Mitchell native Volk reaches into past to revisit Dirty 30s in new book

A Dust Bowl of Days, 1932 brings narrative feel to historical family accounts

A Dust Bowl Of Days, 1932, a new book by Mitchell native Craig Volk, chronicles the recollections of Volk's grandmother Margaret Spader Neises as well as his mother Joan Neises Volk on the Dirty 30s, the 20th century decade marked by the Great Depression, a nationwide drought and economic hardship. (Submitted Photo)

At 69 years old, Craig Volk is far too young to have any recollection of the Dirty 30s, the decade of the 20th century famous for its droughts, dust storms and severe economic hardships that brought struggle to the households of millions of American families.

But he did have some connections to the era. Family connections. And he has recently put those connections and recollections together with his talent for writing in a new book titled A Dust Bowl of Days, 1932, which is available now from the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

From Mitchell to Hollywood

Craig Volk was born and raised in Mitchell, and spent much of his childhood in the 1950s and 1960 growing up as young adults do. He continues to have fond memories of attending Notre Dame Grade School and High School, where he was introduced to some of his first writing mentors.

“I can’t imagine a better place to grow up in the '50s and '60s than in Mitchell. I have so many memories about it. I still write about it in my poetry and teleplays and screen plays. It’s a homeplace and it remains so for me. What’s my hometown? I live in Denver, Mitchell is my hometown,” Volk told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview.

He even speaks about the character-building traits of his first job in Mitchell.


“In truth my first job was delivering papers for The Daily Republic,” Volk said. “You couldn’t be thin-skinned going door-to-door in December in South Dakota. We used to wrap our feet in newspapers, put our socks on and then our boots.”

Volk did not stay on the delivery crew for long. Those seeds planted by teachers at Notre Dame took root and he moved on from Mitchell to become a successful writer. He attended the University of South Dakota as well as the Yale School of Drama. He then spent 12 years in the film and television industry in Los Angeles, including time spent as a writer for the Emmy-winning series “Northern Exposure.” He also authored volumes of poetry and numerous stage scripts.

He has since taught as an assistant professor of theater, film and video production at the University of Colorado-Denver.

And while it would still be a satisfying career to have a resume stop there, Volk said he had a personal story to tell with his new book.

Back to Mitchell, back in time

Volk said his latest project, A Dust Bowl Of Days, 1932, is like nothing he’s ever written before. The South Dakota Historical Society, which published the 96-page hardback, describes the volume as one that invites readers into the day-to-day life of Maragaret Spader Neises, Volk’s grandmother, as she cares for her family in Mitchell. She bears witness to her husband’s work struggles, her children’s illnesses and the forces of nature beyond her control.

Volk drew upon personal writings of his grandmother and an self-published memoir by his mother, Joan Neises Volk for his book, he said. His grandmother had kept a diary in the form of what he calls “day diaries,” small books about the size of a deck of cards that allowed people to write about 150 words or so on their thoughts of the day. She passed these on to her daughter, who eventually passed them onto Volk.

Over the years, he insisted his mother write her recollections down into her own memoirs, and she did. But her writing came in a much different style than his grandmother’s, who was relegated to short 150-word missives on what were very often complex subjects.

“(My mother) told it in such a vivid style. She self-published the memoirs, which primarily dealt with her as a girl in the 1930s,” Volk said.


Volk eventually took the two works and brought his own narrative style to the proceedings. Drawing on his experience in storytelling, he crafted those entries and memoirs and combined them with the stories he himself remembered hearing gathered around the table at family picnics and other occasions.

“The construction of it is like a crazy quilt. It’s fragments of things from the daybooks and diaries and mother’s memories of the way she saw things,” Volk said. “Then I used my imagination and took all those discussions that went around picnic tables and holiday tables that had to do with the 1930s.”

The result is a rather unique historical narrative style that combines first-hand historical observations with a modern storytelling sensibility. Volk points out during the Dirty 30s and the Great Depression, South Dakota lost 7.2% of its population, with Davison County alone losing 9% of its population. Jobs were scarce, food was scarce. Times were hard.

He developed a better understanding of the work and sacrifice needed to make it through those uncertain days, and how to present those struggles on the page.

“I see grandma Margaret as a matriarch in all the best senses. She was a pioneer in the wilderness that was fraught with danger for her children, her husband and herself. I really thought I got in sync with her and what the ebb and flow of the story was, not just the events, but what her story was,” Volk said. “That’s when I started pursuing it in an imaginative sense and it became more of a bio-drama instead of a personal history of biography. There are plenty of those written.”

A book for reflection on the past

Volk said readers will find his book different from many other accounts of the Dirty 30s, partly due to the family relationship that drives the book, but also because of the three different voices that he combines into the story. His grandmother was understandably brief and to the point, a product of the small journal space she had. His mother was a much more colorful writer, as well as more humorous.

“People have commented, and I’m glad they’re catching this, there’s a lot of humor in the book. Especially my mother, my mother had a great sense of humor and she was interested in the arts,” Volk said.

And there may be more to come from this three-generation effort. Volk said he was approached by a friend to develop a one-woman drama that could launch in South Dakota and tour around the country.


“This is a natural for that because it’s her story, her account,” Volk said.

Volk said he hopes people also will find in the book a sense of hope that can arise out of dark times, which is something people may be looking to uncover again after a long 2020 filled with COVID-19 news. Ninety years on, the particulars of the struggle may have changed, but he believes that same resiliency is still out there, in Mitchell and beyond.

“I hope they find that this is a survivor story. The book predates the (COVID-19) pandemic, but I think we’re all much closer to the day-to-day turmoil and tribulations that she experienced and went forth and buckled down and took care of hers,” Volk said. “She was innovating in terms of being entrepreneurial, making money to augment what the family had for food.”

In the end, he hopes people find it an interesting, entertaining read.

“I hope it’s every bit as dramatic as it is biographical,” Volk said.

A Dust Bowl Of Days, 1932 is available through the South Dakota Historical Society, Amazon and other booksellers.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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