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    Original Essays | September 17, 2014

    Merritt Tierce: IMG Has My Husband Read It?

    My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in... Continue »

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11 Remote Warehouse US History- 20th Century
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The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl


The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl Cover




1 The Wanderer

They had been on the road for six days, a clan of five bouncing along in a

tired wagon, when Bam White woke to some bad news. One of his horses

was dead. It was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a flat tire, except this

was the winter of 1926. The Whites had no money. They were moving from

the high desert chill of Las Animas, Colorado, to Littlefield, Texas, south of

Amarillo, to start anew. Bam White was a ranch hand, a lover of horses and

empty skies, at a time when the cowboy was becoming a museum piece in

Texas and an icon in Hollywood. Within a year, Charles Lindbergh would

cross the ocean in his monoplane, and a white man in blackface would

speak from the screen of a motion picture show. The great ranches had been

fenced, platted, subdivided, upturned, and were going out to city builders, oil

drillers, and sodbusters. The least-populated part of Texas was open for

business and riding high in the Roaring Twenties. Overnight, new towns were

rising, bustling with banks, opera houses, electric streetlights, and

restaurants serving seafood sent by train from Galveston.With his handlebar

mustache, bowlegs, and raisin-skinned face, Bam White was a man high-

centered in the wrong century. The plan was to get to Littlefield, where the

winters were not as bad as Colorado, and see if one of the new fancy-

pantsers might need a ranch hand with a quick mind. Word was, a family

could always pick cotton as well.

Now they were stuck in No Man's Land, a long strip of geographic

afterthought in the far western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle, just a sneeze

from Texas. After sunrise, Bam White had a talk with his remaining horses.

He checked their hooves, which were worn and uneven, and looked into their

eyes, trying to find a measure of his animals. They felt bony to the touch,

emaciated by the march south and dwindling rations of feed. The family was

not yet halfway into their exodus. Ahead were 209 miles of road over the

high, dry roof of Texas, across the Canadian river, bypassing dozens of

budding Panhandle hamlets: Wildorado, Lazbuddie, Flagg, Earth, Circle,

Muleshoe, Progress, Circle Back.

If you all can give me another two or three days, White told his

horses, we'll rest you good. Get me to Amarillo, at least.

Bam's wife, Lizzie, hated the feel of No Man's Land. The chill,

hurried along by the wind, made it impossible to stay warm. The land was so

threadbare. It was here that the Great Plains tilted, barely susceptible to

most eyes, rising to nearly a mile above sea level at the western edge. The

family considered dumping the organ, their prized possession. They could

sell it in Boise City and make just enough to pick up another horse. They

asked around: ten dollars was the going rate for an heirloom organ — not

enough to buy a horse. Anyway, Bam White could not bring himself to give it

up. Some of the best memories, through the hardest of years, came with

music pumped from that box. They would push on to Texas, twenty miles

away, moving a lot slower. After burying their dead horse, they headed south.

Through No Man's Land, the family wheeled past fields that had

just been turned, the grass upside down. People in sputtering cars roared by,

honking, hooting at the cowboy family in the horse-drawn wagon, churning up

dust in their faces. The children kept asking if they were getting any closer to

Texas and if it would look different from this long strip of Oklahoma. They

seldom saw a tree in Cimarron County. There wasn't even grass for the horse

team; the sod that hadn't been turned was frozen and brown. Windmills

broke the plain, next to dugouts and sod houses and still-forming villages.

Resting for a long spell at midday, the children played around a buffalo

wallow, the ground mashed. Cimarron is a Mexican hybrid word, descended

from the Apache who spent many nights in these same buffalo wallows. It

means "wanderer."

A few miles to the southeast, archaeologists were just starting to sort

through a lost village, a place where natives, seven hundred years earlier,

built a small urban complex near the Canadian River, the only reliable running

water in the region. People had lived there for nearly two centuries and left

only a few cryptic clues as to how they survived. When Francisco Vásquez

de Coronado marched through the High Plains in 1541, trailing cattle,

soldiers, and priests in pursuit of precious metals, he found only a handful of

villages along the Arkansas River, the homes made of intertwined grass, and

certainly no cities of gold as he was expecting. His entrada was a bust.

Indians on foot passed through, following bison. Some of Bam White's

distant forefathers — the Querechos, ancestors of the Apache — may have

been among them. The Spanish brought horses, which had the same effect

on the Plains Indian economy as railroads did on Anglo villages in the

Midwest. The tribes grew bigger and more powerful, and were able to travel

vast distances to hunt and trade. For most of the 1700s, the Apache

dominated the Panhandle. Then came the Comanche, the Lords of the

Plains. They migrated out of eastern Wyoming, Shoshone people who had

lived in the upper Platte River drainage. With horses, the Comanche moved

south, hunting and raiding over a huge swath of the southern plains, parts of

present-day Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. At their

peak in the mid-1700s, they numbered about twenty thousand. To the few

whites who saw them in the days before homesteading, the Comanche

looked like they sprang fully formed from the prairie grass.

