Winter came, but only offered a brief snowstorm. Farmers needed more snow to insulate the nubs of wheat during the season of dormancy. The snow would also provide the first drops of moisture in the spring, which would help the wheat get started again. Life in the cities was no better; there was no work. In the country, the harder people worked, the less money they made. Wheat bottomed out at nineteen cents a bushel in some markets—“an all-time low.” Both farmers in No Man’s Land and policymakers in Washington were puzzled.
What is ironic is that the better educated and more sophisticated policy-makers in Washington were just as confused about what was happening to the wheat market as the less educated farmers. For working people, there was nowhere to go. Jobs had disappeared in the cities and the land was drying up in the country.
Farmers begged Washington for relief, but President Hoover refused to budge on his position not to interfere with the market. Farmers rebelled. The National Farmers Holiday Association encouraged its members to resist by staying home, buying nothing and selling nothing. This way, Hoover would be forced to set a minimum price for grain. The problem was that people were already buying and selling nothing. The head of one farmer’s group suspected that capitalism was doomed.
Though Hoover was obligated to take some action to assuage the farmers’ fears, the wheat market was also too far gone for any policy action to be effective. A minimum price for wheat should have been set long ago, in addition to discouraging farmers to grow all they could to make as much money as possible. Both greed and a lack of regulation were responsible.
By 1932, about one-third of farmers on the Great Plains were at risk of foreclosure for unpaid taxes and other debts. Nationwide, one in twenty were losing their farms. In Le Mars, Iowa, farmers barged into a courtroom and demanded that a judge not sign any more foreclosure notices. They threatened to hang him, but the judge’s life was spared by calmer folks. The irate farmers were then “rounded up by the Iowa National Guard and detained behind a makeshift, barbed-wire outdoor prison.” Both wheat and livestock sank below the cost of production. Farmers threatened that, if they went down, they would take the entire country with them.
The farmers’ uprising was a sign of desperation and an unusual expression of collective solidarity on the plains, where people traditionally prioritized individualism and personal initiative as the means to challenge authority. The farmers’ tactics paralleled the demonstrations of workers in major cities who fought for their own livelihoods through the demand of collective bargaining rights. Their clashes with authorities were often violent.
In No Man’s Land, the Folkers family included their wheat in every meal. Fred Folkers became depressed and started drinking jars of corn whisky. Every bushel of wheat put him deeper into poverty, and he worried about losing everything he owned. He would need at least two years to pay back his debts, just to break even again. Katherine Folkers wanted to go back to Missouri, but things were no better there. Though Fred had saved money, his savings were wiped out in the banking collapse.
The Folkers were forced to eat the crop that they were unable to sell. Their lives were, in a way, ruled by wheat—they needed it to buy basic necessities. In the instance that they could not sell it, it became the only basic necessity available to them. Predictably, Fred sought consolation for his feeling of personal failure in alcohol.
The spring of 1932 was too dry to plant anything. The Folkers family’s land started peeling away. Still, Fred Folkers tried to keep his orchard alive. Though he hauled buckets of water in to nourish it, “the heat bore down on the trees, pests swarmed on the leaves, and what little fruit came after the bud quickly browned and shriveled like raisins.” Only Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, grew. The weeds trapped dust. The Folkers children hauled the weeds away from the barbed-wire fence and saved them to be winter feed for the cattle.
Folkers’ orchard is arguably a symbol of hope—or naivete. His insistence on nourishing it, despite its inevitable failure in the midst of a drought, is an expression of his belief that things would improve on the plains. The family’s use of tumbleweeds is an example of how resourceful plains folk were becoming in response to scarcity. Desperation led to them finding creative ways to survive.
Meanwhile, Fred Folkers had a stomachache and drank corn whisky to treat it. Fred went to a new female doctor in Boise City, and she diagnosed him with stomach cancer. The Folkers were sure that Fred would die, but the doctor assured them that she had developed a cure—salve and a bandage would draw out the disease, she said. Fred spent several weeks in the woman’s small hospital while she applied the salve daily. Fred was too broke to pay her. She encouraged him to sell his cows and Model-T, but he needed them. He decided to give her some money that he had never put in the bank. He returned home with a scar on his stomach where the doctor had applied the salve. He believed that the treatment had worked. Then, his gut burst—and the doctor had left town. A doctor in Texhoma diagnosed him with appendicitis and saved Fred’s life.
Fred’s abuse of corn whisky led him to think that he had stomach cancer, a view that was reinforced by a woman who had come to the plains pretending to be a doctor. The family’s desperate fear of losing their primary wage owner led them to trust an implausible idea for a cure. The charlatan had gone to the plains to capitalize off of the ignorance and naivete of its people, as well as their desperate hope that someone could relieve their pain. The “doctor’s” salve was similar in effect to Hoover’s empty rhetoric: it offered temporary comfort, but no cure.
