James James diary, 12 November 1902. (Diary courtesy of East Loddon Historical Society)
Transcript: Terrible dust storm all day in the evening it got as dark as midnight had to light candles to see; from Melbourne & Deniliquin never such a dust storm known a light shower after.
James James was an early settler at Pine Grove near Mitiamo on the Northern Plains and kept a diary intermittently between 1888-1932. His brief entries are dominated by references to the weather, especially to rainfall measurements. During 1902, the final and worst year of the Federation Drought, this focus was amplified. On 24 July 1902 he noted ‘rain badly wanted’. A week later he wrote again ‘no rain country in terrible state.’ (31 July) Crops and grass were all ‘drying up’ (29 Aug), fallowed land was ‘very hard’ (28 Aug) and by 7 Sept he recorded a national day for ‘humiliation and prayer for rain’. His entry detailing the terrible dust storm experienced on 12 November, highlights both its severity and the anxiety it provoked – with the phrase ‘dark as midnight’ heavily underlined – and also its geographic span and unprecedented nature. James’ diary, however, fails to connect his own cultivation, harrowing and fallowing of land with the blowing dust. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that dust storms were seen as more than the product of drought; instead, European farming practices were increasingly implicated.