Hazel Shaw went to Clayton, New Mexico to have her baby, as the higher ground was supposed to provide cleaner air. Her husband, Charles, returned to Boise City, then got the call, a week later, that Hazel was in labor. However, returning to Clayton was not easy. Charles got caught in a dust storm and his car became stuck in the sand. He eventually made it to the hospital, and Hazel gave birth to a girl, Ruth Nell, on April 7, 1934. The doctor ordered Hazel to remain in the hospital for another ten days; the air was not safe for a newborn. He also suggested that the young couple move. However, Hazel and Charles had opened a business in Boise City, and they planned to stay no matter what.
Hazel had a child to give her a reason to remain in Boise City, the place that she had considered home since girlhood. Though dust pneumonia had become a common reality, she and her husband were too committed to the lives that they had built to consider moving. However, their willingness to stay no matter what suggests that they did not consider the possibility that their family could also fall prey to an early death.
For others, 1934 was the worst year. Eight million acres of wheat did not harvest. Another two million had not been planted at all. It was the driest year to date, and the spots of original buffalo grass that had made some animal grazing possible were now “smothered by dusters.” The government began to offer contracts to farmers not to plant next year, as part of President Roosevelt’s plan to drive prices back up by reducing supply. This was how the farm subsidy developed. Without the government, Cimarron County may not have survived. The government bought 12,499 cattle, 1,050 sheep, and lent money to 300 farmers.
The patches of “original buffalo grass” were a nostalgic reminder of the territory’s previous fertility. The subsidies were a method of ensuring that the market would never spin out of control again, risking both farmers’ livelihoods and the nation’s future potential to sustain a viable agricultural economy. Breeding too many cattle also had environmental consequences that no one could yet see.
Hugh Bennett sought to get farmers to break down their barriers regarding property to get them to understand that they were responsible for maintaining an ecosystem. He used the CCC to demonstrate soil conservation. Governor Alfalfa Bill Murray was furious with all of the government intervention. He thought that it was making Oklahoma too dependent. He quit the Democratic Party in protest of the New Deal, despite the plan’s popularity in his state.
Bennett discouraged farmers from maintaining the view that they had to compete with their neighbors by continuing to plow soil. He encouraged them to instead work with their neighbors to maintain the soil so that everyone could continue to farm. Murray disliked these changes to Oklahomans’ way of life, which seemed Socialist.
One proposal Governor Murray did support was the plan to dam the Beaver River near Guymon, a sizable town near Boise City. The dam would allow enough water for people to irrigate. When that ran dry, they could mine for water from the Ogallala Aquifer. In Washington, DC, people were skeptical, particularly Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. He thought that people should be paid to move out of the Southern Plains, which he had deemed uninhabitable, and that the lands should return to the public domain.
Murray’s ideas sought to exploit existent water sources, not accounting for the fact that the aquifer was a finite source or that the river would not run fully during periods of drought. Ickes’s idea to abandon the plains would have done nothing to address the damage that the settlers had already caused to the region.
Roosevelt did not like the idea of “reverse homesteading.” Instead, he suggested planting a great wall of trees from the Canadian border to Texas. People were still skeptical. There was too little rain and too much wind for saplings to take root. Roosevelt insisted, believing that trees were the lungs of the land. He asked the Forest Service to search the globe for tree species that could survive the extreme climate of the Great Plains.
Roosevelt thought that the trees would prevent the eastward flow of dust during wind storms, as the trees would serve as a kind of buffer. Furthermore, trees are generally essential to human health and to the maintenance of ecosystems.
Fred Folkers eventually lost his orchard, and “the life-draining drought” killed the trees that Caroline Henderson had planted. People were running out of food. The last of the grain from the big harvest of three years ago was gone, and even the tumbleweeds that fed the livestock were in short supply. People began to wonder if they could eat tumbleweeds—after all, they were high in iron and chlorophyll. Cimarron County soon declared Russian Thistle Week, urging people on relief to help plant the tumbleweeds that the Germans had brought from the Russian steppe.
Folkers’ dream of challenging the traditionally-held belief that the High Plains could not sustain life had come to an end. It seemed that the only plant life that the land could consistently sustain was tumbleweed. Once an undesirable crop, it had become the basis of people’s sustenance. They learned that the plant actually had nutritional value and might sustain them through their hard time.
In addition to relying on tumbleweeds, the Lowery family also planted yucca. With the combination of yucca and ground thistle, they were able to feed themselves and their cows. Ezra Lowery, the family patriarch, was determined not to put his family in a soup line. Those who left, such as the Lowery family’s neighbor, Clarence Snapp, never made any money. The Ehrlichs also tried to grind thistle to feed cows, but it did not work for them. The calves were born sickly and small and had to be killed shortly after birth. The Ehrlichs had a typical homestead—160 acres. Now, it was a barren patch. They survived on what they could make and store. Some, such as the Ehrlich’s neighbor, Gustav Borth, had nothing on which to survive—not even a hog. He had sold the last of his cattle and was afraid of losing his combine, on which he still owed four hundred dollars.
The unwillingness of people to seek help in bread lines, as well as their desire to continue to live off of the land that they loved, forced them to be more resourceful so that they could stay. Not only did they live off of freshly sourced crops, but they also adopted the practice of canning so that they would be prepared for hard times in the future. Some, such as Borth, were unable to adopt any methods of survival and clung to things they could no longer use, such as expensive farming equipment, perhaps out of the hope that the wheat boom would soon return.
There were other ways to get food, such as waiting in a soup line or waiting in line for Sheriff Hi Barrick to hand out roadkill. Some people also stole food. People were committing more serious crimes, too. Wanted posters for Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow hung in Sheriff Barrick’s office. Barrick understood why some people viewed Bonnie and Clyde as heroes: they robbed the banks that robbed the people. But they were also murderers. Still, Sheriff Barrick hated working at John Johnson’s foreclosure auctions.
Crime became another means of survival. Successful criminals, particularly those who stole from the banks that people loathed and resented, became local or even national heroes. Barrick retained respect for the law, but he did not like providing Johnson with legal enforcement for taking away what remained of people’s lives.
Barrick still had a salary—$125 per month. Hazel Shaw, on the other hand, could no longer rely on the school scrip. By 1934, 60 percent of the property owners in Cimarron County had stopped paying taxes. They simply did not have the money. As a result, schools fell into disrepair. The train station looked “windblown and empty.”
Boise City was turning into a ghost town, showing signs of decay in its failing infrastructure. The railroad companies did not intervene to maintain the train stations, and citizens seemed to think that in hard times, a police force was more necessary than teachers.
One morning, while Hazel Shaw was rocking Ruth Nell, she saw a small coffee box on the steps of the church across the street. There was a coat thrown over the box. In the evening, when snow mixed with dust began to fall, Hazel saw that the coffee box was still on the church steps. She walked across the street and peered inside of it. Inside she saw a baby girl, “blue-faced and barely moving.” Hazel rushed her home to warm her. She had been out in the cold for forty hours. As the baby’s temperature rose, she started to cry. Hazel thought it was a miracle. She was horrified that a baby would be left in the cold, but Sheriff Barrick knew of a family that had abandoned all three of their children. The infant was adopted by a couple east of town, but it died of dust pneumonia shortly thereafter.
The desperate conditions produced by both the Depression and the Dust Bowl caused people to feel such a sense of failure that they no longer believed they could care for their own children. The dust storms had introduced an unpredictability to life in the plains that disrupted the stable patterns on which people relied to maintain their homes and the health of their families. Rather than see a child succumb to hunger or dust pneumonia, some people chose to leave their children, hoping that a kind stranger could care for them.