Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Great American Plains Bamboozle (Part I)

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan


In Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Cat's Cradle, there is an island of waste and devastation called San Lorenzo. About half a dozen nations had taken control of San Lorenzo only to discover its uselessness. It was then left to the next idiot who stumbled upon its shores. Vonnegut may have very well developed the idea for this island from the American plains, the Texas and Oklahoma pan-handle. No man's land.
When settlers first ventured into this vibrant piece of America, it was controlled by the buffalo, who roamed free and ate what seemed to be the only thing able to grow in that climate: prairie grass. It was a simple ecosystem: buffalo ate the grass, Native Americans would eat the buffalo, and the ground would absorb the leftover buffalo. For hundreds of years the Comanche and other tribes survived in this wind-blown, flat land. But as the settlers pushed west, setting up ranches, they not only pushed out the natives but destroyed the buffalo. Cowboys and Texans would hunt both for sheer fun. Prideful bastards.
At any rate, the Spanish at one time had a piece of this once Indian and buffalo co-op. The Republic of Texas had its mark in it. Even Napoleon had a stake in it, selling it as a piece of the Louisiana purchase during our Manifest Destiny craze. No one wanted it, just like no one wanted San Lorenzo. It wasn't good for anything. All that could grow was prairie grass. Growing crops out here was near to impossible. But, after all, this was America: land of opportunity.
The cowboys began with their cattle ranches, and they fared well in the open plains. Sure there were dry spells, and the weather was unpredictable (remember, this is the heart of tornado alley), but it worked. But soon enough, Americans had reached the Pacific and were running out of land to destroy. So real estate companies, as well as the American government, tried to get some people moving out into the southern plains, which included southern Kansas and Colorado, as well as the northern part of New Mexico. The government promised railroads were being built. Real estate companies boasted rich soil, favorable weather, great farm lands. They were practically giving away hundreds of acres to anyone who would buy into their scheme. And a lot of people did.
Many families, especially German immigrants, flocked to this promised land, this "Eden with a haircut," as one schemer put it. Bamboozled! All of them! They arrived to find the land covered in prairie grass, angry cowboys, and even angrier Native Americans. The brave farmers pushed the Comanche off of their land that, according to a government document from a few years before, was theirs for all of eternity. The natives burnt everything in their path in disgust, leaving the land in probably the worst condition imaginable for farming. But the Americans pressed on.
Life in prairie began primitive. Families dug holes in the ground and in the side of hills, and that was their home. There was no electricity, no running water, not much of anything. Then began the task of tearing up that hard prairie ground. The cowboys warned the new farmers that this was no place to plant anything besides grass. Their warnings were ignored. German farmers had outsmarted the plains. With them, they brought a type of wheat that grew in similar conditions in Russia. So wheat it was. And it grew! At first not much was growing. But the United States soon entered the Great War, and food was needed. The farmers got to work, churning out record breaking numbers of bushels of wheat. Many others saw the money to be made in the wheat plains, and took their chance out in the pan-handle and beyond. Suddenly, the place that no one wanted was the new hot spot in the United States.
The 1920's were prosperous years for everyone in the U.S. The wheat industry was rolling at full speed, and everyone in the small communities were building new houses, buying cars, and investing in whatever was their hearts' desires. Life was good, even with the occasional twister, dust storm, twister, hail storm, etc. In 1929, the farmers produced the most wheat anyone had ever seen. . .just in time for the stock market to crash. As New York and the eastern cities were panicking and hurling themselves off of buildings, life remained the same out in no-mans land. Not until a few months did the people began feeling the pressure of the recession.
The Great Depression is a familiar term, and most people know about the stock market crash. But what you may not know is that the southern plains was hit the worst in every direction by every angle of the depression. Prices dropped. In 1928, you could sell wheat at $1.38 a bushel. By 1932, it had dropped to $.40. There was no demand. Nobody had any money. And what is truly bizarre is that in 1930, the farmers produced even more wheat than in 1929. But they couldn't sell it. The grain piled up beside railroad stations and grain elevators. The rest of the country was starving, and huge mountains of wheat grain were being nibbled on by rats. With prices so low, they could barely cover their costs. What were they going to do? Grow more wheat.
In the next few years, the folks who had come out to the plains to hit it rich had fled. Those who stayed tore up what was left of the broken land in order to plant more wheat. But the land was ruined. Never meant to grow anything but grass, the dry dirt was not being cooperative. Not to mention the worst drought in twenty years was hitting this part of the country. More and more people abandoned the plains to find other work. The farmers who stayed tried to grow enough just to keep their families alive. To add to the hardships, a new weather phenomenon had developed: black dusters.
This area of the country is awfully windy. It had been for years before the settlers came to farm the land. But, with the tearing up of the soil, and less than 24 inches of rain in two years, the land was dry dirt sitting on the earth. In 1930, the first black duster was seen. A huge wind picked up the loose soil and created an enormous wall of grinding sand. It would blind and suffocate cattle and human. There was so much static electricity in the huge cloud that cars would stop suddenly. People were shocked and pelted. Dust would cover anything in its path. It would seep into homes and cover dishes and beds and clothes and hair and faces. The weather service began categorizing the storms by the visibility within the storm. If you could see only a quarter of a mile, it was a pretty rough storm. If you couldn't see your hand in front of you, it was horrendous.
One of the biggest dusters came a few years later that covered Ohio and Michigan, smothered New York City, and even salted ships 200 miles off the coast. What had caused these monstrous storms? No, it was not just the weather. The wind and dust storms mixed with the depression. Americans destroyed the land. No caution was given when nearly all of the land in the southern plains was stripped of its natural grass and planted with whatever we damn well felt like planting. The environment could not sustain the demands of the farms, especially when get-rich-quick men came out to grow wheat while it was hot abandoned the land without care once hard times kicked in. The stock market. The depression. The banks. The arid land. Most of what happened in the 1930's was our fault.
We were bamboozled into thinking we could make something out of nothing.

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