Insects appeared, and grasshoppers chewed up the wheat fields. Centipedes crawled up the drapes and around the floor. Willie Dawson began to see black tarantulas “with two-inch long legs and [bodies] the size of an apple” walking around her kitchen. Children and elderly people had died from black widow bites. Rabbits were also rampant. They were an easy source of food, but they took plenty of food in places where farmers were still trying to raise crops. John McCarty introduced the idea of rabbit drives and advertised them in the Dalhart Texan. People would gather and club as many rabbits as they could. Melt White disobeyed his father and went to a drive. He did not participate, but he watched. He later told his mother that he heard the rabbits cry as they died, and memories of the sound gave him nightmares.
Nesters were already accustomed to pests in their dugouts, but they were now overwhelmed by them due to the absence of the animals’ predators. They were at war with a natural world that they did not fully understand, and believed that they could simply destroy the creatures that inconvenienced them. The rabbit drives were a particularly grim example of the ease with which people could destroy life for no other purpose than their delight in killing. The settlers bashed rabbits as though the animals were proxies for the people who had fostered their misery.
Rabbit drives became a weekly event in some places. In Hooker, Oklahoma people shipped off two thousand rabbits they killed after one drive “as surplus meat.” However, it was hard to keep the meat from spoiling, and no one cared to butcher so many rabbits. The dead animals were instead left to buzzards and insects or buried in pits.
The need to cast blame for their losses, even on other elements of nature, created a culture of death and destruction in the plains. The settlers were fixed to destroy anything and everything that stood in the way of restoring their way of life.
The Southern Plains reached record temperatures. In Baca County, it was 115 degrees Fahrenheit one day. The heat was unbearable in the Osteen dugout. Ike’s mother had the idea of cooling the dugout with water from the well. Ike and Oscar poured water over the roof and the interior “steamed like a sauna.” There were only two windows. Sometimes, dust drifted to the windows and Ike had to shovel it. He continued to do his chores at home, but he resented going to school. Also, there was no money to make from plowing fields.
Though the Southern Plains generally experienced high temperatures, the lack of rain made the region especially hot. Osteen’s comparison of the dugout to a sauna gives an impression of its extraordinary heat while also drawing an odd parallel between a place of relaxation and luxury—a sauna—and a dugout, which was known for its discomfort and association with poverty.
Black Jack Ketchum had been buried for thirty years—and in an age where bankers were perceived as thieves, Black Jack didn’t seem so bad after all. He was the most famous outlaw from the Southern Plains. He had ridden with Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang between committing robberies in No Man’s Land. A group of prominent citizens decided to exhume him and move his body into Clayton Cemetery. John McCarty wrote that “Black Jack had his good points when you compare him with the rats modern civilization is having to deal with.” The Herzstein family were not pleased to hear this. Black Jack had never been tried for Levi Herzstein’s murder. He had only been hanged because the railroad companies had lobbied for “the death penalty as punishment for certain kinds of train heists.”
Through an odd twist of public opinion, Black Jack Ketchum had become a local hero for taking money away from the institutions that had taken so much from the nesters. He and other bank and train robbers of the era were famous, sympathetic figures. People forgot that they were killers and focused only on their willingness to take money away from dishonest banks. They also forgot that Black Jack did not merely rob trains but also local businesses, such as Herzstein’s. However, it was a Jewish business, and many shared the false belief that Jews were somehow at fault for their pain.
Simon and Maude Herzstein kept their spirits up by holding a big Friday dinner party, for which they cooked duck or venison and offered their guests wine. On September 11, 1933, about three thousand people gathered to exhume Black Jack Ketchum. His body looked rather well-preserved. He was taken to the new cemetery but buried some distance away from others at rest. The citizens left the grave without a tombstone. The town felt that it “had done right by the Ketchum boy,” but the Herzsteins found the gesture appalling.
The lack of sympathy toward the Herzsteins may have partly been due to their relative prosperity in relation to other settlers. It was also partly due to anti-Semitism. No one cared much about the Herzsteins’ personal loss, despite how hard they had worked to offer people a feeling of dignity in troubled times.
