THE FIRST NATIONAL BANK of Dalhart did not open for business on June 27, 1931. The doors were locked, the shades down. People banged on the windows and demanded answers—this was their money, not the bank's. Open the door! A sign said the bank was insolvent. Thieves! The same day, the temperature reached 112 degrees, the hottest in the short history of Dalhart. The villainous sun and the starved bank did not seem related—yet. People slumped against the side of the building, in the oppressive shade, wondering, What now? Nearly two years into the Depression, the town was taking on a meaner edge, more desperate, like the rest of the country. What started on Wall Street twenty months earlier now hit the High Plains, a domino of distrust. The more things unraveled, the more it seemed like the entire boom of the previous decade had been helium.
Doc Dawson had money in the failed bank. He was approaching sixty and was worried about his future. Social Security did not yet exist. He had no pension. People owed him money from way back. Patients had offered him chickens, venison, old cars. Usually, he waved it off. The Doc looked strong, usually, but it had been a struggle to overcome his own infirmities. Bright's disease. Tuberculosis. Asthma. He didn't need much sleep, running from operation to operation, the spittoon by his side, the black Stetson atop his head. He trained himself to relax at intervals, nearly shutting his body down, and through this method he said he could go days without a normal man's sleep. It was easier to do when his labors were not so physical. Since giving up the sanitarium, he had become a full-time farmer. The work caught up with him. He felt sharp pains running up his arm, and then the lightheadedness and trouble getting his breath—a heart attack. During a month of recuperation, he took stock of his life. It boiled down to the land; he had to make the dirt work for him. But on the day the First National failed, with the temperature at 112 degrees, his fields looked dry as chalkboard.
A crowd formed outside the office of the new sheriff, Harvey Foust. They wanted him to force the bank to open. Use your power to get our money back, they said. Denrock was full of angry people, blocking the street. The fear spread with fresh rumors. Late in the day, the crowd's mood turned ugly; they went from citizens to a mob, and the heat made it like the worst kind of sweat-soaked nightmare: Knock the bank door down! It's our money! Where did it go? Bank accounts were not backed by anything but the good name of the people who ran the bank. And too many of them saw the personal savings of High Plains nesters as just another source of cash for the stock market or an ill-conceived business loan. No matter the exact cause: the First National was broke.
Sheriff Foust tried to calm the mob. There wasn't much he could do; it was a federal matter. But the national government could not do anything either. Deposits were uninsured. In one month alone—November 1930—256 banks failed. The question grew louder, a demand now: where did our money go? The mob turned on Foust: was he afraid to do his job? They'd been robbed by the First National. Do something!
Foust did not seem himself of late. People saw him drinking, his words slurring, even at midday. He talked to himself, withdrew quickly, didn't look people in the eyes. Just a year earlier, Foust—then a deputy—was a hero. He was serving a warrant along with Sheriff Lon Alexander on a pair of low-level bootleggers, Spud and Ron Dellinger. At the Dellinger house, Spud fired at the sheriff, killing him with a single bullet to the brain. Foust had waited outside. When he heard gunshots, he stormed into the shack, his revolver drawn. Spud's brother lunged for the deputy. As the deputy and the bootlegger struggled, Ron's wife entered the shack with a shotgun. Foust broke away and fired at the wife, then at Ron Dellinger. He turned to a corner and got off a third shot, this one at Spud. Three shots: one killed Spud, the other killed his brother Ron, and the third wounded the wife. A week later, Foust was made sheriff. But he was a haunted man, second-guessing himself.