The Folkers’ neighbor, Will Crawford, met his wife, Sadie, after finding her note in the front pocket of his overalls. He took out another mortgage on their half-section, but their money dwindled and their old car died. Will felt ashamed of his hardship, feeling that he could not be the “real man” Sadie wanted. He appeared as though he no longer cared about his life. His and Sadie’s clothes were tattered, but Sadie still planted a garden. They grew enough to stay alive—cabbage, potatoes, corn, and onions, but the cold northern winds froze their crops.
Crawford suffered a personal crisis regarding his sense of masculinity, due to being unable to take care of his wife. Sadie had married him based on an idea of manhood that she connected to his corpulence. His inability to provide was, to him, a demonstration of weakness that was incompatible with his self-image.
There was little cash in Boise City. People traded and sold what they could to survive. Hi Barrick, the Cimarron County sheriff, had previously wanted to get rich like everyone else “in the wheat bonanza,” but he could never grow a big enough crop. Farmer Barrick saw the town sheriff drunk on duty and reported it. Someone suggested that he run for sheriff instead—Barrick did, and he won. He moved to Boise City “and took up residence in the courthouse, next to the jail.” He chased the same bootleggers around No Man’s Land, brought them in to serve a bit of jail time, released them a few days later, then chased them again. Busting moonshiners was a good way to spread their sugar around town, which he gave away in front of the courthouse.
In his position as sheriff, Barrick became even more effective in providing people with a resource that they needed, particularly given the national decline in the demand for wheat. He provided people with free sugar without really taking away the alcohol that provided them with comfort during hard times. He made it look as though he was interested in enforcing Prohibition by arresting the bootleggers, but he then released them to resume their business.
John Johnson’s bank held weekly foreclosure auctions. He knew about the conspiracy of low bidding among the farmers—the ten-cent sales, during which they offered no more than a dime for expensive farm equipment. The threat of hanging prevented people from buying someone’s homestead in a bankruptcy sale.
The farmers’ tactic here allowed people to keep their farms and their farming equipment. They regarded people like Johnson as responsible for the crisis and, in this last effort of resistance, refused to let him win by giving up their farms.
The new governor of Oklahoma, William Henry David Murray, known as “Alfalfa Bill,” gave people both hope and hate. He was elected in 1930 on a campaign based on “The Three C’s—Corporations, Carpetbaggers, and Coons.” He defeated his opponent by a huge margin. He got his nickname “Alfalfa” through his tireless support of agriculture as the basis of society. His father was a winemaker whose wine was a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt’s.
In politics, hope and hate are not always mutually exclusive. Many Oklahomans were looking for people to blame for their hardship. Distant forces, such as corporations, were easy to vilify. It was also easy to blame a changing society. A society that gave more rights to black people was suspected of taking them away from whites.
Alfalfa Bill was born in Toadsuck, Texas in 1869. He ran away at the age of twelve to work on farms. As an adult, he got involved in populist politics, bought a newspaper, and educated himself to pass the state bar. He became president of the Oklahoma statehood convention in 1906. He believed that Oklahoma could only be a great state if segregation were strictly enforced and black people were limited to jobs in fields or in factories. In Texas, lawmakers had instituted a similar law during Reconstruction. Alfalfa Bill hated Jewish people, too. While he believed that blacks “had some virtues,” he thought that Jews had none. He also disliked Italians, believing them to be among the “low grade races” of southern Europe.
Alfalfa Bill epitomized an American ideal of a self-made man. He had spent nearly his entire life working and, more importantly, was someone who understood the life of a farmer. However, he was also a man with a degree of learning—which he developed without the help of “snobby” professors—and some business success. These qualities encouraged people to listen to him. He was like them, but also a cut above them. He also validated their prejudices and reinforced the false view that minorities created white settlers’ problems.
President Theodore Roosevelt would only allow Oklahoma to become the forty-sixth state after Governor Murray removed the segregationist planks from the state constitution. Murray was furious with the demand, and developed a lifelong grudge against the Roosevelt family.
This disagreement reveals that there was a disconnect between the national politics of the time, which were more progressive on race, and those in Oklahoma, which saw the maintenance of a racist status quo as fundamental to its identity as a state.
At the start of the Depression, Governor Murray “was a mustachioed, haunt-eyed, big-eared man of sixty” who talked for hours, fueled by caffeine and nicotine. He expressed his power through the National Guard. Murray ruled by martial law and called out the guard twenty-seven times in his first two years of office, and thirty-four times in all four years. When oil prices fell in 1931, he sent out troops to force the shutdown of three thousand wells to drive prices back up. When Texas supported the construction of a toll bridge across the Red River, on the border with Oklahoma, Murray sent the guard out, provoking a standoff. He showed up himself, waving his antique revolver in the faces of Texas Rangers. When black people tried to hold an Emancipation Day parade in Oklahoma City, he imposed martial law. Black people, he insisted, were supposed to be nearly invisible.
