At the beginning of 1936, Hazel Shaw was five months pregnant. It was unclear if there would ever be a home in No Man’s Land ever again. More than 850 million tons of topsoil had eroded from the Southern Plains within the year, which was nearly eight tons of dirt for every American resident. No one knew where the dirt had gone and what it meant, beyond being unable to farm—and that dust pneumonia would continue to infect people until the soil was stabilized again. Unless something was done, the plains would become as arid as the Arabian desert.
It was as though the explorer Zebulon Pike’s prophecy about the region had come true. Though No Man’s Land had not truly been a desert, it soon would be. Moreover, no one understood what it meant to lose the soil, understanding its absence only in terms of its inability to provide a source of food and income. They did not consider disruptions to other plant and animal life in the area.
Meanwhile, the towns died. Stores and schools disappeared, and nearly a million people left their farms from 1930 to 1935. The exodus started slowly, initiated by declines in wheat and cattle prices in the northern plains. Drought and dust storms chased people out of the rest of the prairie, particularly Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
The towns died nearly as quickly as they were born. Some people were eager to abandon the land they had plowed to seek new opportunities further west. Others simply sought fresh air to breathe.
Hugh Bennett’s challenge was in finding a way for the ground to become stable enough to hold seeds long enough for them to sprout. The administration bought 2.25 million acres to start. One idea was to give some of the land back to the indigenous people. The government decided to purchase up to one million acres for natives, who would run livestock over the land after it had been allowed to rest and regenerate for a few years. Some of it was old Cherokee land in Oklahoma anyway. The government would thus be getting rid of the cowboys and returning the natives.
For untold reasons, this plan never took hold. The administration did not seem clear either on which indigenous people belonged on the land. The Cherokee only existed in Oklahoma due to displacement resulting from President Andrew Jackson’s seizure of their lands in the Southeast. A Comanche reservation was nearby, but few members of the original tribe were still around.
Baca County was another place where the government wanted to put grass back on the prairie. The government paid $2.75 per acre to take back a homestead. The land would then be left alone—to either re-grow grass or become a desert. This would take place after the windmills and fences were dismantled and the houses were torn down and sold for scrap.
The civilization that whites had built on the plains would be dismantled—and had to be dismantled—so that the region could return to its natural state and once again harbor life. It was unclear what the land would become as a result of human settlement.
The journalist Ernie Pyle, one of the most influential writers of the day, called the Dust Bowl a withering land of misery. The Atlantic Monthly carried a series called “Letters from the Dust Bowl” written by Caroline Henderson. She wrote about the “bad days of wind and dust.” She wrote nothing during the tortuous summer. Hazel Shaw’s focus for the next year was to bring new life to the world to replace that which had been lost to the storms. She went north to Elkhart, Kansas to give birth to “a black-eyed baby boy.” The baby was named Charles Jr., for his father. He was strong and robust. Hazel was unsure of where to live. Cimarron County had killed both Grandma Louzima and Ruth Nell, and she would never see it the same way again.
Both Caroline and Hazel sought creativity as the means to remain optimistic. For Henderson, creativity took the form of writing. Hazel, on the other hand, remained committed to the more traditionally feminine practice of seeking meaning through the creation of new life, despite the loss of Ruth Nell. Both writing and procreation are acts of survival—an affirmation of life and of one’s willingness to continue on.
Summer temperatures were especially hot. During two days in July and two in August, the temperatures reached 118 degrees—the highest ever recorded in No Man’s Land. It was 117 degrees in Dalhart and 120 in Shattuck. There had been some rain, but it came in massive bursts, causing flash floods. Then, the drought and high temperatures returned. Hazel kept the place so sealed it was like living in a can. Charles, Jr. later developed claustrophobia as a young man, which he thought came from spending his early months “looking up at a dusted, wet sheet from a crib in a sealed apartment.”
Hazel’s fears of the climate and weather, which had previously killed her daughter and her grandmother, instilled a paranoia in her that made her overprotective of her son. The dust storms were not as severe as those that occurred in the early- to mid-1930s, but lingering fears about the unpredictability of the storms led Hazel to take precautions that inadvertently created neuroses in her son.
Hazel left No Man’s Land at the end of the year. She had first seen the grassland in 1914, at the age of ten. She, Charles, and Charles, Jr. moved to Vici, closer to the center of Oklahoma, near the Shaw family. Hazel would always remember the blackest days in Cimarron County, but she would not hold on to the memories. She wanted to live.
To overcome her fears, Hazel had to leave No Man’s Land, fully putting the past behind her. Though she remained attached to the land—her family’s roots were there—she had experienced too much loss for it to remain a healthy environment.
One hundred miles to the east, the Russo-Germans tried to maintain their community around Shattuck. They got some money from the government, about seven dollars a head for cattle, which gave them enough to buy dry goods like flour or sugar. They tried to keep their spirits up by playing music, but the drought was in its fifth year. Their neighbors, the Borths, were suffering from dust pneumonia. Two of the children suffered from the common symptoms of chest pains, fever, and sore ribs. They had to get out of the High Plains or to a hospital. With his children facing death and his land already dead, Gustav Borth thought often of the Russian steppe. Then the bank took his combine, which had allowed him to pile his wheat high during the boom years. He moved the children to Texas to live with cousins. He was homesick and felt like a failure.
The Russo-Germans faced especially hard times on the High Plains, so hard that some of them were nostalgic for life on the Russian steppe. Borth either recalled the steppe with fondness because times had indeed been easier there, or because he had forgotten about the group’s ostracism from native Russians and the invasions from Asiatic tribes. It is also possible that their inordinate success from the wheat boom gave them such a high, such a feeling that nothing could go wrong, that it became more difficult to cope when things did go wrong.
The Plow That Broke the Plains put Dalhart in the spotlight, but for John McCarty, it was the wrong kind of publicity. He furiously denounced the film as propaganda. Other Politicians joined McCarty in his outrage. However, Lorentz was not the first person to blame careless agriculture for the wreckage of the plains. Hugh Bennett and cowboys on the XIT had offered similar messages. Doc Dawson’s youngest son, John, shared their view. He left Dalhart in 1929 to practice law in Houston, and returned in the mid-1930s to help his struggling father see if anything could be salvaged from the land—perhaps enough to provide for Doc in retirement. John saw a land that had become like a “moonscape”—no wildlife or vegetation. He thought that the people had done this to themselves, and even his father shared some of the blame.
Outsiders like Lorentz, Bennett, and John Dawson, who cared about the High Plains and the people in it, were better able to see the flaws in the settlers’ practices. John Dawson watched his father desperately try to farm land that would not yield any crop, despite the impact his incessant plowing would have on the soil. Instead of examining their own behaviors, the settlers blamed Lorentz for promoting a negative view of the farmers’ way of life which, they believed, had contributed to civilizing the plains.
The government kept the town going. In August 1936, Hugh Bennett went to Dalhart to preside over the biggest soil conservation project on the plains, called “Operation Dust Bowl.” He intended to “slow the drifts by contour plowing, which created great furrows and made it less likely for the earth to lift off in great sheets.” Then, it could be planted over with grass seed imported from Africa. They were building life back from scratch, “to create a place of interdependence, not a crop.” John McCarty tried to impress Bennett, showing him that Dalhart deserved a second chance. They were fighters.
Though McCarty and the other settlers would not accept the view that they were to blame for the dust storms, they were fully cooperative in fixing the conditions that had caused them. Bennett’s program allowed the settlers to create a new grassland, one that they had built themselves “from scratch,” just as they had developed the wheat farms. This time, the nesters would give something back to the land in exchange for all that they had taken.