"They are the most extraordinary horsemen that I have seen yet in

all my travels," said the artist George Catlin, who accompanied the cavalry on

a reconnaissance mission to the southern plains in 1834.

The Comanche were polygamous, which pleased many a fur

trader adopted into the tribe. Naked, a Comanche woman was a mural unto

herself, with a range of narrative tattoos all over her body. From afar, the

Indians communicated with hand signals, part of a sign language developed

to get around the wind's theft of their shouts. The Comanche bred horses and

mules — the most reliable currency of the 1800s — and traded them with

California-bound gold-seekers and Santa Fe–bound merchants. In between,

they fought Texans. The Comanche hated Texans more than any other group

of people.

Starting around 1840, the Texas Rangers were organized by the

Republic of Texas to go after the Indians. A mounted Comanche was the

most effective warrior of the plains. The Comanche were difficult targets but

even better on offense. Years of hunting bison from horses at full speed gave

them skills that made for an initial advantage over the Rangers. Once

engaged in battle, they charged with a great, rhythmic whoop — like a

football cheer. After a raid and some rest, they would charge again, this time

wearing their stolen booty, even women's dresses and bonnets. They were

proud after killing Texans.

"They made sorrow come into our camps, and we went out like

buffalo bulls when the cows are attacked," said Comanche leader Ten Bears

in 1867. "When we found them we killed them, and their scalps hang in our

lodges. The white women cried, and our women laughed. The Comanches

are not weak and blind like the pups of a dog when seven sleeps old."

The Comanche buried their dead soldiers on a hill, if they could

find one, and then killed the warriors' horses as well. Bison gave them just

about everything they needed: clothes, shelter, tools, and of course a protein

source that could be dried, smoked, and stewed. Some tepees required

twenty bison skins, stretched and stitched together, and weighed 250

pounds, which was light enough to be portable. The animal stomachs were

dried and used as food containers or water holders. Even tendons were put to

good use, as bowstrings. To supplement the diet, there were wild plums,

grapes, and currants growing in spring-fed creases of the .atland, and

antelope, sage grouse, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens, though many

Comanche thought it was unclean to eat a bird.

The tribe had an agreement signed by the president of the United

States and ratified by Congress, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, which

promised the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and other tribes hunting

rights to much of the Great American Desert, the area south of the Arkansas

River. At the time, there was no more disparaged piece of ground in the coast-

to-coast vision of manifest destiny. The nesters and sodbusters pouring into

the post–Civil War West could have the wetter parts of the plains, east of the

one-hundredth meridian and beyond the Texas Caprock Escarpment. To the

Indians would go the land that nobody wanted: the arid grasslands in the

west. Early on, Comanchero traders called the heart of this area "el Llano

Estacado" — the Staked Plains. It got its name because it was so flat and

featureless that people drove stakes into the ground to provide guidance;

otherwise, a person could get lost in the eternity of flat. The Staked Plains

were reserved for the natives who hunted bison.

At the treaty signing,Ten Bears tried to explain why Indians could

love the High Plains.

"I was born upon the prairie where the wind blew free, and there

was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no

enclosures, and where everything drew free breath. I want to die there, and

not within walls . . . The white man has taken the country we loved and we

only wish to wander on the prairie until we die."

Within a few years of the signing, Anglo hunters invaded the treaty

land. They killed bison by the millions, stockpiling hides and horns for a

lucrative trade back east. Seven million pounds of bison tongues were

shipped out of Dodge City, Kansas, in a single two-year period, 1872–1873, a

time when one government agent estimated the killing at twenty-five million.

Bones, bleaching in the sun in great piles at railroad terminals, were used for

fertilizer, selling for up to ten dollars a ton. Among the gluttons for killing was

a professional buffalo hunter named Tom Nixon, who said he had once killed

120 animals in forty minutes.

Texans ignored the Medicine Lodge Treaty outright, saying Texas

land belonged to Texans, dating to the days of the Republic, and could not

be offered up as part of the American public domain. With the bison

diminishing, the Indians went after Anglo stock herds. Led by Quanah Parker

and other leaders, the Comanche also attacked the trading post at Adobe

Walls, just north of the Canadian River. Parker was regal-looking and

charismatic, with soft features that made him appear almost feminine. His

first name meant Sweet Smell, which is believed to have come from his

mother, a Texan kidnapped at age nine and raised as a Comanche. She

married into the tribe and raised three children, including Sweet Smell. After

Cynthia Parker had lived twenty-four years as an Indian, the Texas Rangers

kidnapped her back and killed her husband, Chief Peta Nocona. She begged

to be returned to the Indians, but the Rangers would not let her go home.

