THE STOCK MARKET CRASHED on October 29, 1929, a Tuesday, the most disastrous session on Wall Street to date in a month of turmoil. Investors were relieved at the end of the trading day.
"RALLY AT CLOSE CHEERS BROKERS; BANKERS OPTIMISTIC" was part of the three-stack headline in the next day's New York Times. The show business paper, Variety, was more direct: "WALL ST. LAYS AN EGG."
It was nothing, brokers said, a correction at the end of a dizzying decade, the most prosperous in the story of the republic. It got worse, quickly. Over the next three weeks, the market lost 40 percent of its value, more than thirty-five billion dollars in shareholder equity—money enough to float a hemisphere of nations. The entire American federal budget was barely three billion dollars. For someone who had followed the advice of the day and taken their savings out of the bank and put it all into General Electric, say, shares had grown by 500 percent from 1925 to 1929. In a month, they lost it all. More likely, they had bought more shares on margin, borrowing on the bet that stocks were going only skyward. To pay the margin loan after the crash—sometimes as high as 18 percent—they had to sell at a time when many stocks did not get any bids at all. Banks had gone on their own speculative binges, reaching into people's savings accounts to make millions in interest-free loans available to bank officers and other insiders for stock purchases. When stocks tanked, banks were hollowed out until the money was gone. One company, Union Cigar, went from $113 a share to $4—in a single day. The company's owner jumped to his death from a building on Wall Street.
But plunging investor suicides were rare, an urban myth. Most Americans did not own stock: at no time in the 1920s did more than 1.5 million people purchase shares of the stock market. At the most, 4 million people owned some stock—through gifts, inheritance, or purchase—in a nation of 120 million. What Americans still did was work the land. In 1929, thejobs of nearly one in four people were on a farm. The country had one foot in the fields, one foot in a bathtub of gin in the city.
On the High Plains, the Wall Street gyrations were a distant noise. The crash hurt rich people, city slickers, all those swells and dandies. It could not reach the last frontier of American farming. The newspaper in Boise City boasted that the ripple of the crash never touched the Panhandle in 1929. Instead, with record harvests, a new railroad, and even dreams of a skyscraper in town, the paper said, "Our ship is coming in."
But while prairie families may not have owned stock, they did own wheat, and it was starting to follow the course of the equities market. On Wall Street, people put 10 percent down to borrow against the future growth of a stock; in Kansas a dryland wheat farmer did the same thing—gambling on grain. The 1928 crop had come in okay, the price holding at about $1 a bushel at the end of the year. Most people had anticipated $1.50 wheat; some even talked of the $2 yield they had been getting at the start of the decade. There was a drought elsewhere, covering Maryland and the Carolinas all the way to Arkansas, that should have pushed prices up.
Outside of Boise City, the Lucas family was getting ready to start the first harvest of their winter wheat, a June cutting, when the sky darkened and rumbled. Carlie Lucas had died, suddenly, leaving the farm to his widow, Dee, and her five children. She had help from her late husband's brother, C.C., and two young sons, now stout. Her daughter, Hazel Lucas, had married Charlie Shaw and headed off for Cincinnati. With the prices down and loans to repay for all the new farm machinery, the Lucases needed this crop. Maybe, if the wheat came in right, Dee Lucas could get shoes for the kids and bring something special into the house that Carlie had built next to the old dugout. Electricity was not an option. In town, there was a picture show with a piano player accompanying the screen narrative, and diners were lit up, as were some houses. But in the rest of No Man's Land, the juice had yet to arrive. Nobody had washing machines, vacuum cleaners, or incandescent light bulbs. But the farmers did have their miracle machines. In fifteen years, the Lucas family had gone from a walking plow pulled along behind a mule, to a riding plow, in which horses carried the blade through the soil, to a fine-tuned internal combustion plow.
"Machinery is the new Messiah," said Henry Ford, and though that sounded blasphemous to a devout sodbuster, there was something to it. Every ten seconds a new car came off Ford's factory line, and some of them were now parked next to dugouts in No Man's Land.
