The stock market crashed on October 29, 1929. In three weeks, the stock market lost 40 percent of its value. Brokers had taken unnecessary risks, and banks had gone on “speculative binges,” using people’s savings accounts as collateral for stock purchases. Meanwhile, most Americans continued to work the land. One in four people lived on a farm.
On the surface, affairs on Wall Street seemed very distant from life on the plains. When the Depression hit, the settlers retained this view, believing that New York brokers had created their pain, without understanding their own role in producing uncontrollable markets.
On the High Plains, things were still good. They associated the stock market crash with “city slickers.” Meanwhile, they had “record harvests, a new railroad, and even dreams of a skyscraper in town.” They did not notice a problem until the price of wheat began to follow the course of the equities market. Though most of the country was in a drought, that did nothing to push the prices of wheat back up.
There was more wheat for sale than the market could bear. The farmers’ choice to continue planting and selling the crop, instead of letting some of it go fallow, created an excess, which caused the crop’s price to plummet.
In Boise City, the Lucas family was preparing for its first harvest. Carlie Lucas had died, leaving the farm to his widow, Dee, and his brother C.C. Hazel, their daughter, had married Charles Shaw and went to live in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Lucases needed the crop to come in properly, as they had to pay back the loans they had taken out to buy new farm machinery. They had no electricity and still lived in a dugout.
Though the market was no longer in their favor, the Lucases, like many families on the prairie, had no other recourse but to hope that they could sell a crop of wheat in order to pay their debts. The Lucases’ lives were very rudimentary, and farming was their only means of earning income.
A few miles from the Lucas farm, the Folkers family was doing well. Fred Folkers had bought a tractor, a new car, a new house, and a piano for his daughter, Faye, who was becoming a talented musician. He owed it all to his half-section of No Man’s Land. Still, debts were piling up. In addition to growing wheat, he also had fruit orchards. Nebraska offered tax incentives to those who planted trees and for Fred, his orchard was a way to defy those who did not think that apples and peaches could grow in No Man’s Land.
The Folkers family was ambitious and upwardly mobile. They wished not only to eke out simple lives as farmers, but to instill their creativity and personal imprints on a land that was characterized by absence. Fred’s effort to grow orchards was a challenge to the High Plains’ bad reputation and a show of his faith in the soil.
A June storm could be trouble for a wheat crop. The cold of late spring and the heat of early summer usually resulted in hailstorms. One June, hailstones as big as grapefruits fell on the Lucas farm. Dee Lucas told her children to go to the root cellar. When the family emerged, they saw that their crop was lost. In fact, the storm had crushed most wheat crops in Cimarron County, while elsewhere on the High Plains, wheat came in just fine. In southwestern Kansas, the harvest was up by 50 percent. Yet, on the Lucas farm, a year of work was gone in a few minutes. Dee and C.C. fell to their knees and began to cry. The children watched them and worried.
Though the wheat market was already suffering due to a glut in the market, the Lucas family, like many others in the plains, had no other source of income on which they could depend. The dependence on a crop that did not always yield a harvest, and one that might not sell even if it did, created a vicious circle in the 1930s, in which farming families were damned if they could yield a crop and damned if they could not.
By the end of 1932, a quarter of all banks had closed and nine million people lost their savings. The stock market had lost fifty billion dollars, and two million Americans lost their jobs. In the cities, people stood in line for food—young, well-dressed people. Some of those same people slept under bridges. What was ironic was that there was so much grain, much of it going to waste at train stations, because no one could afford to buy it. Productivity increased, but wages dropped and jobs disappeared.
People lost all of the income that they had earned during the wheat boom, leaving them with no additional source of income on which they could depend. Hard-working people in both cities and the country were experiencing great poverty. No matter how hard anyone worked or how eager they were to work, the nation’s economy was evaporating.
Hazel Lucas heard about a job opening in 1930 at the New Hope School outside Boise City. However, the school could not pay her. Farmers were in too much debt to pay taxes, and without the taxes, teachers could not be paid salaries. The school offered to pay Hazel a warrant, a paper which she could later cash in for ten dollars. Hazel accepted it. Then, when she took it to the bank, she was turned away. John Johnson’s bank would not cash the warrants. Hazel worked the school year without pay.
Hazel’s willingness to work with no pay reveals her dedication to her work as an educator. Hers is an example of the personal sacrifices that some people on the plains were willing to make for the greater good. However, the school’s absence of funds also illustrates how the collapse of the stock market impacted people’s lives in ways that they did not expect.
