THROUGH SEVEN CENTURIES , a single tree grew in a fold of the land in Nebraska. After it was cut down in 1936, the rings were counted and examined, each circle telling a story of a season on the plains. Dry years were thin rings, when the tree itself barely grew but held on, a still life; wet years were thick, when the tree fattened up with fiber. An examination of the tree found that Nebraska had been through twenty droughts over the previous 748 years. At stake for Don Hartwell was whether he could survive the twenty-first. At the start of August 1937, when he put his thermometer into the ground, it registered a temperature of 151 degrees.
"Rain just doesn't fall in Inavale," Hartwell wrote.
Hartwell was a nudge short of being washed out among the hoboes. His farm was down to three lame horses and a single hog. He still played music in town at night, though the crowds were thin as Webster County hollowed out. His wife took in other people's clothes to iron and sew, but the odd jobs did not bring enough money for seed. The bank had been harassing Hartwell with a flurry of notices that he was well behind on his mortgage. He picked up rumors of work in Leadville, Colorado, or Phoenix, but he seemed paralyzed to move. Though he was only forty-eight years old, he was often sick, forced into bed. He felt tired and stiff. On the arid plains, he noted in his diary, people got old early.
Today is a combination of killing heat, scattered dusty clouds, gusts of burning wind & a few drops of rain. Verna got a letter from Sarah Points at Ward, Colo wanting her to come out there and go into the restaurant business. It is certain we will have to do something...
Verna and I were married 25 years ago today. It would be foolish to say that we have never had trouble. One would have trouble even by himself in that length of time ... Today is terribly hot, dry S. breeze, a few scattered clouds.
Practically all the corn in this country & most of the state has been destroyed by hot winds and drouth this month. This makes the 4th total failure in succession here.
Today is Labor Day. Holidays mean very little here, as in this country it is a sort of distinction NOT TO observe them.
I have not felt right for some time. I always did live intensley [sic]. Perhaps it might be a nervous reaction—I hope nothing worse.
Fair and pleasant today. Verna and I listened to the World Series baseball game. The N.Y. Yankees beat the Giants, 4–2, the Yankees winning and ending the series. We have listened to these World Series games for several years now, but I believe that this is the last one we will ever listen to here in Inavale—we shall see.
I burned some Russian Thistles on the W. place. I cut down a dead tree W. of our house. I set out this tree more than 20 years ago, it was a Norway poplar & it seemed that when it turned green that spring had really come. But the drouth of the last few years got it—the same as it has us.
Today is very cold & mean, a continuous N. wind. We have no hogs at all now, it is the first time I can remember in my entire life when there haven't been either hogs or cattle on the place. In fact—we have nothing left. We literally have no place to go if we are not 'all dressed up.'
The communities around Hartwell's farm were dying fast. A village four miles north of his home fell empty, the school abandoned, the houses and farm buildings deserted, tumbleweeds pressed against the sides. This could not possibly be the same land Lewis and Clark had seen in 1804, "well calculated for the sweetest and most nourishing hay," the bluestem twelve feet high. Clark had marveled at the grass as the Corps of Discovery moved up the Missouri River, staring east at the plains of Nebraska. "So magnificent a scenery," he wrote, "one of the most pleasing prospects I ever beheld."
One of Hartwell's best friends left for Wyoming, saying he planned to return, but Hartwell was sure he would never see him again. Another friend turned on him, becoming cold, "as impersonal as an election notice on a telegraph pole," Hartwell wrote. The frozen air killed drifters or forced others to steal. Someone threw a rock through the window of a lumberyard, "so that he could go to jail & get something to eat & keep from freezing to death," Hartwell wrote.
Around Thanksgiving, a letter arrived from a friend in Denver, urging the Hartwells to move west. To a middle-aged farm couple, Denver was a strange city, big and uncertain. Hartwell felt cornered by his circumstances. He tucked away his pride and appealed to the Red Cross for a relief grant but was rejected. Now he felt he had no luck left; he was on a path to sure collapse. He still had a working car but no money for gas.
"I guess we have reached the end of the trail in Nebraska," he wrote at year's end.
