The Worst Hard Time retells the story of the Dust Bowl through the memories and family histories of some of its surviving witnesses, particularly Isaac “Ike” Osteen, Melt White, and Jeanne Clark. Their stories also reveal the history of the Southern Plains. Ike Osteen’s family were among the first nesters in Baca County, Colorado, where Ike has resided for his entire life.
The Southern Plains drew many poor people, some of them outcasts in many places—poor white Southerners and Mexicans, for example—who looked to the Southern Plains as their only chance to own property. Melt White’s family came by coincidence. One of his father’s horses had died near Dalhart, Texas. They were on their way south to a town near Amarillo, when Bam White walked to take a look at the nearby town. He saw a young but bustling town and decided to be a part of it. He soon found a house to rent and work as a sharecropper. Jeanne Clark’s mother, Louise Walton, was a former Broadway dancer who arrived as a “lunger”—one of the many migrants who went to the Southern Plains to take advantage of the clean, dry air. The plains air had indeed cured her respiratory problem. Walton stayed, married a rancher, and gave birth to Jeanne.
Others came to the Southern Plains at the encouragement of railroad companies and local syndicates. Previously, the Southern Plains had been dominated by Southwestern indigenous tribes, notably the Kiowa, the Kiowa-Apache, and the Comanche. The Comanche were a warrior tribe who frequently came into violent conflict with “Anglo” (white) Texans. Anglos had little to no respect for the Comanche. They dismissed the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 and frequently invaded Comanche lands, killing masses of bison—the animal on which the tribe depended for sustenance. After destroying the bison and routing out the Comanche, various ranchers moved in, particularly the cowboys who worked on the XIT ranch. Cattle ranchers assumed that their business could never fail on such abundant grazing lands, but cattle proved to be far too fragile for the harshly cold winters, unlike bison, who would withstand temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who had invested in cattle ranching, including investors from as far away as Great Britain, needed to turn a profit on the land and were losing great sums due to dying cattle. They decided to divide the XIT ranch into parcels of land that they could sell to potential homesteaders. Railroad companies organized free trains to pick up hundreds of people each month from towns like Kansas City, Missouri, to show them the land they could have in the Southern Plains. Real estate agents were quick and persuasive.
“Uncle” Dick Coon was trying to make a train connection to Houston when an agent persuaded him to remain in Dalhart. He soon ended up owning most of the property in town. Many of the brochures that the realtors designed were written in German to appeal to the many Russo-German immigrants who were entering the area. George Alexander Ehrlich left the Volga River region to find farm land, peace, and freedom from army conscription. When he immigrated to the United States, he carried a packet of turkey red wheat in his pocket—a hearty variety of grain.
The syndicates had lured people with demonstrations of dry farming. A windmill based on the Dutch model would pump enough water from underground to keep livestock fat and healthy. As for farming, wheat would grow just fine with only twenty inches of rainfall. The out-of-work cowboys were skeptical, however. The Southern Plains did not typically get twenty inches of rain—it got around sixteen on average. Then, there were the droughts, hailstorms, and the sudden prairie fires, which were key for rejuvenating the grasslands, but disastrous for crops. Still, people bought the land that the syndicate sold. For many, it was their only chance to own their own piece of American soil. The last homestead act in 1909 had given away the last of the good farm land, and the Southern Plains were all that remained of the frontier. People had also conveniently forgotten how the railroad companies lied to nesters in the northern plains about the ease of farming in cold, arid land.
In the 1920s, the Great Plains prospered as much as the rest of the country. The wheat crops grew tall and green, and farmers sold as much as they could at market. Some farmers were so successful that they made the equivalent of six-figure salaries each year in today’s American dollars. The plow had made their work much easier. They borrowed money from banks to buy more farm equipment and more land to plant more wheat, never thinking that they would have trouble paying off their loans in such a boom. Farmers soon completely overtook the grasslands, not leaving a single acre unturned.
In 1929, the stock market crashed, but those on the Southern Plains did not yet feel the impact. They associated the crash with brokers and “city slickers,” believing that the financial fallout was distant and less relevant to them. Then, the price of wheat dropped to a point that made it nearly impossible to turn a profit. The market was oversupplied with wheat that people could not buy, and farmers began to worry about paying their mounting debts. Then, in 1932, the drought came. The lack of rain, coupled with the acres of upturned soil, created dust storms. People did what they could to protect their homes and bodies from an invasion of dirt that entered and crept through closed windows and under door cracks. Nesters rubbed the inside of their noses with Vaseline and men avoided shaking hands, for the electric shock this produced could knock both of them backwards. Dust pneumonia, a new ailment, was killing children and the elderly. The storms also brought in more vermin, including tarantulas and centipedes. One storm produced a swarm of grasshoppers. There was also an abundance of rabbits who were both a source of food but also a cause of food loss. John McCarty, editor of the Dalhart Texan, encouraged rabbit drives in which citizens would club the animals to death. Melt White watched one of the drives, and later recalled that he could not forget the sound of the rabbits crying as they were being killed.
Though 1934 had been a dreadful year for dust storms and hopeless for growing crops, the worst dust storm arrived on April 14, 1935. It is known as Black Sunday. A giant cloud turned the sky black. While Thomas Jefferson Johnson walked home from the double funeral for Louzima Lucas and Ruth Nell Shaw, he was knocked down. The dust got into his eyes and blinded him permanently.
Something had to be done to prevent future storms. President Roosevelt had already addressed wheat surpluses in his first New Deal package: the government would become the market, providing subsidies to farmers not to plant more than what was needed. The president then enlisted the help of Hugh Hammond Bennett, a soil scientist, who used the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to teach farmers how to regard the soil as part of a larger ecosystem which all farmers were responsible for maintaining.
Still, the combination of the Depression, the drought, and the relentless dust storms made it impossible for some settlers to recover their losses. Some, like John McCarty, simply left. Others, like George “Doc” Dawson, remained, but planted one unsuccessful crop after another. “Uncle” Dick Coon went broke. His properties had been mortgaged and ceased to turn a profit after the Great Depression.
After the Depression, many farmers simply abandoned the land that they had previously exploited, leaving a myriad of acres vulnerable to the wind. Hammond’s encouragement of respect for the soil, coupled with President Roosevelt’s initiative to plant a line of trees from the Canadian border to Texas, helped to revive the plains. However, with the rise of Big Agra, or industrial-scale farming, the agricultural industry repeated many past mistakes. The trees that Roosevelt had planted were mostly cut down, and farmers have not been careful in their use of limited water resources, particularly the Ogallala Aquifer. There have been exceptionally dry seasons. Some have worried that there will be another Dust Bowl. However, Ike Osteen, who lived through the influenza epidemic of 1918, the Dust Bowl, and the invasion on the beach at Normandy, insists that this is merely talk. No drought has matched what he saw during “the Dirty Thirties.”