The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Worst Hard Time DusterThe Worst Hard Time is terrific look at the dust-bowl days from the perspective of the people who lived through it. The epicenter, Boise City, Oklahoma is covered extensively, as is Dalhart, Texas, in the panhandle of that state.

In 1934, the panhandle was in its second year of drought. Wheat prices had fallen to the point where a farmer getting 25 cents a bushel was actually better off not planting any.  The Great Depression was already nearing five years deep and showing little improvement.  When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the Presidency in 1933, he immediately implemented plans to feed the starving, give conservation jobs to those where were down and out, stabilize stock prices by buying–and in many cases, killing–cattle that were starving, and eventually buying up land to fallow, replanting the grass that held it together once upon a time.  But by 1934, the unrestricted plowing of the Great Plains had created millions of acres of loose topsoil.  With no moisture to help hold it down, the relentless prairie winds picked it up, circulated it in the sky and then dumped it back down on the sodbusters, sometimes for days on end.  The dust was often finer than sifted flour, just constantly coming down, inhaled by cattle and people until it filled their lungs and stomachs and killed them.  When farmers were actually able to get a little something growing, it would be eaten by rabbits or grasshoppers who grew abundantly in the absence of their natural predators: birds, snakes, and coyotes.  Rabbit drives were organized to kill the rabbits, which provided at least one source of food outside government rations.  Seed sacks were saved and used to make clothing and some ranchers were so desperate that they harvested Russian thistle (tumbleweeds) to feed their cattle.  But the dust and sand storms were the true menace, piling up dunes of sand and soil that made it almost impossible to farm, to drive from town to town, to walk to school.  They filled the air with deadly particles and came relentlessly, sometimes for many days in a row, blackening the sky and creating midnight at noon

Author Timothy Egan does a masterful job of incorporating the stories of John McCarty, editor of the Dalhart Texan, cowboys Bam and Melt White, homesteaders Fred Folkers and Ike Osteen, Hazel Lucas, the undertaker’s wife, who struggled to have children in the land she loved, and a Nebraska farmer named Don Hartwell, who kept a diary of the decline and fall of the Great Plains.

The book also makes evident the government’s culpability in bringing about this catastrophe by encouraging settlers to farm on the arid high plains, an area that had previously been kept stable by Buffalo grass, bison, and Native Americans. By plowing under the grass, farmers invited the wind to pick up the soil, carry it high into the air, turn over in the atmosphere, and then dump it back down on them.  Not only was it the largest, shortest ecological disaster in American history, it was a medical nightmare with thousands dying from dust inhalation and children and elderly suffering from dust pneumonia.

Seeing this through the eyes of the settlers elevates the story far beyond a dry history recitation, into a powerful work of non-fiction.

The last 100 pages are full of a terrible irony, as hope for recovery from the drought is compounded by Black Sunday (a solid black cloud of dirt that rolled over the plains dumping tons of soil on the farmers until breathing was almost impossible) and those who had pledged to stay were driven from the land.

This is very powerful book, which I highly recommend.

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