The Worst Hard TimeThe Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
Mariner BooksCopyright © 2006 Timothy Egan
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780618773473
They had been on the road for six days, a clan of five bouncing along in a
tired wagon, when Bam White woke to some bad news. One of his horses
was dead. It was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a flat tire, except this
was the winter of 1926. The Whites had no money. They were moving from
the high desert chill of Las Animas, Colorado, to Littlefield, Texas, south of
Amarillo, to start anew. Bam White was a ranch hand, a lover of horses and
empty skies, at a time when the cowboy was becoming a museum piece in
Texas and an icon in Hollywood. Within a year, Charles Lindbergh would
cross the ocean in his monoplane, and a white man in blackface would
speak from the screen of a motion picture show. The great ranches had been
fenced, platted, subdivided, upturned, and were going out to city builders, oil
drillers, and sodbusters. The least-populated part of Texas was open for
business and riding high in the Roaring Twenties. Overnight, new towns were
rising, bustling with banks, opera houses, electric streetlights, and
restaurants serving seafood sent by train from Galveston.With his handlebar
mustache, bowlegs, and raisin-skinned face, Bam White was a man high-
centered in the wrong century. The plan was to get to Littlefield, where the
winters were not as bad as Colorado, and see if one of the new fancy-
pantsers might need a ranch hand with a quick mind. Word was, a family
could always pick cotton as well.
Now they were stuck in No Man's Land, a long strip of geographic
afterthought in the far western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle, just a sneeze
from Texas. After sunrise, Bam White had a talk with his remaining horses.
He checked their hooves, which were worn and uneven, and looked into their
eyes, trying to find a measure of his animals. They felt bony to the touch,
emaciated by the march south and dwindling rations of feed. The family was
not yet halfway into their exodus. Ahead were 209 miles of road over the
high, dry roof of Texas, across the Canadian river, bypassing dozens of
budding Panhandle hamlets: Wildorado, Lazbuddie, Flagg, Earth, Circle,
Muleshoe, Progress, Circle Back.
If you all can give me another two or three days, White told his
horses, we'll rest you good. Get me to Amarillo, at least.
Bam's wife, Lizzie, hated the feel of No Man's Land. The chill,
hurried along by the wind, made it impossible to stay warm. The land was so
threadbare. It was here that the Great Plains tilted, barely susceptible to
most eyes, rising to nearly a mile above sea level at the western edge. The
family considered dumping the organ, their prized possession. They could
sell it in Boise City and make just enough to pick up another horse. They
asked around: ten dollars was the going rate for an heirloom organ — not
enough to buy a horse. Anyway, Bam White could not bring himself to give it
up. Some of the best memories, through the hardest of years, came with
music pumped from that box. They would push on to Texas, twenty miles
away, moving a lot slower. After burying their dead horse, they headed south.
Through No Man's Land, the family wheeled past fields that had
just been turned, the grass upside down. People in sputtering cars roared by,
honking, hooting at the cowboy family in the horse-drawn wagon, churning up
dust in their faces. The children kept asking if they were getting any closer to
Texas and if it would look different from this long strip of Oklahoma. They
seldom saw a tree in Cimarron County. There wasn't even grass for the horse
team; the sod that hadn't been turned was frozen and brown. Windmills
broke the plain, next to dugouts and sod houses and still-forming villages.
Resting for a long spell at midday, the children played around a buffalo
wallow, the ground mashed. Cimarron is a Mexican hybrid word, descended
from the Apache who spent many nights in these same buffalo wallows. It
A few miles to the southeast, archaeologists were just starting to sort
through a lost village, a place where natives, seven hundred years earlier,
built a small urban complex near the Canadian River, the only reliable running
water in the region. People had lived there for nearly two centuries and left
only a few cryptic clues as to how they survived. When Francisco Vásquez
de Coronado marched through the High Plains in 1541, trailing cattle,
soldiers, and priests in pursuit of precious metals, he found only a handful of
villages along the Arkansas River, the homes made of intertwined grass, and
certainly no cities of gold as he was expecting. His entrada was a bust.
