THE LAND WOULD NOT DIE an easy death. Fields were bare, scraped to hardpan in places, heaving in others. The skies carried soil from state to state. With no appreciable rain for two years, even deep wells were gasping to draw from the natural underground reservoir. One late winter day in 1933, a battalion of heavy clouds massed over No Man's Land. At midday, the sun disappeared. Lights were turned on in town in order to see. The clouds dumped layers of dust, one wave after the other, an aerial assault that covered streets in Boise City, buried brown pockets of grass, and rolled over big Will Crawford's dugout and the patch of ground where Sadie had tried to establish her garden with a tin-can irrigation system. They had to shovel furiously to avoid being swallowed by the enraged prairie.
Hazel Lucas Shaw watched the dust seep through the thinnest cracks in the walls of their rental house, spread over the china, into the bedroom, onto the sheets. When she woke in the morning, the only clean part of her pillow was the outline of her head. She taped all the windows and around the outer edge of doors, but the dust always found a way in. She learned never to set a dinner plate out until ready to eat, to cook with the pots covered, to leave no standing water out for long or it would turn to mud. She had decided to give up the teaching job that paid worthless scrip and to try and start a family. Her husband, Charles, had at last opened his business, a funeral home in the rental house. Town was supposed to be an easier place to live than a dead homestead to the south. But Boise City faced the same tormenter—the skies that brought no rain, only dirt. Some days Hazel put on her white gloves and sat at the table—a small act of defiance that seemed both silly and brave.
The temperature fell more than seventy degrees in less than twenty-four hours one February day in 1933. It reached fourteen below zero in Boise City and still the dust blew in with the arctic chill. Hazel tried everything to stay warm and keep the house clean. Dust dominated life. Driving from Boise City to Dalhart, a journey ofbarely fifty miles, was like a trip out on the open seas in a small boat. The road was fine in parts, rutted and hard, but a few miles later it disappeared under waves of drifting dust. Unable to see more than a car length ahead, the Shaws followed telephone poles to get from one town to the next.
At the Panhandle A&M weather station, they recorded seventy days of severe dust storms in 1933. Weather forecasting was still a rough skill in that year, a hit and miss game. The basic instruments for measuring air movement, temperature, and all that fell from the sky were little changed over the previous 350 years. The government predicted the weather by rounding up readings from more than two hundred reporting stations across the country and from air balloons, planes, and kite stations. The information was sent by Teletype to Washington twice a day. There, a map was drawn up and a forecast went out from the weather bureau for different regions of the nation. It was based on the movement and struggle between high and low barometric pressure—an ancient way of predicting weather. The forecast always originated in the capital, which is one reason why older, more skeptical nesters still referred to weather prediction by its nineteenth-century term—the "probability." A hardy homily such as "Clear moon, frost soon" or "Red sky at night, sheep herder's delight, red sky in the morning, sheep herder take warning" was more trusted, and not just by those who worked the land. During his days as an airmail carrier, Charles Lindbergh said he ignored the official weather bureau forecast; it was useless. Throughout the 1920s, as one technological marvel after the other changed American life, the tools of weather forecasting remained items that would have been familiar to Benjamin Franklin. And there was a dire need for some sense of what tomorrow would bring, especially with the dawn of widespread air travel. When weather turned lethal without notice, it killed people—sometimes in large numbers. For tornadoes, there were no warnings at all. A big twister roared through the Midwest in 1925, killing 957 people. The weather bureau's only great achievement was taking accurate measurements: atmospheric pressure, days without rain, total precipitation, swings in temperature, and wind speed.
March and April 1933 were the worst months of the year—a two-month block of steady wind throwing fine-grained dirt at the High Plains. The cold snap had killed what little wheat had been planted last fall. There was now an expanse of fallow, overturned land nearly half the size of England, no pasture for cattle, and no feed for other animals.
Fred Folkers spent most of his days shoveling dust. The shovel was his rescue tool; he never went anywhere without it. In a long day's blow, the drifts could pile four feet or more against fences clogged with tumbleweeds, which created dunes, which then sent dust off in other directions. He tried to modify the fences so dunes would move along, below the rails. Some mornings, Folkers did not recognize his land as the shifting dunes produced dust mounds with ripples holding the imprint of winds from overnight. Other mornings, his car was completely covered. And after he wiped his car clean, it was hell to start it, the dust clogging the carburetor.
He knew now he was probably going to lose the orchard, the last living thing on the Folkers farm. All the pails of water he'd hauled from the tank to the little grove of trees seemed for naught. His living memory patch of the old Missouri home, the peach and cherry trees, plum and apple, the gooseberry, currants, and huckleberry—they could not live through the howling dirt of 1933.
At the end of April, with no green on the land and no rain from overhead, came a duster that lasted twenty hours. For most of the storm, the winds blew at better than forty miles an hour. The dust was strong and abrasive enough to scrape the paint off the Folkers house, to get into the digestive system of cattle.
