You may not know the name Arthur Rothstein, but you’ve likely seen his photographs.
The son of Jewish immigrants, the New Yorker, born in 1915, is recognized as one of the great photojournalists of the 20th century. His iconic images of war, small town life and portraits of U.S. presidents have withstood the test of time as works of art.
Some of his most memorable photographs were taken on farms in southeast Idaho’s Oneida County.
Along with Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and other government photographers, Rothstein helped document the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl for the Resettlement Administration that would become the Farm Security Administration. Rothstein’s most famous photo, portraying a farmer and his two sons making their way through a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, has become the preeminent image of the Dust Bowl, depicting how harshly it hit poor farmers.
It’s scarcely possible to find a book, magazine article or website that mentions the Dust Bowl without seeing Rothstein’s stark photograph.
But what does this all have to do with Idaho? Wasn’t the Dust Bowl just on the Great Plains? Well, sort of.
The term was originally used to describe a particularly hard-hit circle encompassing parts of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, but as time wore on, it came to have a much broader meaning. The same poor farming practices and low rainfall that combined with the global Great Depression to disrupt Oklahoma and Texas also had an impact here in Idaho, especially in places like Oneida County.
Oneida County lays on the northern edge of another, much larger, dusty bowl — the Great Basin. Sitting on the border with Utah and directly north of the Great Salt Lake, it’s not an area known for an abundance of water and comfortable summer days.
The region north of Snowville, Utah, had been settled by poor farmers who had hoped to make a living on the cheap land found along the margins of society. What they got, as Rothstein put it, was tracts of land that “should never have been farmed, but it took protracted drought to drive that lesson home.”
What might have been reasonable grazing range was ill-suited for the 1930s plow. Even today with modern irrigation, dry-land farming practices, and large equipment, growing crops there can be a tenuous proposition.
As Rothstein arrived with his camera in May of 1936, the Resettlement Administration was actively moving many of those farmers and their families off their parched parcels of desert to “more suitable” places, while trying to rework the land into grazing pasture for cattle and sheep.
Arthur had just come from Oklahoma, where he’d taken his famous photograph the month before and was able to document some of the good work the government was doing to lighten the suffering of the less fortunate in Idaho. While sad, it must have been a relief for him to photograph people who were getting a helping hand rather than simply suffering amidst apocalyptic whirlwinds of dust with no end in sight.
Looking through his pictures, now stored in the Library of Congress, it’s hard not to notice how much he focused on the little children in this barren, sandy and bone-dry corner of Idaho.
However, unlike Dorothea Lange’s most famous image of a destitute mother, many of Rothstein’s subjects are smiling as they think of the hope that they may find better times ahead. Unfortunately, those better times would not truly appear until the end of World War II on Sept. 2, 1945.
It would be a long nine more years of “making due” and war before better times came to America, and a couple of those boys look just old enough to be called up a few years after these photographs were taken to go fight, and perhaps die, in the far-off battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.