Indians on foot passed through, following bison. Some of Bam White's
distant forefathers — the Querechos, ancestors of the Apache — may have
been among them. The Spanish brought horses, which had the same effect
on the Plains Indian economy as railroads did on Anglo villages in the
Midwest. The tribes grew bigger and more powerful, and were able to travel
vast distances to hunt and trade. For most of the 1700s, the Apache
dominated the Panhandle. Then came the Comanche, the Lords of the
Plains. They migrated out of eastern Wyoming, Shoshone people who had
lived in the upper Platte River drainage. With horses, the Comanche moved
south, hunting and raiding over a huge swath of the southern plains, parts of
present-day Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. At their
peak in the mid-1700s, they numbered about twenty thousand. To the few
whites who saw them in the days before homesteading, the Comanche
looked like they sprang fully formed from the prairie grass.
"They are the most extraordinary horsemen that I have seen yet in
all my travels," said the artist George Catlin, who accompanied the cavalry on
a reconnaissance mission to the southern plains in 1834.
The Comanche were polygamous, which pleased many a fur
trader adopted into the tribe. Naked, a Comanche woman was a mural unto
herself, with a range of narrative tattoos all over her body. From afar, the
Indians communicated with hand signals, part of a sign language developed
to get around the wind's theft of their shouts. The Comanche bred horses and
mules — the most reliable currency of the 1800s — and traded them with
California-bound gold-seekers and Santa Fe–bound merchants. In between,
they fought Texans. The Comanche hated Texans more than any other group
Starting around 1840, the Texas Rangers were organized by the
Republic of Texas to go after the Indians. A mounted Comanche was the
most effective warrior of the plains. The Comanche were difficult targets but
even better on offense. Years of hunting bison from horses at full speed gave
them skills that made for an initial advantage over the Rangers. Once
engaged in battle, they charged with a great, rhythmic whoop — like a
football cheer. After a raid and some rest, they would charge again, this time
wearing their stolen booty, even women's dresses and bonnets. They were
proud after killing Texans.
"They made sorrow come into our camps, and we went out like
buffalo bulls when the cows are attacked," said Comanche leader Ten Bears
in 1867. "When we found them we killed them, and their scalps hang in our
lodges. The white women cried, and our women laughed. The Comanches
are not weak and blind like the pups of a dog when seven sleeps old."
The Comanche buried their dead soldiers on a hill, if they could
find one, and then killed the warriors' horses as well. Bison gave them just
about everything they needed: clothes, shelter, tools, and of course a protein
source that could be dried, smoked, and stewed. Some tepees required
twenty bison skins, stretched and stitched together, and weighed 250
pounds, which was light enough to be portable. The animal stomachs were
dried and used as food containers or water holders. Even tendons were put to
good use, as bowstrings. To supplement the diet, there were wild plums,
grapes, and currants growing in spring-fed creases of the .atland, and
antelope, sage grouse, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens, though many
Comanche thought it was unclean to eat a bird.
The tribe had an agreement signed by the president of the United
States and ratified by Congress, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, which
promised the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and other tribes hunting
rights to much of the Great American Desert, the area south of the Arkansas
River. At the time, there was no more disparaged piece of ground in the coast-
to-coast vision of manifest destiny. The nesters and sodbusters pouring into
the post–Civil War West could have the wetter parts of the plains, east of the
one-hundredth meridian and beyond the Texas Caprock Escarpment. To the
Indians would go the land that nobody wanted: the arid grasslands in the
west. Early on, Comanchero traders called the heart of this area "el Llano
Estacado" — the Staked Plains. It got its name because it was so flat and
featureless that people drove stakes into the ground to provide guidance;
otherwise, a person could get lost in the eternity of flat. The Staked Plains
were reserved for the natives who hunted bison.
At the treaty signing,Ten Bears tried to explain why Indians could
love the High Plains.
"I was born upon the prairie where the wind blew free, and there
was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no
enclosures, and where everything drew free breath. I want to die there, and
not within walls . . . The white man has taken the country we loved and we
only wish to wander on the prairie until we die."