Murray was authoritarian, white supremacist, and anti-tax, seeing the toll bridge as an infringement on people’s right to do what they pleased with their own income. His revolver-waving and open oppression of black people endeared him among whites who saw him as representative of their interests, which was to ensure that every white man willing to work the soil would make a decent living and would be able to keep every penny that he earned. Allowing black people to occupy public space freely was, for Murray and many of his supporters, a challenge to white dominance, which they met with violence.
In 1932, there was no rain. Alfalfa Bill encouraged people to fight nature with force. He plowed up grass on the grounds of the capitol and let people plant vegetables. He created lakes and ponds to show people that water could be dug up out of the ground. He insisted that the Ogallala Aquifer was there to be dug into. People in Boise City strongly supported his plans. Water was no longer trickling down from the Rockies, and the Cimarron had nearly dried up.
Alfalfa Bill was as ignorant as most people regarding ecology, which was not a well-known science at the time. He fostered the belief that humans were in total control of their environment and could get what they wanted from it. Though he was right about the human impact on nature, he did not see the ill that it could cause as well.
In the spring of 1932, Alfalfa Bill decided to run for president. He would use the same campaign model that got him elected governor in a landslide. This time, he would run on “Four B’s: Bread, Butter, Bacon, and Beans.”
Alfalfa Bill tailored his message to appeal to people in both cities and the country who could no longer afford food, though he had no tangible plan on how to address hunger.
The suitcase farmers—those who flooded into the Southern Plains during the wheat boom to get rich quick—abandoned the land that they had torn up. Some with homesteads also left. Others had no plans to go anywhere and, judging from the Movietone newsreels they saw in the Mission Theater in Dalhart, there was nowhere to go. Cities were just as desperate. At least on the farms, people could get some eggs from hens or a pail of milk from an old cow. They could get the windmill to pump enough water to grow vegetables or fatten a pig which they could slaughter and “then smoke [for] a winter’s supply of bacon.” They also insisted that things would change. They hung on, for they had nothing else, and going elsewhere meant venturing into the unknown.
There were plenty of people who moved to the plains in the way that “carpetbaggers” had moved into the South after the Civil War—they looked only to profit off of a region in the midst of an economic collapse. However, many of the settlers were committed to their homes and thought that it was wiser to depend on the few resources they had on their farms than to go to strange and crowded cities, where they would have to depend on factories to give them jobs that might not exist. They were accustomed to the soil’s changes and believed that this might also be a phase.
Subsistence farming may have brought people temporary wealth, but it did nothing beneficial for the land. Sixteen million acres had been cultivated in Oklahoma, but thirteen million were eroded—and this occurred “before the drought had calcified most of the ground.” Some of the erosion was due to natural phenomena—wind and the brief but heavy rain and hailstorms. Neglect was also to blame. Farmers had created the biggest wheat crops in history, transforming the grasslands into the source of a major global commodity. Then, they walked away from the land.
When wheat farming was no longer profitable, people abandoned the soil they had turned over, leaving it exposed and vulnerable to the elements that would have normally protected and nourished it. The ambitious farmers made wheat a major global commodity, but they had also transformed the physical geography of the Great Plains, resulting in shifts in climate, weather patterns, and an imbalance in native species populations.
Lawrence Svobia, a Kansas wheat farmer, kept a journal of the crop’s decline. He had come to the plains in 1929, thinking that he could never fail. He declared his first crop “breathtaking,” but he never made money on another crop. The native sod of the Great Plains held the land in place and nurtured the native wildlife. Even during the driest years, “the web of life held.” When farmers tore up that sod, it left the land naked. No grass could grow because the roots were gone. No one was talking about this, though—instead, people were trying to find their way out of a dark economy.
Svobia was one of few nesters, it seemed, who paid attention to the impact that wheat farming had on the native soil. He also seemed to understand how the focus on cultivating more crops was distracting people from the longer-term damage they were causing, which would make it less feasible to farm in the future.
Around noon on January 21, 1932, a ten-thousand-foot cloud appeared outside of Amarillo, Texas. The sky turned brownish and then gray as the cloud moved. It looked thick, “like coarse animal hair.” It moved up the Texas Panhandle, toward Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas. Bam White thought that he was looking at a moving mountain range, despite the Llano Estacado being “one of the flattest places on earth.” There were no ten-thousand-foot mountains on the horizon. Bam told his sons to run for protection. The cloud passed over Dalhart quickly, briefly blocking out the sun. The dust invaded people’s homes and bodies before moving on. They blew their noses and drew out “black snot.” Melt White asked his father what it was. Bam said that it was the earth itself. It happened because people turned the earth the “wrong side up.”
Egan describes a sky that was not only dark, but that had a texture and a mobility, like a roaming animal. The comparison to “coarse animal hair” conjures up the image of the bison—as though the ghost of the animals had returned to the plains to haunt the settlers who killed them in vast numbers. Interestingly, Egan positions Bam, the descendant of indigenous people, as a witness to the destruction that the white settlers’ callousness had wrought.