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If it is spring in the Midwest, it will be windy. Ann Marie Riebe lived in the Great Plains of North Dakota. In the 1930s the heat turned the once fertile lands into a barren waste, and Ann wrote in her diary “Talk about wind! Most of the scenery is in the air!” I thought of that line more than once while sitting at my daughters’ soccer games this spring, huddled in a winter coat, being buffeted by the wind.

Ann Marie Riebe’s account, eventually published as Dust Bowl Diary in 1984, records the ecological disaster that was the Dust Bowl, of course, but also an unvarnished account of Ann’s life. Ann grew up on her family ranch and worked hard. She milked cows at dawn and dusk, roped cattle that strayed from the herd, trimmed wicks on kerosene lamps, sanitized the forty gears of mechanical milk separator twice each day, helped her mother bake, cook, and haul water from the well. She also raised hens for egg money. She saved enough for a Royal typewriter for school, right before the town bank failed. Ann was lucky to get the typewriter as most in the town lost everything in 1928.

Ann worked for the school district and saved money to go to college. Apparently there were many men interested in Ann, so she came up with creative ways to keep working and put the men to work instead of taking up her time. One day, while addressing hundreds of letters after school, the principal “came into the office and gabbed so much I asked him to lick the stamps and envelopes….that shut him up and got the work done faster.” Brilliant. Ann worked hard and respected others who also worked hard. She was up before dawn and trained horses, mended fences and any other labor to save her father from hiring more help. Hail ruined most of he Reibe crops in 1928 and it was even worse in 1929. They didn’t have any debt, but the draught starting in 1929 was brutal. Ann also did indoor work – making soap from lye and baking pies and bread. She pressed the family laundry with a flatiron and dried wheat and hauled bales. Ann didn’t know what the idea of gendered work ever meant. Ann received a scholarship from Jamestown College, a small Presbyterian school, thirty miles away. She planned to study teaching.

Ann worked hard at college and kept her sense of humor. A professor asked what she thought of the difficult exam and she assured him it was a masterpiece. “If he had asked what it was a masterpiece of, I’d told him that, too.” To save on expenses, she worked at the school library. Ann graduated in 1934, during the worst of the North American draught in the past thousand years. Of her three siblings, Ann imagined a future ranching. Gender roles had progressed in some ways, but not enough that Ann’s father seriously considered his daughter, Ann, to take over the ranch. So Ann applied for employment and landed her first teaching job in a rural school. A “bevy of suitors” pursued Ann. Apparently she had seven marriage proposals before she turned twenty-five. But she had little interest in marriage. “I would lose my job immediately. Anyway, I don’t want to get married, and that is that. A married woman loses all independence and any chance at a career of her own.” Next Ann found a job a high school and taught public speaking, journalism, social science, Latin, typing shorthand, physical education, and Girl Scouting in addition to core subject. On the weekends, she danced, hiked, rode, and played Monopoly, a popular new game about capitalist booms and busts.

Ann never explained why her independence remained so essential. In her diary she criticized the “social dictum…that the only career for a woman was marriage and a confining life of housework and raising children.” Perhaps her use of ‘confining’ is the key term, speculates Elizabeth Cobbs, in her book Fearless Women: Feminist Patriots from Abigail Adams to Beyoncé. Ann landed a plush summer job, for the first time ever, then received the news that her dad and mom needed her help at home on the ranch. She went home to care for the ranch and her parents, thinking she might apply for jobs the following year.

At twenty-five, Ann had beat the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but “she could not beat the system stacked against an unmarried woman.” Ann married a government naturalist, Seth Low. He made $3,156 a year, compared to Ann’s salary of $810. He also had unemployment insurance that excluded teachers, and a Social Security pension that favored men.

Ann never wrote in her diary again.

Ann Marie Low [Reibe], Dust Bowl Diary, (University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

Elizabeth Cobbs, Fearless Women: Feminist Patriots from Abigail Adams to Beyonce, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2023).

Photo by Cristina Anne Costello on Unsplash

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


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