Whereas Dalhart was a place of opportunity and hope, Boise City, Oklahoma was a place where hope died. The town had been founded on a fraud—the promise of trees was in its name, which came from the French name for “woods,” le bois. The Southwestern Immigration and Development Company sold lots at forty-five dollars apiece. The brochures advertised a lush place with plenty of clean water and infrastructure. The fiction helped them sell three thousand lots by 1908, “one year after Oklahoma became the forty-fifth state.”
The fiction that allowed for the settlement of Dalhart is a part of the overall fiction that created the society of the High Plains, particularly the notion that the region had no history or culture until whites settled it. The advertising falsely promised a land that was the opposite of what actually existed, but the allure of cheap land mattered more than anyone’s disappointment over the falsehood.
Boise City offered nothing to its landowners. There were no railroads or even tracks, and no plans to build either. The settlers saw none of the beautiful houses or businesses in the brochures, and the local well “was a stockman’s crude tank next to a windmill, full of flies.” Furthermore, the company did not even own the land that it sold. The developers were arrested, tried for fraud, and sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. By 1920, Boise City had 250 residents and its nearby county “at the far end of No Man’s Land was approaching 3,500 people.” There were hopes that the Oklahoma Panhandle, where Boise City was located, would become “the greatest wheat-growing country in the world.”
The ability of the developers to sell land that it did not own suggests a certain lawlessness and lack of regulation in the settlement of the Southern Plains. Its lack of infrastructure did not deter people from envisioning its promise—on the contrary, Boise City’s lack of offerings seemed to make it more appealing to those who believed that, through farming, they could be instrumental in “conquering” the land to make it appealing and viable.
Previously, no one had wanted to settle in No Man’s Land. It was where some people, most notably Captain William Becknell and his thirty-man army, had nearly died of thirst. Spain was the first to claim the territory, which the nation then sold to Napoleon. The territory was then sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, then ended up in the possession of Mexico in 1819 as part of their claim of Texas. In 1836, the Republic of Texas owned “all territory north to Colorado.” When Texas was admitted into the Union in 1845, it was on the condition that there would be no slavery north of the Missouri Compromise line. As a result, “an orphaned rectangle, 35 miles wide and 210 miles long” was left over, unattached to any state or territory. Its unclaimed status, in addition to its “unlivably arid” land, gave it its name.
The Panhandle is a sliver of territory characterized not only by its geographical difference from the rest of Texas and by the belief that nothing could grow or live there, but also by its general detachment from political or economic systems. The area was useless to the Southerners who controlled Texas, both due to the Missouri Compromise and the impracticality of trying to grow cotton in the arid territory. However, naming one part of it “No Man’s Land” further reinforced the idea that the territory had no people and no history simply because whites were not present, despite the presences of natives and Mexicans.
In the late nineteenth century, the Oklahoma Panhandle was a haven for “outlaws, thieves, and killers.” The Santa Fe Railroad pushed as far north as Liberal, Kansas, which was on the Oklahoma border. Kansas was a dry state, disallowing the purchase of alcohol, so a place called Beer City developed across the state line. It was comprised of “bars, brothels, gambling houses, smuggling dens, and town developers on the run.” Beer City was the first settlement in No Man’s Land, but it disintegrated two years after it was set up due to “law, taxes, and land title companies” coming to the Panhandle in 1890.
No Man’s Land quickly became an alternative to more conservative Kansas. The territory’s lawlessness and lack of permanent settlers made it an ideal place for those who sought to hide from the law. It was also a place where people could escape from legal strictures that legislated behavior, such as the consumption of alcohol. It became a land of both immorality and freedom.
The indigenous people for whom Oklahoma is named (the state name is a combination of Choctaw words—okla, meaning “people” and humma, meaning “red”) lost their homes in a land grab which turned Oklahoma City, Norman, and Guthrie into towns overnight. People only settled No Man’s Land when there was nothing else left in the state to take.