The Red River War of 1874–1875 broke the Comanche. In one

battle, in Palo Duro Canyon, six Army columns descended on an Indian

encampment, catching them by surprise. The natives fled. The Army

slaughtered 1,048 horses, leaving the Lords of the Plains without their

mounts for the remainder of the war. On foot and starving, they were no

match for General Philip Sheridan and his industrial-age weaponry. The

natives were sent to various camps in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, and

some of their leaders were imprisoned in Florida. In his later years, Sweet

Smell married seven women and built a large house. He founded a native

religion based on vision quests through the hallucinogens peyote and

mescal, a practice the Supreme Court ultimately upheld as a protected form

of worship. The last bison were killed within five years after the Comanche

Nation was routed and moved off the Llano Estacado. Just a few years

earlier, there had been bison herds that covered fifty square miles. Bison

were the Indians' commissary, and the remnants of the great southern herd

had been run off the ground, every one of them, as a way to ensure that no

Indian would ever wander the Texas Panhandle.

"For the sake of a lasting peace," General Sheridan told the Texas

Legislature in 1875, the Anglos should "kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes

are exterminated. Then your prairie can be covered with speckled cattle and

the festive cowboy . . . forerunner of an advanced civilization."

The animals left behind sun-crisped turds, which the nesters used

to heat their dugouts and soddies, until they too ran out.

Empty of bison and Indians, the prairie was a lonely place; it had

taken barely ten years to eliminate them. In victory, the American

government was not sure what to do with the land.

"The High Plains continues to be the most alluring body of

unoccupied land in the United States, and will remain such until the best

means of their utilization have been worked out," the United States

Geological Survey wrote in a report at the dawn of the twentieth century.

At the Texas border, the White family crossed into the XIT ranch — or rather,

what was left of it. Virtually all his life Bam White had heard stories of the

Eden of Texas, the fabled land of waist-high bluestem, of short, resilient

buffalo turf, and the nutrient-rich grama, part of what Coronado had called "an

immensity of grass." Horizon to horizon, buffalo heaven, and a cattleman's

dream, the XIT had been part of the New World's magical endowment —

grasslands covering 21 percent of the United States and Canada, the largest

single ecosystem on the continent outside the boreal forest. In Texas alone,

grasslands covered two thirds of the state, with more than 470 native

species. Virtually all of the Panhandle, nearly twenty million acres, was

grass. In the spring, the carpet flowered amid the green, and as wind blew, it

looked like music on the ground. To see a piece of it in 1926, even in winter

dormancy, could delight a tomorrow man like Bam White, who loved sky and

earth in endless projection.

The temperature warmed just before dusk, and the sky boiled up,

thunderheads coming out of the east. It was too early in the year yet for

clouds to be throwing down lightning and hail, but it happened enough that

people took precautions when warning signs appeared overhead. Bam fretted

about his horses. They looked sad-eyed and road-worn. Like most cowboys

in the High Plains, he preferred darker horses, chocolate-colored or leathery

brown, on a belief that they were less likely to attract lightning. One of his

horses was lighter, not quite beige, just light enough to bring a thunderbolt

down on it. Bam had never actually seen a light-haired horse combust at the

touch of lightning, but he had heard plenty of stories. A friend of his had seen

a cow struck dead by a sky-spark. Bam looked around: there were no rock

overhangs or little arroyos such as they had passed through up north.Well,

hell — what did those XIT cowboys used to do? If those boys could get

through a thunder-boomer without shelter, Bam White could do the same.

Everybody in Texas had a story about the XIT. It was the ranch

that built the state capitol, the granddaddy of them all. Fifteen years after the

end of the Civil War, Texas wanted the biggest statehouse in the union, a

palace of polished red granite. To pay for the new stone showpiece, the state

offered up three million acres in the distant Panhandle to anybody willing to

construct the building. After the tribes were routed, Charles Goodnight had

moved a herd of 1,600 cattle down from Colorado to Palo Duro Canyon. The

grass then was free; it attracted other nomadic Anglo beef-drivers and

speculators from two continents. In 1882, a company out of Chicago

organized the Capitol Syndicate, and this group of investors took title to three

million acres in return for agreeing to build the capitol. It would cost about

$3.7 million, which meant the land went for $1.23 an acre. The syndicate

drew some big British investors into the deal, among them the Earl of

Aberdeen and several members of Parliament. By then, the Great Plains

cattle market was the talk of many a Tory cocktail hour. Books such as How

to Get Rich on the Plains explained how any investor could double his money

in five years.

The ranch land was empty. No people. No bison. No roads. No

farms. Just grass — three million acres of it.

"Those salubrious seasons at the end of the Eighties made that

country appear a paradise," wrote one early rancher, Wesley L. Hockett.