"Here comes another roller!" was the shout in Boise City, a warning to take cover. People watched the horizon darken with the approach of the duster. There was no escape. They could not stay outside for fear of getting lost or of choking on a blast of gritty air. And while indoors offered protection from the wind, it was no respite from the fine granules.
Lindbergh, the greatest aviator of his day, flew into this corrosive air space on May 6 while trying to cross the Texas Panhandle. His plane choked, the engine sputtering, and bucked wildly in the turbulent currents. Six years earlier, Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic, flying just barely above the ocean on his way to Paris. Now, he could not cross the flattest part of the United States. He made a forced landing in the part of Texas where a promoter had tried to plant a part of Norway. He was greeted by children as a god sent down from the heavens, with front-page headlines throughout the southern plains. Lindbergh wanted no part of it. He seemed spooked by the dusters. He slept in his plane, then flew out after a two-day delay.
One day in late May, just as the high wind season started to ebb, the dust disappeared, and out came the blue empty skies that had so enticed nesters in years past. But by midmorning, dark clouds were back. They looked like rain clouds—an answer to everyone's prayers. Bigger, darker, heavier clouds were on top of them—dusters piggybacked on a system that would normally bring only rain. In the early evening, the skies broke, delivering hard brown globs of moisture—rain and hail, which had picked up dust on the way down, falling as mud pellets. The dirty torrent smashed rooftops, buckled car hoods, made cows bawl in agony. More was on the way. A funnel cloud appeared.
People raced for shelter, praying for deliverance. The tornado touched down in Liberal, Kansas, near the Oklahoma border, in the heart of tornado alley. It lifted roofs from barns, knocked down warehouse walls, pushed houses from their foundations. An old broomcorn factory was completely destroyed. Stores were pulverized into piles of sticks. Windows shattered. Downtown was reduced to a heap of timber and bricks. Four people were killed; nearly eight hundred were left without homes. And then not long after the tornado swept through, destroying the heart of one of the bigger towns on the High Plains, the mud pellets came again, tossed from the sky, a final insult.
In the summer, winds knocked down telephone poles on the Texas Panhandle and shoved aside grain silos holding the wheat that nobody wanted. At the end of summer, another twister, this one at the southern edge of No Man's Land, hit the area. This furious funnel was strong enough to carry off the roof of a hotel. For the record, there had never been a drier summer.
The High Plains lay in ruins. From Kansas, through No Man's Land, up into Colorado, over in Union County, New Mexico, and south into the Llano Estacado of Texas, the soil blew up from the ground or rained down from above. There was no color to the land, no crops, in what was the worst growing season anyone had seen. Some farmers had grown spindles of dwarfed wheat and corn, but it was not worth the effort to harvest it. The same Texas Panhandle that had produced six million bushels of wheat just two years ago now gave up just a few truckloads of grain. In one county, 90 percent of the chickens died; the dust had got into their systems, choking them or clogging their digestive tracts. Milk cows went dry. Cattle starved or dropped dead from what veterinarians called "dust fever." A reporter toured Cimarron County and found not one blade of grass or wheat.
An Oklahoma farmhouse, 1930s
People from four states gathered in Guymon, Oklahoma, east of Boise City, to share stories and plead for help. The Red Cross was overwhelmed, with far more people begging for assistance than the agency could respond to. Some relief was on the way from one of the new agencies of the federal government: it would provide enough money to pay men to shovel dust from the streets of Guymon, Liberal, Texhoma, Shattuck, Dalhart, and Boise City. The wage was one dollar a day, and a man could not work more than three days a week in order to give others a chance.
A distress telegram was sent to Congress from the sodbusters of the High Plains. It was something these nesters never thought they would do—beg. In Dalhart, the editor of the Texan, John L. McCarty, was against asking for help. It was humiliating, his town with its head down and hand out. He preferred defiance, scoffing at people who complained of the dust—"the softies, the tenderfeet, the cry babies," he called them. Still, people on the dust-sweeper rolls and those who had broken the prairie grass, only to have it break them, took up a collection and sent out the urgent request, a telegram signed by 1,500 people:
WE ARE FIGHTING DESPERATELY TO MAINTAIN OUR HOMES, SCHOOLS, CHURCHES, AND VARIOUS ENTERPRISES TO MEET LOCAL NEEDS. WE DON'T WANT DOLE OR DIRECT RELIEF. WE WANT WORK.
Other farmers were leaving, joining the exodus of tenants from the drought-crushed eastern half of Oklahoma and from Arkansas and Missouri, where cotton farming had crashed. But most people decided to hunker down and see it through. After all, there was a new president. The drought was longer and harsher than anyone could remember, but this had to be the bottom of the pit. The law of averages said so.
One night just before dinner, after clearing the floor, the dining table, the lampshades, and the kitchen counter of their daily dust at her home in Boise City, Hazel Shaw put on her white gloves and smiled. She had an announcement for her husband.