The grain continued to come in “green and upright.” However, in Texhoma, the price was only twenty-four cents a bushel. That was not enough to cover the costs of running a farm and having enough to live on. The price of wheat now offered only four hundred dollars for a year, whereas in 1921, the same amount brought in ten times as much. Farmers begged the banks to help, but the banks were too busy foreclosing on farms. To avoid having their property sold off, farmers got together and devised a scheme to bid only a dime for farm property—no more. The bank and Sheriff Hi Barrick, who was present to keep order at the auctions, grew wise to the tactic, but no one could do anything to stop it. Meanwhile, millions of acres had been left abandoned after the price collapse, leaving the land stripped.
A predatory system had taken effect: banks closed, taking the savings of thousands of farmers with them, and then the banks threatened to seize farms. Farmers were in a desperate position. They were unable pay the mortgages on their farms due to their loss of funds, and with the impending loss of their farm land, they would not be able to recoup their losses through the sale of crops. The farmers’ dime bids at Johnson’s auctions were a small but effective attempt at combatting a system that had failed them and now threatened to seize their way of life altogether.
In Baca County, Colorado, farmers were determined to make it the dry farming capital of the state. Baca was the last section of the Southern Plains “to be torn up and planted,” partly due to resistance from cowboys. The Santa Fe Line extended into the county in 1927. In Springfield, Baca’s county seat, streets were paved and there was electricity. Another town, Richards, sprang up nearby.
Dry farming was responsible for turning places like Springfield, which had been sleepy and isolated, into actual towns with infrastructure. The promise of making money from dry farming also made the county more populous.
Ike Osteen was only twelve when he and his brother Oscar went out on the family tractor and asked if people wanted their grass turned. They charged one dollar per acre. Due to their mother being widowed, this became how income was brought into the household. Ike noticed that there was a good market in bootlegging—that is, the illegal production and sale of liquor—but he decided to stick to plowing fields.
Though Osteen chose the more honest living of plowing grain, his work and that of bootlegging were related. After all, people drank grain alcohol that came from the wheat that Osteen plowed. The simplicity of wheat farming allowed for Ike and his brother, though still boys, to support their family.
Ike got up “well before the sun” to get cow chips for the stove and, in the winter, ensured that the animals had enough hay. Ike gave his earnings, which were substantial, to his mother, who was trying to raise eight children in a dugout. Fortunately, Baca was “the largest wheat-producing county in Colorado.” What his mother wanted more than the income the boys brought in was for Ike to remain at Richards School and make it all the way through—no one in the family had before.
Ike, as the eldest son, had taken financial responsibility for his family, believing that their present needs were most important. However, his mother knew that he would need an education to ensure his own future survival. There was no guarantee that Baca’s wheat boom would always be a reliable source of income.
Dick Coon saw the market collapse as an opportunity to buy more property at lower prices. There was talk of building a college in the town, and newspaper editor John McCarty did not think that Dalhart would be affected by the troubles of 1929. Doc Dawson, on the other hand, was worried about the money he had invested in farmland outside of town, which had not yet turned a profit. When Loretto Hospital opened in 1929, Doc and Willie Dawson felt free to farm full-time.
The actions of these three men, who were regarded as pillars of the community, reflect their sense that Dalhart was too exceptional to be impacted by the conditions that had afflicted he rest of the country. It was a town where, in their view, it would always be possible for a man to turn a profit.
One financial prospect was no longer explored: striking oil on the old XIT ranch. The price of oil had crashed not long after the stock market. A lack of regulation, as well as excessive consumption, had sparked a global depression. The bank in Dalhart was in trouble too, and its account holders had not been receiving statements. When they got their statements at the end of the year, the documents showed that their savings had been drained.
Natural resources that seemed to guarantee wealth were no longer viable sources of money due to poor management of the resource and the selfish actions of speculators. The effects of their practices were soon felt by common people who could no longer depend on their financial institutions.
Willie Dawson continued with “the literary society, the country club, and dinner parties.” At the beginning of 1930, Doc Dawson used the last of his savings to buy property in town. He was worried about his sterile fields. He tried to plant cotton, but that too failed. The only vegetation that did grow was tumbleweed, which no one really wanted on their farms. Dawson hired a field hand to get rid of it so that he could plant winter wheat.
While Willie Dawson tried to forget about the Depression by enjoying the things she loved, her husband continued to work with his poor parcel of land, determined to make a profit from it. Willie’s ability to find diversions and Doc’s ability to find other things to plant signaled their relative privilege compared to other farmers.
In 1930, Bam White and his family still lived in the shack he had rented shortly after they arrived in town. It cost three dollars a month, which was a great deal. Still Bam told his sons that he wanted to roam—a tendency that he attributed to his indigenous heritage. Yet, satisfying that urge would be of no use to his family. He decided to put down roots in the town, and decided to find and buy his own house. He earned money by performing odd jobs in the field, and by selling turnips and skunk hides.
