Wheat was the crop that dominated the agricultural industry in the Great Plains, and the crop on which nesters in the Southern Plains relied to generate income. In a land where people had always believed nothing could grow, suddenly there was wheat—golden and plentiful. In The Worst Hard Time, wheat is a symbol of prosperity and hope against great odds—but also the fragility of such prosperity. When George Alexander Ehrlich traversed the Atlantic Ocean during a hurricane, he brought with him a hearty variety of wheat—turkey red—that he intended to plant when he arrived in Oklahoma. His ability to stake a section of land in the Oklahoma Panhandle and plant his crop led to the settlement of a small Russo-German community that had previously migrated around Europe for nearly 200 years. Wheat allowed immigrants like Ehrlich, with nowhere else to go, a chance to create a permanent home. It also allowed for people who had always been poor to own their own piece of land and to generate income from it. During the 1920s, wheat made some farmers rich. Income from the sale of wheat funded the construction of towns and inspired the dream that the High Plains could soon build skyscrapers, indicating that there was a hope to make the High Plains as sophisticated and appealing as any coastal city. However, when the price of wheat fell after the stock market crash and, a few years later, the ground dried up, making it impossible to farm, the boundless hope that the nearly miraculous crop had inspired quickly evaporated in the Southern Plains.
Wheat Quotes in The Worst Hard Time
“The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses,” the Federal Bureau of Soils proclaimed as the grasslands were transformed. “It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up.”
“Americans are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of the land,” said the new president, Herbert Hoover, who took office in 1929. He had won in a landslide, breaking the Democratic hold on the solid South, taking the prairie states with him. The tractors rolled on, the grass yanked up, a million acres a year, turned and pulverized; in just five years, 1925 to 1930, another 5.2 million acres of native sod went under the plow in the southern plains—an area the size of two Yellowstone National Parks.
The land hardened. Rivers that had been full in spring trickled down to a string line of water and then disappeared. That September was the warmest yet in the still-young century. Bam White scanned the sky for a “sun dog,” his term for a halo that foretold of rain; he saw nothing through the heat of July, August, and September. He noticed how the horses were lethargic, trying to conserve energy. Usually, when the animals bucked or stirred, it meant a storm on the way. They had been passive for some time now, in a summer when the rains left and did not come back for nearly eight years.
People were drilling deep and tapping into the main vein of that ancient, underground reservoir of the Ogallala Aquifer, as big as the grassland itself, they said. These new boomers, a handful of men in town, wanted no part of Bennett’s soil-conservation districts. They wanted money to pump up a river of water from the Ogallala, pass it through a tangle of pipes, and spit it out over the sandpapered land. They would grow wheat and corn and sorghum, and they would make a pile, using all the water they wanted, you just wait and see. They talked as if it were the dawn of the wheat boom, twenty years earlier. Melt thought they had not learned a thing from the last decade. The High Plains belonged to Indians and grass, but few people in Dalhart shared his feelings.