The Worst Hard Time The Untold Story of Those Who Survived

The Worst Hard Time The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl A good booka thorough historybut dry as a throat full of sawdust in the middle of the desert That about sums it up but of course I will continue to babble on for a few paragraphs Before reading this book I knew next to nothing about the Dust Bowl and the cataclysmic storms that occurred in the 1930‘s primarily in the area of the US known as the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma see map If you're like me in this respect than this book is a very worthwhile read assuming you have at least a slight interest in the history of this period Looking at the photos above and reading descriptions of the sky appearing as if a black curtain had been draped over the sky an effect that could last days at a time was a serious jaw falling with concomitant eye bulge experience As the book chronicles the dust storms were caused by decades of massive over farming in the panhandles and surrounding areas without the use of wind erosion prevention techniues eg crop rotation cover crops and use of fallow fields Add to this man made component mother nature's contribution of a severe and prolonged drought and you have all the makings of a seriously horrific dust up The over farming was the result of the momentous drop in commodity prices that followed the Stock Market Crash of 1929 The price of wheat corn and other crops grown in the panhandles plummeted forcing farmers to farm and land and often just to try and make ends meet Unfortunately this increased in the volume of these commodities along with a sharp decrease in demand resulting from the Great Depression caused the plummeting prices to move into crash mode where they free fell further and faster than Brittany Spears reputation and self esteem It was the disastrous crushing economic conditions facing these farmers that made the onset the fierceness and the prolonged nature of the “Dust Bowl” truly worthy of the title “The Worst Hard Time” The author does a good job of laying out the facts in a very readable manner   Thus as a history book this novel is excellent It cogently lays out the history of the region going back to its settlement by mostly German Russian immigrants It also gives a decent background of the situation in the rest of the US and provides a good step by step progression of the events leading up to the beginning of the dust storms in the early 1930s So why only 3 stars? Mostly because I've been seriously spoiled by historical writers like David McCullough Barbara Tuchman and Gordon Wood These three and several others that I am sure I am forgetting right now write amazingly detailed histories while at the same time providing such rich and engaging background and individual anecdotes that their histories come alive and you feel immersed in the period Odd as it sounds I guess you could say that I was disappointed that I didn’t feel sacks of dust pouring into my mouth or the blinding sting of the storm ripping into my skin I wanted Mr Egan to throw me in the middle of Black Sunday and tell me to hold on for dear life Instead I mostly got dryness no pun I got less than compelling personal stories and no real emotional evocation or dramatic tension It was the story of the dust storms as done by CNN when what I really wanted was a stellar kick ass miniseries by HBO Granted these criticisms are mostly the result of McCullough Tuchman and Wood being such saucy bitches that they make everyone else look bad by comparison That is probably unfair to Mr Egan but in the cut throat sink or swim world of competitive history writing I say tough mammaries Mr Egan Sack up and step up your drama Still a good well researched history about an intriguing and previously mysterious period but a little too dry and textbook like to earn a 4th star from me 3 0 stars Recommended I read a fair amount of history and I usually enjoy it but I don’t think I’ve ever read a history book that was uite the page turner this one was What I knew before about the 1930s drought in the American Dust Bowl was this there was an agriculture destroying drought in and around Texas and Oklahoma during the Great Depression that made the economic devastation there even worse What I learned here through the personal stories of the people and towns affected was that the Dust Bowl was a man made disaster of the first order an environmental catastrophe due largely to human error ignorance and greed The climatic conditions of the prairies were just not suited to intensive agriculture a fact that was roundly ignored The zeal of the homesteaders who settled the great grasslands of the Midwest may have appeared at the time to be fulfilling the American destiny of westward expansion and progress through the virtuous traits of industry and capitalistic success as they planted bumper crops of wheat in response to high demand for grain But the farming practices launched with such enthusiasm in the early part of the century would bring destruction that proved impossible to control or repair Ecosystems are delicate things There are valuable lessons to be learned here “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it etcDescriptions of weather related events throughout the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles in that era are almost unbelievable Thousands of tons of dirt went airborne on a regular basis Often it sounds like something out of a sci fi book set on another planet or a story of post apocalyptic climate change with barren landscapes unable to sustain any crops or vegetation Cattle would go blind and die with their stomachs full of dirt; babies succumbed to “dirt pneumonia” The regional economy aggravated by the general financial crises that caused and were then sustained by the Depression tanked completely There was no economy Many lived by barter and in sod houses Even if the houses were not made of sod they were full of dirt absolutely all of the time from