Dalhart’s First National Bank was not open for business on June 27, 1931. Customers banged on the door and were met with a sign saying that the bank was insolvent. On the same day, the heat reached 112 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the hottest day in the town’s short history. Dalhart was starting to feel like the rest of the country—desperate and meaner. It now seemed as though the boom of the previous decade had burst, as though it were only hot air.
Egan draws a comparison between the heat of the day, which worsened people’s feelings of being under pressure, and the metaphorical hot air of an economic bubble. The citizens of Dalhart were beginning to grasp that they had been lied to—wealth was not as abundant and guaranteed as they had hoped.
Doc Dawson had put money into First National and was worried about his future. He had no pension and Social Security did not yet exist. He had always refused money from patients, taking their offers of livestock and old cars instead. He was also frequently sick with a number of ailments, including Bright’s disease, tuberculosis, and asthma. He did not sleep much and the work of farming was hard on his body. He wanted “to make the dirt work for him,” but “his fields looked dry as chalkboard.”
Dawson was ill-equipped for farming, but he was also ill-equipped for practicing medicine. His generosity made it difficult for him to take money from those whom he treated, and at this point, even if he had asked for monetary payment, it was unlikely that people would have been able to pay him.
A crowd formed outside of the First National Bank. They wanted their new sheriff to force it to reopen. Their accounts were guaranteed by nothing but the bank’s good reputation. The new sheriff, Harvey Foust, tried to calm the crowd. There was nothing he could do; it was the federal government’s concern. In November 1930, 256 banks failed. Sheriff Foust, who had been a hero just a year before for killing a pair of dangerous bootleggers and promoted from deputy to sheriff, was now drunk on the job. He seemed like a haunted man.
Foust, one of Dalhart’s heroes, was showing people that he was merely a man who felt as powerless as they did in the face of forces beyond his control. His previous action had drawn a clear line between “good guys” and “bad guys.” What was frustrating to people was that their enemies were no longer self-evident, and their heroes were no longer effective in confronting injustice.
In the DeSoto Hotel, its owner, Dick Coon, tried to keep people’s spirits up. People thought that Dick Coon and other big shots kept their money in mattresses or dug ditches. However, Dick was in trouble. His properties were losing money due to the inability of people to pay rent. Still, he kept his poker face. Only his friends knew his concern.
Coon had bought more property than he could afford, thinking that the drop in real estate prices would aid his business. He did not anticipate that locals, who were largely dependent on the wheat industry, would not be able to afford his services.
The only business that flourished in the midst of Dalhart’s decline was the brothel, the Number 126 house. The prostitutes who worked there showed off the business’s prosperity by frequently getting their hair done and buying new clothes. The owner, Lil Walker, drove a pink Cadillac. They drove past Uncle Dick Coon’s “crumbling empire,” waving and shouting “yoo-hoo,” leaving behind the scent of their perfume.
The Number 126 house was a place where men could forget that their farms were failing, that they had lost their savings, or that they could not afford to feed their families. The prostitutes offered moments in which the men could escape their fears and desperation, even if it meant giving away much needed money.
It infuriated John McCarty to see that the one business flourishing in his beloved Dalhart was a whorehouse. He insisted that the establishment had to go. When he went to the printer with a story advocating for the removal of the brothel, the printer shook his head and refused to print the story. The men of Dalhart needed those girls, he insisted. McCarty withdrew the story.
McCarty’s vision of Dalhart’s citizens was akin to that of an unanointed nobility. His ideals blinded him to the town’s flaws and also incorrectly blamed the brothel for Dalhart’s diminished reputation.
As the ranks of the unemployed grew, they moved from town to town by rail. Two million Americans were living like this. Some were farmers and factory workers, while others were merchants and bank clerks. As many as eighty people per day arrived in Dalhart at times. Sheriff Foust was responsible for putting them back on the train. If they were black, they could be arrested for vagrancy as soon as they stepped off the tracks, then sent to work on a chain gang for four months. In September 1929, over 1.5. million people were unemployed. That number tripled by February of the following year. President Hoover insisted that the economy was not sick; Americans simply no longer believed in themselves.
The Depression had created a nation of drifters, many of whom went West—where, they imagined, they could start over. Texas’s pity for these strivers did not extend to black people, who were kept and forced to perform free labor for the state. This action indicates that Texas, for all of its progress, had not relinquished its view that black people were not citizens. The message from the White House was tone deaf, blaming the citizenry for its problems instead of recognizing flaws in free market economics.