A few miles from the Lucas homestead, Fred Folkers had his new threshing machine oiled and cleaned, and his crew in place, when the sky filled with ink. He leaned against the side of his new house, the eaves just long enough to cast a shadow over the windows, the new Dodge sitting out front. His daughter Faye was becoming a decent musician, taking regular lessons on the piano they had just bought on credit in Boise City. His tractor, his new car, his new house, his piano—it all came from this little half-section of No Man's Land. He needed wheat to hit somewhere in the dollar a bushel range to cover his costs. The debt was piling up. Whiskey, the one-hundred-proof Cimarron County hooch, made him forget. A couple times a week now, Fred Folkers needed more than a sniff of that broomcorn whiskey. He was more attached than ever to his orchard. People throughout the High Plains had been told to plant trees as soon as they got their dugouts in shape. It was said that trees would increase precipitation, diverting moisture upward. Nebraska gave tax breaks to anyone who planted trees. Folkers just wanted to grow fruit, his way of defying those who said apples and peaches couldn't come from No Man's Land.
A June storm is always troublesome, carrying the currents of systems confused by the cold of late spring and the heat of early summer. The most severe hailstorms on the High Plains are in May and June. When two systems struggled—humid east, dry west—it usually meant friction, strong wind, and clattering. A glance at the sky and here it was, the roll of the squall line. Dee Lucas ordered her children to the root cellar. The hail fell fast, pounding hard, the big ice stones bouncing when they hit, though some exploded on impact. It got louder. The hail balls were as big as grapefruits. They smashed north-facing windows. It sounded like a stampede of horses over the field. When Dee Lucas emerged from the cellar, she saw that the wheat field was flattened, covered with ice balls. Hail sometimes fell bigger; in Kansas a storm dropped ice that measured six inches in diameter, big enough to knock a person cold or cause a concussion. Anything above a marble in size could be ruinous, breaking windows, cracking or denting cars and houses. C.C. Lucas looked out: the damage stretched all the way to his eighty acres of wheat as well. Nothing was spared; all the grain lay squashed on the ground. Nearby, on land that was supposed to get Fred Folkers through next year, the hail hit just as hard—a thrashing that covered the fields in white. His fruit trees still stood, but the buds were stripped. The grain crop was lost—a year's work gone in five minutes. Dee Lucas tried to hold back tears; her eyes clouded and they came quick, in a torrent. C.C. Lucas started to cry as well. Sure they were next year people—you had to be to make your peace with the Panhandle—but that didn't make it easier. Anybody who lived in No Man's Land for long knew about nature's capricious power. It was abusive, a beater, a snarling son of a bitch, and then it would forgive and give something back. When the two adults fell to their knees in a field of hail and wept in front of the children, it was something the young ones had never seen, and it scared them.
The hailstorm crushed much of the wheat crop in Cimarron County, but elsewhere on the High Plains, the grain came in on time. The Germans from Russia brought so much wheat into Shattuck they were told it would soon be burned if they brought any more. Already, in Iowa and Nebraska, people were burning grain for heat; one courthouse kept its furnaces going all winter on surplus corn. In southwest Kansas, the harvest was up 50 percent in a year. In the county around Dalhart, it was up 100 percent. The wheat sat in elevators, in piles; some of it moldered on the ground or blew away. At the start of 1930, wheat sold for one-eighth of the high price from ten years earlier. At forty cents a bushel, the price could barely cover costs, let alone service a bank note. Across the plains, there was only one way out, a last gasp: plant more wheat. Farmers tore up what grass was left, furiously ripping out sod on the hopes they could hit a crop when the price came back.
While the widow Lucas was wondering how to make it through the next year with the crop ruined, her daughter Hazel was trying to start fresh in Cimarron County after her return. The bride had picked up white gloves in the city and felt regal in the clothes from Cincinnati. On the train ride home, she had anticipated getting a job as a teacher, while waiting for her husband's return. They would try to find a house in Boise City and make it nice, like some of the homes she had seen in Cincinnati. When Charles arrived at Christmas, he told his wife that everything had changed. The country was sick. You could see it in people's faces, hear it in the cafés and on the train ride back to No Man's Land. Confidence was shot. Money was tight. People were closing bank accounts, panicked. By the end of 1932, one fourth of all banks would be closed and nine million people would lose their savings. In New York, men in suits were selling apples on the streets, a nickel a pop. They were at every street corner. Even millionaires were scared.
