Bam White lived in “a shack outside of Dalhart” where he worked as a sharecropper in exchange for shelter. He wished that he could be a cowboy, but ranching was not paying and the ranches were disappearing. Between 1926 and 1929, the rains were steady, and everyone believed that the weather had changed permanently in the Panhandle. While there, Lizzie White gave birth to a stillborn daughter. She had a nagging feeling that the place was no good for them, but Bam remained optimistic, particularly in light of Dalhart’s prosperity.
Like Bam, Lizzie seemed guided by omens. For him, the death of his horse was a sign to remain in Dalhart, while for her, the death of their child was a sign that they ought to leave. For Lizzie, perhaps, it seemed like a place where things died. More importantly, Bam now seemed unnecessary: no one in this wheat-farming town was looking for a cowboy anymore.
Meanwhile, Doc Dawson bought two more sections of land and thought about planting cotton, which paid more than wheat. However, the cotton never took hold. Everyone had a scheme to get rich quickly. A former film producer, Hickman Price, had already made money, but wanted more. Hickman bought 35,000 acres and decided to build factory farms on them. In five years, from 1924 to 1929, there was a three hundred percent increase in the acreage that was plowed on the Texas Panhandle due to Price’s mass production.
Both Dawson and Price wanted easy ways to get rich— methods that would not require them to perform the labor of tenant farmers. Both men had the means, they thought, to make the land work for them. However, Dawson had yet to make his fortune, while Price was already rich. Dissatisfied with his wealth, he wanted more. The land was synonymous with money, and some people could never have enough.
Most of those who sought to make money on the plains stuck to wheat. Andy James still insisted on ranching and resented the destruction of the grass, which he did not think should have been plowed. People felt sorry for Andy James’s lack of success. He had become a relic.
The cowboy had become nearly erased from the plains, like the Comanche. However, the cowboys at least had a recognized history, and their misfortune evoked a pity that no one extended toward the natives.
Dick Coon kept a lucky one hundred-dollar bill in one of his pockets. For him, this was not much money. He raised prized bulls both for show and for breeding. He owned the finest buildings on the town’s main street, Denrock, including the elegant DeSoto Hotel, as well as a drugstore “where pharmacists filled prescriptions for whisky.”
Coon no longer needed the C-note that he carried for good luck. He was a consummate businessman with one foot in legitimate businesses and another in bootlegging—one of the most prosperous businesses of the day, and which funded other ventures.
John McCarty arrived in town in 1929. He looked like a young Orson Welles and was a good talker. He bought the local paper, the Dalhart Texan, and became its editor and publisher. He was twenty-eight at the time. McCarty was excited by the town’s growth—by then there were more than four thousand people—and wanted the people of Dalhart to see their own greatness. He believed that its citizens were strong men and women who were fortunate to live in a new town with great opportunities. He was thoroughly engaged in local life and loved the town’s institutions.
McCarty became key in creating Dalhart’s myths and creation story. He believed that the town was full of opportunistic pioneers, like himself. Egan’s characterization of McCarty as “a good talker” contributes to his image as a storyteller, and the comparison to Orson Welles suggests someone given to as much grandiosity.
People moved to the High Plains because they missed out on the better land grabs that resulted from the first Homestead Act of 1862 and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. Of nearly two hundred million acres settled on the Great Plains between 1880 and 1925, about half was considered somewhat suitable for farming. The Southern Plains largely drew poor settlers, Southerners displaced by the Civil War, or Mexicans hoping to own a piece of land. By the 1920s, historians believed that the American frontier was closed. They had forgotten the Southern Plains.
The Southern Plains drew those who were outcasts in their respective lands. Everyone, it seemed, could get another chance to start over in the Southern Plains. The displacement of Southerners, presumably white Southerners, is a result of their losing small farms and plantations during Reconstruction. In Dalhart, they had a chance to recreate their old sense of glory.
Railroad companies played a significant role in bringing in “thousands of people who had been adrift for centuries” to the High Plains when they arrived at stations in Omaha or Kansas City. In the Northern Plains, people were furious with the railroads for promoting the fraud that they could plant wheat in dry, frigid places in Montana and North Dakota. In the Southern Plains, people welcomed the railroads, forgetting what had happened up north.
Though the railroad companies were guilty of fraud, they also offered migrants, particularly Russo-Germans “who had been adrift for centuries,” a final chance to find a place where they could settle permanently. Any opportunity, even in less desirable land, was better than none.
Dalhart was doing well. Tractors pulled up a million acres of grass per year, and in just five years, between 1925 and 1930, another 5.2 million acres were plowed in the Southern Plains. John McCarty insisted that the town lay in “the best damned country God’s sun ever shone upon,” and many of those who read his words in agreement were people, such as the Russo-German immigrants, who read his column to learn English.
Immigrants’ dependence on McCarty’s column to build their language skills also helped them to internalize his belief of what kind of place Dalhart was. This idealization of their town was reinforced by its seemingly boundless prosperity.