Bam White’s attempts to scrounge a living contrast with Doc Dawson’s efforts to build one farm after another. Despite his poverty and his feeling of distance from the local Anglo culture, White wanted to provide stability for his family—something that the indigenous people who had previously inhabited this land were not allowed to have.
Due to his dark skin and work-worn hands, Bam did not always feel welcome in Dalhart, where people wore “new clothes and [dined] fine and [drank] the best hooch from the county stills.” Still, he did not have it nearly as bad as a black man who came into town one day, got off a train at the station, and tried to get a drink at Dinwiddie’s, presumably not noticing the sign warning black people not to let the sun go down on them in Dalhart. The following day, the stranger disappeared. People said he had been killed, and were indifferent to the possibility. The thought of the man’s potential murder frightened Bam.
Bam knew that, as a man of partial indigenous descent, he was not considered white, and was therefore vulnerable. It is also possible that his inability to acquire his own land was related to his ethnic background. His dark skin was a marker of his inability to be a full citizen of Dalhart, capable of reaping the rewards of the wheat boom that whites openly enjoyed.
With enough money saved, Bam finally bought a house. It was a “half-dugout.” The roof was made of tarpaper, and the walls were extremely thin. Lizzie said that it was too cold, so Bam and his sons insulated it with six additional layers. They divided the dugout into two sides—a dining area and a sleeping area. There was no running water, no electricity, and no toilet. Melt was responsible for bringing in buckets of water for cleaning and cooking and collecting cow chips for the stove. Bam knew that his home was not much, but he was proud to call it his own.
Bam’s house, which he reconstructed for his family’s comfort, was the only property that he owned. Though he did not have the lavish properties of Dick Coon or the land that Doc Dawson could boast of, however infertile it may have been, he had a place that could give his family shelter. He had come a long way very quickly from being stranded with a dead horse.
Throughout the Southern Plains, wheat harvests were abundant. However, last year’s harvest still had not been sold. The elevators at the train station, where wheat was stored until it was transported to major cities, were stuffed. Wheat was now only thirty cents a bushel. Those who had gotten into farming to make quick money—salesmen, barkeeps, druggists—quickly got out. No one understood why they could not sell. The drought had persisted through 1930 in most of the United States, but the High Plains had gotten the rainfall it needed to produce good crops, which no one was buying. There was plenty of advertising and plenty of hungry people, but there was simply too much wheat and not enough buyers. Farmers suggested that the government could purchase the wheat and use it to feed the hungry, but President Herbert Hoover rejected the idea right away.
Too many people were producing wheat. Even when the market was on the side of the farmers, there were not enough people to eat all of the wheat that was being produced, which led to a steep drop in prices. Strangely, no one understood this, which indicates that basic concepts of supply and demand were lost on most people. The suggestion from farmers that the government buy the extra wheat was an idea that President Roosevelt would later adopt, but Hoover, whose free market beliefs helped spur the wheat boom, would let the market sort out the winners and the losers in the industry.
To retaliate against the government’s inaction, the farmers “burned railroad trestles” to prevent their grain from going to city markets, and “hijacked milk trucks” and spilled out their contents. They also planned a strike. They were going to withhold all remaining wheat and corn until people took notice of their suffering. Baca County had had a record harvest, as did Texas, most of Kansas, parts of Nebraska, and the Oklahoma Panhandle. The government insisted that they could do nothing; it was a free market. On the other hand, they were proud of the grain production. No civilization had ever produced so much grain.
The farmers’ tactic was to starve everyone until more citizens took notice, which in turn would have prompted the government to ensure that farmers did not go out of business. However, because there was already such an abundance of wheat, much of it already rotting in railroad station elevators, it is unclear that these protest actions had any impact at all. People were already supplied with much more wheat than they needed.
None of the settlers intended to leave No Man’s Land. They loved their home, and they clung to a hope that the next decade would be better than the previous one. Then, on September 14, 1930, a windstorm “kicked up dust out of southwest Kansas.” It made its way to the Texas Panhandle and looked like nothing anyone had ever before seen. It was not a sandstorm, for it was the wrong color—much too dark. It also was not a hailstorm, though the sky suggested “the kind of formation you would get just before a roof-buster.” It rolled, instead, “like a mobile hill of crud, and it was black.” It also hurt. It felt like getting swiped by sandpaper.
This dust storm was the first of many to come. However, the sight of the black cloud, which many settlers could have read as a sign to pick up and leave, did not deter their commitment to the Southern Plains. This description of the storm’s effect on the air contrasts with the region’s reputation for clean, crisp air, which was a part of its appeal for those moving from polluted metropolises. Now, the air was filled with more dirt than any living being could stand.