"I'm afraid I'm going to end up with nine kids, three homes, and no dough," Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of America's best-known Irish-American family, told a friend.
The stock market's loss was up to fifty billion dollars. In three months' time, two million Americans lost their jobs—a tripling of what unemployment had been at the end of summer. Charles saw something in the city he had never seen in No Man's Land: young people, dressed well, heads toward the ground, waiting on line to get something to eat. And he saw some of those same types of people sleeping under bridges.
"No one has yet starved," said President Hoover, trying to calm people at year's end. He spoke too soon. A few months later people rioted in Arkansas, demanding food for their children. Then it happened closer to home. A mob stormed a grocery store in Oklahoma City, after the mayor had rejected their petition for food. Rioting over food: how could this be? Here was all this grain, food enough to feed half the world, sitting in piles at the train station, going to waste. Something was out of balance. Productivity surged, while wages fell and jobs disappeared. That left too much of everything—food, clothes, cars—and too few people to buy it. At one point, the going rate for corn was listed at minus three cents a bushel.
Hazel heard about a job opening the next year, 1930, at the New Hope School outside Boise City.
"What salary would you like?" the clerk asked her.
Hazel had been thinking about this for some time and was ready with her answer: "One hundred per month."
The clerk frowned.
"Is something wrong?" Hazel said. "If you can't pay a hundred, I would accept ninety."
"We can't pay you anything," said the clerk.
"But we still want to hire you. We need another teacher."
"You can't pay anything?"
The New Hope School was broke. Farmers were drowning in debt and had stopped paying taxes. Without taxes, the school could not pay teacher salaries. But they still wanted Hazel. They offered to pay her a warrant, a paper that could be cashed in later for ten dollars.
She accepted the job and the warrants. But when Hazel took the first of her paper promises to the bank she was turned away. John Johnson's bank refused to cash them. There was simply no way to expect that tax receipts would ever make the schools solvent. As each month of the school year passed, Hazel realized that the New Hope School would not be paying a teacher for some time. She worked that year without pay.
In the fields, more sorrow. Oh, the grain was fine. Again, in 1930, just enough rain came in the spring and the wheat turned green and upright, fattened under the sun, and the harvest was a flurry of fiber. At the start of the early wheat harvest, in June, the price had rebounded some, up near eighty cents a bushel. But by the time Fred Folkers got the grain threshed and loaded onto a truck and delivered forty miles to the market in Texhoma, the price was down to twenty-four cents a bushel. He was stunned. Folkers continued to drift back to his old whiskey habit, and as the summer progressed, he needed more of Dan Eiland's joy juice than ever before. Twenty-four cents a bushel! He could not live on that. Nor could widowed Dee Lucas. On eighty acres planted in wheat, twenty-four cents a bushel meant that an average harvest would bring a family four hundred dollars. That had to cover an entire year, and provide enough for equipment, seed, gas, paying hired hands, and interest on loans, not to mention food, shelter, and clothes. Four hundred dollars. For a year. In 1921, that same amount of wheat had brought over four thousand dollars. Nobody with fields to plow and tractors to tend and loans to service could live on four hundred dollars a year.
Farmers begged the banks to give them one last chance. Foreclosure sales in Boise City, held in front of the new Cimarron County Courthouse, became a regular event. John Johnson, the banker who had been so friendly throughout the Roaring Twenties, stood next to sheriff Hi Barrick and asked for bids to take somebody's property, always a neighbor, somebody who had walked out with a bank loan from Johnson just a few years earlier. If no one offered a minimum bid, John Johnson's bank was going to get another piece of property. Farmers drove by and shouted at the sheriff, standing there next to Johnson with his rifle, foreclosing on a nester in No Man's Land.
After a while, farmers got wise to the sales and devised a scheme. Before each foreclosure event, they agreed to bid a dime for a horse or combine, and no more. Anyone who bid higher would be taken care of later. The bank knew what was up, and so did Sheriff Barrick, but they couldn't stop it. It was a legal bidding process. For a time, these ten-cent sales kept a few bankrupt nesters in the game.