At dusk, when the sky burned pink against the expanse of sod, a

cowboy could be moved to tears, it was so pretty. Much of the XIT was in the

heart of the Llano Estacado, where the Comanche had roamed. And like the

Comanche, the cowboys developed their own sign language to communicate

over distances. The syndicate stocked the grassland with cattle, erected

windmills in order to pump water up for the animals, and fenced it. Barbed

wire was invented in 1874, and by the early 1880s ranchers were stringing it

across the plains, closing off the free grass. In 1887, there were 150,000

head of cattle on the XIT ranch and 781 miles of fence. It was soon the

biggest ranch in the world under fence.

The XIT was lord of the Panhandle. Not just the landowner, but

also the law. They formed vigilante posses to chase down people who

encroached on the ranch or stole cattle, and spread poison to kill wolves and

other animals with a taste for XIT calves. When railroad feeder lines came to

the ranch, the cattle shipping points were made into towns, which brought

merchants, ministers, and other hustlers of body and soul. It was a good life

for a cowboy, earning about thirty dollars a month fixing fences, riding herd,

eating chow at sunset. A black cowboy, or Mexican, had more trouble. A

man everybody called Nigger Jim Perry was the lone black cow puncher on

the XIT.

"If it weren't for this old black face of mine," said Perry, "I'd be


The XIT prohibited gambling, drinking of alcohol, and shooting

anything without permission. Outside the ranch borders, little rail towns

sprang up with a different set of laws. One of those was Dalhart, which was

born in 1901 at the intersection of two rail lines, one going north to Denver,

the other east to Liberal, Kansas. In Dalhart, an XIT cowboy could get a

drink, lose a month's salary in a card game, and get laid at a shack known

simply as the Cathouse.

But even with the finest grass in the world, with 325 windmills

sucking water up from the vast underground aquifer, with the elimination of

predators, with several thousand miles of barbed wire, and with martial-law

control over rustlers, the biggest ranch in Texas had trouble making a profit.

The open range, on the neighboring plains states, was stocked with far too

many cattle, causing prices to crash. The weather might display seven

different moods in a year, and six of them were life-threatening. Droughts,

blizzards, grass fires, hailstorms, flash floods, and tornadoes tormented the

XIT. A few good years, with good prices, would be followed by too many

horrid years and massive die-offs from drought or winter freeze-ups, making

shareholders wonder what this cursed piece of the Panhandle was good for

anyway. Bison have poor eyesight and tend to be clannish, but they are the

greatest thermo-regulators ever adapted to the plains, able to withstand

temperatures of 110 degrees in summer, and 30 below zero in winter. But

cattle are fragile. The winter of 1885–1886 nearly wiped out cattle herds in the

southern plains, and a second season of fatal cold the next year did the

same thing up north. Cowboys said they could walk the drift line, where snow

piled up along fences north of the Canadian River, for four hundred miles, into

New Mexico, and never step off a dead animal.

With the British investors pressing for a better return on their

piece of unloved and nearly uninhabited Texas, the syndicate turned to real

estate. The problem was how to sell land that only an herbivore with hooves

could love. Parts of the XIT were scenic: little pastures near a spring, red rock

and small canyons to break the ironing board of the High Plains. There was

some timber in the draws, but not enough for fuel or building material. What

fell from the sky was insufficient to grow traditional crops. And the rate of

evaporation made what rain that did fall seem like much less. It takes twenty-

two inches in the Panhandle to deposit the same moisture as fifteen inches

would leave in the Upper Mississippi Valley. The native plants that take hold,

like mesquite, send roots down as far as 150 feet.

And then there was the larger image problem.

Great American Desert. It was Stephen Long, trying to find

something of value in the treeless wilderness, who first used those words in

1820, later printed on maps that guided schooners west. It would stay as

cartographic fact until after the Civil War, when the Great American Desert

became the Great Plains. Zebulon Pike, scouting the southern half of the

Louisiana Purchase in 1806 for Thomas Jefferson, had compared it to the

African Sahara in his report to the president. Jefferson was crushed. He

feared it would take one hundred generations to settle the blank space on the

map. It was a vast empty sea, invariably described as featureless and

frightening by the Americans who traveled through it.

"A desolate waste of uninhabited solitude," wrote Robert Marcy,

after exploring the headwaters of the Red River. Marcy had the same opinion

of the region as did Long, the influential American explorer who followed Pike.

After conducting an extensive survey, Long wrote in 1820 the words that still

make him seem unusually prophetic:

"In regard to this extensive section of the country, I do not hesitate

in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people

depending upon agriculture for their subsistence."

The answer to the syndicate's problem was aggressive

salesmanship. Why, this wasteland could be England or Missouri, if plowed

in the right way. Brochures were distributed in Europe, the American South,

and at major ports of entry to the U.S.: "500,000 acres offered for sale as

farm homes" and cheap, as well, the land selling for thirteen dollars an acre.

