In seven centuries, only a single tree grew in a certain fold of land in Nebraska. It was cut down in 1936, and its rings were examined. It showed that Nebraska had been through twenty droughts over 748 years. At the start of August 1937, rain still did not fall. When Don Hartwell put a thermometer in the ground, it registered 151 degrees. His farm was down to three lame horses and one hog. His wife still made clothes and he played music in town, but these odd jobs did not bring in enough income. The bank began to send him notices that he was behind on his mortgage.
The very old tree, which was cut down for reasons that are unclear, was evidence that Nebraska had endured a series of difficult weather events over many years. Egan compares the tree’s endurance despite these droughts to that of the Hartwells, who insisted on remaining on their farm despite its impending failure.
Hartwell’s entries from August to November describe unbearable heat and the destruction of crops. Again, Hartwell listened to the World Series in October—this time in the company of his wife. By November 19, the last hog had died. They had nothing left.
The World Series was a welcome escape from the Hartwells’ problems. However, when their last hog died, they were out of food sources.
The communities around the Hartwell farm were also disappearing. One of his friends left for Wyoming, saying he would return, but Hartwell knew that he would not. Around Thanksgiving, a letter arrived from a friend in Denver, encouraging the Hartwells to move west. Denver seemed like a big, strange city to the farm couple. However, Hartwell had no options at home. His car still ran, but he had no money for gas. He spent most of early 1938 begging the bank not to take his farm after he failed to make a payment for six months. Hartwell looked around his homestead for something of value. There was the piano, but he could not bring himself to sell it.
The piano had been a source of income—Hartwell played music in town for extra money—but it also gave him pleasure. Unable to farm, the piano music was his only creative outlet, his only way to feel that he was contributing something to the world. All of the opportunities his family was given came with a sacrifice. He and his wife could possibly find work in Denver, but that would force them to give up their farm. It would also force them to adapt to a city.
Verna, Hartwell’s wife, managed to take in some sewing work, but their electricity was turned off on April 6. Hartwell did not think he would have the money to pay the bill ever again. A friend loaned him some seed, but he expected Hartwell to pay him back in corn or money. Hartwell planted twenty-two rows of corn and Sudan grass. As soon as the corn came up, the grasshoppers descended on it. Verna found work washing linens in hotels, and after a while, they were allowed to eat the hotel’s leftover food in the laundry room.
The Hartwells had gone from a simple farming couple with some comforts to one that had experienced one misfortune after another, due to their inability to contend with an environment that had become hostile to farming. Unlike the Lowerys, they could not find anything to subsist on while they awaited another crop. They were completely dependent on the land.
July felt like hell with its dry, deadly winds. Hartwell wrote in his diary that he felt lost without his horses, and that he and Verna seemed stuck in a cycle of bad luck that would not end. The following week, the couple left for Denver to find work. Verna found some as a maid in a doctor’s house, but there was no work for Hartwell and no room for him in the house. The separation was supposed to be temporary. However, it was the first time in 26 years that they were apart. Hartwell played music to keep himself company, but he cried at the sight of “one of Verna’s dresses or a half-opened can of peaches.”
Once again, music plays a role in assuaging the despair of life in the Dust Bowl. Hartwell not only risked losing his farm, he now risked losing his wife to economic necessity. Again, an opportunity came with a sacrifice: he would be able to hold on to the farm for a little longer with Verna’s income, but he would have to live on the farm without Verna. Remnants of her remained throughout the house, reminding him of his losses.
Hartwell’s diary entries for the end of the year chronicle how much he missed his wife. He tried to drive to Colorado, but he did not have enough money to get to Denver. He spent Thanksgiving alone. Verna returned home for Christmas and stayed for a week. She made forty dollars per month, and sent her husband five dollars every two weeks. Hartwell had sold his farm machinery. He felt like a failure and he was desperately lonely.
Hartwell was unable to sustain the farm that he and his wife built shortly after they married—a symbol of their hopes to build a life together and to prosper. The loss of property forced Verna to take menial work wherever she could get it and to retain it to support her husband, who had no other means to sustain the farm or to feed himself.
Hartwell’s entries for 1939 depict his loneliness. In late February, the bank foreclosed on his farm. He continued trying to plant corn, though the wind was “chilly” and “driving.” By August, the crop was destroyed. September was one of the driest ever. This feeling was confirmed by the Weather Bureau, which recorded it as the driest in 40 years. Hartwell also noted the start of the Second World War in Europe. For his birthday, Verna sent him a dollar. He used it to buy himself dinner at a hotel. By the end of the year, the bank seized the property the Hartwells had owned since 1909. Don Hartwell later found work on a government road crew, while his wife stayed in Denver. She returned for Christmas.
By the end of the decade, when the region was recovering from the damage caused by the plow, Hartwell’s farm and his hopes for the future had been taken away from him. He saw the world changing around him, but he did not feel like a part of any of it. His role was largely passive. He relied on Verna’s income to survive until he found a government job, which may not have even been permanent. Still, he and his wife retained their tradition of celebrating holidays, which provided them with some sense of stability.