Photo of Vancouver woman's family used in Dust Bowl documentary

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoPaquita Rupp was able to use her family's Dust Bowl stories in a school report.

(/The Columbian)

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Did you know?

Because of drought, overgrazing and overplowing, about 100 million acres of Great Plains farmland topsoil was blown away during the 1930s.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture

ON TV

“The Dust Bowl” is scheduled to be shown again later this month on OPB Plus:

Part 1: 10 p.m. Dec. 23, 1 a.m. and 11 a.m. Dec 29.

Part 2: 10 p.m. Dec, 30, 1 a.m. and 11 a.m. Jan. 5

On the Web: OPB

The films of Ken Burns have featured America's most iconic figures — faces we've seen on monuments and on money and in history books.

Imagine her surprise when a Vancouver woman was watching Burns' most recent documentary and a familiar face was staring back at her.

Paquita Rupp exclaimed: "My God! Mom's on TV!"

Mary Damon was posing with Rupp's sister and aunt as a massive curtain of dirt loomed behind them. The family portrait is featured in Burns' recent documentary, "The Dust Bowl."

The snapshot was taken by Rupp's father in Ulysses, Kan., during the 1930s. Howard Damon snapped another photograph that was used in the film; it shows his parents, Lowell and Ida Damon — along with Googles, the family dog — bracing for the storm.

Rupp wasn't part of the Dust Bowl era, which the film describes as the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history. Rupp was born in 1943 but she heard accounts of

the long-running disaster from family members including sisters Marilene — the little girl in the photo — and Carroyl. ("My mother had lots of fun with names," Paquita Rupp noted).

The other woman in the photo is Virginia Craven. Rupp's aunt is glancing over her shoulder at a billowing cloud that was often called a "black blizzard."

Wearing only shorts and a ribbon in her hair, Marilene was probably about 4 years old at the time, Rupp said.

"She hated the wind and the dirt," Rupp said. "She said you could never get anything clean."

"Both my sisters had dust pneumonia," Rupp said. "Mom soaked sheets in water and put them over the bed so dirt wouldn't land on (the sisters). In the morning, the sheets would be black."

The documentary used about 300 photographs; the image featuring Rupp's mother, sister and aunt apparently resonated with Burns' documentarians. It is one of nine photographs chosen for the title page of the documentary's website; it's also one six images that can be used to create postcards on the site.

The family photographs used by Burns' staff at Florentine Films had been donated to the Historic Adobe Museum in Ulysses, Kan., by Rupp's cousin after his parents died.

Ginger Anthony, the museum's director, said there were no names on the back of the photographs, and the donors weren't sure who the relatives in those faded black-and-white prints were. There was no sense that the images were particularly significant.

"If someone has a photo, half the town has it, too," Anthony said.

"They didn't talk about Ulysses" in the film, Anthony added. "When Florentine Films contacted us, they had their script written and had done their interviews. They asked if we had any images of the Dust Bowl, and I think we probably submitted 100 to 150 images."

It's not like the Dust Bowl was the first event to transform Ulysses. In 1909, its desperate residents actually picked up and moved … and took the town with them.

"They couldn't pay their taxes, and someone had land two miles away," Anthony said. Townspeople used teams of horses to drag buildings to the new site, including a two-story hotel that was moved in sections.

The Damon family moved, too, and eventually relocated to Washington. As a student in Centralia, Rupp said, she used family accounts in doing a report on the Dust Bowl. After some storms, a broom wasn't good enough: People had to shovel dirt out of their houses, she said.

"I don't know why they called it the Dust Bowl," Rupp said. "Those were dirt storms."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.