In the fall of 1932, no one planted wheat. It was pointless. Only twelve inches of rain fell in No Man’s Land, and the food that the Lucas family had kept from the 1931 harvest was all gone. Some families had a few row crops, but they dried up. There was nothing but tumbleweed to feed the livestock. Fred Folkers told his neighbors that, if one ground and salted the weed, the animals would eat it. Hazel Lucas was still living in town and teaching at a school that could barely pay her, while her husband tried to set up a funeral home in their rental house. Her uncle, C.C. Lucas, was struggling to survive.
People could not even manage to cultivate enough of a harvest to feed themselves. They still had enough livestock to provide sources of milk and meat, but the rich grass that had once nourished the cattle was gone, leaving only dried weed, which would cause the cattle to thin out. The Lucases’ reliance on both tumbleweed and a funeral home to keep them afloat is indicative of the decay that consumed No Man’s Land.
C.C. Lucas could not make a living from the land. He managed to squeeze a bit of milk out of his cows by rubbing their udders with axle grease. The Lucas children were bothered by all of the bugs. There were so many—green worms on the fence, black widows and tarantulas who might be hiding in their beds. Hazel Lucas still believed that the worst would soon be over. They had accomplished so much and they had seen nature’s wrath before, including hailstorms that could collapse a house and the prairie fires caused by lightning. She thought that the best way to overcome despair was by thinking of a new life. She wanted to start a family. After all, this drought could not last into 1933.
The Lucas family had gone broke and were inundated by pests, which added to their torment. Hazel wanted to inject brightness into her own life and that of her family. A child would motivate them all, she thought, to look toward the future and to have hope. It would also distract them from their present lives, which seemed mired in decay and death.
People believed that the storm of 1932 that came from Amarillo was anomalous. The storms that came in March were shorter and smaller than the big “duster” from Texas in January. However, there were half a dozen dusters in late winter, and in April, there were nonstop winds. A bad storm was one in which a person could see no more than a quarter mile. In 1932, there were fourteen blinding storms. The biggest one frightened the children Hazel Lucas taught in her school, as the sky darkened and the sun seemed eclipsed. Suddenly, the windows of the school were blown out and dust poured into the classrooms. Some of the children could not stop crying, and went home with muddy tears streaming down their cheeks. After that particular dust storm, some parents kept their children home. School was not safe either.
Though western Texas experienced a series of these storms in 1932, people insisted that the blackest and most dangerous of them—the storm that stalled cars in front of the DeSoto and blinded a little boy—was an oddity. This belief probably gave them comfort, as they did not want to believe that something so frightening could occur again. Egan’s anecdote of the storm’s attack on Hazel Lucas’s school uses the experience of children to emphasize the terror that the storms aroused. Parents kept their children home, as places that were traditionally regarded as safe no longer were.
Bill Baker, the county agriculture man in Boise City, was a history buff. One day he found a mummy inside of a cave in a corner of Cimarron County. It was thirty-eight inches long with a broad face and forehead, and a head of shoulder-length hair. Archaeologists who completed the excavation said that the mummified boy was from the “Basket Maker” period over 2,000 years ago. To Baker, this indicated that people had farmed No Man’s Land and lived there since the era of Christ. It astonished him to think that the nesters had been there for barely a generation and the land was already “collapsing from within” and turning lethal. Others, however, knew how to live in this place. The Native Americans knew something, but they were mostly gone, pushed away before they could offer guidance.
Baker’s excavations reminded the nesters that the land had a history that had existed long before their arrival. No Man’s Land, which was nicknamed for its supposed inhabitability, had sustained human life for thousands of years. However, the nesters’ excesses had rendered the land nearly uninhabitable. Their belief that they could make better use of the land than the indigenous people, a point of view first held by the cowboys, had been proven disastrously wrong.
Sitting Bull predicted that the land would get revenge on the whites for pushing the natives off of the grasslands. One Bull, Sitting Bull’s nephew, tried to reverse the prophecy by asking a professor at the University of Oklahoma, Stanley Campbell, to return a medicine bag. The rightful owners of the bag could influence the weather, One Bull told Campbell.