Within a few years of the signing, Anglo hunters invaded the treaty
land. They killed bison by the millions, stockpiling hides and horns for a
lucrative trade back east. Seven million pounds of bison tongues were
shipped out of Dodge City, Kansas, in a single two-year period, 1872–1873, a
time when one government agent estimated the killing at twenty-five million.
Bones, bleaching in the sun in great piles at railroad terminals, were used for
fertilizer, selling for up to ten dollars a ton. Among the gluttons for killing was
a professional buffalo hunter named Tom Nixon, who said he had once killed
120 animals in forty minutes.
Texans ignored the Medicine Lodge Treaty outright, saying Texas
land belonged to Texans, dating to the days of the Republic, and could not
be offered up as part of the American public domain. With the bison
diminishing, the Indians went after Anglo stock herds. Led by Quanah Parker
and other leaders, the Comanche also attacked the trading post at Adobe
Walls, just north of the Canadian River. Parker was regal-looking and
charismatic, with soft features that made him appear almost feminine. His
first name meant Sweet Smell, which is believed to have come from his
mother, a Texan kidnapped at age nine and raised as a Comanche. She
married into the tribe and raised three children, including Sweet Smell. After
Cynthia Parker had lived twenty-four years as an Indian, the Texas Rangers
kidnapped her back and killed her husband, Chief Peta Nocona. She begged
to be returned to the Indians, but the Rangers would not let her go home.
The Red River War of 1874–1875 broke the Comanche. In one
battle, in Palo Duro Canyon, six Army columns descended on an Indian
encampment, catching them by surprise. The natives fled. The Army
slaughtered 1,048 horses, leaving the Lords of the Plains without their
mounts for the remainder of the war. On foot and starving, they were no
match for General Philip Sheridan and his industrial-age weaponry. The
natives were sent to various camps in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, and
some of their leaders were imprisoned in Florida. In his later years, Sweet
Smell married seven women and built a large house. He founded a native
religion based on vision quests through the hallucinogens peyote and
mescal, a practice the Supreme Court ultimately upheld as a protected form
of worship. The last bison were killed within five years after the Comanche
Nation was routed and moved off the Llano Estacado. Just a few years
earlier, there had been bison herds that covered fifty square miles. Bison
were the Indians' commissary, and the remnants of the great southern herd
had been run off the ground, every one of them, as a way to ensure that no
Indian would ever wander the Texas Panhandle.
"For the sake of a lasting peace," General Sheridan told the Texas
Legislature in 1875, the Anglos should "kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes
are exterminated. Then your prairie can be covered with speckled cattle and
the festive cowboy . . . forerunner of an advanced civilization."
The animals left behind sun-crisped turds, which the nesters used
to heat their dugouts and soddies, until they too ran out.
Empty of bison and Indians, the prairie was a lonely place; it had
taken barely ten years to eliminate them. In victory, the American
government was not sure what to do with the land.
"The High Plains continues to be the most alluring body of
unoccupied land in the United States, and will remain such until the best
means of their utilization have been worked out," the United States
Geological Survey wrote in a report at the dawn of the twentieth century.
At the Texas border, the White family crossed into the XIT ranch — or rather,
what was left of it. Virtually all his life Bam White had heard stories of the
Eden of Texas, the fabled land of waist-high bluestem, of short, resilient
buffalo turf, and the nutrient-rich grama, part of what Coronado had called "an
immensity of grass." Horizon to horizon, buffalo heaven, and a cattleman's
dream, the XIT had been part of the New World's magical endowment —
grasslands covering 21 percent of the United States and Canada, the largest
single ecosystem on the continent outside the boreal forest. In Texas alone,
grasslands covered two thirds of the state, with more than 470 native
species. Virtually all of the Panhandle, nearly twenty million acres, was
grass. In the spring, the carpet flowered amid the green, and as wind blew, it
looked like music on the ground. To see a piece of it in 1926, even in winter
dormancy, could delight a tomorrow man like Bam White, who loved sky and
earth in endless projection.