The settlers retained the territory’s cultural lineage in its name while discarding the people who gave it that lineage. The willingness to seize No Man’s Land, the final frontier in the state, is an effect of the white migrants’ ravenous appetites for land.
Hazel Lucas’s family settled in the grassland “just south of Boise City” in 1914—"the peak year for homesteads in the twentieth century.” Hazel was a little girl when they arrived, and she was excited to be there. Her father, William Carlyle, had chosen the land because it was free, whereas the old XIT ranch property could cost up to “$10,000 for a half-section.” By 1910, more than half of the two hundred million acres that had been homesteaded nationwide were in the Great Plains. Though the land was coveted, Hazel missed trees and did not want to live in a hole in the ground with critters crawling around. She also did not want to live in a leaky sod house.
The Lucas family settled their homestead in the same year that the First World War began in Europe. While Europe was reorganizing its borders, the United States was expanding its own through the settlement of previously neglected territories. Through Hazel’s young eyes, one can understand the excitement of being in a new place whose expansiveness made anything seem possible, as well as seeing its negative aspects, such as the strange bugs.
Many of the settlers in the Southern Plains were from the Northern Plains—people fleeing the brutal winters in Montana, for example, where temperatures dipped to forty below zero and froze cattle in place. The federal government offered free train rides to prospective settlers to take a look at No Man’s Land, just as the realtors selling bits of the XIT ranch had. In 1915, William Carlyle made a dugout and “started plowing the grass on his half-section, a patch of sandy loam.”
Migrants from the north may have expected warmer weather and, more importantly, another chance to settle and farm land. Once again, they were fooled by realtors’ deceptive advertising, which had initially convinced them to go north. Migrants seemed motivated by a combination of hope and foolishness.
Though their patch of land was fertile, the Lucas family would not have survived without the help of windmills. Windmills were introduced to the west as a result of the railroad industry. Railroads required windmills, for they were the only means of generating the large amounts of water needed “to cool the engines and generate steam.” The mechanic Daniel Halladay invented a smaller version of the famous Dutch windmills, and the Union Pacific Railroad Company bought many. Later, a nester was able to purchase a windmill kit for around seventy-five dollars. Still, one had to dig for water. Sometimes it was only thirty-feet below the earth’s surface; in other instances, it was “three times as deep.” Some homesteaders used “steam or horse-powered drills” to dig, while others dug holes by hand.
Water, a basic resource, was not easy to come by. Nesters had to work the ground for every basic need, including this one. Fortunately, they had the technology to transform the land and the patience to work with it—though the need for water left them with little choice. The windmills were necessary for pumping just enough water, not only for a family to drink, but also to keep the livestock hydrated. The West’s most precious resource was water.
While trying to dig for water, nesters feared grass fires. Hazel Lucas “was petrified of prairie fires.” A few years after her family had arrived, a lightning strike lit up a field in New Mexico and the resulting fire spread all the way to Texas and Oklahoma. Fires were a “part of the prairie ecosystem”—necessary for the land to clear out “excess insect populations” and to help the grass regenerate. When there were not fires, there were floods. In the spring of 1914, the Cimarron River flooded, knocking out a newly completed dam.
Violent weather patterns were a key aspect of living on the Southern Plains. White people who settled there, it seems, never got accustomed to the land’s means of maintaining its ecosystem, tending not only to react in fear but also to build edifices that were not sturdy enough to withstand the region’s floods.
A few years after the First World War, William Carlyle “Carlie” Lucas built a home above ground. He invested in building materials, emboldened by the possibility of making a lot of money off of selling wheat for the war effort. When he was finished, the family enjoyed going to bed without first having to scan the floor for snakes. Then, one afternoon, a strong windstorm came. The Lucas family fled to their old dugout. The next day, Hazel poked her head above ground and saw their home being carried away with the wind. Four days later, the family searched for pieces of their home.
The initial profitability of wheat, spurred by the market created by the war, encouraged Carlie Lucas’s sense that he finally had some control over his circumstances in No Man’s Land. That jolt of confidence quickly receded, however, when nature again showed him that he and his family were entirely vulnerable to its whims.
