(Soundbite of 1936 recording)
President FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: No cracked earth, no blistering sun, no burning wind, no grasshoppers are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen and their wives and children, who have carried on through desperate days and inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity and their courage.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
That was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressing the nation after visiting the drought-stricken Plains. It was 1936, the middle of the Great Depression. Farmers in the Dust Bowl--the region that stretched from Nebraska to the Texas Panhandle--were deciding whether to pack up and leave or stick it out. John Steinbeck wrote about the ones who headed west in "The Grapes of Wrath," but what about those who stayed behind? New York Times reporter Timothy Egan chronicles their struggle in his new book, "The Worst Head Time." I spoke with him from member station KUOW in Seattle. I asked him to describe this part of the country before the dust storms came.
Mr. TIMOTHY EGAN (Author, "The Worst Hard Time"): 1925 was probably the peak of prosperity and good times. People were building houses, they were building towns, they were building banks. There was seafood coming in by rail from places like Galveston. There was this great frenzy in this so-called last frontier, and they were overturning the sod at a frenzied pace. Two thousand acres a day were going because the price of wheat was soaring, the weather had been good and they thought, `There's no end to this prosperity.' This great flatland, this area that had been disparaged as the great American desert, was suddenly the wheat equivalent of a gold rush.
ELLIOTT: Now that was a drastic change from what it originally was. What was this great American desert?
Mr. EGAN: It was arguably the world's greatest grassland. This is the second biggest ecosystem in North America, and the southern part of the Great Plains nurtured the southern half of the American bison herd, perhaps up to 30 million bison. So natives lived there and lived pretty well on this bison herd. And then the cowboys came along and they lived pretty well on the fact of this wonderful grass. But as soon as you started to turn it up for wheat, things changed rather drastically.
ELLIOTT: Now in your book, you weave the stories of about 10 different families who are in this region trying to make a go of it, everyone from the local sheriff, Hi Barrick(ph), to a cowboy named Bam White. Tell us a little bit about Bam White. Who was he, and what was it that drew him to this place?
Mr. EGAN: I love these names, too, by the way. You just never hear of people named Melt or Bam or Hi anymore. Bam White was--and he kept this from his family for some time--he was half-Native American, half-Anglo. And he was a cowboy, and there was really very little use for them in the southern Plains because this huge area of this grassland was going over to wheat farms. And he was treading south with his horses and his family in the early part of the 1920s when one of his horses died. And then he woke up the next morning, another one of his horses died. And so he said, `Damn, it's got to be a signal from God. Let's stay here.' This was Dalhart, Texas, one of these towns that was just growing up overnight in the wheat boom.
So Bam established himself there, and I follow him throughout the book because in one sense, he's sort of the last cowboy in this great grassland, but in another sense, he was Native American, too, and so he had some attachment to it. And as they started to turn up the land, as they started to rip up the grass, Bam said something that a lot of Indians he said. He looked out at what had been the great grassland and he said, `Wrong side up.'
ELLIOTT: When the stock market crashes in October of 1929, what happens on the southern Plains?
Mr. EGAN: It doesn't mean very much at first because only about 3 percent of all Americans owned stock in 1929 at the time of the big crash. And in the southern Plains, very few people owned stock. It did start one thing. The price of wheat did collapse, and it collapsed dramatically.
Then you had Mother Nature come in. This had started around 1931. Now they've seen droughts before. Drought is a way of life in the Great Plains, and so is the wind. But what was different this time was there was no grass to hold the ground down, and...
ELLIOTT: Because, as Bam White would have said, the earth was wrong side up.
Mr. EGAN: Wrong side up, precisely. And so with nothing to hold this down, the land just started to blow, and it took to the sky. So you had these great black blizzards that turned, you know, a bright, sunny noon day into a midnight dark.
ELLIOTT: You have pictures in your book, as a matter of fact, that show what just looks like a huge cloud of dirt descending on a house.