The temperature warmed just before dusk, and the sky boiled up,
thunderheads coming out of the east. It was too early in the year yet for
clouds to be throwing down lightning and hail, but it happened enough that
people took precautions when warning signs appeared overhead. Bam fretted
about his horses. They looked sad-eyed and road-worn. Like most cowboys
in the High Plains, he preferred darker horses, chocolate-colored or leathery
brown, on a belief that they were less likely to attract lightning. One of his
horses was lighter, not quite beige, just light enough to bring a thunderbolt
down on it. Bam had never actually seen a light-haired horse combust at the
touch of lightning, but he had heard plenty of stories. A friend of his had seen
a cow struck dead by a sky-spark. Bam looked around: there were no rock
overhangs or little arroyos such as they had passed through up north.Well,
hell — what did those XIT cowboys used to do? If those boys could get
through a thunder-boomer without shelter, Bam White could do the same.
Everybody in Texas had a story about the XIT. It was the ranch
that built the state capitol, the granddaddy of them all. Fifteen years after the
end of the Civil War, Texas wanted the biggest statehouse in the union, a
palace of polished red granite. To pay for the new stone showpiece, the state
offered up three million acres in the distant Panhandle to anybody willing to
construct the building. After the tribes were routed, Charles Goodnight had
moved a herd of 1,600 cattle down from Colorado to Palo Duro Canyon. The
grass then was free; it attracted other nomadic Anglo beef-drivers and
speculators from two continents. In 1882, a company out of Chicago
organized the Capitol Syndicate, and this group of investors took title to three
million acres in return for agreeing to build the capitol. It would cost about
$3.7 million, which meant the land went for $1.23 an acre. The syndicate
drew some big British investors into the deal, among them the Earl of
Aberdeen and several members of Parliament. By then, the Great Plains
cattle market was the talk of many a Tory cocktail hour. Books such as How
to Get Rich on the Plains explained how any investor could double his money
in five years.
The ranch land was empty. No people. No bison. No roads. No
farms. Just grass — three million acres of it.
"Those salubrious seasons at the end of the Eighties made that
country appear a paradise," wrote one early rancher, Wesley L. Hockett.
At dusk, when the sky burned pink against the expanse of sod, a
cowboy could be moved to tears, it was so pretty. Much of the XIT was in the
heart of the Llano Estacado, where the Comanche had roamed. And like the
Comanche, the cowboys developed their own sign language to communicate
over distances. The syndicate stocked the grassland with cattle, erected
windmills in order to pump water up for the animals, and fenced it. Barbed
wire was invented in 1874, and by the early 1880s ranchers were stringing it
across the plains, closing off the free grass. In 1887, there were 150,000
head of cattle on the XIT ranch and 781 miles of fence. It was soon the
biggest ranch in the world under fence.
The XIT was lord of the Panhandle. Not just the landowner, but
also the law. They formed vigilante posses to chase down people who
encroached on the ranch or stole cattle, and spread poison to kill wolves and
other animals with a taste for XIT calves. When railroad feeder lines came to
the ranch, the cattle shipping points were made into towns, which brought
merchants, ministers, and other hustlers of body and soul. It was a good life
for a cowboy, earning about thirty dollars a month fixing fences, riding herd,
eating chow at sunset. A black cowboy, or Mexican, had more trouble. A
man everybody called Nigger Jim Perry was the lone black cow puncher on
"If it weren't for this old black face of mine," said Perry, "I'd be
The XIT prohibited gambling, drinking of alcohol, and shooting
anything without permission. Outside the ranch borders, little rail towns
sprang up with a different set of laws. One of those was Dalhart, which was
born in 1901 at the intersection of two rail lines, one going north to Denver,
the other east to Liberal, Kansas. In Dalhart, an XIT cowboy could get a
drink, lose a month's salary in a card game, and get laid at a shack known
simply as the Cathouse.
But even with the finest grass in the world, with 325 windmills
sucking water up from the vast underground aquifer, with the elimination of
predators, with several thousand miles of barbed wire, and with martial-law
control over rustlers, the biggest ranch in Texas had trouble making a profit.