Though the weather on the prairie was violent, the sky would become “open and embracing” after a storm. The indigenous animals were uniquely charming, and the sky seemed to go on forever. Hazel Lucas rode her horse Pecos to visit the James boys, one of the last big ranching families, whose property extended into both Texas and Oklahoma. One day, Andy told her how to eat grasshoppers. When she was sixteen, Hazel met Charlie Shaw. In the fall of 1922, Hazel rode Pecos to a one-room schoolhouse “sitting alone in the grassland.” She took her first job there as a teacher. There were thirty-nine students in eight different grade,s and seventeen-year-old Hazel taught them all.
Though Hazel was initially fearful of the prairie’s idiosyncrasies, she quickly adapted to it and decided to settle there as a young adult. She also played a role in helping to educate local children, fulfilling a role for which she was uniquely qualified. Though the settlers were hearty, they were largely uneducated, which left the region with a lack of qualified teachers.
Hazel taught her students how to play basketball, which she had played in high school, and safely guided a group of players through “a fit of hail” in her horse-drawn wagon. She wondered about life in other places, and knew how much faster American life moved there. She knew about “flappers, gangsters, and stunts,” such as the two men who played tennis on the wings of a biplane. Yet, in Cimarron County, most people still didn’t have electricity.
Hazel’s education made her aware of the modern advances outside of No Man’s Land, though the other inhabitants of the region probably had less awareness. The technological advancement in the cities contrasted with the settlers’ lives, which seemed to be fixed in the nineteenth-century and largely determined by the whims of nature.
In fewer than ten years, wheat farmers on the Great Plains “went from subsistence living to small business-class wealth.” There were new machines that made planting and harvesting easier, and in some cases, the profit margin was “ten times the cost of production.” In 1910, the price of wheat was eighty cents a bushel. By 1915, it was double. Farmers increased production by 50 percent and were helped when the Turkish navy blocked the Dardanelles, making it impossible for Russia to supply Europe with grain. That customer base was supplied by farmers in the Great Plains.
The war fostered a wheat boom in which the farmers on the prairie were the primary suppliers of grain. The war thus also helped to pull the farmers out of their more rudimentary lives and into the modern era. Very soon, they bought expensive farming equipment and conducted business on par with industrialists in major cities.
When Carlie Lucas first arrived in No Man’s Land, he hoped to make enough money to feed his family. A few years after his arrival, he was making $8,000 a year from wheat farming—a handsome six-figure salary in today’s dollars. A worker on the Ford assembly line made an eighth of what a successful farmer took home in pay. Ida Watkins, “the self-described wheat queen of Kansas,” said that she earned $75,000 in 1926—more than the salary of any baseball player, except for Babe Ruth, and more than what the president of the United States took home in pay.
Wheat farming had become a lucrative industry. The image of a simple, modest farmer contrasted with the real-life existence of people like Ida Watkins, who made as much money as some of the country’s greatest luminaries. This newly found wealth diminished the line that separated the lives of people in the prairie versus those who lived in the country. Everyone seemed to be equally prosperous, for a time.
Hazel Lucas and Charles Shaw got married when she was eighteen. They were both working as teachers, but Charles wanted to leave the Panhandle for Cincinnati, Ohio, where he studied mortuary science. Hazel enjoyed Cincinnati but returned to Oklahoma to work when they began to run out of money. She secured a better-paying job, with additional duties as a bus driver. When she stepped off the train in Texhoma, she felt back at home in No Man’s Land.
The marriage between Hazel and Charles seemed to be one between equals. This was often characteristic of pioneer life, in which women shared responsibilities, both for earning income and building a homestead, that were equal to those of men. Their lives also coincided with the advances that women were making politically and socially.