One block from the bank, at the DeSoto Hotel, Uncle Dick Coon tried to keep spirits up, telling the same jokes, saying failure was not going to drag Dalhart down. People thought Uncle Dick kept his dough in a mattress or a ditch out back. Big shots and paupers did the same thing. Senator "Cotton Ed" Smith of South Carolina hauled all his money around in a belt that never left his waist. Dick had his poker face on and not just for the card game. He was in trouble. The properties he had picked up after the crash were not paying rent. He knew the tenants and sympathized with their plight. Business was dead. People had stopped buying cars, clothes, hats, bicycles, even basics. Once the fear started and the wave of collapse started to spread, it was hard to let a buck go, because there might not be one to replace it. Usually, a few wildcatters could be counted on to throw money around when everyone else had closed their wallets. But oil had fallen from $1.43 a barrel to a dime. A dime! Nothing was moving. The economy was a pool of glue. The wildcatters fled as quickly as they had arrived. Dick had his hundred-dollar bill, of course. To his friends, though, he seemed worried. They could see through his poker face. The man had survived the Galveston hurricane, for Christ's sake. At Galveston, he ran a casino, and he lost it all—money, the building, all washed away. More than six thousand had died, so Uncle Dick did not mourn the paper money buried by rampaging sea and eighty-mile-an-hour winds. He knew poverty and he knew death in their worst forms. But like everyone in the summer of 1931, he had the jitters. Dalhart was sick, acting like a dog with rabies, and that mob outside the bank: what would they turn on next? Uncle Dick's namesake, the Coon Building, was empty, sitting like a hobo on the street right across the way from the DeSoto. And the hotel business had slowed to a crawl, people no longer pouring into Dalhart looking to strike oil or hit a crop.
In Dalhart's grim decline, the Number 126 house flourished. The girls were not afraid of showing it, either. The house had more girls than they could use and a fiddler, Jess Morris, who played with his band on Saturday nights until dawn. The Number 126 kept some commerce in Dalhart going: the girls getting their hair tinted and coiffed, buying new clothes, the mustard-colored house always in need of fresh blinds, new sheets, furniture. The owner, Lil Walker, drove a pink Cadillac—the nicest car in three counties. She would pile her new girls in the car, dressed to the nines, their hair up like Mae West, and cruise past the crumbling empire of Uncle Dick. The girls waved and shouted yoo-hoo, leaving a trail of perfume.
It steamed John L. McCarty, sitting in his editor's office at the Texan, working to keep alive the Dalhart vision. The town had nearly eight thousand people now, almost double what it was ten years ago. In McCarty's mind, it would double again by the end of the 1930s. But Dalhart needed to be slapped to its senses time and again, and it was the job of the loudest voice in the Panhandle to do just that. McCarty could not stand that the one business still thriving in Dalhart was the whorehouse. It was time to drive Mrs. Walker and her pink Cadillac out of Dallam County, out of the Panhandle, out of Texas. McCarty prepared the front page of the Texan with a searing exposé, a write-up on the doings at the Number 126, and how it was a moral abomination to have these hookers parading around in a pink Caddy when Dalhart limped along, the Coon Building empty and people no longer showing up with suitcases and ambition to spare.
"SO THE PEOPLE MAY KNOW" was his headline for the next day's Texan. When he took the page dummy to the shop, his printer shook his head. He refused to print it. The printer had lived in Dalhart since its creation and he knew the Number 126 like people knew Rita Blanca Canyon south of town. McCarty was indignant. This whorehouse was a sore on the face of Dalhart; it had to go. It was one thing to be invisible at the edge of town but another to flash and parade painted women and their dresses and the pink Caddy. Sorry, Mr. McCarty, the printer said. Can't do it. Won't do it. We need them girls. McCarty pulled his story.
As the ranks of the jobless grew, they took to the rails, going from town to town, dodging Rock Island bulls in the south, Burlington Northern bulls in the other direction, swapping stories about places where the sun shined and a man might still get paid for a day's work. Two million Americans were living as nomads. They were not long-time drifters, most of them, according to reporters who had spent some time on the trains. They were family men, farmers and factory hands, merchants, some professionals among them, writers and bank clerks and storeowners—all broke, people who could not stand to see their kids in rags, hungry. When they arrived in Dalhart—sometimes as many as eighty people a day—at the railroad crossroads that could lead a man north to Denver, west to Santa Fe, or east to Kansas City, Sheriff Foust was supposed to put them back on the train. And if they were black, they weren't even supposed to step off the tracks, or he could arrest them for vagrancy. The penalty for "vag" was stiff: four months on a chain gang, doing hard labor. In September 1929, just over 1.5 million people were out of work; by February of the following year, the number had tripled. The economy was not fatally ill, President Hoover said; Americans had simply lost their confidence.