In the fall of 1930, farmers took their tractors to the buffalo grass again, this time in desperation. They plowed up more land than had ever been plowed before for wheat. But as the Lucas family and the Folkers and the others put in next year's crop in the fall of 1930, they noticed some fields that had been cut and opened just twelve months earlier went bare now. The suitcase farmers who had rushed into Boise City to hit a crop had disappeared with the price collapse. They had no sooner plowed up several million acres than they walked away, leaving the land stripped, not even planted in wheat. Just naked, exposed to the wind.
Up north across the state line, in Baca County, farmers had taken seriously their boast of making this weather-beaten corner of Colorado the dry farming capital of the state. Baca was the last big section of the southern plains to be torn up and planted. In ten years' time, horse freighters had disappeared, cattle were run off the land, and the grass overturned. Some of the last of Baca's cowboys had worked on the XIT and they didn't like being chased away by nesters here in Colorado any more than they liked it down in Texas. As a last-ditch effort, a handful of ranchers formed a committee to go around and visit with sodbusters, warning that if they continued to break up the grass in such a fury the land would be no good to anyone, cowboy or nester—it would blow away. But the cowboy's day had come and gone in Baca, same as it had in Texas. They had their free grass boom at century's end, when the land was stuffed with cattle. The nesters didn't trust the cowboys of Baca anymore than they trusted the ranch hands of the XIT.
The wagon ruts left by immigrants going west over the Santa Fe Trail shortcut were fresh on the land, as if they had passed through last Thursday. Baca County was trying to shed the woolly coat it had worn since the late eighteenth century, a cowboy's home. Just as people were pulling out of eastern Montana and the Dakotas, it was city building time in Baca County. The Santa Fe put a branch line in from Satanta, Kansas, to Baca County, which was completed in 1927. The counties along the rail line grew nearly 200 percent in a few years. In Springfield, Baca's county seat, new streets were going in, electricity bringing lights on after dark. One town dared to call itself Boston and said it would match that big city in New England someday, you watch. Another town, Richards, grew out of the prairie grass. Before even a single tree took hold, Richards got itself a school and a teacher, two general stores, and a post office.
Ike Osteen, the old man on the steep roof of his home in modern-day Springfield, was a boy of twelve when he first realized there was money to be made for his widowed mother and siblings bunched in the dugout. The family got their first tractor in 1929, and Osteen and his brother Oscar went around the county, asking people if they wanted their grass turned. It wasn't much of a machine: with steel wheels, instead of rubber ones, you bounced in the seat so hard it blistered your butt. But with the tractor, the Osteens could cut three rows at a time. A decade earlier they would have been cussed at or ridiculed—the thought of pulverizing Baca's grass being the stupidest idea a person could come up with. Ike and his brother charged one dollar an acre to plow up somebody's field. It took longer than he thought to rip the skin from Baca County, which was tougher than that of the Llano Estacado, even. Ike was easily distracted, too. He liked to play in the remains of the old Penitents ghost church, the rock foundation sitting roofless in the grass, in the shape of a cross. The Penitents used to whip themselves; they were self-flagellants living in Baca before anybody tried to plant a stalk of broomcorn. Even Don Juan Onate, the last conquistador, had his back scarred and bleeding in the time he moved through Baca County in 1608, for he too was a Penitent. Ike nearly got himself shot another time, tearing up a half-section near a whiskey still. He and his brother hid in the rocks and watched the mule trains come in, the pack animals bringing in sugar and rye and that good Baca County broomcorn, then hauling barrels of whiskey—two hundred gallons a day, he was told.
It wasn't hard to make a batch of hooch. A person needed a vat big enough to hold water, sugar, rye or corn, and something such as yeast to help with fermentation. You'd get the water boiling on a coal-fired burner, get it going enough so the alcohol rises to the top and begins to condense. It goes through a tube of copper and then cools, turning back into liquid. When ready to sell, it was strong enough to fire a tractor. "A great social and economic experiment," President Hoover had called the eighteenth amendment, implementing Prohibition, which started in 1920. A moneymaker and job-creator was what it was. Cimarron, Dallam, and Baca Counties boomed with the black-market whiskey trade. It was impossible for a hypocrite to blush. In Texas, a still turning out 130 gallons of whiskey a day was found operating on the farm of Senator Morris Sheppard, a Lone Star state political heavyweight who happened to be one of Prohibition's biggest backers—an author of the eighteenth amendment.