Twice a month, agents for the syndicate rounded up five hundred people and

put them on a train from Kansas City for the Texas Panhandle to see for

themselves. The train ride was free.

Speculators who bought from the syndicate turned around and

added to the claims. "Riches in the soil, prosperity in the air, progress

everywhere. An Empire in the making!" was a slogan of W. P. Soash, a real

estate man from Iowa who bought big pieces of the XIT and sold them

off. "Get a farm in Texas while land is cheap — where every man is a


To prove the agriculture-worthy potential of the Llano Estacado,

the syndicate set up experimental farms, demonstrating to immigrants how

they could make a go of it on the Texas .atlands. They worked with

government men from the Department of Agriculture. Well, sure, it rained less

than twenty inches a year, which was the accepted threshold for growing a

crop without irrigation, but through the miracle of dry farming a fellow could

turn this land to gold. Put a windmill in, and up comes water for your hogs,

chickens, and garden. And dryland wheat, it didn't need irrigation. Just plant

in the fall, when a little moisture would bring the sprouts up, let it go dormant

in the winter, and then wait for spring rains to get the crop going again.

Harvest in summer. Any three-toed fool could do it, the agents said. As for

the overturned ground, use the dust for mulch, farmers were advised; it will

hold the ground in place and keep evaporation down. That's what Hardy

Campbell, the apostle of dry farming from Lincoln, Nebraska, preached —

and the government put a stamp on his philosophy through their agriculture

office in the Panhandle. No nester was without Campbell's Soil Culture

Manual, a how-to book with homilies that all but guaranteed prosperity.

What's more, the commotion created by the act of plowing itself would bring

additional rain, causing atmospheric disturbances. Rain follows the plow?

Damn right! The Santa Fe Railroad printed an official-looking progress map,

showing the rain line — twenty inches or more, annually — moving west

about eighteen miles a year with new towns tied to the railroad. With

scientific certainty, steam from the trains was said to cause the skies to


Seasoned XIT ranch hands scoffed at such claims; the demo

projects were a scam, cowboys said. They warned anybody who would listen

that the Panhandle was no place to break the sod. Dust mulch? How was

that supposed to hold moisture in the ground, with the wind blowing steady at

thirty clicks an hour? The land was high and cold, with little drainage, and

nearly treeless in its entirety. As for rainfall, the average in the county was

about sixteen inches a year, not enough, by any traditional standards, to

sustain a crop. At Dalhart, the elevation was 4,600 feet. A blue norther would

come down from Canada through the Rockies and shake a person to their

bones. The Panhandle was good for one thing only: growing grass — God's

grass, the native carpet of plenty. Most of the land was short buffalo grass,

which, even in the driest, most wind-lacerated of years, held the ground in

place. This turf had supported the southern half of the great American bison

herd, up to thirty million animals at one point.

The best side is up, the cowboys said time and again — for

chrissakes don't plow it under. Nesters and cowboys hated each other; each

side thought the other was trying to run the other off the land. Homesteaders

were ridiculed as bonnet-wearing pilgrims, sodbusters, eyeballers,

drylanders, howlers, and religious wackos. Cowboys were hedonists on

horseback, always drunk, sex-starved. The cattle-chasers were consistent in

one way, at least. They tried telling nesters what folks at the XIT had passed

on for years, an aphorism for the High Plains:

"Miles to water, miles to wood, and only six inches to hell."

The syndicate had bondholders in London to satisfy. By 1912, the

last of the XIT cattle were off the land, and the ground that was leveraged to

build the state capitol of Texas had ceased to function as a working ranch.

Four years later, Charlie Goodnight held what he called "the last buffalo hunt"

on his ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. More than ten thousand people showed

up to watch the old cowboy chase an imported buffalo, a limp choreography.

When Bam White and his family crossed over into Texas in 1926, only

450,000 acres were unplowed of the original three-million-acre XIT.

The family spent the next night in north Dallam County, a day's ride from

Dalhart. The thunderheads had missed them, passing farther east. Bam

White rose in the winter darkness and gave his horse team another pep talk.

We're in Texas now, keep on a-going, one leg at a time. You got

us outta Colorado. You got us outta Oklahoma. Now get us through Texas to

Littlefield, and a new home.

They had crossed into one of the highest parts of the High Plains,

where the wind had its way with anything that dared poke its head out of the

ground, and it was .atter even than Oklahoma. Lizzie White wondered again

why anyone — white, brown, or red — would choose to live in this country,

the coldest part of Texas. Even the half-moon, icy at night, looked more

hospitable than this hard ground. As they said on the XIT, only barbed wire

stood between the High Plains and the North Pole.