The open range, on the neighboring plains states, was stocked with far too
many cattle, causing prices to crash. The weather might display seven
different moods in a year, and six of them were life-threatening. Droughts,
blizzards, grass fires, hailstorms, flash floods, and tornadoes tormented the
XIT. A few good years, with good prices, would be followed by too many
horrid years and massive die-offs from drought or winter freeze-ups, making
shareholders wonder what this cursed piece of the Panhandle was good for
anyway. Bison have poor eyesight and tend to be clannish, but they are the
greatest thermo-regulators ever adapted to the plains, able to withstand
temperatures of 110 degrees in summer, and 30 below zero in winter. But
cattle are fragile. The winter of 1885–1886 nearly wiped out cattle herds in the
southern plains, and a second season of fatal cold the next year did the
same thing up north. Cowboys said they could walk the drift line, where snow
piled up along fences north of the Canadian River, for four hundred miles, into
New Mexico, and never step off a dead animal.
With the British investors pressing for a better return on their
piece of unloved and nearly uninhabited Texas, the syndicate turned to real
estate. The problem was how to sell land that only an herbivore with hooves
could love. Parts of the XIT were scenic: little pastures near a spring, red rock
and small canyons to break the ironing board of the High Plains. There was
some timber in the draws, but not enough for fuel or building material. What
fell from the sky was insufficient to grow traditional crops. And the rate of
evaporation made what rain that did fall seem like much less. It takes twenty-
two inches in the Panhandle to deposit the same moisture as fifteen inches
would leave in the Upper Mississippi Valley. The native plants that take hold,
like mesquite, send roots down as far as 150 feet.
And then there was the larger image problem.
Great American Desert. It was Stephen Long, trying to find
something of value in the treeless wilderness, who first used those words in
1820, later printed on maps that guided schooners west. It would stay as
cartographic fact until after the Civil War, when the Great American Desert
became the Great Plains. Zebulon Pike, scouting the southern half of the
Louisiana Purchase in 1806 for Thomas Jefferson, had compared it to the
African Sahara in his report to the president. Jefferson was crushed. He
feared it would take one hundred generations to settle the blank space on the
map. It was a vast empty sea, invariably described as featureless and
frightening by the Americans who traveled through it.
"A desolate waste of uninhabited solitude," wrote Robert Marcy,
after exploring the headwaters of the Red River. Marcy had the same opinion
of the region as did Long, the influential American explorer who followed Pike.
After conducting an extensive survey, Long wrote in 1820 the words that still
make him seem unusually prophetic:
"In regard to this extensive section of the country, I do not hesitate
in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people
depending upon agriculture for their subsistence."
The answer to the syndicate's problem was aggressive
salesmanship. Why, this wasteland could be England or Missouri, if plowed
in the right way. Brochures were distributed in Europe, the American South,
and at major ports of entry to the U.S.: "500,000 acres offered for sale as
farm homes" and cheap, as well, the land selling for thirteen dollars an acre.
Twice a month, agents for the syndicate rounded up five hundred people and
put them on a train from Kansas City for the Texas Panhandle to see for
themselves. The train ride was free.
Speculators who bought from the syndicate turned around and
added to the claims. "Riches in the soil, prosperity in the air, progress
everywhere. An Empire in the making!" was a slogan of W. P. Soash, a real
estate man from Iowa who bought big pieces of the XIT and sold them
off. "Get a farm in Texas while land is cheap — where every man is a
To prove the agriculture-worthy potential of the Llano Estacado,
the syndicate set up experimental farms, demonstrating to immigrants how
they could make a go of it on the Texas .atlands. They worked with
government men from the Department of Agriculture. Well, sure, it rained less
than twenty inches a year, which was the accepted threshold for growing a
crop without irrigation, but through the miracle of dry farming a fellow could
turn this land to gold. Put a windmill in, and up comes water for your hogs,
chickens, and garden. And dryland wheat, it didn't need irrigation. Just plant
in the fall, when a little moisture would bring the sprouts up, let it go dormant
in the winter, and then wait for spring rains to get the crop going again.
Harvest in summer. Any three-toed fool could do it, the agents said. As for
the overturned ground, use the dust for mulch, farmers were advised; it will
hold the ground in place and keep evaporation down. That's what Hardy
Campbell, the apostle of dry farming from Lincoln, Nebraska, preached —
and the government put a stamp on his philosophy through their agriculture
office in the Panhandle. No nester was without Campbell's Soil Culture
Manual, a how-to book with homilies that all but guaranteed prosperity.