Many indigenous people believed that the dust storms were a manifestation of Sitting Bull’s prediction. The usurpation of their land and their artifacts by whites had, they suggested, resulted in an imbalance that only they could correct.
The Mexicans, too, had been pushed out of the territory. They had more history in the Panhandle than any whites in Boise City. Juan Cruz Lujan and his brother, Francisco, had a sheep ranch in Carrumpa Valley that was the oldest home in Cimarron County. Lujan was born in Mexico in 1858 and ran away from home to become an ox team driver. Later, he and his brother set up a sheep ranch. The animals thrived in the abundant grasslands. Juan fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy sheep rancher, Virginia Valdez, and they were married by a Jesuit priest who persuaded them to build a chapel on No Man’s Land. It became a meeting place for Mexicans and Catholics. Together, they had nine children, though five died in childbirth or shortly thereafter. Joe Garza was also born on the ranch, and the Lujans treated him like a son.
Though Lujan and his brother were compatible with the region’s valorization of self-made people who worked the land, they were resented for their ethnic identity. Mexican citizens were reminders of Mexico’s former control of the region. As with their erasure of the southwestern tribes, white settlers were eager to inscribe the narrative of their settlement as the only legitimate one. Nevertheless, Lujan and his wife established their own imprint in the region, including the construction of community institutions that were unique to their heritage and traditions.
Bill Baker asked Lujan if there was ever a time when the town had been so dry. Lujan was a storyteller. He was sad about what had happened to the prairie and it was difficult for him to hide his rage. He was sure that there were dry times before, but the droughts had never destroyed the grass. Now, it was completely gone. There were only a few patches of brown. Worse, the dust was killing Lujan’s wife, Virginia. Joe Garza’s father, Pablo, also suffered from bronchial fits.
Lujan risked losing his grazing lands and, worse, his wife and father, due to the excesses of the wheat farmers. His personal history of the region reinforced the views of Bam White and newcomer Lawrence Svobida, who insisted that the problem was man-made, not natural.
Though Lujan had lived in No Man’s Land longer than any Anglo, he and other people of Mexican descent now feared deportation. Lujan was American, but his ranch was perceived as a refuge for Mexicans “who took jobs away from Anglos.” In 1930, there were around 1.5 million Latinos, mostly Mexican, living in the United States. Many arrived to work on sugar beet farms in Colorado and Kansas and on cotton plantations in Texas. At the beginning of the Depression, Hispanics were being deported. Los Angeles spent $77,000 to send over 6,000 Mexicans to Mexico. Lujan assured his ranch hands that no one would be forced out—a bigger concern was how to keep the ranch going with no grass.
In a region that had become dominated by Anglos, Lujan had come to be regarded as a “foreigner,” despite his family’s long history in the Panhandle. The jobs that he gave to Mexicans on his ranch, which many whites may not have even wanted, were perceived as jobs for whites by default, due to white settlers’ sense of themselves as legitimate citizens versus the perceived illegitimacy of Mexican citizens. However, Lujan risked losing his workers anyway if the grass disappeared.
Though the first dusters of 1932 were a mystery, Hugh Hammond Bennett thought he could explain them—he was sure that they had been caused by humans. He believed that Americans, particularly, had been great destroyers of land.
Bennett blamed American arrogance for the problem on the plains. The notion of Manifest Destiny, which encouraged settlers to push westward and to consume all of the nation’s land, seemed to justify their thoughtless exploitation.
Bennett grew up on a 1,200-acre cotton plantation in North Carolina, where he was frustrated by the government’s encouragement of “an exploitive farming binge.” The farmers on the Great Plains, he thought, were working against nature. The land had been eroded to “a thin veneer.” Worse, people were walking away from the land they had destroyed, taking no responsibility. Soon, the land would become barren and the country would be unable to feed itself. Americans had become an awful geological force, changing the face of the earth faster than any weather or seismic activity “and all the excavations of mankind since the beginning of history.”
Bennett came from the landowning background that many settlers hoped to replicate on the plains, due to their inability to acquire similar parcels of land in the East or in their home countries. Their desire to acquire wealth through land had made the settlers seem ravenous, as though they had clawed through the earth, devouring its richness.