of a grant Booth Library received along with the Henderson papers.

“We have had Laughlin-Schultz speak for us before and I know she is a good speaker so I asked her if she was interested and she was really excited about the topic,” Derr said. “So it turned out to be a good fit.”

One thing that Henderson was able to provide was a women’s voice and not just a picture. The pictures can show the emotion of a woman but with a caption from someone else telling the audience how to think about it, but having a women writing it gives a truer picture, Laughlin-Schultz said.

While the Dust Bowl was a tough time in American history, pieces of Henderson’s story portrayed positive outlooks and optimism in her letter “Letters from the Dust Bowl” from May of 1936.

“Our soil is excellent,” Henderson wrote. “We need only a little rain-less than in most places-to make it productive. No one who remembers the wheat crops of 1926,1929 or 1931 can possibly regard this as permanently sub-marginal land.”

Henderson wrote letters to friends, family, public letters and private letters as well. Her public letters were published in “Atlantic Monthly”.

Her writings were descriptive in telling what was going on but she never told just how bad the situation got, Laughlin-Shultz said.

According to Laughlin-Shultz, Henderson’s letters to family described very pleasurable, good writing.

Laughlin-Schultz started her research over winter break and said the most interesting thing she found out was Henderson’s ability to combine her intellectual life and privileged life gained through her education.

As a history teacher, Laughlin-Schultz teaches the presidential election of 1932 between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In one of Henderson’s letters she wrote that she saw no difference between the two candidates, which is not how Laughlin-Schultz teaches the class.

Although that is not how she teaches the class, Laughlin-Schultz said she will bring in Henderson’s contrary voice.

Sean Hastings can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]