People in Dalhart shunned Bam White for being in a film that made it seem as though the nesters were responsible for their own demise. They berated him as a “half-breed and traitor to Texas.” Bam did not care what people said about him, but it hurt him when Melt came home from school, heated about what people had said about his father. Melt was proud of his dad. Furthermore, Bam, Andy James, and the XIT cowboys knew they were right; the nesters had destroyed the grass without caring what it did to the “natural order.”
The white settlers may have been especially offended by Bam White’s presence in the film, due to his indigenous ancestry. His cameo may have seemed like a rebuke from the people who had been dispossessed of the land, and who, contrary to the settlers’ need to characterize them as savages, knew better than anyone how to look after the prairie.
The government handed out seed for grass and provided grants for gasoline. Hugh Bennett’s project, Operation Dust Bowl, “was in full swing.” With the help of the CCC, Bennett started working on 16,000 acres, but soon the project expanded to 47,000 acres. After so many years of destruction, people wanted to be a part of the restoration. It felt good to try to heal something.
Bennett, who came from a farming family himself, gained people’s trust and capitalized on their regret, and in the process secured their cooperation. He did not make farmers feel bad about what they had done, but instead demonstrated how they could correct their wrongs.
The White family planted corn and some grass on a section of ground outside of their small, two-room house. Bam planted alfalfa so that he would have hay for his horses. The rain came in the spring, one inch each day for two days, then ten days of sun. Then there was a two-inch downpour. Bam was hopeful that there would be a crop in the summer.
Small-scale farming, like that practiced by the White family, would have to resume in the plains. This was how people lived before the plow and before they came to regard crops as sources of endless wealth instead of food.
Doc Dawson took some time away from the soup kitchen to try to farm one last time. He followed the advice of the CCC and plowed in furrows “so the wind would ripple instead of rip and lift.” He also tried planting grass seed and drilling holes for corn and maize. People in the Panhandle had finally agreed to Hugh Bennett’s recommendations for strict conservation. They agreed that they needed help to save them from themselves.
Dawson cooperated with the new conservation initiatives, but he would not give up on the hope that the land would one day make him rich. When both cotton and wheat failed, he tried new crops. His stubborn persistence was typical of many farmers, though Dawson’s efforts never yielded success.
Alexander Hogue grew up near Dalhart. He left for art school but returned to paint the town. He painted starving animals and drifts that covered tractors and homesteads, as well as the “predatory snakes and bugs.” Life magazine profiled his paintings, calling Hogue “the artist of the Dust Bowl.” His piece Drouth Survivors was a portrait of “an agrarian nightmare.” It depicted two dead cows face down in a drift, the top of a leafless tree covered in dust, a tractor nearly covered in sand, and a fence that had drifted. The painting hung in the Pan-American Exposition in Dallas. McCarty despised it, and wanted to buy it to burn it. A representative for Dalhart offered fifty dollars for it. The town assumed it was not worth more, but in Dallas they wanted at least two thousand. The painting was later purchased by a museum in Paris and burned in a fire.
McCarty himself would spend his retirement painting renditions of the dust storms, which he chose to portray as “heroic.” Hogue rejected this idealized vision to show the devastation of the plains. While McCarty was intent on portraying Dalhart as the place of a pioneer’s dreams, Hogue depicted it as the place where dreams died. He depicted a land in which nature had taken over, undermining settlers’ attempts to define the land according to their needs. McCarty’s willingness to destroy a painting that was incompatible with his vision is evident of how obsessive and fascistic he was in controlling how Dalhart was portrayed.
In early summer, there were a few storms. Bam White’s small patch in the front of his house grew into “a blanket of green by early July.” Doc Dawson’s withered section finally grew healthy corn. On Andy James’ ranch, there was “ankle-high carpet.” People gave God and Franklin Roosevelt equal credit for performing a miracle. Still, Hugh Bennett warned people not to read too much into this growth spurt. They needed to maintain the conservation districts. In July, the rain stopped and the heat returned, reaching past 110 degrees. The ground burned in areas that remained barren.
People in the High Plains were eager for the worst to be over and became easily excited by small signs of progress, which showed the land reverting to its original state. Bennett reminded them that their problems had not been solved for them; on the contrary, they would have to continue to work to ensure the regrowth of the land and the sustenance of the soil. The burning of the barren ground was a reminder of the many tasks ahead.
Melt White was outside one early evening when he heard a buzz that sounded like electricity from a broken power line. He then saw a thick, dark mass overhead. The cloud was producing the noise. It wasn’t a dust storm; it was a cloud of grasshoppers. The hoppers descended moments later, smothering the garden and invading the White family home. Then they moved on to Doc Dawson’s farm, chewing the corn down to thin stalks. They even tried to consume polished wood and fence posts. The hoppers had destroyed Doc’s last hope of producing any income for the year. He had nothing left.
The arrival of the grasshoppers, or locusts, is a scene of Biblical proportions. Just as the Book of Exodus describes the delivery of locusts as one of the ten plagues inflicted upon Egypt for its hubris, Egan depicts a land whose final hopes for crops were swallowed by the insects. It was as though Sitting Bull’s prediction of nature’s revenge for the natives’ suffering had come true.
