Don Hartwell started a diary on New Year’s Day, 1936. He and his wife, Verna, had lived through four years of drought. They could not grow a single crop and went further into debt. Black Sunday had nearly destroyed their farm completely. Hartwell’s way of fighting back was to write his history, which would be about “one farmer’s life on the Kansas-Nebraska border during a decade when homesteads became graveyards.” He kept his diary secret—not even showing it to his wife.
Hartwell had not shown the diary to anyone during his lifetime, not even his wife. His decision to write his history was likely rooted in a fear of death and the possibility that he might not survive the dust storms. The diary would then be evidence that he had existed. It would also provide a record of the suffering that the prairie folk had endured.
Hartwell wrote that most narratives tended to be about “noble pioneers,” but the women and children were the ones who suffered the most. Women, generally, had two children every two years and did as much work as two ordinary men while living in abominable conditions. Their men were, in many instances, drunks or religious fanatics.
Hartwell validates histories that argue that pioneer women took on roles of equal value to their husbands. However, Hartwell takes this view a step further by arguing that women did more, for they were also responsible for maintaining the homestead if they had negligent husbands.
Hartwell’s family had arrived in Nebraska in 1880. His mother never adjusted to the state, which she despised, and she loathed Hartwell’s father’s family. His father died in 1934. That year, Nebraska got just fourteen inches of rain, the lowest rainfall since 1864. Hartwell raised livestock on a piece of land that he had claimed near Inavale, not far from Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud. It was several hundred miles northeast of No Man’s Land. The town flourished during the wheat boom and was devastated by the decline in wheat prices and drought. The town bank closed in 1932. Hartwell earned extra money by playing piano at dances or in lodges along the Republican River, and his wife made dresses for people in town. They had no children.
The story of the Hartwells coincides with the development of Inavale. The family arrived as homesteaders, but they contended with building farms on land that received little rainfall. They were briefly prosperous during the wheat boom, and then lost everything in the bust. Like many of the other migrant women in Egan’s account, Don Hartwell’s mother did not like the land where her family had settled. Though pioneer life may have signaled greater freedom for men, it likely meant more work for women.
Egan chronicles a selection of Hartwell’s thoughts from the worst years of the storms. They include mundane thoughts about holiday customs, as well as Hartwell’s fears of losing his sense of ambition. He also describes the storms. Hartwell recorded “one of the worst storms” on Independence Day—“wind and dust of gale proportions” in 100-degree weather. He wondered if he would ever plant corn again. He sold his livestock and mowed Russian thistles, wishing that something else would grow. There were also happy moments, such as listening to the World Series on the radio on October 2, and having dinner with his wife on Christmas.
Hartwell’s life as a farmer revolved around the storms and other whims of nature, which made it impossible for him to grow another crop. Still, Hartwell tried to enjoy other aspects of life, such as Christmas and baseball. His diary describes an unwillingness to succumb to the misery of his poverty. His ability to find joy in small things, particularly in the company of his wife, suggests perseverance.
Meanwhile, Roy Emerson Stryker also had the idea of creating a record of the decay of the land for the files of the Farm Security Administration. The purpose was to help Roosevelt get elected to a second term. Documentary records of conditions would help people understand why the president had taken such strong measures. Stryker’s contributions would prove to be invaluable to American history. Stryker hired Arthur Rothstein, a young photographer, to go to Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma in the spring of 1936. Rothstein returned with images that the nation had never before seen.
Though the initial purpose of Stryker’s mission was to use the photos as propaganda to show the extent of the prairie’s devastation and the necessity of Roosevelt’s measures—despite opposition from Republicans and the Supreme Court—the pictures also told the story of a region that people on the coasts generally overlooked. It revived the story of the “forgotten man,” which Roosevelt had introduced in his first campaign.
Outside of Dalhart, Rothstein photographed a lone car running just ahead of a black blizzard cloud. In Boise City, he photographed a drifting prairie. He also captured a father and son running for cover to a “half-buried outbuilding.” Pare Lorentz, an amateur filmmaker, wanted to film a narrative of “how and why the Great Plains had been settled and then brought to ruination.” It would be like a fable. Hollywood was not interested in working with him, but in 1935, after Stryker set up a documentary division, Lorentz found his backer—the United States government.
Rothstein’s photos of the dust storms each seemed to tell a rich story of desperation and survival. Lorentz recognized the value of constructing such a story, particularly for the benefit of those who did not live in the Great Plains. Perhaps the film would help the rest of the nation sympathize with a problem that they believed did not affect them directly.
Studio heads did not want the U.S. government in the film business. Lorentz’s film was going to be a commercial release. Others said that the film would be perceived as propaganda. Lorentz said that he only wanted to tell a story that needed to be told. One part of the government was trying to save the plains, while another arm would show people how they had caused the problem. Lorentz only took a salary of eighteen dollars a day, and paid for some of the production himself.
For Lorentz, the film would be a key instructional device. Despite opposition from the studios, who did not want the film to compete with their own releases and who refused to make it at all, perhaps fearing low box-office turnout, the film would come to be regarded as an important historical record.
Lorentz and his crew filmed in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. When he reached Dalhart, he asked if anyone knew an old cowboy, and people gave him Bam White’s name. White was perfect for the part. Lorentz offered to pay him twenty-five dollars—two months’ pay for two hours’ work—to hitch a horse to his plow and pull it through the fields. That image of Bam White, “silhouetted against blowing soil,” became the best-known image in the film, The Plow That Broke the Plains.
Lorentz sought someone who could epitomize the life and culture on the plains. For Bam, who still lived on selling skunk skins, the offer was a boon. He would earn enough money in two hours to support his family for months, easing the common worry of earning enough to live during the Depression.
The film depicted the Great Plains as an Eden, spoiled by the plow. In New York, the film was shown alongside It Happened One Night. In Dalhart, it opened at the Mission Theater. Bam White took his family, and it was the first time Melt had ever seen a movie. The boy could not believe that he was watching his father onscreen. The film moved Bam to tears. In March 1936, the movie played at the White House and the president, too, saw the “hard, sun-seared, dust-chipped face of Bam White, the wanderer, the Indian half-breed” who became the face of the High Plains in the 1930s.
Bam, a former cowboy and a man of partial indigenous descent, personified the plains in Lorentz’s film. His complex identity allowed him to represent the people who had been displaced (the natives), people who could no longer adapt to the region’s economic and social changes (cowboys), and those who suffered from what they reaped (white farmers and nesters).