Dodge City, Kansas
Ford County Historical Society, Dodge City, KS
*Book Review, Amazon.com
Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey
Written content only
The Dust Bowl.
Those words describe a catastrophic era in American history. More than that, they convey a sense of hopelessness, the oppressive cloud that drifted through the lives of people already laid low by the depression. The years between 1930 and 1938 saw record drought and heat, this on the heels of wild undisciplined land management, saw the soil of the central plains take flight on the winds, and along with the soil, the dreams and hopes of the people.
As the greatest generation ages and passes from this life, the memory of those years has begun to fade from our collective consciousness. Today, when people think of The Dust Bowl, they think of an unparalleled assault on humans by nature. Very few understand that the cause lay mostly with poor farming techniques and speculation agriculture that left the soil open to the incessant winds. And fewer still can speak with any intelligence of the cost in human lives.
Timothy Egan, a reporter for the New York Times authored a book entitled “The Worst Hard Time.” It is a history of those years, true. But Egan goes deeper into the human tragedy and at the end of his 312 pages the reader not only understands the historical events, but acquires a seemingly personal relationship with the individuals and families who were made to suffer.
In the introduction, we meet three survivors, Ike Osteen, Jeanne Clark, and Melt White. Through these folks, we see not only the human cost of those years, but also the essential toughness and spiritual invincibility that got them through those years, characteristics far less common in modern America. It’s White that nails the be-all and end-all of explanations for the cause of the Dust Bowl:
“God didn’t create this land around here to be plowed up. He created it for Indians and buffalo. Folks raped this land. Raped it bad.”
There it is; the raw, naked truth. In a region where drought is common and cyclical, you don’t expose thousands of acres of topsoil to the implacable force of the incessant winds.
Egan’s description of the larger disaster is stunning enough. One hundred million acres affected; the complete collapse of the farm economy; Dust storms 10,000 feet high and miles wide turning the skies a fearful black; and two-and-half million Americans fleeing the disaster only to be branded with the pejorative term “Okies” and subject to an utterly ruthless exploitation that wounds the heart of anyone with a sense of justice.
People complain about the perceived slow response of the federal government to Katrina, because aid took days to arrive. In the Dust Bowl, government sat idle for years, allowing thousands to die, a neglect that is still marked on the people and the land today.
The book opens with a frank description of the land and the people who settled there. Egan describes one of the early super-ranches, the XIT, that lorded over the vast expanse of waist-high grasslands that characterized the southern plains. Egan introduces us to two important characters, Bam White, an itinerant but skilled cowboy, and Uncle Dick Coon, the richest man in Dalhart, Texas. White and his family migrate into the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle from Colorado, transported in a wagon drawn by horses worn by the hard, long journey. He stops in Dalhart, not by choice, but because enough of his horses had died to make further travel with the wagon impossible.
Uncle Dick Coon is a local entrepreneur, the owner of many of the businesses in Dalhart. His trademark was a hundred-dollar bill tucked in his pocket, which he would flash from time to time. The reason for this bill is explained by Egan:
“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.”
Uncle Dick is a presence throughout the narrative, a touchstone as the problems mounted. As bad as things got, he managed to hang on to that C-note. Finally, at the end of the book, he gives the $100 to a cowboy and his starving family. People assumed he had more where that came from. The truth was that when he died a few months later, he had $4 in the bank. Uncle Dick Coon, once the richest man in town, died broke.
Egan’s description of the immense dust storms, called “dusters,” are particularly unsettling. The worst one which occurred on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935, was a monster that blew out of the ground near Bismarck, North Dakota and was still going strong when it blanketed Amarillo, Texas some 800 miles to the south. Dust was still falling from the sky 200 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. The Weather Bureau reported that when the storm entered Kansas, it was 200 miles wide. Egan’s accounts as the storm engulfed town after town are terrifying; there’s simply no other word:
“They got out of the car and took a quick look at the mountain advancing toward them, black and boiling. Every spike on a barbed-wire fence was glowing with (static) electricity, channeling the energy of the storm. It came quicker than most dusters and was deceptive because no wind was ahead of it. They were slammed to the ground and engulfed by a wall, straight up and down, the dust abrasive and strong, boiling up, twisting. The noise was ferocious, a clanking, scraping sound. Without their dust masks or goggles, Ike and his two schoolmates were blinded, and they struggled to breathe.”
This was the worst of the storms, but an earlier on that moved west to east buried New York, dusted Washington DC, and blanketed ships 200 miles out into the Atlantic.
All the way through the book Egan shows us the people and the extent of the very human tragedy that was the Dust Bowl. The land was broken, lives were broken. But in the story are those who persevered, people who stood their ground heroically and refused to leave.
Timothy Egan has crafted a history that reads like the scariest of apocalyptic novels. What makes this book so disturbing is that it isn’t fiction. It actually happened. As the members of the Greatest Generation pass from this life, the personal memories of that awful era, the “Dirty Thirties,” will be lost to us. Egan has captured those memories for us and is a must read for anyone with an interest in history, the environment, or the study of humans overwhelmed by the raw power of planet Earth.