the constant heavy dust storms despite every attempt to seal doors and windows with damp cloth and tape Summer ground temperatures in the summer could reach 150 degrees Static electricity from the dust storms would stall a moving car or knock a man down if he touched another person And yet people stayed reluctant to leave what they knew just to end up in a bread line in a cold anonymous city somewhere I was on the phone to my mother a couple of times looking for details about her grandparents who had lived near Amarillo Her mother got out of there young and came to California in the ‘20s so she missed this episode in Texas history And my mom was too young in the '30s to have been told about the distant family’s hardships All she knows is she thinks her grandfather had some sort of leather goods business saddles and harnesses perhaps but he was “not very successful” which I think would have been par for that particular courseEgan uses the life stories of several different families to illustrate the hardships common in both farms and towns There are some heart breaking tales a family trying to bury both a baby and a grandmother on the day of a tremendously brutal dust storm “Black Sunday 1935” diary excerpts of a older childless farmer on the Kansas Nebraska border his alfalfa crop dead on the verge of losing his last horses alone and separated from his wife who has had to take a job in the city This is a wonderful piece of research and scholarship told in an engaging manner that brings these experiences to life a great tribute to the memories of those who lived through it ”BIG RABBIT DRIVE SUNDAY —BRING CLUBS” Don’t judge the rabbits were a menace to their livelihood These folks were plagued by jackrabbits grasshoppers and endless dust Clubbing some rabbits at felt like they were fighting back while they lost everything It is hard to say which is worse the steady constant destruction ever present dust from four drought waves in ten years or the intense black blizzards which only lasted hours or days Nobody knew what to call it It was not a raincloud Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets It was not a twister It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard—a black blizzard they called it—with an edge like steel wool There was enough static electricity in one to knock a person unconscious short out car engines and cause blue flames to erupt from metal fences It would fell alive like a monsterEgan gives a good background The lure of inexpensive land—image enhanced by land speculators The dramatic rise in wheat prices and a surge in production In 1910 the price of wheat stood at eighty cents a bushel good enough for anyone who had outwitted a few dry years to make enough money to get through another year and even put something away Five years later with world grain supplies pinched by the Great War the price had than doubled Farmers increased production by 50 percent When the Turkish navy blocked the Dardanelles they did a favor for dryland wheat farmers that no one could have imagined Europe relied on Russia for export grain With Russian shipments blocked the United States stepped in and issued a proclamation to the plains plant wheat to win the war And for the first time the government guaranteed the price at two dollars a bushel though the war backed by the wartime food administrator a multimillionaire public servant named Herbert Hoover Wheat was no longer a staple of a small family farmer but a commodity with a price guarantee and a global market The economic boom and increased population ”The uncertainties of 1919 were over” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald the most insightful chronicler of the hubris of the 1920s “America was going on the greatest gaudiest spree in history” Wheat prices began to drop after the war The stock market crashed in 1929 and the first of the four droughts was in 1930 1931 ”Three little words achingly familiar on the Western farmer's tongue rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – if it rains —Robert Geiger a reporter for the Associated Press 1935 Not to be dismissive of Midwesterners potential for mayhem but don’t think of them as a rioting mob They were starving and President Hoover didn’t believe in government assistanceI wish there was on recovery and prevention Or maybe I wish there was recovery and preventative measures Tapping the Ogallala Auifer for irrigation isn’t a long term solution “Oklahoma where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plainYeeow Aye yip aye yo ee ay” written by Rogers and HammersteinMoving to Oklahoma“You are going to look for a home in Oklahoma?” By the look on her face and the tone in her voice I knew that my friend was thinking of flat land the dust bowl and tornadoes We were thinking of green hills lakes rivers and freedom from tornadoes as had been promised of Tahleuah OK After all Tahleuah had been blessed by the Indians to never have a tornado It helps to live in a valley surrounded by hills that they call mountains And whenever I hear a tornado warning it helps to think of the blessingWell the realtors never told us about the bugs the ticks the chiggers nor the mosuitoes We learned about those on our own after moving here I got around 200 chiggers bites one year I was a mess Then we both came down with tick fever We were really sick And yet here we live in the city limits Now we just hope to never get Nile Fever I 40 No Man’s Land and the Cross of JesusIn October of 2006 we drove from San Diego County through LA on the 215 to Barstow and then we got on to the I 40 freeway heading to Oklahoma Going thorugh the panhandle of Texas we only saw desolate barren land Somewhere along this route the town of Groom TX popped up They had put a VERY large cross of Jesus on a piece of their barren flat land You can see it from the freeway That was all they had to offer to the land Perhaps Jesus protects it from another Dust Bowl which I learned later had originated in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and