Foreclosing became its own business in Dalhart. It allowed “Uncle” Dick Coon to seize a pool hall, but Simon Herzstein lost his store due to $242 in back taxes. Black people had never been welcome in Dalhart, and still weren’t. One February, two young black men got off the train, hungry and freezing. They sought food and warmth at the train station and were promptly arrested. The justice of the peace, Hugh Edwards, ordered them to dance. The railroad agent said that the men were only good for “Negro toe-tapping.” The men complied, but the judge still ordered them back to jail for two months.
Dick Coon had arrived in Dalhart a poor man, yet he was given the chance to become a prosperous one who later profited off of others’ misfortunes. No such opportunity, whether ethical or not, would ever be extended to the black men who arrived in town. Dalhart remained true to John McCarty’s valorization of their “Anglo-Saxon” stock, which they protected by excluding non-whites.
Judge Wilson Cowen organized a jury to hear the story of a young white woman who was “found wandering the streets, muttering incoherent pleas.” She had been bankrupted by the wheat bust, her husband died of dust pneumonia, and her children were “hungry, dirty, coughing,” and “dress in torn, soiled clothes.” The woman had gone mad due to panic over the dust. He suggested that she find some relief at Doc Dawson’s Dalhart Haven, where Dawson ran a soup kitchen.
Like Lizzie White, who had experienced a panic attack in her family’s dugout, this young woman was fearful and frustrated by the dust. However, her sanity, unlike Lizzie’s, reached a breaking point.
Privately, the judge wondered what the government could do to help tame the prairie. First, people would have to change their farming habits, and it was difficult to get a community consensus on that. Meanwhile, Judge Cowen committed the distraught woman to an insane asylum, and her children were given to the state. Cowen remained bothered by the case fifty years later.
Judge Cowen was sympathetic to the young woman, who had no means of supporting herself after her husband died. Her tragic story reveals the personal impact of the Dust Bowl and the wheat farmers’ excesses. Cowen hoped that people’s habits would change so that he would never again hear such a story, but most were more concerned with their own prosperity than someone else’s misfortune.
Lizzie White nearly lost her mind, too. The wind seemed to haunt her, and keeping out the dust was a never-ending task. Her children were hungry and she was afraid of dust pneumonia, which her sister had contracted. Young Melt’s job was to tend to the garden, which soon died. Shortly thereafter, the children came home to find Lizzie crouched in a corner, crying.
Fear of losing her children either to hunger or illness, and her lack of control to prevent either, caused Lizzie to have a mental breakdown. She had never liked the High Plains or believed that the land was a good place for her family to settle.
Bam White continued to sell skunk hides and worked odd jobs. Otherwise, he spent much of his time talking with old XIT cowboys. He also spent time talking to the James boys. Andy James’s heart was still broken over his family’s loss of its land. A meeting was called in the Dalhart Courthouse in which about 150 men and women, former ranchers, complained about their losses. Then, Andy James spoke. He talked about the 2,560 acres his family had owned, and how there were no farmers when they started. He hated what the nesters had done to the land—tearing up good earth. It was a crime against nature, he said. The nesters who were in the room stared angrily at Andy, while the cowboys applauded him. James supported Hugh Bennett’s soil conservation proposal. If a majority of people agreed to it, he said, they could get the grass back.
The cowboys mourned what they felt was their displacement from the prairie by the newcomers who plowed up acres of grass. They saw the grassland that they loved disappear and were unable to do anything about it, due to farmers’ eagerness to cash in on the wheat boom. Bennett was also an outsider, but he was someone who understood the ranchers’ dismay over what was happening to the local environment. Of course, the cowboys were also motivated by resentment: they wanted the grassland back in the hopes that they could revive ranching.
The crowd at the courthouse elected Andy James and Mal Stewart to write a letter to Hugh Bennett in Washington to tell him that they were ready to try soil conservation. Bennett had told Congress that fifty-one million acres were so eroded that they could no longer be farmed. It would take a thousand years to rebuild another inch of topsoil. Still, people in the Panhandle were willing to do something about the dust in Texas— they just wanted to know what they could do.
The local effort to address the soil with Bennett’s help demonstrates an instance in U.S. history in which a small, rural contingent was willing to work with government bureaucracy to accomplish a task. These groups were not always so diametrically opposed.
The two black men who had been arrested in Dalhart and kept in the Dalham County jail for three months were brought back for a trial. The judge found the pair guilty of “criminal trespass” for entering a place that was the property of the Rock Island Railroad, looking for food and shelter. The judge ordered the young men to another 120 days in jail. Then, he ordered them to dance again. The men obliged and the judge, prosecutor, and the Rock Island Railroad agent enjoyed another laugh before sending them back to jail.
The judge’s racism precluded any interest in giving the men a fair trial. They had been arrested on the Panhandle’s policy of arresting black migrants for vagrancy so that they could be put to work on chain gangs, performing free labor for the state. In this instance, the men were also forced to demean themselves for entertainment.
