I am continuing to appreciate the easy access we have to food in supermarkets, air conditioning, clean air to breathe, and many other things we normally take for granted as I read “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” by Timothy Egan. It’s also providing a continuing opportunity to reflect on the emergence of socialism, governmental wealth redistribution, and a culture of entitlements which has become an untouchable political locomotive with so much momentum no one seems able to stop it or even meaningfully reform it in 2009. On page 158 Egan writes, in reference to the year 1934:
Later that year, the government men offered contracts to wheat farmers if they agreed not to plant next year. This idea seemed immoral and not the least bit a bit odd to people when they first heard about it. Like the cattle slaughters, it was part of a Roosevelt initiative to bring farm prices up by reducing supply– forced scarcity. In the end, many farmers were not going to plant anyway– what was the use, with no water? — so the idea that they could get money by agreeing to grow nothing was not a hard sell. More than twelve hundred wheat farmers in No Man’s Land signed up for contracts and in turn got a total of $642,637– an average of $498 a farmer. Thus was born a subsidy system that grew into one of the untouchable pillars of the federal budget. It was designed for poor grain growers, one foot in foreclosure, near starvation, pounded by dirt. And plenty of farmers were starving.
The story of the American dust bowl and the dirty thirties is not new to me, of course, but the stories and background Egan relates in his book are bringing that history alive for me in ways I’ve never experienced. What a tragedy that chapter in U.S. history was, at so many levels. The grassland prairie of that region was created / naturally evolved to be perfect for bison. The grass was NOT to be plowed up. The results of this transformation of the grasslands of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles were devastating. On pages 140-141 Egan wrote about 1933:
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.
What a tragedy that Americans, eventually at the behest of the U.S. government and the railroads, almost exterminated the entire American bison herd. What a tragedy the beauty and interdependent ecosystem of the Oklahoma panhandle was virtually destroyed in the 1930s by the plow and a confluence of factors involving poor farmers seeking survival as well as economic mobility.
The son of a Caroline cotton farmer, Big Hugh Bennett, continued to rage against the killing of the land by his countrymen. What was happening in Oklahoma, in particular, appalled him. “It seems not so long ago since hundreds of homesteaders, at the crack of muskets fired by United States troops, were rushing into the Cherokee Strip of Oklahoma for the purpose of locating free farmsteads,” he said. “What has happened in this region since is tragic beyond belief.”
It is hard to solely blame the farmers who flocked to the Oklahoma panhandle in the early 1900s seeking land and economic opportunity for the events which followed in the 1930s. It is natural for people to seek better economic opportunities, and “nesters” clearly believed they had an opportunity to turn an immense American grassland into a wheat basket for the nation and world. The record harvests in the years preceding the dirty thirties convinced many of this. Our government certainly seemed to, and encouraged the land rush through various homestead acts. It is interesting and instructive to me that this “dark side” of the land runs and the homestead acts is not remembered or referenced in the spring rituals we follow in Oklahoma schools today, when students re-enact the excitement of the land runs.
It is also interesting that the plight of American Indian tribes and the broken promises of the U.S. government seem to be paid light attention in our history curriculum for this era. Writing of the land runs on page 69, Egan noted:
This latest land grab, which opened some of the last chunks of the Cherokee Nation territory to homesteading, was agreed to by several tribal leaders, who accepted a promise of 160 acres a person in return for giving up the larger land base. But other Indians thought they were robbed. The Comanche felt the same way. Their small reservation was opened to settlement at the same time, leaving the Lords of the Plains with little but brochures from the government on how to become farmers. As the Indians walked away from the land, they burned everything in their wake, torching the grass. Maybe it would scare the Germans back to Russia.
As I continue to read Egan’s narrative, I am drawn repeatedly to the hypothetical question, “What would I have done if I was living in the Oklahoma panhandle during those hard times?” It is difficult to imagine the struggle for mere survival which many faced. Consider the following story of Dalhart judge Wilson Cowen, related on pages 177-178 by Egan:
While running for judge, Cowen roamed all over Dallam County and saw firsthand how the dirt-packed winds were taking the life out of the place. He drove for days without seeing a single green thing. He saw farmhouses without a chicken or cow. He saw children in rags, their parents too frightened of dust pneumonia to send them to school, huddling in shacks shaped into wavy formations on the prairie, almost indistinguishable from the dunes. He had been a judge less than a year when he was assigned the case of a mother of young children, the thirty-five-year-old widow found on the streets. Bankrupted by the wheat bust, the woman had lost her husband to dust pneumonia, leaving her without a man or a penny to her name. Her children were hungry, dirty, coughing, dressed in torn, soiled clothes. Their house was nearly buried, and inside centipedes and black widows had a run of the place. The worst thing was the wind. It never stopped. One day, the woman simply snapped.
What would I have done in such circumstances? With a family to care for, would we have stayed on and clung to the land along with hopes of a brighter future, or would we have cast our lots with thousands of other migrants, looking for a better tomorrow in the fields of California, Washington, Saskatchewan, or elsewhere? I don’t know. The health conditions during the height of the dust bowl sound like they would have been intolerable. Having lived briefly (for a year) in Mexico City and experiencing what was considered at the time the worst urban pollution on our planet, I find it hard to imagine that I’d continue to subject my family to the dust conditions in the Oklahoma panhandle even if the land on which we lived was the only piece of our country I’d ever owned or ever would own. I just don’t know what I would have done. I AM immensely thankful, however, that such a trial is not mine to go through in this season of my life with a family.
I have no doubt that the government had to step in during the American dust bowl of the 1930s and try to fix the economic and geographic mess which it had been instrumental in fomenting. Again I find it interesting to consider how those actions, like the creation of the first farm subsidies, have grown over time and are still with us. I wondered in my May 30th post, “Is the Obama Administration Dooming Us to HyperInflation?” whether or not our current government’s attempts to “fix” our sagging economy are in fact good ideas, or whether we are again swept up in a historical chain of events which eventually will lead to greater misery and suffering. As a comment to that post, Stephen Downes contended that the Obama administration hasn’t really had a choice other than to continue the bailouts started under the Bush administration. He may be right. It is sobering to read of our government’s historic blunders when it comes to managing our economy and think of the situation we face today. I certainly hope our leaders are better students of history as well as economics than many of our leaders during the 1920s and 1930s seemed to have been.
For a few more thoughts as well as a link to an excellent video about “The Dirty Thirties” from one of our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices participants, see my May 27th post, “We’ve come so far, so fast – And we need more digital witnesses in the Oklahoma panhandle.”
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