The Whites arrived in Dalhart on February 26, 1926. Bam found a

place to camp at the edge of town and took to fretting again. Littlefield was

still 176 miles to the south. The family was down to the last of their dried

food, and they didn't know a soul. It was not the first time a family with

significant Indian blood had returned to the old treaty lands. Comanche,

Kiowa, and Apache who had drifted back lived a shadowed existence,

dressed like whites, going by names like "Indian Joe" and "Indian Gary." As

long as they stayed largely invisible, nobody paid much attention to them.

Indians were not citizens yet. They could be forcefully removed to a

reservation. Any hint of their earlier presence was gone, erased for the new

tomorrow. Dalhart had no history beyond the XIT; what came before was

viewed as having little merit.

"The northern Panhandle was settled by a group of fine pioneer

people and its citizens are of the highest type of Anglo Saxon ancestry," the

Dalhart Texan declared shortly after the Whites rolled into town.

But the new citizens of this new town were refugees, each in their

own way. Bam went to have a look around. Train whistles blew at regular

intervals. The railroads were still offering bargain fares to lure pilgrims to the

prairie, though the good land had been taken. The town looked like dice on a

brown felt table, the houses wood-framed and bare-ribbed — as tentative as a

daydream. Dalhart's first residents had planted locust trees, but most of

them did not last in the hard wind, between drought and freeze. Chinese elms

were doing a little better. The town was birthed by railroad men and was

never under the thumb of the XIT. Like the rest of the Panhandle, its frontier

was now, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. While the

northern plains were losing people disenchanted with the long winters and

ruinous cycles of drought and freeze, the southern plains were in hormonal

midadolescence. There was oil gushing and news of wildcatters making a

killing spread far and wide. The oil drew a new kind of prospector to go with

the nesters and wheat speculators tearing up the grassland. Nearly thirty

towns were born in the Panhandle between 1910 and 1930.

Much of Texas took its prohibition seriously. Not Dalhart. It took

its whiskey seriously, in part because some of the finest corn liquor in

America was coming out of the High Plains. Up north, in Cimarron County,

Oklahoma, and Baca County, Colorado, farmers had been growing corn for

whisk brooms, but then the vacuum cleaner, in just a few years, ruined the

market for broomcorn. Prohibition saved the broomcorn farmers, making grain

more valuable as alcohol than the dried stalks had ever been for sweeping. A

single still near the Osteen family homestead up in Baca County was turning

out a barrel of corn whiskey a day, every day, nearly every year of

Prohibition. Some farmers made five hundred dollars a week. At the peak of

Prohibition, five counties in a three-state region of the High Plains shipped

fifty thousand gallons a week to distant cities.

"This is a period of fast times," a Dalhart businessman, Jim

Pigman, wrote in his diary, "and much drinking of poor liquor."

Just a few strides from the railroad switch tower, Bam White

came upon a curious sight: a two-story sanitarium. It was the only hospital

for hundreds of miles. On one side of the sanitarium was a tobacco ad — a

big, red-and-white snorting bull promoting Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco.

Inside was a specimen room, with pickled fetuses, tumors, an enlarged liver,

goiters, and a heart. The liver had belonged to a saloonkeeper in the days

before Prohibition. It was grayish green and huge, and served as a visual

aid — an example of what can happen to someone who poured too much

corn whiskey down his gullet. Presiding over the sanitarium was a tobacco-

spitting, black-bearded man of the South, Dr. George Waller Dawson. The

Doc always wore a dark Stetson, though he was said to take it off during

surgery, and kept a brass spittoon nearby for his tobacco habit. He chewed

through child delivery and lung surgery, it didn't matter. His wife, Willie

Catherine, was the finest-looking woman in the Panhandle. That wasn't just

Doc Dawson's opinion; in 1923, she won a diamond ring as prize for being

voted the most beautiful woman at a Panhandle Fourth of July celebration.

"My Willie," the Doc called the missus. She had dark eyes, an

aquiline nose, and a powerful taste for literature. Willie kept the accounting

books of the sanitarium and also served as anesthesiologist. She was the

only person who could run the solitary x-ray machine for a few hundred miles

in any direction. The Doc and his Willie were always busy cutting open

cowboys and splicing nesters back together after they had been sliced by

barbed wire, thrown from a horse, or knocked down by a windmill pump. They

patched bones, yanked gallstones, and cut away shanks of infected flesh

from people who insisted on paying them with animals, live and dead. In one

month alone, the Doc and Willie performed sixty-three operations. A

Kentuckian, Dawson had come to Texas for his health. He had persistent

respiratory problems and legs that would sometimes freeze up on him, a kind

of paralysis that puzzled the Kentucky medical community. The High Plains

was the cure. He arrived in 1907, planning to start a ranch and live off his

investments. In time, he hoped to breathe like a normal man and lavish

attention on the lovely Willie. But he lost nearly everything two years later in

a market collapse. His second chance was found in the two-story brick

building in Dalhart, well north of his ranch. He opened the sanitarium in 1912.