Ike kept out of the bootleggers' way and made himself good money with the tractor plowing up the fields in 1929. His days were long: up well before the sun, hitting the dirt floor of the dugout, out to get cow chips for the stove. In the winter he had to make sure there was hay enough in the barn for the animals. It made him sad, sometimes, to go inside the barn and remember his daddy and the freighters who overnighted there and the music they played on Saturday night, fiddles and French harps, singing and telling stories that no woman was supposed to hear. Now it was all about getting the grass turned and crop in the ground, and ever more land for wheat. Farmers needed three times the biggest homestead allowed just to make enough in 1929 to cover costs. People bought, rented, or shared any land that was lying about doing nothing, and by the start of the new decade there was very little left of Baca County as the Comanche or the cowboys had known it.
"Hoss-steen," the farmers called out to Ike. "You get that tractor over here fast as you can, boy."
By 1930, Baca was the largest wheat-producing county in Colorado. It could not last, the cowboys told the nesters. Look at the averages: Baca usually gets barely sixteen inches of rain a year. The wet years in the late 1920s were not normal.
Ike gave his earnings to his mom, who was trying to raise eight kids in a dugout. Sure she wanted a floor that was not dirt, and a roof that did not leak, but she wanted more than anything for Ike to stay in that Richards School and make it all the way like no Osteen had ever done—to get off this scab of the earth. She had lived in her Baca County dugout long enough to know the sky held more betrayal than love.
What the stock market collapse and tight money meant for a forward-looking man in Dalhart was opportunity. Uncle Dick Coon saw it, and he took it. Prices were coming down on property in the Texas Panhandle, a perfect time to buy. Uncle Dick picked up more real estate in downtown Dalhart and did not express a grunt of doubt that the value of his newfound property would soar. Uncle Dick continued at his regular poker games at the DeSoto, the hundred-dollar bill always in his pocket, playing out his hands with other men who believed in Dalhart, City on the High Plains. There was talk of putting in a college. John McCarty certainly thought Dalhart would not stumble in the troubles of late 1929. The newspaper editor exhorted citizens on. Some days folks in Dalhart actually felt sorry for people in New York or Philadelphia who had tied up all their money in worthless paper. In Dalhart, wealth was bound to the "one inexhaustible," the most permanent thing on the planet—land.
And so Doc Dawson felt, though he was getting a little concerned about the money he had invested in dirt outside of town with still not much to show in return. Dalhart finally got a real medical facility in 1929, after Catholic sisters opened the Loretto Hospital. For McCarty and Uncle Dick, it was evidence of the town moving forward, as it must, as the two men kept saying. Never look back, never slow. But for the Doc and his Willie, it meant he was finally unbound of duty to the little building with the Bull Durham tattoo on its side, free for the first time since 1912. At last, the Doc could become a full-time farmer.
One prospect was off the table: no longer did people talk about striking a vein of crude oil on the old XIT lands. The price of oil crashed not long after the stock market fell. It went from $1.30 a barrel to twenty cents. The world economy was a mess. In Germany, where reparation payments for the Great War sapped the treasury, people carted their near-worthless currency to the market in wheelbarrows. A stiff American tariff on imports—a demand of industry in a time when the government rolled over for every whim of big business— sent the European economy further into a tailspin. On the giddy ride up, there had been no cop, no regulator to enforce basic rules of an American economy that had become the world's biggest casino. Real estate in Florida, oil in Texas, wheat in Kansas, and stocks on Wall Street—they all had their time when gravity was willed into oblivion. And the rules put in place on the way down, the tariffs and tighter money, only made the problem worse. The consumer stopped consuming all but basics. The depression was now global.
The bank in Dalhart was a trouble spot. Rumors were flying that it was not as flush as people let on, that the officers had looted people's savings to buy stocks for themselves. The Dawsons had not received a statement for October or November 1929, and when they got one at the end of the year, it showed their savings drained and no income from the thousands of acres outside of town that were supposed to be their liberation after seventeen years at the sanitarium with its pickled organs and smell of ether. It snowed early that fall, and what grain they did have was lying under a fourteen-inch blanket.