By the end of 1930, eight million people were unemployed. The financial institutions that previously seemed invincible were now out of business, and bankers were regarded as swindlers who had stolen people’s property and life savings. In 1930, 1,350 banks failed, losing $853 million in deposits. The following year, 2,294 more banks collapsed. Then, at the end of 1931, the Bank of the United States in New York folded. It held deposits of two hundred million dollars. That bank failure led to the loss of twelve million jobs, or 25 percent of the work force.
The collapse of the economy following the cataclysm of the stock market crash was swift. No system of insurance yet existed that would have allowed people to recoup their funds before a bank folded. Nevertheless, without financial institutions other industries could not survive, meaning that people would be unable to generate new income.
John McCarty worried about the survival of his newspaper. He had taken the paper from a weekly to a daily. Its circulation growth had been “robust.” McCarty begged his advertisers to stick with him. He would only print good news, despite what was happening on the prairie.
McCarty’s ploy only to print “good news” was not a decision that he made to uplift the spirits of the downtrodden, but rather to sell papers. He was not concerned with informing people about what had happened.
Some people said that Jewish people were to blame for what was happening, and that they did not belong in a place where its citizens believed themselves to be “of the highest type of Anglo-Saxon ancestry.” They blamed a “Jewish system of banking” for the collapse of the economy. Father Charles E. Coughlin, the radio priest from Detroit, spoke to a million listeners each week and revealed the original Jewish names of Hollywood movie stars, “as if detailing a sinister plot.”
With the absence of accessible information from newspapers, misinformation flourished. McCarty, who had previously connected the wheat farmers’ success to their whiteness and Christian lineage, was also responsible for the growing resentment toward Jewish people, even though hardly any existed in Dalhart.
Herzstein’s store, however, filled a need in Dalhart, Boise City, and at their headquarters in Clayton, New Mexico. They provided their customers with complete outfits, stitched to size. To help their customers continue to buy clothing after the Depression, they slashed their prices “below their break-even point.” Still, they were falling behind, like most businesses. In 1931, more than 28,000 businesses failed, and those who retained their jobs saw their wages fall by a third or more. The typical factory worker went from making twenty-four dollars per week to sixteen dollars per week.
Despite the false belief that predatory Jews had ruined the economy that was now badly impacting the High Plains, the Herzsteins stayed. They also generously cut their prices and provided the same level of service, not only to stay in business, but also to help their customers feel some sense of pride in the midst of having lost so much.
Relatives from Philadelphia would visit and wonder why the Herzsteins had remained in the Southern Plains. They had originally come west over the Santa Fe Trail, and were the first Jewish people in New Mexico, beginning in the 1840s. They had staked their claim in Liberty, where they were hoping a railroad line would lay tracks. Then, one day in 1896, Black Jack Ketchum rode into Herzstein’s general merchandise store and robbed Levi Herzstein, one of the store’s owners, of all of the store’s cash and much of the merchandise. Levi organized a posse and hunted Black Jack “up among the dormant volcanoes north of the Llano Estacado” and into No Man’s Land. Herzstein moved forward to shoot Black Jack, who pulled a pistol from his side and shot Herzstein in the stomach.
Based on Egan’s account, it seems that the Herzsteins were the only Jewish family in the High Plains. Their isolation, coupled with the anti-Semitism of the era, made them more vulnerable. Levi Herzstein’s retaliation against Black Jack for the robbery indicates that the High Plains during the 1890s was a place of near lawlessness. Justice was meted out personally through vigilante gangs or the organization of a posse. It is also possible that Black Jack faced no legal action specifically because he had murdered a Jewish person.
It took four years for the authorities to catch Black Jack Ketchum. In the meantime, Black Jack was shot in the arm by a conductor while trying to rob a train. The shotgun blast shattered his arm and led to it being amputated. He was soon to be hanged in Clayton, New Mexico, which supposedly had “more guns per capita than any place in the West.” Clayton was also the place where Morris Herzstein, the surviving brother, set up a new store and settled down. Black Jack was set to be hanged on April 26, 1901, the same week that Simon Herzstein, Morris and Levi’s nephew, arrived from Philadelphia with his wife, Maude Edwards. When they got off the train in Clayton, Maude looked around and was horrified by the saloons and the advertisements for Black Jack’s execution, but Simon found the town fascinating.