"All the evidences indicate that the worst effects of the crash on unemployment will have passed during the next sixty days," Hoover said on March 3, 1930.
By the end of that year, eight million people were out of work. The banking system was in chaos. The big financial institutions had once looked invincible, with the stone fronts, the copper lights, the marbled floors, run by the best people in town. Now bankers were seen as crooks, fraud artists who took people's homes, their farms, and their savings. In 1930, 1,350 banks failed, going under with $853 million in deposits. The next year, 2,294 banks went bust. At the end of 1931 came the biggest failure of all—the collapse of the Bank of the United States in New York. When the Bank of the United States folded, it had deposits of two hundred million dollars. Fittingly, the bank's biggest office was next to Union Cigar, the company whose president had committed suicide after the stock fell from $103 to $4 in a day. When the bank failed, twelve million people were without jobs—25 percent of the work force. Never before had so many people been thrown off payrolls so quickly, with no prospects and no safety net. Never before had so many people been without purpose, direction, or money.
In Dalhart, with the First National shuttered and downtown merchants unable to pay city taxes, John McCarty now worried about the survival of his paper. The Texan had been his before his thirtieth birthday. He had taken it from a weekly to a daily, and circulation growth had been robust. The paper would grow into a great daily only if Dalhart kept reaching for legroom. McCarty begged his advertisers to stick with him. He presented a new strategy for survival: he would emphasize good news. Good news? In the worst depression in history. Good news? When stacks of grain rotted near the railroad. Good news? When the land was starting to dry and crack with a spell of drought that had become more than a curiosity. It sounded preposterous. But from here on out, McCarty would only see the omelet in the broken eggs. A bank collapse was an opportunity. A store closing was a competitive advantage. A death was not nearly as important as a birth. As for the heat wave: it's the golden sun at its best. Other states would kill for it. He got the Mission Theater, the grocery store, a couple of lawyers, and Uncle Dick to keep advertising. And he leaned on Herzstein's, the clothing store that gave people in Dalhart something to dream about.
Some people said Jews were to blame for the bad times—that they did not belong in this country, a place where the Texan had boasted that its citizens were "of the highest type of Anglo-Saxon ancestry." In Nebraska, four thousand people gathered on the capitol steps, blaming the "Jewish system of banking" for the implosion of the economy. They held banners with rattlesnakes, labeled as Jews, coiled around the American farmer. Father Charles E. Coughlin, the mellow-voiced radio priest from Detroit, also blamed Jews for America's stumbles as he spoke to a weekly audience of more than a million listeners. Often, he would read the names of Hollywood movie stars and then "out" them, revealing their original Jewish names as if detailing a sinister plot.
Herzstein's filled a need in Dalhart, Boise City, and across the line at their headquarters of Clayton, New Mexico, and the fact that they were Jews in the Anglo prairie was secondary. Their customers let them be. Their sign read: " HERZSTEIN READY TO WEAR." The idea of buying a complete outfit—or even a shirt or pair of pants—that came fully stitched to size was novel. Most people bought bolts of material and sewed their own clothes. In the early years of the Depression, people made clothes from burlap potato sacks, the labels still printed on them, or tore out the seat covers from junked cars and refashioned them as something to wear. Herzstein's slashed prices below their break-even point. McCarty convinced the family to run a small ad, once a week: "new shirts, two for three dollars." But they were bleeding money like everybody else, falling further behind, looking at a growing mountain of unpaid bills. In 1931, over 28,000 businesses failed; it did not matter if they were family run institutions or big corporations, they were sucked under by the same force. Money did not circulate. Those who had jobs saw their wages collapse by a third or more. The average factory worker, lucky to be still drawing a paycheck, went from earning twenty-four dollars a week just before the collapse to sixteen dollars a week in the early thirties.