What's more, the commotion created by the act of plowing itself would bring
additional rain, causing atmospheric disturbances. Rain follows the plow?
Damn right! The Santa Fe Railroad printed an official-looking progress map,
showing the rain line — twenty inches or more, annually — moving west
about eighteen miles a year with new towns tied to the railroad. With
scientific certainty, steam from the trains was said to cause the skies to
Seasoned XIT ranch hands scoffed at such claims; the demo
projects were a scam, cowboys said. They warned anybody who would listen
that the Panhandle was no place to break the sod. Dust mulch? How was
that supposed to hold moisture in the ground, with the wind blowing steady at
thirty clicks an hour? The land was high and cold, with little drainage, and
nearly treeless in its entirety. As for rainfall, the average in the county was
about sixteen inches a year, not enough, by any traditional standards, to
sustain a crop. At Dalhart, the elevation was 4,600 feet. A blue norther would
come down from Canada through the Rockies and shake a person to their
bones. The Panhandle was good for one thing only: growing grass — God's
grass, the native carpet of plenty. Most of the land was short buffalo grass,
which, even in the driest, most wind-lacerated of years, held the ground in
place. This turf had supported the southern half of the great American bison
herd, up to thirty million animals at one point.
The best side is up, the cowboys said time and again — for
chrissakes don't plow it under. Nesters and cowboys hated each other; each
side thought the other was trying to run the other off the land. Homesteaders
were ridiculed as bonnet-wearing pilgrims, sodbusters, eyeballers,
drylanders, howlers, and religious wackos. Cowboys were hedonists on
horseback, always drunk, sex-starved. The cattle-chasers were consistent in
one way, at least. They tried telling nesters what folks at the XIT had passed
on for years, an aphorism for the High Plains:
"Miles to water, miles to wood, and only six inches to hell."
The syndicate had bondholders in London to satisfy. By 1912, the
last of the XIT cattle were off the land, and the ground that was leveraged to
build the state capitol of Texas had ceased to function as a working ranch.
Four years later, Charlie Goodnight held what he called "the last buffalo hunt"
on his ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. More than ten thousand people showed
up to watch the old cowboy chase an imported buffalo, a limp choreography.
When Bam White and his family crossed over into Texas in 1926, only
450,000 acres were unplowed of the original three-million-acre XIT.
The family spent the next night in north Dallam County, a day's ride from
Dalhart. The thunderheads had missed them, passing farther east. Bam
White rose in the winter darkness and gave his horse team another pep talk.
We're in Texas now, keep on a-going, one leg at a time. You got
us outta Colorado. You got us outta Oklahoma. Now get us through Texas to
Littlefield, and a new home.
They had crossed into one of the highest parts of the High Plains,
where the wind had its way with anything that dared poke its head out of the
ground, and it was .atter even than Oklahoma. Lizzie White wondered again
why anyone — white, brown, or red — would choose to live in this country,
the coldest part of Texas. Even the half-moon, icy at night, looked more
hospitable than this hard ground. As they said on the XIT, only barbed wire
stood between the High Plains and the North Pole.
The Whites arrived in Dalhart on February 26, 1926. Bam found a
place to camp at the edge of town and took to fretting again. Littlefield was
still 176 miles to the south. The family was down to the last of their dried
food, and they didn't know a soul. It was not the first time a family with
significant Indian blood had returned to the old treaty lands. Comanche,
Kiowa, and Apache who had drifted back lived a shadowed existence,
dressed like whites, going by names like "Indian Joe" and "Indian Gary." As
long as they stayed largely invisible, nobody paid much attention to them.
Indians were not citizens yet. They could be forcefully removed to a
reservation. Any hint of their earlier presence was gone, erased for the new
tomorrow. Dalhart had no history beyond the XIT; what came before was
viewed as having little merit.
"The northern Panhandle was settled by a group of fine pioneer
people and its citizens are of the highest type of Anglo Saxon ancestry," the
Dalhart Texan declared shortly after the Whites rolled into town.