John McCarty was dismayed by the image the country was getting of the High Plains through Fox Movietone News, and disappointed by the region’s willingness to beg Washington for help. There had been a black blizzard that covered Dalhart in half of inch of dust, but McCarty buried news of the storm and promoted a plan of action: “a rabbit roundup to exceed all others for slaughter.” McCarty wrote that there would never be another cold snap like that during “the dark winter of 1935,” but a month later the temperature fell to six degrees Fahrenheit and a “monstrous” duster rolled through, covering most of the Southern Plains. McCarty tried to spin the tragedy by saying that the storms were “majestic, in their way.” People thought he had gone mad.
McCarty spun information about the dust storms to aggrandize Dalhart’s image. He did not want the rest of the country to feel sorry for the town, and he certainly did not want the town to feel sorry for itself. To give people some sense of control over their environment, he promoted a major “rabbit roundup.” Killing the rodents would allow people to vent their frustration at the elements of nature that overwhelmed them. His attempt to find beauty in the storms was meant to dissuade people from thinking they lived under an ugly cloud.
Some people welcomed McCarty’s positive approach. He scoffed at Secretary Harold Ickes’ idea for relocation and condemned the newsreels as lies. Some wrote letters to McCarty, praising his column, “A Tribute to Our Sandstorms.” One reader compared him “to some of the greatest American writers of all time.” McCarty believed that “the strongest men” arose from the worst conditions. Americans were generally soft, but not the High Plains nesters—they were “Spartans.” Meanwhile, Hugh Bennett had received the letter sent by the cowboys. His project would only cover part of the three million acres in the Panhandle that needed help, but his blueprint was a start.
McCarty told the farmers what they wanted to hear. They did not want to believe that they had played a key role in destroying the grassland. They wanted to view themselves as heroic conquerors who had made something viable out of a land that had long been viewed as an arid wasteland. The cowboys and their action to send for Bennett confirmed the farmers’ negative view of them, which was why the nesters resented their presence.
Meanwhile the plague of dust pneumonia continued to take lives. A young mother from Dalhart died at the age of twenty-six and left behind a baby, also suffering from dust pneumonia. In his newspaper, John McCarty exaggerated dusters in other states while minimizing the impact of those in Dalhart. He seemed to revel in news of storms from Kansas, which had surpassed those in Texas for deadliness. He claimed that the dust problems in Texas were caused by dust swirling in from other states, and encouraged people to maintain hope that it would rain again. In the meantime, he said, they should regard the dusters as an adventure.
McCarty took pleasure in the misfortunes of nearby states, hoping that media attention in places like Kansas would distract from Dalhart. In keeping with the locals’ refusal to take any responsibility for their role in creating the storms through excessive plowing, McCarty blamed the dirt in Texas on other states. He ignored the long-term harm that the storms caused, preferring to see them as temporary challenges.
People were hungry, however, and they got fed in Doc Dawson’s kitchen, which he ran out of his sanitarium building. On some days, two hundred people waited in line. He made a big pot of beans and brewed five gallons of black coffee, and no one could go through line more than once. “Uncle” Dick Coon had quietly financed the kitchen, buying the dried beans, potatoes, and coffee. He had lived through terrible poverty and the horror of Galveston’s hurricane. At the same time, the Red Cross organized a shoe drive. Still, what people really needed was rain, and 1935 was turning out to be drier than 1934, which had been the driest year on record.
The men in Dalhart who had the most personal wealth upheld their reputations as pillars of the community by giving back to those who had far less. Local charitable efforts kept Dalhart afloat, providing services that the government could not always address. People retained hope that it would rain, despite the persistence of the drought. Hope was their only spiritual nourishment in the face of crushing poverty.
Town leaders sought ideas on how to draw moisture out of the sky. They looked to history, and came up with the concussion theory, which Congress had appropriated money to test in the 1890s. In 1910, C.W. Post was obsessed with commanding it to rain on the massive tract of land he owned in West Texas. He ordered his ranch hands to make 150 kites to carry 200 pounds of dynamite into the clouds. The sky had to be tricked into thinking that a battle was occurring on the ground, he thought—then rain would fall. Explosions thundered in the clouds, but there was no rain. People in Dalhart also wanted to test the theory and contributed money to the effort. Tex Thornton was hired to “squeeze the clouds.” They paid him five hundred dollars altogether, and he promised rain by the first week of May.
A combination of ignorance, desperation, and superstition led people to turn to the concussion theory as a possible solution to the drought. The imagined connection between rain and the tragic disaster of war is not totally implausible—there were plenty of battles in which it rained, but there were also plenty that were fought on sunny, clear days. The local funding of Thornton’s visit is proof of Dalhart’s desperation. Completely out of their own solutions, they were truly willing to try anything; getting rain naturally already seemed impossible.