The government went to the High Plains with a plan to kill as many farm animals as possible in exchange for money—sixteen dollars a head. Cows that could still walk and that still had a bit of flesh between their skin and bones would be shipped to slaughterhouses in Amarillo. In Dalhart, government men bought four thousand cattle for slaughter. The purpose was to restore market balance.
The relief plan worked both to help farmers rid themselves of cattle that they could no longer afford to feed, and it helped to supply the nation’s soup kitchens with much-needed meat.
On May 9, 1934, whirlwinds started up in the Dakotas and eastern Montana. This created a mass of dust-filled clouds. The next day, they hit Illinois and Ohio. The day after, the dust fell like snowflakes over Boston and Scranton, and then New York fell “under partial darkness.” The storm measured 1,800 miles wide, and weighed 350 million tons. Though New York was a dirty city, it had never seen airborne dust like this—the outline of the Statue of Liberty was barely visible. Then, the storm moved out to sea, where it covered ships that were “more than two hundred miles from shore.”
For the first time, a dust storm moved first to the Midwest and then to the East coast, giving people in major cities a taste of what those in the plains had endured for months. The experience of the storm among people in other regions forced a sympathy that they might not have otherwise had toward those in the plains who were suffering, and daily saw far worse than the haze that enveloped New York.
Snowstorms made no difference in changing the bleak weather. A March snowstorm caused twenty-one inches to fall in No Man’s Land, but they were dark flakes. The nesters called it a “snuster.” During these storms, which were very frequent in 1934, “visibility was reduced to a quarter mile or less.” The most persistent storms were in parts of Colorado, Kansas, the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, and New Mexico. Even with Vaseline in their noses, people could not help inhaling dust. Windows were covered with wet sheets and blankets, which turned black. Men avoided shaking hands, as the contact could cause an electric shock that could knock people back.
The settlers invented new language to describe the bizarre storms that hit the plains, for there had never been anything like them. They also devised new means to protect their homes from dust, since it was not enough to just shut the door and the windows. Every crevice had to be covered and every orifice moistened to prevent the abrasion of dust. Even something as fundamental and desirable as human contact became perilous.
Caroline Henderson, a farmer’s wife and Mount Holyoke graduate who lived in No Man’s Land, clung to small things, such as a houseplant in the window sill, to avoid the feeling of hopelessness that nearly consumed her. By 1934, she and her husband did not bother to plant a single crop. Their animals starved and their supply of cow chips—“prairie fuel”—dried up as well. The awoke each day to more “wind and dust and hopes deferred.”
Henderson’s houseplant was a small sign of life, but the only one that existed in the deserted land. It may have also been a reminder of Henderson’s life in New England. Like Willie Dawson and Maude Edwards, Henderson clung to the things that she loved and memories of her old life to keep her spirits up.