Interestingly, the authorities did not “catch” Black Jack until he attempted to rob a train. This suggests that the railroad companies, who did not want Black Jack to be an example for other potential train robbers, convinced the authorities to take swift action in arresting him. Despite their loss, the Herzsteins remained resolute in not only staying in the High Plains, but in expanding their business. Prim and proper Maude Edwards, however, was a bit out of place in a territory that prided itself on violence, crude entertainment, and swift retribution against offenders.
Black Jack Ketchum’s execution was set for 1:00 PM. People came from hundreds of miles to see, and newspapers from St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Denver sent correspondents to report on it. Black Jack was not yet thirty-seven. He had a shock of black hair and he had gained more than fifty pounds in jail. His last words as the noose was put around his neck were, “Let her rip.” However, the hanging went wrong. The tightened rope did not cleanly snap Black Jack’s neck behind the ear; instead it caused his head to pop off. No one was sure how it happened, but a decapitation by hanging was rare, one of only a few in the recorded history of American execution. The sight of Black Jack’s hooded head breaking and rolling to the feet of the crowd was Maude Edwards’ welcome to the High Plains. Simon Herzstein never tired of telling this story.
The outcome of Ketchum’s execution is both morbid and somewhat humorous, given his last words. He probably did not expect the rope to “rip” his head cleanly off of his head. The public appeal of his execution reveals that the country took a macabre interest in the execution of criminals. Public executions satisfied a desire for justice on Biblical terms, as well as feeding a curiosity about what it looked like to watch someone die—and provided a morbid scene of “entertainment” in an otherwise mostly utilitarian existence.
Simon Herzstein was an astute businessman. He never kept a ledger; all of his account records were in his head. He often let people buy on credit, confident that they would pay. Privately, Simon loved baseball, poker, and bridge. He also loved to throw big dinner parties, which Maude also enjoyed. The company distracted her from “the wind and the empty skies.” Conversely, Simon loved the West—its freshness and its indigenous heritage. When the town began to fold financially, Simon stayed in good spirits, never letting anyone know that he, too, was in dire straits. Then, the town of Dalhart went after Simon with foreclosure papers for not paying his taxes in over a year. Dick Coon owned the property in which Herzstein’s was housed. He asked his lawyer what could be done to save “the only man on the High Plains trying to keep people dressed to match their lost dignity.”
Like Willie Dawson, the Herzsteins tried to distract themselves from their economic woes by continuing to do the things that they enjoyed. For Maude, the distraction was necessary to keep her from thinking about her relative loneliness on the plains, which did not offer the entertainments of Philadelphia. Coon’s attempt to save Herzstein’s was based partly on the invaluable service that the family provided to the people of Dalhart, but Coon was probably also worried about the financial loss that he too would suffer if the clothing business went under.
As Dalhart fell into further debt, people in other parts of the Panhandle tried to retain hope that the harvest of 1931 would save them. They were sure that the land would provide. Meanwhile, American families in Arkansas foraged for dandelions and blackberries. Further east, in the Carolinas and West Virginia, there were stories of “each kid getting a shot at dinner every fourth night.” In New York, 500,000 people were getting eight dollars a month on city relief.
People either ignored the drop in prices or believed that they would rise again, not understanding that the market was oversupplied with wheat. It is also possible that people deluded themselves into thinking that the market would rebound to keep themselves from regressing into panic and fear.
On the High Plains, the wheat poured out of threshers in the early summer of 1931. On the Texas Panhandle, two million acres of sod had been turned—300 percent more than ten years ago. In Baca County, Colorado, two hundred thousand acres were turned over. In Cimarron County, Oklahoma, another quarter million acres were turned. The wheat harvest had hit a record of 250 million bushels nationwide. By the end of 1931, the prairie was a different land—“thirty-three million acres stripped bare in the Southern Plains.” Still, the market remained at nearly 50 percent below what it cost farmers to grow grain. It was the lowest price ever.
Farmers, encouraged by Hoover’s free market beliefs and the president’s insistence that Americans could work themselves out of poverty if they just believed in themselves, continued to plow fields and thresh wheat, as though they were trying to stem the decay all around them by growing more wheat. What they were doing instead was fostering denial as well as the soil conditions that would create the Dust Bowl.
Then, the land hardened. The grain toasted in the heat. Bam White looked in the sky, scanning it for a “sun dog,” a phrase he used to describe a “halo” that promised rain. He awaited it throughout July, August, and September, but saw nothing. The livestock was lethargic in the heat. The rains left and did not return for another eight years.
The plains became ominously dry and inactive. The weather pattern had been disrupted, and people like Bam, who knew the plains far better than the newcomers, were worried that something had gone awry.