Mr. EGAN: Exactly, and I describe this it a moving mountain. But it's not a mountain range; it's walls and walls of dirt. And inside these dust storms, it was very corrosive. It was like thick animal hair or it was like sandpaper. And people started to tape their windows. They'd hang bed sheets at night. They would rub Vaseline in their noses and they would not go outside without putting a mask on. And I heard so many times from people who would say when you woke up in the morning, the only part of your house that didn't have dust on it was where your head sat on the pillow.
ELLIOTT: Tell us how these storms of dirt affected people and their health.
Mr. EGAN: There were a couple of things that happened. People got what was called dust pneumonia. And they would just start hacking and hacking, and the dust was deep in them and it would just clog their lungs. There was an 18-year-old boy--a doctor told this story of an 18-year-old boy went in to see the doctor, healthy farm kid, been in great shape. Suddenly, he couldn't breathe, he was hacking up all this dirt. And the doctor took a look inside him and said, `Son, you are filled up with dirt,' and this kid died the next day.
ELLIOTT: Now I want to ask you a question about one particular character in your book who, despite these horrible conditions, seems to sort of have an unusual attitude, and that's John McCarty. He's the local newspaper publisher and the region's biggest cheerleader, and he almost seems in denial that this horrible thing is going on.
Mr. EGAN: Yeah, exactly. He was known even then as the Dust Bowl cheerleader; a fascinating character. He started this Last Man's Club, and he circulated all these cards and you signed them. It said you swore you would never leave the southern Plains. Also, he'd have these Last Men Club rallies where they would say--he would scream, `How long are we going to stay here?' and they'd say, `Till hell freezes over!' they would shout back. And he vowed in his newspaper, the Texan, the Dalhart Texan, that he would never write a bad thing, that he would always look on the bright side, which was awfully hard when you were at the depth of the Great Depression and these horrible storms were rolling through.
ELLIOTT: Oh--and he's calling the storms lovely.
Mr. EGAN: Right. He's saying they're these wondrous things, that it makes us tough and he's reaching back to Greek allusions. The interesting thing about McCarty--for all his boosterism, he leaves rather quickly. After swearing he would never leave this little town of Dalhart, Texas, he goes south a few hundred miles to take a better job.
ELLIOTT: So whatever happened to Bam White, the cowboy who settled in Dalhart, Texas?
Mr. EGAN: As life went on, he did OK. They grew turnips and they basically lived a semi-subsistence lifestyle in this town, Dalhart. That's where he died.
ELLIOTT: What is it about this land or this region that kept people there? Even as they watched people die, their homes buried under these waves of dirt, why did they stay and endure what you're calling `the worst hard time'?
Mr. EGAN: Most of them did stay. Two-thirds of the people at the heart of the Dust Bowl did not go anywhere. They only went with--a hundred miles one way or the other. There's a couple of reasons. One is they were truly afraid, a lot of them, of going to the cities. They didn't want to go into this big city and be somebody waiting in a soup line. At least here they thought they could always raise a little bit of something that they could eat, and they could can some tumbleweeds or they could--tumbleweed...
ELLIOTT: So people are trying to survive by eating tumbleweeds?
Mr. EGAN: Salted tumbleweeds, right. And they would can it, and those are among the few things they had left. They said when they would slaughter a hog, they ate everything but the squeal.
But the other thing was they owned something, and they had never owned anything in their life before. And they thought--you know, they were called tomorrow people. They always looked to tomorrow. They said, `This has got to be the end. It can't get any worse.'
ELLIOTT: New York Times reporter Timothy Egan is the author of the new book "The Worst Hard Time."
Thanks for speaking with us.
Mr. EGAN: Oh, thanks so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
ELLIOTT: You can hear Timothy Egan read a passage from his book at our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) I'll sing this song, but I'll sing it again of the places I lived on the west Texas Plains. In the city of Pampa, the county of Gray, here's what all of the people there say. `Well, it's so long. It's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. This dusty old dust is a-blowing me home. I've got to be drifting along.'
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