By the late 1920s, Dr. Dawson intended to cut back on his

medical work and try once more to make a go of it on the land. The money in

farming was so easy, just there for the taking. Despite all his years of

practicing medicine, the Doc had saved up very little for his retirement. The

nest egg would be in the land. He had purchased a couple of sections and

was going to try his luck at cotton or wheat. Wheat was supposed to be the

simplest way to bring riches from the ground. Doc Dawson would take some

time off from running the hospital and see if he could coax something from

the Staked Plains to free him of the rubbing alcohol and the pickled organs. It

was their last best chance, he told his family.

Bam White walked past the sanitarium and on down Denrock, the

main street of Dalhart. The cowboy passed the Felton Opera House, two

stories tall with fine Victorian trim, then a clothing store, with window

displays of new dress shirts and silk ties. This was Herzstein's; as far as

anyone knew, they were the only Jews in Dalhart. Streetlights, with wicks

that had to be lit every night, dangled from cords strung to poles. A bustle of

people played cards and jawboned over grain prices inside a new-looking,

yellow-brick hotel, the DeSoto. The DeSoto was first class: solid walnut

doors, a bathtub and toilet in every room, along with a telephone. A guest

could dial 126 and get a reservation to see a girl at the place just west of

Dalhart. It didn't have a name, just the Number 126 house. Next door to the

DeSoto was the moving picture establishment, the Mission Theater. None of

Bam White's children had ever seen a movie.

Crews came by with sprinklers to wet down the streets, but dust

still kicked up with every carriage and car that passed by. The town felt

somewhat tentative; a mighty breath or a twister could blow everything down,

collapsing all the pretty painted sticks. Talking to folks, Bam White found out

real quick who owned Dalhart. That would be Uncle Dick Coon, the well-fed

gentleman sitting there at the DeSoto with his cards in one hand and a hand-

rolled cigarette in the other. He owned the DeSoto, the Mission Theater, just

about every business on Denrock. You watch Uncle Dick for just a few

minutes, folks said, and you would see him flash a hundred-dollar bill from

his pocket. Three months of cowboy wages pinched between two fingers.

Bam White had never seen a hundred dollar bill till he came through Dalhart.

The C-note was Uncle Dick's heater, his blanket. As a child, Dick

Coon's family was often broke. The corrosive poverty hurt so much it defined

the rest of his life. As long as Uncle Dick could touch his C-note, he had no

fear in life. And he had certainly known fear. Dick Coon was fortunate to live

through the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the worst single natural disaster in

American history. He lost everything in Galveston but was never bitter. His

life had been spared, while six thousand people lost theirs. Dick Coon didn't

plan on getting rich in Dalhart; didn't even plan on staying in the High Plains.

In 1902, he had been passing through Dalhart, making a train connection to

Houston, when he fell under the spell of one of the syndicate's real estate

agents. He heard enough to buy his own piece of the old XIT. The ranching

went well, but the real money was in town building.

Back from his tour of town, Bam White found Lizzie in a panic and

the children looking at him like they'd just had the life scared out of them.

What is it?

Dead horse.


Dead. Check for yourself, daddy.

Bam White's horse was flat on its side, the body cold, rotted

teeth exposed. She was dead all right. Now Bam was without enough of a

team to make it another step. The family had no means to buy another

horse, and it had been hard enough traveling from Boise City to Dalhart. Well,

then, it must be a sign, Bam said to the kids — maybe he was born for this

XIT country anyhow. There have got to be plenty of jobs in this new town,

even on a gentleman's ranch.

Marooned, Bam made his decision on the spot: the family would

stay in Dalhart. A guy in town had told him about opportunities in the newly

plowed fields. This town was going places. It had a shine, a face full of

ambition. The fields were turning fast, making money for anybody with a

pulse and a plow. The way White looked at Dalhart was the way Doc Dawson

and Uncle Dick looked at their homes in the Panhandle: as the last best

chance to do something right, to get a small piece of the world and make it

work. The wanderer would settle in and see what the earth would bring him in

what had been the world's greatest grassland.

Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton

Mifflin Company.

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hondahak, April 12, 2007 (view all comments by hondahak)
amazing story of hardship, and hope, pointing out the
cruelty of one of the greatest hoaxes ever concocted by the railroads and federal government, for a better life.
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(11 of 22 readers found this comment helpful)

Product Details

Egan, Timothy
Houghton Mifflin
United States - 20th Century
Natural Disasters
United States - 20th Century/Depression
United States - State & Local - General
United States - State & Local - Midwest
Dust Bowl Era, 1931-1939
Great Plains History 20th century.
World History-General
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Publication Date:
December 2005
Grade Level:
from 9
15 b/w photographs
9 x 6 x 0.81 in 1.3 lb
Age Level:
from 14

