Images from the Associated Press ran in every newspaper, as people tried to explain what they had witnessed. The drought was now in its fourth year. Though dry periods were a part of life on the Great Plains, the ground was naked in 1935. That was not normal. Hugh Bennett wanted a permanent reform to address “an environmental disaster bigger than anything in American history.” Within the Roosevelt administration, there were conflicting views. A Harvard geologist warned the president that the climate itself had changed, “the start of a cycle that would take a hundred years or more and leave the southern plains ‘a desert waste.’” The Agriculture Department thought that it was just a severe drought—not a sign of a shift in climate. The area that had once been called the Great American Desert might come to fit the description.
The Agricultural Department and other government officials were not inclined to listen to warnings from Bennett and other scientists. Firstly, environmental science had not yet developed as a field of discipline, making it very difficult for many to believe that humans could impact climate. Secondly, they were wary of encouraging changes to lifestyle that could result from such shifts in policy. Instead, the government encouraged the view that was already dominant in the plains: this was a temporary dry season that would rebound next year, despite the trend having continued for several years.
Roosevelt called for “young, uniformed CCC workers” to save America’s heartland by planting the vast row of trees that he had proposed. Harold Ickes continued to push for reverse homesteading. Hugh Bennett wanted to form farming districts where everyone would follow a set of conservation rules, “rotating crops, fallowing land, abandoning tear-up-the-earth methods of plowing.” Bennett also worked with Congress to create “a permanent, well-funded agency to heal the land.” He believed, too, that the most important goal was to change human behavior.
Ickes and Bennett had opposing solutions. Bennett’s idea was to encourage soil sustainability, no matter where the farmers lived. Ickes thought that the problem was in the Southern Plains itself, which, he believed, was not designed for habitation. Ickes’s reverse homesteading plan also did not take into consideration people’s personal investment into their farms and homes.
Some politicians thought that other parts of the country needed more help. Twenty-five million people lived without regular income, and the unemployment rate for black people was 50 percent. Throughout the South, and in some Northern towns and cities, signs read, “No jobs for niggers until every white man has a job.” Roosevelt created an executive order in May 1935, opening public works up to all races. Per capita income had fallen, and between 1930 and 1935 there were 750,000 bankruptcies and foreclosures on farms. Some people thought that the people of the Southern Plains should not get such attention, because they were perceived as stupid. H.L. Mencken referred to them as “inferior men.”
Some politicians’ indifference to conditions in the Southern Plains was due to provincialism. They were only interested in the problems and concerns of those to whom they were exposed. Similarly, white employers did not want to hire black people. Though blacks suffered more from joblessness, they were excluded because of the racist belief that whites were entitled to jobs. Mencken did not think that the plains folk deserved the attention they received.
Bennett found out that the huge storm was moving east, picking up dirt in other states. While he was meeting with senators on an early afternoon in mid-April, soil from the Southern Plains—the weather bureau said it came from No Man’s Land—fell on Washington, DC. Bennett said that this was what he had been talking about. Within that day, Congress gave Bennett the money he needed and a permanent agency to restore and sustain the soil. One hundred and fifty CCC camps were redirected from the Forest Service to the newly formed Soil Conservation Service, and twenty thousand workers were sent to the Southern Plains.
When lawmakers saw and felt the dust that had plagued people in the plains, they finally understood the seriousness and magnitude of the storms. The politicians’ distance from the problem, due both to geography and their vastly different lifestyles, made it difficult for Bennett to explain the issue. In an odd twist of fate, the politicians were able to experience the problem in person.
Roosevelt had two ideas about what to do. First, he created the Resettlement Administration, which could give loans, about seven hundred dollars per family, to fund them to go elsewhere. He also signed Executive Order 7028 for the federal government to buy back what it had given away to homesteaders. Some people resented the “push to depopulate the plains.”
Settlers were committed to staying in the Southern Plains. Besides, the loans would not address the problem of the homesteaders being without a steady means of earning a living. Conditions were equally bad elsewhere.
John McCarty was furious with Roosevelt’s offer. In response, he formed the Last Man Club, designating himself as president. No matter what, he and other like-minded nesters said, they would not leave the land. The first signatory was a former XIT trail boss. “Uncle” Dick Coon was the second man to sign his name next to McCarty’s on a declaration the editor had drawn up. Another was Texas governor James V. Allred. Doc Dawson was the fourth.
All of the members of the Last Man Club were prosperous and partly the cause of Dalhart’s problems. They had sought to exploit economic hardship for their own gain (Coon), insisted on plowing until they yielded a crop (Dawson), and told the people of Dalhart lies that they wanted to hear (McCarty).
Dalhart citizens also still believed that they could blast rain from the clouds, and enlisted Tex Thornton to do so. Tex exploded dynamite for several days, to no avail. On the fourth day, he rested. Then, the temperature dropped and there were reports of snow in Clayton. A tenth of an inch also fell in Dalhart. People thanked Tex, though it had also snowed in places in which no explosives had been sent into the clouds.
Thornton was a charlatan who profited off of Dalhart’s desperation as well as its ignorance and superstition. Like the Christian God, he rested on the days between his creation of rain. In their need to believe that they could control the weather, people insisted that Tex made it snow.
There was no optimism in Boise City, though they also saw snow flurries. Black Sunday had stripped the town bare. Hazel was nearly broken by depression, and felt claustrophobic. Livestock had died from starvation or from suffocating on dust—their bellies were full of dirt. More than a thousand people left Cimarron County by the end of the year, but some people, such as the Lowerys, vowed to hold on. Some of Hazel’s friends who had joined the exodus reported that things were no better in California, where many had sought shelter. People from the Southern Plains were roundly described as “Okies” and faced discrimination. Only 16,000 of the 221,000 who moved to California came from the Dust Bowl. Hazel and Charles were now ready to leave—there was no point in continuing their mortuary business when people could not pay. There were no options and no future, it seemed.
Californians, probably fearing that their own jobs would be threatened by desperate people from the Southern Plains willing to work for far less, were eager to keep the migrants out. The term “Okie” was a reflection of the provincial view of people like H.L. Mencken, who thought that those in the plains were unlettered rubes who had caused the devastation that they suffered. The discrimination against the migrants was the result of both insensitivity and a fear of being economically compromised.