Relatives from Philadelphia would visit the Herzsteins and wonder why they held on in land so foreign, so full of cowboy twang, wildcatter bluster, and two-fisted Christianity. But the family had been in the High Plains longer than anyone in Dalhart or Boise City, and they were here to stay. As the first Jewish family in the High Plains, they had spilled blood in this land. Their struggle, their despairs and triumphs, were as tied to the hard brown flatland as anybody's. The Herzsteins had come west over the Santa Fe Trail with the first group of Jews in New Mexico—Spiegelbergs, Zeckendorfs, Floersheims, and Bibos among them—beginning in the late 1840s. In New Mexico, they found an open world: cultures of old Spain, Indians from the pueblos, and Yankee traders. The light was different. The landscape was unreal. And socially, it was unlike the layered, segregated world of the East or old Europe. One of the Jews, Solomon Bibo, married into an Indian family in Acoma, a pueblo on a high mesa that is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States. Bibo even became governor of Acoma, known as the Sky City, a thousand-year-old community. The Herzsteins drifted north and east of Santa Fe to the high desert and a wind-tugged piece of New Mexico Territory. They were counting on a railroad line putting down tracks and a depot in Liberty, the town they had selected as their stake. The railroad never came. But one day in 1896, a gang led by Black Jack Ketchum rode into Herzstein's general merchandise store. Black Jack was thirty-two, at the height of a reign of terror across the High Plains. He had killed more than a dozen men, according to the wanted posters, robbing trains, banks, stores, and homes throughout Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.
What do you want? Levi Herzstein asked Black Jack.
Everything you got.
Black Jack robbed the store of all its cash and much of its merchandise. His gang knocked off the post office next door as well. Levi Herzstein organized a posse and they chased Black Jack's gang up among the dormant volcanoes north of the Llano Estacado, and then in the draws near No Man's Land. When the posse caught up with them, Black Jack offered to surrender. As Levi Herzstein moved forward to disarm him, Black Jack pulled his pistol from his side and shot Herzstein and two Mexicans in his posse. Herzstein fell to the ground, his guts ripped open. He bled to death, as did the two other men.
It took four years for the law to catch up with Black Jack. While robbing a train, Ketchum took a shotgun blast from close range fired by a conductor. It shattered his arm, which was later amputated. He was tried for multiple crimes and sentenced to death. By popular consent, it was agreed to hang Black Jack in Clayton, New Mexico, which soon was said to have more guns per capita than any place in the West—a safety precaution against any attempt by Black Jack's old gang to free him. It was also where Morris Herzstein—the surviving brother—had set up a new store and decided to settle down. Black Jack was scheduled to be hanged on April 26, 1901. That week, another Herzstein arrived in town, Simon, aged nineteen. He had been summoned by his uncle to come west from Philadelphia and help him build a chain of stores. Simon brought along his bride, Maude Edwards, a woman of gentile breeding and European manners who had grown up in London and Philadelphia. She was blond, very pretty, small, and well-dressed. She spoke the crispest English heard in New Mexico Territory. When she got off the train in Clayton after crossing the empty plains and the wind-harried Llano Estacado, she found saloons doing business in the streets, the hotels full, and posters everywhere advertising the festive, upcoming execution of Black Jack Ketchum. Maude Edwards was horrified, but Simon found it fascinating. Life on the High Plains had an urgency that it did not have back in Philadelphia.
People came from hundreds of miles to see the one-armed killer hang. Newspapers from as far away as Denver, Los Angeles, and St. Louis sent correspondents. The execution was set for 1:00 P.M. Crowds jammed around the execution site, a scaffolding built next to the jail. The sheriff gave a solemn intonation and a prayer was read. Black Jack stepped to the gallows. He was a young man still, not quite thirty-seven, with a shock of black hair, his face somewhat puffy and bloated. He looked fat, having gained more than fifty pounds in jail. The crowd quieted. A noose was put around his neck.
Any last words?
"Let her rip," Blackjack said.
The trapdoor sprang open and Ketchum fell through. But the hanging went wrong. Instead of snapping his spine behind the ear, the tightened rope caused Blackjack's head to pop off. Some said the sheriff had greased the noose so it would slide quickly and snap the neck. Others said it was the way the noose was tied. But decapitation by hanging was extremely rare, and Blackjack's case is one of only a few recorded in American execution. His hooded head broke clean and rolled around at the feet of the crowd.