Hazel Lucas was one of few women in No Man’s Land. Women were rather scarce, and Will Crawford was one of the territory’s many bachelors. He was originally from Missouri, and had arrived on one of the free trains. He was an exceptionally large man, and liked to say that he was “fatter than any man in three states.” He worked as a farmhand, mostly in exchange for food. One day while reaching into the front pocket of his specially-made overalls, he found a note from Sadie White from Wichita, Kansas. She has stitched Will’s garment and was impressed by its size. He wrote to her, then built a more comfortable home—two rooms above his dugout. Will went away for a week and returned married to Sadie. They moved into the new home Will had built.
No Man’s Land had not drawn many women, due to the harshness of the climate and the territory’s previous reputation for lawlessness. Though Will Crawford’s weight might have made him unappealing to many women, for Sadie, his largeness signaled an ability to provide and protect. She may also have been intrigued by Crawford’s lack of shame in regard to his vast appetites, which White might have connected to an ability to afford however much food he wanted.
The Folkers family were Will Crawford’s closest neighbors. They also arrived by a free train with very little money. Katherine Folkers disliked the emptiness of the prairie and cried herself to sleep at night. Fred Folkers planted an orchard, which was successful for a time.
Folkers may have built his orchard to calm his wife’s fear of the emptiness. He may also have wished to add his own touch to a territory that resembled an empty canvas—anything seemed conceivable on the prairie.
Those who prospered on the Southern Plains were, in many instances, “first-generation aristocracy.” Country clubs were newly established for the farmer-businessmen. They ignored those who warned that the prosperity would be short-lived, and that the land would not be sustainable for agriculture.
Like their forebears in other parts of the country, the plains settlers were stubborn and determined. They were also upwardly mobile and eager to build a class system in which landowners were at the top.
Fred Folkers started his wheat farm with the help of a horse-drawn plow, and then he bought a tractor. Suddenly, it took only three hours to do the same work. He also had a Case combine and a one-way plow. The one-way plow was a temporary blessing, but later a curse, due to its efficiency at ripping up large sections of grass. By the late-1920s, Folkers harvested ten thousand bushels of wheat, and by 1925, he could transport it out of Boise City by train. The wheat was then sold in Chicago, New York, and Europe.
Just as the cotton gin aided in picking and selling cotton at faster rates a century before, new farming equipment made it easier to till the soil and to plant wheat crops more quickly. Farmers were eager to be competitive in major cities that had the largest customer bases—thus netting them larger profits.
Soon, signs of prosperity were evident everywhere in Boise City. People drove around Model Ts. A clothier from Clayton, New Mexico arrived and took orders for suits and dresses. Simon Herzstein took trips to New York and arrived back with outfits “that could make a prairie couple look like a pair of dandies from the picture show.”
The settlers’ desire to have all the accessories of wealth that were available to city folk proves that they did not move to the plains to isolate themselves from metropolitan life, but instead sought to replicate it to the point where they too could generate wealth.
John Johnson’s bank loaned money to people all over the county. People were happy to mortgage their farms in exchange for more money for farming equipment. By 1929, Boise City had grown exponentially: there was a theater, a hotel, a bookstore, a bank, a newspaper, a creamery, a few cafes, and a telephone office. The Folkers bought appliances, dresses for Katherine and Faye, more land, and “a big-shouldered house to replace the crumbling shack” in which they had lived for ten years. The sound of centipedes behind the walls made it difficult for the children to sleep. For Faye’s birthday, they bought her a piano and provided her with lessons.
The prosperity in Boise City led people to think that the town’s growth was unstoppable. People got so comfortable and confident with their success that they borrowed more than they could afford, not just for the things they needed, but also to indulge themselves in what they wanted. They desired lives that were not merely built around necessity and survival, but also pleasure and leisure. Finally, they could afford life’s comforts.
The High Plains was a happy place in the 1920s. The population was growing. The banks seldom said “no” to an upstart and, after Congress passed the Federal Farm Loan Act, every town had a bank to cater to its farmers. They offered forty-year loans at six percent interest. No one thought they would be unable to pay that back.
It seems that no one thought of how impractical it might be to be in debt for forty years. The government was also complicit in encouraging the short-sightedness and covetousness of farmers who could not foresee any possibility of future misfortune.