But the new citizens of this new town were refugees, each in their
own way. Bam went to have a look around. Train whistles blew at regular
intervals. The railroads were still offering bargain fares to lure pilgrims to the
prairie, though the good land had been taken. The town looked like dice on a
brown felt table, the houses wood-framed and bare-ribbed — as tentative as a
daydream. Dalhart's first residents had planted locust trees, but most of
them did not last in the hard wind, between drought and freeze. Chinese elms
were doing a little better. The town was birthed by railroad men and was
never under the thumb of the XIT. Like the rest of the Panhandle, its frontier
was now, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. While the
northern plains were losing people disenchanted with the long winters and
ruinous cycles of drought and freeze, the southern plains were in hormonal
midadolescence. There was oil gushing and news of wildcatters making a
killing spread far and wide. The oil drew a new kind of prospector to go with
the nesters and wheat speculators tearing up the grassland. Nearly thirty
towns were born in the Panhandle between 1910 and 1930.
Much of Texas took its prohibition seriously. Not Dalhart. It took
its whiskey seriously, in part because some of the finest corn liquor in
America was coming out of the High Plains. Up north, in Cimarron County,
Oklahoma, and Baca County, Colorado, farmers had been growing corn for
whisk brooms, but then the vacuum cleaner, in just a few years, ruined the
market for broomcorn. Prohibition saved the broomcorn farmers, making grain
more valuable as alcohol than the dried stalks had ever been for sweeping. A
single still near the Osteen family homestead up in Baca County was turning
out a barrel of corn whiskey a day, every day, nearly every year of
Prohibition. Some farmers made five hundred dollars a week. At the peak of
Prohibition, five counties in a three-state region of the High Plains shipped
fifty thousand gallons a week to distant cities.
"This is a period of fast times," a Dalhart businessman, Jim
Pigman, wrote in his diary, "and much drinking of poor liquor."
Just a few strides from the railroad switch tower, Bam White
came upon a curious sight: a two-story sanitarium. It was the only hospital
for hundreds of miles. On one side of the sanitarium was a tobacco ad — a
big, red-and-white snorting bull promoting Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco.
Inside was a specimen room, with pickled fetuses, tumors, an enlarged liver,
goiters, and a heart. The liver had belonged to a saloonkeeper in the days
before Prohibition. It was grayish green and huge, and served as a visual
aid — an example of what can happen to someone who poured too much
corn whiskey down his gullet. Presiding over the sanitarium was a tobacco-
spitting, black-bearded man of the South, Dr. George Waller Dawson. The
Doc always wore a dark Stetson, though he was said to take it off during
surgery, and kept a brass spittoon nearby for his tobacco habit. He chewed
through child delivery and lung surgery, it didn't matter. His wife, Willie
Catherine, was the finest-looking woman in the Panhandle. That wasn't just
Doc Dawson's opinion; in 1923, she won a diamond ring as prize for being
voted the most beautiful woman at a Panhandle Fourth of July celebration.
"My Willie," the Doc called the missus. She had dark eyes, an
aquiline nose, and a powerful taste for literature. Willie kept the accounting
books of the sanitarium and also served as anesthesiologist. She was the
only person who could run the solitary x-ray machine for a few hundred miles
in any direction. The Doc and his Willie were always busy cutting open
cowboys and splicing nesters back together after they had been sliced by
barbed wire, thrown from a horse, or knocked down by a windmill pump. They
patched bones, yanked gallstones, and cut away shanks of infected flesh
from people who insisted on paying them with animals, live and dead. In one
month alone, the Doc and Willie performed sixty-three operations. A
Kentuckian, Dawson had come to Texas for his health. He had persistent
respiratory problems and legs that would sometimes freeze up on him, a kind
of paralysis that puzzled the Kentucky medical community. The High Plains
was the cure. He arrived in 1907, planning to start a ranch and live off his
investments. In time, he hoped to breathe like a normal man and lavish
attention on the lovely Willie. But he lost nearly everything two years later in
a market collapse. His second chance was found in the two-story brick
building in Dalhart, well north of his ranch. He opened the sanitarium in 1912.