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Americana » Great Plains
History and Social Science » US History » 1920 to 1960
History and Social Science » US History » 20th Century » General
History and Social Science » World History » General
Science and Mathematics » Physics » Meteorology

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$28.00 In Stock
Product details 352 pages Houghton Mifflin Company - English 9780618346974 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

A fresh, stirring look at the Dust Bowl and Depression, Timothy Egan follows the personal dramas of a handful of families, allowing their voices to reveal the environmental and human tragedies that rocked the nation. Grippingly detailed, this exciting yet compassionate work of history is difficult to put down. I enjoyed it to the last page.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Egan tells an extraordinary tale in this visceral account of how America's great, grassy plains turned to dust, and how the ferocious plains winds stirred up an endless series of 'black blizzards' that were like a biblical plague: 'Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains' in what became known as the Dust Bowl. But the plague was man-made, as Egan shows: the plains weren't suited to farming, and plowing up the grass to plant wheat, along with a confluence of economic disaster — the Depression — and natural disaster — eight years of drought — resulted in an ecological and human catastrophe that Egan details with stunning specificity. He grounds his tale in portraits of the people who settled the plains: hardy Americans and immigrants desperate for a piece of land to call their own and lured by the lies of promoters who said the ground was arable. Egan's interviews with survivors produce tales of courage and suffering: Hazel Lucas, for instance, dared to give birth in the midst of the blight only to see her baby die of 'dust pneumonia' when her lungs clogged with the airborne dirt. With characters who seem to have sprung from a novel by Sinclair Lewis or Steinbeck, and Egan's powerful writing, this account will long remain in readers' minds." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Synopsis" by ,
"The Worst Hard Time is an epic story of blind hope and endurance almost beyond belief; it is also, as Tim Egan has told it, a riveting tale of bumptious charlatans, conmen, and tricksters, environmental arrogance and hubris, political chicanery, and a ruinous ignorance of nature's ways. Egan has reached across the generations and brought us the people who played out the drama in this devastated land, and uses their voices to tell the story as well as it could ever be told." and#151; Marq de Villiers, author of Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource

The dust storms that terrorized America's High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since, and the stories of the people that held on have never been fully told. Pulitzer Prizeand#150;winning New York Times journalist and author Timothy Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, going from sod homes to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out. He follows their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black blizzards, crop failure, and the deaths of loved ones. Drawing on the voices of those who stayed and survivedand#151;those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the graveand#151;Egan tells a story of endurance and heroism against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

As only great history can, Egan's book captures the very voice of the times: its grit, pathos, and abiding courage. Combining the human drama of Isaac's Storm with the sweep of The American People in the Great Depression, The Worst Hard Time is a lasting and important work of American history.

Timothy Egan is a national enterprise reporter for the New York Times. He is the author of four books and the recipient of several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

and#147;As one who, as a young reporter, survived and reported on the great Dust Bowl disaster, I recommend this book as a dramatic, exciting, and accurate account of that incredible and deadly phenomenon. This is canand#8217;t-put-it-down history.and#8221; and#151;Walter Cronkite

"The Worst Hard Time is wonderful: ribbed like surf, and battering us with a national epic that ranks second only to the Revolution and the Civil War. Egan knows this and convincingly claims recognition for his subjectand#151;as we as a country finally accomplished, first with Lewis and Clark, and then for 'the greatest generation,' many of whose members of course were also survivors of the hardships of the Great Depression. This is a banner, heartfelt but informative book, full of energy, research, and compassion." and#151;Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points: How I Lived

"Here's a terrific true storyand#151;who could put it down? Egan humanizes Dust Bowl history by telling the vivid stories of the families who stayed behind. One loves the people and admires Egan's vigor and sympathy." and#151;Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

"The American West got lucky when Tim Egan focused his acute powers of observation on its past and present. Egan's remarkable combination of clear analysis and warm empathy anchors his portrait of the women and men who held on to their placesand#151;and held on to their soulsand#151;through the nearly unimaginable miseries of the Dust Bowl. This book provides the finest mental exercise for people wanting to deepen, broaden, and strengthen their thinking about the relationship of human beings to this earth." and#151;Patricia N. Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

"Synopsis" by ,
The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since.

Timothy Eganand#8217;s critically acclaimed account rescues this iconic chapter of American history from the shadows in a tour de force of historical reportage. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones. Brilliantly capturing the terrifying drama of catastrophe, Egan does equal justice to the human characters who become his heroes, and#147;the stoic, long-suffering men and women whose lives he opens up with urgency and respectand#8221; (New York Times).

In an era that promises ever-greater natural disasters, The Worst Hard Time is and#147;arguably the best nonfiction book yetand#8221; (Austin Statesman Journal) on the greatest environmental disaster ever to be visited upon our land and a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of trifling with nature.

"Synopsis" by , Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Timothy Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the dust storms that terrorized America's High Plains during the Depression, going from sod huts to new framed houses to basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out.
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