Editor's Pick

Portraits: Texas Ranchers Remember An Epic Drought

Eugene "Boob" Kelton, 80, is an Upton County rancher and brother of writer Elmer Kelton.

Eugene "Boob" Kelton, 80, is an Upton County rancher and brother of writer Elmer Kelton. Michael O'Brien hide caption

itoggle caption Michael O'Brien

"Between 1950 and 1960," according to NPR's John Burnett, Texas "lost nearly 100,000 farms and ranches," and rural residents who had made up more than a third of the population dwindled to just a quarter of the population.

They had all moved to towns and cities after an epic, seven-year drought. For a recent story in Texas Monthly, Burnett teamed up with photographer Michael O'Brien to gather an oral history of that drought — asking ranchers what they remember.

In Burnett's radio story, you can listen to the voices of ranchers like Nancy Nunns, who recalls receiving a raincoat in 1951, and outgrowing it without ever once wearing it.

And in O'Brien's photos, the voices spring to life.

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    Mort Mertz returned from the Korean War in 1952 and started ranching in New Mexico and West Texas. ... Still ranching, Mertz is 88 and lives in San Angelo: "My dad kept saying, 'We have these things, they'll go about 18 months' ... And he said, 'It'll break.' That is what got everybody off guard; it didn't break. It just kept on going, and it lasted about seven years."
    Michael O'Brien
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    Eugene "Boob" Kelton, 80, is an Upton County rancher and brother of Western writer Elmer Kelton: "The cattle would weaken down, and they'd die from lack of food. And there was some wild hogs over there ... A cow'd get down and they'd just start eatin' her while she was alive."
    Michael O'Brien
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    Peggy Kelton, 76, wife of Boob Kelton: "San Angelo had always been a Democratic town. Well, President Eisenhower visited, it was in January 1957, made his speech and then left. It started raining after that. So they soon became Republicans and still are."
    Michael O'Brien
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    Siblings Charles and Nancy Hagood Nunns, who grew up in Junction during the '50s drought. Charles, 59, has been a banker and rancher in Junction since 1979: "I would visit with men that I'd always known as carpenters, painters, merchants. And then visiting with them in deeper detail I'd find out that they were ranchers until the drought. Just like my daddy. The drought drove us to town."
    Michael O'Brien
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    Stanley Mayfield is the owner of the Mayfield Ranch, outside of Sonora. When his son was born in 1956, he called him "Seco," (Spanish for "dry").
    Michael O'Brien
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    Bill Schneemann has been ranching in West Texas for 58 years.
    Michael O'Brien
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    Sandy Whittley, 74, has been executive secretary of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association since 1966. She lives in San Angelo: "The first year it was, 'Nah, not too bad.' And then a little drier the next year. By about the third year, it was beginning to get really interesting — and then it got really serious. And from then on, it was just tough."
    Michael O'Brien

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"I traveled 900 miles in 4 days and photographed 8 ranchers for the story," writes O'Brien by email. "The farther west we traveled the harsher the land, which was echoed in the faces of the ranchers."

His photographs were mostly made with a 4x5 view camera; some were shot with leftover Polaroid film from Hard Ground, his book about homelessness. Those large negatives have a way of capturing detailed landscapes — like the contours of a face that has weathered the elements.

"The most touching moment came at the end of a long, hot outdoor shoot when Bill Schneemann, 77, a rancher in Big Lake, helped ... carry heavy lighting equipment back to the car," writes O'Brien. "Bill was worn out and used a cane to get around, but he picked up 30-pound sandbags and hauled them quite a distance. A tough rancher with a gentle heart."

Hear the ranchers tell their stories in the radio story.

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