By the late 1920s, Dr. Dawson intended to cut back on his
medical work and try once more to make a go of it on the land. The money in
farming was so easy, just there for the taking. Despite all his years of
practicing medicine, the Doc had saved up very little for his retirement. The
nest egg would be in the land. He had purchased a couple of sections and
was going to try his luck at cotton or wheat. Wheat was supposed to be the
simplest way to bring riches from the ground. Doc Dawson would take some
time off from running the hospital and see if he could coax something from
the Staked Plains to free him of the rubbing alcohol and the pickled organs. It
was their last best chance, he told his family.
Bam White walked past the sanitarium and on down Denrock, the
main street of Dalhart. The cowboy passed the Felton Opera House, two
stories tall with fine Victorian trim, then a clothing store, with window
displays of new dress shirts and silk ties. This was Herzstein's; as far as
anyone knew, they were the only Jews in Dalhart. Streetlights, with wicks
that had to be lit every night, dangled from cords strung to poles. A bustle of
people played cards and jawboned over grain prices inside a new-looking,
yellow-brick hotel, the DeSoto. The DeSoto was first class: solid walnut
doors, a bathtub and toilet in every room, along with a telephone. A guest
could dial 126 and get a reservation to see a girl at the place just west of
Dalhart. It didn't have a name, just the Number 126 house. Next door to the
DeSoto was the moving picture establishment, the Mission Theater. None of
Bam White's children had ever seen a movie.
Crews came by with sprinklers to wet down the streets, but dust
still kicked up with every carriage and car that passed by. The town felt
somewhat tentative; a mighty breath or a twister could blow everything down,
collapsing all the pretty painted sticks. Talking to folks, Bam White found out
real quick who owned Dalhart. That would be Uncle Dick Coon, the well-fed
gentleman sitting there at the DeSoto with his cards in one hand and a hand-
rolled cigarette in the other. He owned the DeSoto, the Mission Theater, just
about every business on Denrock. You watch Uncle Dick for just a few
minutes, folks said, and you would see him flash a hundred-dollar bill from
his pocket. Three months of cowboy wages pinched between two fingers.
Bam White had never seen a hundred dollar bill till he came through Dalhart.
The C-note was Uncle Dick's heater, his blanket. As a child, Dick
Coon's family was often broke. The corrosive poverty hurt so much it defined
the rest of his life. As long as Uncle Dick could touch his C-note, he had no
fear in life. And he had certainly known fear. Dick Coon was fortunate to live
through the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the worst single natural disaster in
American history. He lost everything in Galveston but was never bitter. His
life had been spared, while six thousand people lost theirs. Dick Coon didn't
plan on getting rich in Dalhart; didn't even plan on staying in the High Plains.
In 1902, he had been passing through Dalhart, making a train connection to
Houston, when he fell under the spell of one of the syndicate's real estate
agents. He heard enough to buy his own piece of the old XIT. The ranching
went well, but the real money was in town building.
Back from his tour of town, Bam White found Lizzie in a panic and
the children looking at him like they'd just had the life scared out of them.
What is it?
Dead. Check for yourself, daddy.
Bam White's horse was flat on its side, the body cold, rotted
teeth exposed. She was dead all right. Now Bam was without enough of a
team to make it another step. The family had no means to buy another
horse, and it had been hard enough traveling from Boise City to Dalhart. Well,
then, it must be a sign, Bam said to the kids — maybe he was born for this
XIT country anyhow. There have got to be plenty of jobs in this new town,
even on a gentleman's ranch.
Marooned, Bam made his decision on the spot: the family would
stay in Dalhart. A guy in town had told him about opportunities in the newly
plowed fields. This town was going places. It had a shine, a face full of
ambition. The fields were turning fast, making money for anybody with a
pulse and a plow. The way White looked at Dalhart was the way Doc Dawson
and Uncle Dick looked at their homes in the Panhandle: as the last best
chance to do something right, to get a small piece of the world and make it
work. The wanderer would settle in and see what the earth would bring him in
what had been the world's greatest grassland.
Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton