BAM WHITE FOUND a shack outside of Dalhart, and the man who owned it said he could put his family up there, grow anything he dared on the ground nearby, and split the proceeds with him. Sharecropping was better than wandering south in a wagon with half a team of horses, so the cowboy decided to give Dalhart a good long chance, even if crop-grubbing was no life for a man of the open range. It seemed a shame that the old XIT grasslands were still being carved up, but cattle weren't paying, and the ranches were disappearing by the day. The rains came steadily in the spring in those years, 1926 through 1929, and with wet years, everyone forgot about the dry ones and said the weather had changed—permanently—for the better. It was also said you could grow anything on land that had been so accursed. The family raised turnips, some weighing three pounds or more, which seemed to belong on the High Plains. The Whites loaded up their wagon and took the root vegetables to town, where they sold them to the grocer; it gave them just enough, after paying the landlord his share, to free Bam White for a few days to play the fiddle or scout again for ranch jobs. There were three kids between him and Lizzie. While living in Dalhart, they had had a baby girl, but she looked bad when she greeted her first minute, not breathing at all, purple. She was stillborn. Lizzie White could not shake the feeling that this land was no good for them, and maybe they should have kept moving south. But Bam White was a tomorrow man who fit right into this Next Year Country. Even as they buried the stillborn baby, White's gut told him this town was going somewhere.
Optimism was contagious. Dalhart had a country club now, out past the steam laundry on a dirt road next to the Rock Island Railroad tracks. Further out, beyond the baseball park, the Number 126 house was roaring night and day. Girls came in from Denver and Dallas, sidled up nice or danced a tune to the player piano before slipping away to one of the two big rooms where a man could get a poke and be on his way. Boots on or off, both were options at the Number 126 house. They sold beer that didn't taste like warm spit and let a customer sometimes take two girls for the price of one if he was a regular and didn't smell like field manure.
Doc Dawson bought himself another two sections of land and thought about planting it in cotton. Cotton was supposed to pay even more than wheat. It dusted some in those years—sandstorms, which were tolerated as one of the little snit-fits of the prairie. The sandstorms were light-colored and never seemed a threat, but they could blow for days, tearing up the eyes and fouling the tractor engine. When John Dawson came home from college in 1926, the Doc took him out to his land and told the boy how this country was going to make them rich. He stooped over, ran the dirt through his hands, gave it a good sniff. But the cotton never took hold, and after two failed crops, the Doc despaired that he did not have anything to show for his share of the richest land on earth when everyone else on the High Plains was building a pile, either from oil or wheat or from fleecing the people who came scouting for oil or prospecting in wheat. Even that damn movie man down near Lubbock was setting himself up to make a fortune. Hickman Price came to the Panhandle and said, well, if it's factory farms that are going to make the wheat pay here, let's get to it. He had made his money in films, but here, he told people, there were even bigger riches available. By 1929, he had fifty-four square miles, nearly 35,000 acres, wheat coming off the land like Model-Ts. It was the Henry Ford model brought to agriculture, he bragged, econ-o-me of scale. Do the math, friend. The movie man said he could produce his wheat for forty cents a bushel, and if it sold for $1.30, he could bring in upwards of a million dollars a year. In five years' time, from 1924 to 1929, acreage in the Texas Panhandle that was plowed under for wheat grew from 876,000 to 2.5 million—a 300 percent increase.
The boys down at DeSoto's, Uncle Dick Coon and all his card-playing cronies, told the Doc he should stop fooling around with cotton, and don't even try the oil biz—just get himself a couple good years of wheat while the price was still decent. Maybe prices would fall, but they would have to take a mighty plunge in order for a wheat man not to make anything.
Even the last cowboys were giving up on grass. The James boys had been forced by bankruptcy to sell off a big section of their ranch outside Dalhart. They held onto another piece in the 1920s, between Boise City and Dalhart, but word had it that the land would soon be up for sale, in small lots. In desperation, Andy James tried to hit a vein of oil, to find one strike that would keep the family on the ranch. They borrowed again from a bank that already had taken back much of the ranch and hired out a drill that went down, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand, fifteen hundred, eighteen hundred feet until the drill bit snapped and still no oil to save the James boys. Bam White wandered over to the James ranch, watching with other cowboys as the last place to run cattle on a big range of God's best sod went to the bankers. Bam never made it past second grade, but his instinctual smarts told him it was not right—all this good grass going under—and he wondered how it had come to this for a cowboy in the country meant for men on horses. Andy James looked so sad then, a broken man in a time of fast fortunes. He shook his head and wiped his brow, his face all leathered from the sun and wind, his powerful shoulders held stiff, and sometimes just said nothing at all. Or he kicked the ground and cursed, looking out at the tractors tearing up the grassland, even in the darkness, using headlights.
This grass was never meant to be plowed, James told his fellow cowboys, drinking black coffee that the boys would lace on occasion with hooch. It wasn't never supposed to be nested or cut up. Cattle could fatten so easy on the bluestem, and it was a shame it couldn't pay anymore. A goddamn shame. The grass was pure biomass; an acre, without help, could bring a rancher two thousand pounds of forage for his cattle, a single section added up to more than a million pounds of nature's finest food for herbivores. A decade earlier, at the start of the Great War, the James brothers had the biggest working ranch left in the Panhandle, over 250,000 acres spread north into Cimarron County and west into New Mexico. But even then the end was drawing near, with beef prices falling on surplus cattle after the plains was stocked with too many animals. The cattle era had lasted not even as long as the Comanche run of the land after their treaty was signed. People felt sorry for Andy James; he was heading out with history's backwash, poor son of a buck.