He spent much of early 1938 begging the bank to let him keep the farm after failing to make a payment for nearly half a year. As a stopgap measure, the bank agreed to stretch out the interest payments, which lowered the monthly bill but did nothing to move the pile of debt off Hartwell. By habit, he still tried to think like a farmer, using the winter months to plan for the coming year's crop, and to act like a farmer, pruning trees, and clearing out drainage ditches. But his motions were faint and halfhearted. He could not afford seed for the crop, and the bank would not extend him a penny. Another horse died, a mare named Bell. He mourned the loss for months. His body ached and his stomach made strange noises; without money to see a doctor, he had no idea what ailed him.
"I haven't felt right for a year."
People continued to leave Webster County, chased away by dust and dead ground. Some shuttered their houses and moved without notice; others held big home sales, weepy parties, and departed on ceremony. Hartwell scrounged around his family farmstead looking for something of value. The piano was an obvious choice, but he could not bring himself to give it up. He took his land roller, a big metal cylinder used to flatten dirt, to Red Cloud and got five dollars for it. There was a crowd in town, pawing over the possessions of people who had given up. It was mostly junk, Hartwell wrote, but it was the only way most people could shop.
Verna has been doing a little sewing for different ones & I have been doing principally nothing. No income, only 2 horses left, 95 acres of mortgaged land, unpaid taxes & interest and $0 in cash. That is the outlook that faces us after I have lived more than 40 years in Nebr.
Electric lights have been off all day, the first time for a long time. But I think ours will soon be off for good.
Verna got $2 for fixing Miss Bloom's coat.
Well here it is Monday again & I haven't done a bit of farm work yet & I don't know if I ever will. With only 2 horses, not a cent to our name, not a cent of income for the last 4 years I just don't know exactly where to turn.
A friend loaned him some seed, on the condition that he pay it back in corn or money. Hartwell disked the fields and planted twenty-two rows of corn. Off and on during the planting in May, he was harassed by "dust showers," rain and dirt falling together. He also planted Sudan grass, which the CCC was pushing as a drought-tolerant plant that would take easily to the wind-raked land. The corn no sooner came up than grasshoppers descended on his fields. He spread poison. Verna found work washing sheets and towels at a hotel in town, and after a while they were allowed to eat there in the laundry room, dining on the hotel's leftover food.
Today is a terrible day. A glaring sun, a few little clouds & a deliberate, deadly S.W. breeze which has set out to destroy every thing again this year. I had hoped to live long enough to see one more decent year in this country.
I wonder if in the next 500 years—or the next 1,000 years, there will be a summer when rain will fall in Inavale. Certainly not as long as I live will the curse of drought be lifted from this country.
Today is just common hell, death and destruction to every growing thing. A dry, deadly S.W. wind, a dead clear sky & a vicious blazing sun make up the picture of destruction. God in his infinite wisdom might have made a more discouraging place than Webster Co, Nebr., but so far as I know God never did.
I have felt lost since the horses are gone. There is not much I can do. It is the first time in nearly 40 years that I have not had a team to use. I walked up through the corn and cane in the forenoon. It is being hurt every day by drought.
Bad luck—destingy [sic]—(call it what you will) has seemed to follow us since 1932 & this year will be little better. We could not pay back taxes & interest & as the horses are all gone now & we have no income and not one cent in reserve—So what?
The next week, Hartwell and his wife set off for Denver to find work. The money Verna made washing at the hotel was not enough to keep them on the farm. In the city, they stayed with friends who had lined up a job for Verna as a maid at a doctor's house. There was no work for Hartwell and no room for him at the doctor's house. The farmer said goodbye to his wife and returned to Inavale. The separation was supposed to be temporary. The dust, the drought, the fractured farm had broken the last thing they had: their bond. It was the first time they were apart in twenty-six years of marriage. Hartwell moped around his farm, talking to himself and writing in his diary, without even a horse or hog to keep him company. He played music, and at times he was so low he cried at the sight of one of Verna's dresses or a half-opened can of peaches.
"I can hardly call it home anymore. I can't write how I really feel about that."