Willie kept on with the literary society, the country club, dinner parties of wild duck and venison. As 1930 dawned, the Doc used the last of his savings to buy property in town. He was losing sleep again, fretting about his nonproducing fields. Strange things were happening on the old grasslands. He had tried again to plant cotton on a couple of his sections, but just as it started to mature, the cold back hand of a blue norther came down and killed it, with the temperatures down around zero. What did grow on Doc Dawson's land was Russian thistle—tumbleweed, which nobody ever planted on purpose. When his land was still in buffalo grass, the seeds lay dormant. But once he'd ripped it up for a commercial crop, it freed the thistle to take over. By the fall, Dawson had raised several thousand acres of tumbleweed. He hired a field hand to get rid of the damn thistle, tear out the dead cotton plants, and get the field disked and planted in winter wheat.
In 1930, Bam White and his family still lived in a little rental house, a place they could never seem to warm. The price was right, though: three dollars a month. At times, he told his boys, he still wanted to roam. It could have been the Indian blood stirring again. It was the great Kiowa leader, Satanta, who expressed the native love of mobility, a people who lived best on this land when they moved with the seasons. "I don't want to settle down in the house you build for us," Satanta said when the government ordered him off the grasslands. "I love to roam over the wild prairie."
The wanderer's urge would not help a family now. There were no animals to follow—cattle or bison. Wasn't much grass, either. Bam decided to find a house of his own, a place to get established, to give the family some certainty, some place to prove that when the horse died in Dalhart it meant God was telling them to settle here 'cause good things had to come. Bam got by with odd jobs in the field, selling his turnips and skunk hides. He did not always feel welcome in Dalhart, with his hands creased and stained, and here were all these folks wearing new clothes and dining fine and drinking the best hooch from the county stills. It could have been worse. He heard that a black man had come into town, got out at the railroad station, and tried to get a drink at Dinwiddie's, apparently ignoring the sign warning blacks not to let the sun go down on them in Dalhart. Next day, the man had disappeared, and people in town said he was killed and no one was less for it. It made Bam shudder.
Saving money from skunk skins, field labor, and turnips, Bam finally put together enough of a nest egg to get his own place. It was a half-dugout, not as deep as the typical hole in the ground; it measured fourteen feet by thirty-six feet, just over five hundred square feet of High Plains habitat for Bam, Lizzie, and the three kids. The roof was tarpaper, which shrieked like a hag in the spring winds. The walls were fingernail thin, and Lizzie said she could not live in a place so cold. Bam and the boys tried to insulate it, tacking pasteboard to the walls. They put in six layers, and now the place was sealed against the more severe exhalations of the High Plains. The dugout was divided into two sides: in one half was a cook stove and table, the eating and cleaning area; in the other half were beds for Bam and Lizzie, a cot that the two boys shared, and a bed for their sister. The house had no water. No toilet. No electric power. It was young Melt's job to haul in buckets of water for cleaning and cooking and to collect cow chips for the stove. This place ain't much, Bam White would say, twisting the edges of his handlebar mustache, but it's ours, and dammit we finally got something here in Texas.
The wheat came fast off the fields outside of Dalhart and over to the elevators by the train station, where it was stacked next to last year's wheat, which had not moved. In Boise City, Fred Folkers cut more grain than anytime since he had come to No Man's Land, and it too went to piles by the train depot, next to piles that had been there through the year, going nowhere. And in Shattuck, Oklahoma, George Ehrlich and Gustav Borth took their harvest to town and were met by men with arms crossed and faces stern, warning them off. Wasn't room for any more grain. The elevators were stuffed. If the Germans from Russia insisted on trying to get their grain to market, there was another man they could see, standing nearby with a rifle. The farmers had done everything right: planting in the fall, spreading mulch over the ground for cover, watching the wheat through spring rains, and praying that hail would not kill it in the summer. The reward at the end of a year? Wheat at thirty cents a bushel, far below what it cost to grow and harvest it. Other farmers got no bid. Nothing. They could give their year's work away for free if they wanted. Or they could throw their arms up and walk away. That's what the suitcase farmers were doing. Salesmen, druggists, barkeeps, docs, mechanics, teachers—the range of day-jobbers who thought they wanted to be wheat farmers, ripping up a half-section here and there, trying to hit a crop—they were getting out before they got in any deeper.