The insect clouds moved from county to county. They ate every flower, leaf, and sprig of grass in sight. Bill Baker, who was the county “ag man,” or agricultural authority, said that he had never seen a surge of insects like it. There were 23,000 grasshoppers per acre. The government men said that the insects had come out of the dry Rocky Mountains, “locusts that laid eggs in the flatlands and multiplied during the dry years without predators.” A wet year would normally produce a fungus that killed many of them, and birds and rattlesnakes usually ate grasshoppers, but they were all gone. The ecologists in Bennett’s soil service were starting to examine how life had been disrupted below the surface—not only the land animals but also the insects and microorganisms.
The conservation efforts of the nineteenth century aided in creating an appreciation for the nation’s magnificent flora, but it had not instilled any understanding of how those wondrous forms were supported by the life forms that one did not see, and by the soil that held everything in place. By killing or displacing animals, either unintentionally through plowing, or intentionally through the rabbit drives, the settlers had destroyed the ecosystem they needed to maintain healthy and safe farms.
The National Guard was called to exterminate the insects. Troops tried burning fields. They also tried to crush and poison the insects. What finally worked was a combination of arsenic and bran—grain husk separated from flour after milling—but it killed everything else too. Then the dust storms started again. By the fall, 500 million dollars’ worth of crops were lost.
In trying to kill the grasshoppers, people also further impacted the land in counterproductive ways. In their efforts to poison the insects, they also poisoned the air and the soil, which could not be farmed anyway due to the storms.
John McCarty had a surprise announcement: he was leaving Dalhart for a better job in Amarillo. He still appreciated the town, but he could not afford to turn down the better opportunity. He wished everyone luck and said “good-bye,” turning his back on the town he had vowed never to leave. The town felt betrayed. Worse, the land was moving again, and children were dying of dust pneumonia.
McCarty was committed to Dalhart as long as the town provided him with economic opportunity. Though he cannot be blamed for making the best choice for his finances and his health, he can be blamed for encouraging others to remain, despite it not being in their best interests.
Dick Coon was the only town pillar left. He used the last of his money to throw a barbecue with all of the XIT cowboys. While standing outside of the DeSoto, he spotted a young cowboy down on his luck and gave him his lucky C-note. Dick Coon was broke. His properties were mortgaged and no longer generating income. He only had four dollars in a bank account. He did not want to leave the High Plains—he had taken the Last Man Pledge seriously, but his health was in peril. Friends advised him to go to Houston. He did so, moving into the Rice Hotel and dying with little more money than he had when he was born.
Dick Coon’s life had come full circle: he was born with nothing, spent his life enjoying wealth, and then died with nothing. Egan does not portray this as tragic, for Coon had no family to whom he could have left his wealth, if he still had it. His gift of the 100-dollar bill did not only give the younger man a head-start; it was also a wish that he would have some of the good luck Coon had once enjoyed.
Lizzie White feared starvation, as grasshoppers ate everything Bam had planted. The family got government clothes and food. The winter was harsh and Bam seemed to have lost his spirit. He directed Melt to bring him his fiddle, which he played until his fingers started to bleed. A few days later, on a Saturday in the first week of February, Bam remained in bed. He was burning with a fever and said his stomach was killing him. On Monday, he died. Bam was buried near the XIT and a small service was held. He had never been asked to join the Last Man Club, but he stayed on the plains until his last breath, never giving up. Unfortunately, the family had debts--$2,300 worth—and Lizzie could not pay. She moved the family south, as she had long wanted to, and picked cotton.
The White family never escaped poverty. Bam’s inability to provide for his family was due to a confluence of circumstances—racism, the Depression, and natural disaster—that he could not control. He played his fiddle demoniacally, as though if he played long and hard enough, the music could soothe the pain of his heart. He had never been welcomed into his community as a full member and, worse, had been blamed for giving it a poor reputation. He also never saw the land return to the endless prairie his ancestors had known.
Melt packed a bag one day and said that he was going back home to where his father was buried—he missed the open range. He was going to go back to Dalhart and find work on a ranch. Melt said that it was “his Indian blood” summoning him back to the Llano Estacado, a place that belonged to the natives and that one day might be restored.
Melt, unlike John McCarty, felt a personal connection to Dalhart—not one born from a personal creation myth but from the city being the birthplace of some of his ancestors. His unwillingness to leave was an inability to walk away from part of himself.
For Doc Dawson, Dalhart was a lonely place in his last years. He missed Dick Coon, John McCarty, and Bam White. He did not know the new people in town, who were mostly workers from the CCC. People were reaching into the Ogallala Aquifer, eager to get the water out of the ground. Dawson was done with working the land. He had tried for a decade to raise a decent crop, but the dirt was cursed. He still kept a small office in town and saw a few patients, but most of them could not pay for his services. Many just came by to talk. Then, one day in the spring of 1938, Dr. George Waller Dawson died of a massive brain hemorrhage. His son later found the Doc’s “tattered, crumbled” Last Man Club card in his wallet.
The new farmers were careless in their exploitation of local resources, but they were successful. Their success may have felt, to Dawson, like a mockery of his failures to yield a single successful crop. He kept trying to farm until the end of his days, refusing to accept his poor luck of having bought a sterile parcel of land. He had fulfilled his promise to remain in Dalhart until he died. Though he had given a great deal to his town and was more successful than White, he also died feeling like a failure.