had spread out somewhat to include parts Colorado New Mexico Kansas and Nebraska We pulled off the highway at Groom and drove past The Cross of Jesus and found their livestock yard We pulled into its drive way and parked Then we let our dog Mocha out of the car and we got out too and stretched our legs The ground was covered with cow pies which Mocha loved and began eating She was having so much fun but we weren’t so we all got back into the car drove past The Cross again and headed east to OklahomaWe drove though Oklahoma just south of Oklahoma’s own panhandle again desolation How could anyone live here? Back in the pioneer days they called the Panhandle No Man’s Land and it touched Kansas Texas New Mexico and Colorado Some places still are No Man’s Land as far as I could tell As we continued on I 40 the flat land was green and sometimes there were small rolling hills We could live here if it weren’t for the tornadoes but this time of year it was pretty Finally we made it to East Oklahoma and drove up 82 through Vian to Tahleuah I was in awe It was hilly and beautiful with lakes and rivers It is part of the Ozark Mountains so the map says Some say that it is only the foothills but when we drove through the Ozarks in later years I could not see any difference It is amazing how those living in the Ozarks can make molehills into mountainsThe Big Dust CommaThe Dust Bowl was mainly in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and moved out into a circle to include parts of Colorado Texas Oklahoma Kansas and New Mexico It was only a small section of these areas but its effects were felt far and wide On a map it looks like a coma facing in the opposite direction not a bowl shape at all The Panhandles were lands that no one wanted; they were the last lands to sell They were cheap And I will admit it if we could afford it we would be living in Cayucos or Morro Bay CA but only because we miss the ocean and wish we didn’t live in the humidity with all of the bugs The Sacred SweetgrassThe nesters as they called the farmer’s in the Great Plains areas dug up the sod the buffalo grass along with its wild flowers You can see what the prairies once looked like it you visit nature preserves that were created after the Dust Bowl ended We have been to one of those nature preserves in Nebraska and in August the flowers were still blooming along with the buffalo grass or sweetgrass as it is also called It was beautifulBut who could live in any of this prairie land where all you can see is flat land and blue skies all day and every day except when it rains and there are tornadoes or when snow is on the ground? And if you are traveling as we were it would take you a few days to find any change in the terrain The pioneers had it better they saw prairie grasses and flowers but all we saw were corn and soybean fields in Nebraska and Kansas It was not inviting What is inviting is the sweetgrass because it smells so wonderland I brought a braid of it home one year when we had taken a trip east and had visited the Seminole Indian reservation I placed it on my desk and it scented the air around my desk for a few years Then one day when we were driving from Tahleuah to Tulsa on i 82 I smelled it out our car window for I had memorized the scent A rich rancher had fields of it for his cattle It filled the air with such sweetness that I later bought some from an online nursery 5 for three sprouts of grass I wanted to do our own yard in it but it would cost too much to fill a half acre which is why I guessed the rancher out on I 82 was rich Instead I planted the three grass spouts in one of my flower beds and let them grow I never trimmed them They have grown into maybe 20 clumps over the years The Indians believe that sweetgrass is sacred That is true; it is It is too bad that the nesters didn’t realize this for in killing the sod the sweetgrass they killed the land and themselves The land in the panhandles has never fully recovered and it never will Some of the land is still sterile Killers of the Flowers and the Sweetgrass Sod The nesters knew little of farming so they removed all of the sod to make way for crops For years those crops thrived but then a drought came and it lasted for years If they had only known to make furrows in the land so the winds could not pick up the land in sheets and deposit it elsewhere Still you needed water to grow crops and that they didn’t have You also needed that sodThe first dust storms came with the drought in 1930 and lasted for 6 years When the storms grew in size and made it all the way to Washington DC even landing on the President’s desk he took notice It wasn’t as if they didn’t know already because it was in all the news even in letters to the White House But Roosevelt finally sat up in his chair dusted off his desk and thought about helping the starving and dying farmersThe people had been choking on the dust It got into their lungs and into their stomachs “Dust pneumonia” is what they called it when it killed them Children were to die often before the adults Many animals that were left out during the dust storms were dead by morning When you read about it it can make you sick at heart and it can make you angry because help didn’t come fast Tumbling TumbleweedsSome people even had to live on tumbleweeds because that was all that was left Some added dandelions to their meals They even salted the tumbleweeds and fed them to their cattle I can’t imagine that tumbleweed tasted like anything other than well I don’t know If I ever see one again I will find outI have loved tumbleweeds since my youth The Sons of the Pioneers made them famous with their song Tumbling Tumbleweeds“See them tumbling downPledging their love to the groundLonely but free I'll be foundDrifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds”I remember this record playing on the jutebox when I was dancing with my father at his barrestaurant in Santa Maria CA This was sometime in the early 50s I used to sing it