Uncle Dick Coon still kept a hundred-dollar bill inside one pocket, but he was making so much money the C-note was like small change. On his land outside of town, Uncle Dick raised prized bulls, for show and breeding. Inside of town, he owned the finest buildings on the main street, Denrock, including all the places that kept the juices flowing, like the DeSoto and a drugstore where pharmacists filled prescriptions for whiskey. Medicinal whiskey. The DeSoto Hotel was processing fine-dressed pilgrims faster than Uncle Dick could keep the floors polished. White-gloved doormen greeted visitors who came to smell money as it was being minted.
Into this confident, muscle-flexing town in 1929 walked John L. McCarty. He looked like a young Orson Welles, dark-haired, intense and athletic, with a silver tongue that translated even better on paper. He bought the Dalhart Texan, became its editor and publisher, and made plans to turn it into the loudest, most influential daily newspaper in the Texas Panhandle. McCarty saw himself as a town builder with a pen. He was twenty-eight, and Dalhart had just over four thousand people. The town and the editor were born the same year. Less than fifty years earlier, the Census found zero population—not a single soul!—living in the four counties of the Texas Panhandle's far corner. Now the Rock Island Railroad emptied newcomers every week from the East, and the Fort Worth & Denver line brought them in from points north and south. They were coming by wagon, car, railroad. Even airplanes were landing on a strip of dirt outside Dalhart.
McCarty tried to rouse Dalhart's townsfolk to greatness. These folks were strong men and women, lucky to be living in a town still wet around the edges, a town born to big things. McCarty loved the Felton Opera House, the fine food they served at the DeSoto, the suits he could buy through Herzstein's, the boys who tipped their hats to him at the Cozy Corner, the ladies who mentioned in forced modesty their latest trips to the Gulf or California for write-ups on page two of the Texan. He was the loudest cheerleader at baseball games, where the Dalhart nine took on Clayton, Boise City, or Dumas; their failure was a civic letdown. He felt personally responsible for Dalhart's future. He could sound like a booster with blinders, but McCarty had some literary flourishes and was judicious in citing classical scholars or gimcrackery from American wise men. About once a week, his column ran next to Will Rogers on page one of the Texan, and folks told him he was the better writer. McCarty was no flimflam man, but rather someone who bought into the vision of Dalhart, City on the High Plains.
People came to the High Plains now because they had missed out on earlier land grabs, land rushes, land betrayals, and land auctions. They had missed the best homestead land, the best stolen Indian land, the best railroad grant land, the land that was quickly taken in the first Homestead Act of 1862 and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. What had started with a rousing slogan that thousands marched to in the 1856 presidential campaign of John Fremont—"Free Soil, Free Men, Fremont!"—was down to the ugliest dirt in the country. Already much of the earlier homestead land, planted in wheat or corn, was worn out, not producing as it once did. Of the roughly two hundred million acres homesteaded on the Great Plains between 1880 and 1925, nearly half was considered marginal for farming. But even by the 1920s, there was still a chance for a family to make history: people who had descended from a beaten-down part of the world, people whose daddy had been a serf, a sharecropper, a tenant, and even slaves, castaways, rejects, white trash, and Mexicans could own a piece of earth. "Every man a landlord" meant something. Historians had been herded into thinking that the American frontier was closed after the 1890 census, that western movement had effectively ended just before the close of the last century, that settlement had been tried and failed in the Great American Desert. But they overlooked the southern plains, the pass-through country. In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, it got a second look.
"The last frontier of agriculture," the government called it in 1923. Southern families, field hands, Scots-Irish and Welsh usually, came in steady waves, fleeing exhausted land for a prairie untouched. The Scots-Irish had left Ireland and the north of Britain in the eighteenth century and settled on thin soil on either side of the Appalachian spine before spreading out to the South and Midwest. They were cannon fodder in the Civil War, many left landless. People from the new cities of Oklahoma, out of work when oil prices plummeted, came as well. Mexicans were drawn by jobs on irrigated beet farms in Kansas and Colorado. When young men started looking around Kentucky or Arkansas in 1910 and were told there was nothing for them but a life laboring for someone else, they pointed to the Texas Panhandle or No Man's Land of Oklahoma and said goodbye, see ya on the farm. My farm. And more than any other group, they came from a faraway part of Russia: thousands of people who had been adrift for centuries, thrown to the wind. When they arrived in Omaha or Kansas City, the scouts, land merchants, and railroad colonists sent them on to the High Plains.
It was a different story up in the northern plains, where people were cursing the railroads for perpetuating a fraud that broke many a family. They had taken a gamble, stripped away the grass, put in grain outside places like Miles City, Montana, and Marmarth, North Dakota. Then came a few dry years, a killer winter or two, and the wheat glut from the rest of the plains. Just like that, life was gone, main streets shuttered, homesteads left to Front Range chinooks. Some towns along the northern railroad lines folded barely a generation after they were hatched. But in the southern plains, people welcomed the railroads with open arms and big festivities, as if nothing had happened up north. History might repeat itself, but few bothered to make such a warning.
Through his column, John McCarty exhorted Dalhart to take no small steps, praising visionaries like Uncle Dick Coon. They needed a real hospital. They needed a second auto dealer, a second bank. Riding outside of town on his newspaper rounds, watching as clouds of dirt trailed the tractors tearing up the old Llano Estacado, it did not matter to McCarty that there was not a river or stream anywhere to be seen, that there was not a lake or any surface water.
"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. This was in addition to nearly twenty million acres of prairie that had already been turned. Only four small farms existed in Dallam County, Texas, in 1901, covering barely a thousand acres; by 1930, a third of the county was in cultivation.
"This is the best damned country God's sun ever shone upon," McCarty declared in the pages of the Texan, and among those who nodded in agreement were people trying to learn the English language by reading the newspaper. The Germans from Russia knew what it was like to live in a place where God's sun gave out.