How could this be: the drought had persisted through 1930 in much of the country, while the High Plains got enough moisture to produce a bumper crop, and yet ... and yet ... nobody would buy it? In New York City, Gold Medal Flour put up large billboards that exhorted people to "EAT MORE WHEAT—THREE TIMES A DAY." Were people going hungry in the world? Yes, plenty of them. And in America, as well, in the Mississippi Delta and in Arkansas, where the skies had been so stingy. Food followed the roller coaster of the free market. In the throngs of a technological revolution, a nation of farmers produced way too much wheat, corn, beef, pork, and milk, even when a half dozen or more states were crippled by drought. What they got for their labors could not cover costs. Why not have the government buy the surplus wheat to feed the hungry? Farmers demanded as much. President Hoover rejected the idea out of hand. In anger, farmers burned railroad trestles to keep their grain from going to market or hijacked milk trucks on the road and forced them to spill their insides. In furtive meetings inside barns and small granges, farmers planned a general strike—withholding all their remaining wheat and corn as a way to make people notice that they were dying on the Great Plains. But if Shattuck's farmers agreed to keep their grain off the market, folks up in Baca County were more than willing to dump theirs. They would take anything.
In Baca, it had been a record harvest. Same in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Ditto Texas and most of Kansas, parts of Nebraska, in the dryland belt that drains into the Republican River. The government men shrugged; it was a free market, just like stocks, and you boys got stung by speculation. The volume of shares sold on the New York Stock Exchange had doubled in a year's time in the late twenties, and wheat production did the same thing. President Hoover wasn't going to step in and muddle the dynamics of agrarian capitalism. But congratulations, the government men said. You grew seven times as much wheat as you did a dozen years ago. A new national record. Keep this up and next year you'll do something no nation has yet done: produce more than 250 million bushels. In all the history of the world no country had ever tried to grow so much grain.
Walking off this land was out of the question for George Ehrlich; he didn't flee the czar's army, survive a hurricane at sea, and live through the homegrown hatred caused by the Great War just to abandon 160 acres of Oklahoma that belonged to him and his ten American-born children. And Bam White, having been tied to Dalhart by the wagon that would not move, finally had a home of his own; he wasn't going to retreat, either. Same with Hazel Lucas. She and Charles were trying to start something at the worst time in the history of buying and selling. She had seen the city life, sampled St. Louis, danced late at night in Cincinnati. The city was just too crowded. How could people live like that? Home was the flat frontier. Ike Osteen felt the same way, though he had never been outside of Baca County, never seen a moving picture, never walked the streets of a town bigger than Boise City, Dalhart, or Springfield. He knew what it was like to hunt deer in the fall, to ride his horse over the golden-sheened fields in October, to hide in a wallow where Comanche had crouched. This land was pure magic. You simply had to learn to see it right, to develop proper vision. Ike lived in a hole in the ground, hired out his tractor to earn money, but eventually he could own a homestead—or part of one, in the half-section where his daddy decided to start the Osteen family.
They were bound, each in their way, to the High Plains, because it was home and because a new decade was dawning, and it had to be better than the last year of the old one, and because they knew this was the only roll of the dice left.
On September 14, 1930, a windstorm kicked up dust out of southwest Kansas and tumbled toward Oklahoma. By the time the storm cut a swath through the Texas Panhandle, it looked unlike anything ever seen before on the High Plains. People called the government to find out what was up with this dirty swirling thing in the sky. The weather bureau people in Lubbock didn't know what to make of it or how to define it. Wasn't a sandstorm. Sandstorms were beige, off-white, and not thick like this thing. And it wasn't a hailstorm, though it certainly brought with it a dark, threatening sky, the kind of formation you would get just before a roof-buster. The strange thing about it, the weather bureau observers said, was that it rolled, like a mobile hill of crud, and it was black. When it tumbled through, it carried static electricity, enough to short out a car. And it hurt, like a swipe of coarse-grained sandpaper on the face. The first black duster was a curiosity, nothing else. The weather bureau observers wrote it up and put it in a drawer.