I wrote to Verna. It seems so long since she was here. Yet it is only a week! How will it seem if the days go on into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into...
I did a rash thing today & started for Colo & when I got as far as McCook I changed my mind & came home. I just didn't have the money to go on.
The first thanksgiving since 1912 when Verna & I haven't been together. Will we ever live together again?
I never saw fields any drier. Everything is filled with dust.
I went up & took some pictures of abandoned farms N. of here (I intend to put them in a book) in the forenoon. Little is left up there of a once prosperous country. Drouth has all but obliterated a fairly prosperous farming region. Vacant houses, tumble-down buildings, weed-grown fields are all that remain.
Very dry everywhere. I raked the N. side of our yard in the forenoon. I swept and dusted in the afternoon. I trimmed the tree and lighted it in the evening, so it was lighted when Verna came up from the depot. She got home at 10 p.m.
Verna stayed a week, then returned to Colorado and her maid's job at the doctor's house. She made forty dollars a month and sent her husband five dollars every two weeks. Hartwell started 1939 still on the farm in Inavale but alone, without seed, horses, cattle, or hogs. To stave off foreclosure, he sold his farm machinery—getting nineteen dollars for a two-row lister, his biggest sale. He sometimes thought of going to town to play music, or even to dance, but he never did. Once, he took a train to Kansas City and saw a burlesque show.
"The girls danced and posed with nothing on," he reported. "But 4H can do that."
The tug of failure was too strong; his life was on a course he could not reverse. But he was still not ready to give up. A friend loaned him a mule and some seed, and he made plans to plant corn again. His heart was torn by loneliness.
"We lived here 26 years together before Nebraska weather & economic conditions finally ruined and separated us," he wrote at year's end.
I used to look forward to spring this time of year, but now—I don't know what to do. I never have been cornered like I am now.
A cold mean wind all day ... I doubt very much if Verna & I will ever have a home of our own again. I wouldn't even guess what is ahead of us.
I have felt lost lately—not knowing where to turn or what to do. In fact, if one hasn't 'got' anything, there is not much he can do.
I got a letter from the Federal Land Bank saying they were foreclosing on our place. So our last place will soon be gone.
A chilly, driving N.W. wind. I finished planting corn on the W. bottom in the afternoon, (probably for the last time). An outdoor picture show in the evening but pretty cool to sit out and watch it.
The same clear, glaring sky & vicious blazing killing sun. Cane is about dead, corn is being damaged; it will soon be destroyed. Those who coined the phrase 'There's no place like Nebraska' wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don't have to die to go to hell.
Practically no one comes here now. Of those who used to ask so diffidently 'Is Verna here?' not one comes around any more. They have vanished like last year's crop of turnips.
Nearly everything is destroyed.
Today is a terrible day of S.W. wind, dust & heat. One can't really do much afternoons owing to the blast of wind & dust. I raked up what little cane there was worth cutting, but there is very little.
There are no dances here anymore—nothing but silence, emptiness, 'respectability.'
September, 1939 was one of the driest ever known, the Weather Bureau says in 40 years. Almost continuous hot winds.... there is less corn even than last year.... Hitler, Russia, France and England are now supposed to be at war.
Well today is my birthday again. They seem to come altogether too often. Verna sent me a dollar & I went to the hotel to get my dinner.
Everything is a reek of dust. It is in your clothes, you taste it; feel it.
Well, there is not a great deal to report. Winter, in Inavale, is just staying, just living. But I don't look for or expect anything going on any more.
The bank took the land that Hartwells had owned since 1909. Hartwell was allowed to stay in the house for another year, as a rent-paying tenant. He found part-time work on a government road crew. Verna stayed in Denver, still working as a maid. After being apart from her husband for two years, she returned for Christmas. Hartwell ended his diary with a poem, attributed to a woman from Ridgewood, New Jersey, Eleanor Chaffee. He attached the poem to the last page of his diary, without additional comment.
We had a crystal moment
Snatched from the hands of time,
A golden, singing moment
Made for love and rhyme.
What if it shattered in our hands
As crystal moments must?
Better than earthen hours
Changing to lifeless dust.