Welcome to the High Plains, Morris Herzstein told Maude Edwards, late of London and Philadelphia.
Simon Herzstein never tired of telling the story about Blackjack's decapitation. It became part of the lore of the store as Simon traveled the High Plains selling fine clothes to nesters, cowpunchers, and their wives. When people would ask him what a Jew was doing peddling stiff collars in No Man's Land, he said he was doing the same as anybody else, only taking a different route. He let people buy on credit and never kept a ledger. It was all in his head. He knew they would pay. He loved baseball, poker, and bridge. He loved throwing big dinner parties, giving Maude something to take her mind off the wind and the empty skies. And he loved the West, the freshness of it all, the Indians who came into town to trade from Navajo lands, the sons and daughters of Comancheros, who could match Simon story for story.
When the banks closed and people scrounged for food, Simon Herzstein kept up with the well-told jokes and the optimism, never letting on that he had his own troubles. As businesses folded in Dalhart, Clayton, and Boise City, the triangle of towns at the center of the High Plains, the Herzsteins fell further behind. The town of Dalhart went after Simon Herzstein, claiming in foreclosure papers that he had not paid his taxes in more than a year. Dick Coon owned the property, and he now consulted his lawyer about what to do about the only man on the High Plains trying to keep people dressed to match their lost dignity.
Failed bank, Kansas, 1936
As Dalhart collapsed, people in other parts of the Panhandle kept their faith, looking to the upcoming harvest of 1931 to rescue them. Sure, the First National was gone, all that money vaporized in the prairie heat, but these folks had something more lasting: they had land, and from this land came food. People were starving now in parts of the United States, despite what Hoover had said and despite the song that played in the background, Rudy Vallee's "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries." American families were reduced to eating dandelions and foraging for blackberries in Arkansas, where the drought was going on two years. And over in the mountains of the Carolinas and West Virginia, a boy told the papers his family members took turns eating, each kid getting a shot at dinner every fourth night. In New York, nearly half a million people were on city relief, getting up to eight dollars a month to live on.
But here on the High Plains—look at this wheat in the early summer of 1931: it was pouring out of threshers, piling high once again, gold and fat, and so much of it that it formed hillocks bigger than any tuft of land in Dallam County, Texas. On the Texas Panhandle, two million acres of sod had been turned now—a 300 percent increase over ten years ago. Up in Baca County, two hundred thousand acres. In Cimarron County, Oklahoma, another quarter million acres. The wheat came in just as the government had predicted—a record, in excess of 250 million bushels nationwide. The greatest agricultural accomplishment in the history of tilling the land, some called it. The tractors had done what no hailstorm, no blizzard, no tornado, no drought, no epic siege of frost, no prairie fire, nothing in the natural history of the southern plains had ever done. They had removed the native prairie grass, a web of perennial species evolved over twenty thousand years or more, so completely that by the end of 1931 it was a different land—thirty-three million acres stripped bare in the southern plains.
And what came from that transformed land—the biggest crop of all time—was shunned, met with the lowest price ever. The market held at nearly 50 percent below the amount it cost farmers to grow the grain. By the measure of money—which was how most people viewed success or failure on the land—the whole experiment of trying to trick a part of the country into being something it was never meant to be was a colossal failure. Every five bushels of wheat brought in from the fields was another dollar taken out of a farmer's pocket.
The grain toasted under the hot sun. With the winds, the heat gathered strength; it chased people into their cellars all day, and it made them mean. Their throats hurt. Their skin cracked. Their eyes itched. The blast furnace was a fact of summer life, as the Great Plains historian Walter Prescott Webb said, causing rail lines to expand and warp. "A more common effect is that these hot winds render people irritable and incite nervousness," he wrote. The land hardened. Rivers that had been full in spring trickled down to a string line of water and then disappeared. That September was the warmest yet in the still-young century. Bam White scanned the sky for a "sun dog," his term for a halo that foretold of rain; he saw nothing through the heat of July, August, and September. He noticed how the horses were lethargic, trying to conserve energy. Usually, when the animals bucked or stirred, it meant a storm on the way. They had been passive for some time now, in a summer when the rains left and did not come back for nearly eight years.