oftenNow that I have read this book this song takes on new meaning I can’t help but think that some of the survivors of the Dust Bowl didn’t appreciate the song especially when tumbleweeds were all that some had left to eat And then to think that it was recorded and played on the radio back in 1934 when the Dust Bowl was taking away lives We had tumbleweeds on our land in Creston CA We used to see them along the roads too and sometimes they would take flight I didn’t see them in Creston when we visited this summer or I would have brought one home to keep Instead we saw grape vineyards for our old farmhouse was gone as were our neighbor’s homes All vineyards The vineyards are taking up all the water in Paso Robles and Creston Rancher’s wells are going dry Their own auifer is drying up Man will never learn The Land They LovedMany left their land during the Dust Bowl moved into nearby towns or completely away from the Dust Bowl Many went to California but then Californians put up signs saying “You are not welcome There is no work here” Those that left were the lucky ones unless their lungs gave out on them in later years But some didn’t want to leave their land even when their children were dying They loved it that muchThey taped wet sheets over their doors and windows They filled cracks with rags but the dust blew in and when storms came and went they shoveled the dust out their doors They wore masks when they were outdoors but they had to change them every hour Next their houses filled up with bugs that also wanted shelter Some who left the land died on the way out when a dust storm came and buried them and their cars No wonder some didn’t leave it could mean their death but the love of land can keep you in place also Still who could love this land now? Dreams die hard The top soil moved on faster than the people could leave Somewhere maybe it left a gold mine of top soil and if it had blown West I would say that it blew into Fresno CA where the fertile land literally feels like flour Loam My herbs that I moved from Creston to Fresno grew larger and faster than they ever had in Creston It was dream soil But even Fresno was dying because they built homes and the town over the rich loam taking away crop land The Hero Who Saved Us AllRoosevelt took action in 1936 by sending a soil conservationist to the Dust Bowl to teach people about furrowing Then he planted millions of trees that were not appreciated by some farmers who dug them up Most of the trees died during the droughts over the years but there are a few left to this day Only a few The idea was to stop the winds from tearing up land I suppose the trees were to be a wind break So Roosevelt became their hero He sent them money to buy food and pay for their mortgages He had many big ideas that I loved Only now our government is trying to take it all away Just wait and see At the end of the 30s the nesters began finding water lots of water for they had dug down to the Ogallala Auifer that stretches out over the Midwest It now feeds the American people with the crops that they have planted The Midwest is now the Wheat Corn and Soybean Belt of America In 50 years the auifer will be dry and in some areas the water has already dried up And now fracking is taking up the water polluting the land and causing earthuakes What will they do then? What will we all do? ExhaustingSoberingDepressingInstructiveHaunting Interesting TimelyGrindingSurprisingPainfulImportantNow what's up with the subtitle? If it were really The Untold Story wouldn't it just be a book full of blank pages? Shouldn't it be The Previously Untold Story? And why don't publishers ever ask me for my opinions on these things? This calls for some serious pouting You should still read the book though Outstanding research and thorough presentation with lessons for us in our 21st Century short sighted resource exploitation mode “Of all the countries in the world we Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race of people barbaric or civilized” Hugh Bennett uoted in Timothy Egan The Worst Hard Time A couple years ago I read Egan's book The Big Burn Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America read in 2015 Egan is fantastic at exploring disasters and the public policy response His talent is excavating these disasters using primary sources diaries etc He like John McPhee has the ability to weave a story about people and place McPhee is usually concerned with the here and now Egan likes the past McPhee likes geology Egan likes disasters Reading this I also thought of David McCullough's The Johnstown Flood read in 2016 and Simon Winchester's Krakatoa The Day the World Exploded read in 2009 and A Crack in the Edge of the World read in 2009 Who knew years ago I would be so drawn to the historical disaster genre? These big events are monsters myths They uickly develop their own icon status Who hasn't heard of the dust bowl or seen those photos of Okies covered in dust? Egan does a great job of balancing the human with the historical the cause with the effectIt does make you wonder if we really learned much from the Dust Bowl and draught of the 1930s? I think of Oklahoma and Texas and their hostility towards the federal government despite the fact that again and again the federal government seems to send them than they take I think of fracking water usage in the South West global warming antibiotics and livestock It seems as if expediency and the hope of uick money paired with our nation's inability to think long term or act strategically if strategy costs money or restrains behavior AT ALL will consistently push us towards environmental disasters When you read The Worst Hard Time please have copious amounts of cool water or lemonade at your side This true brutal story of the Dust Bowl will have you reaching for and appreciating water like no other story you've ever read In fact like me you may even stand in the next rain shower looking skyward face slathered in wetness bending your mind to understand the environmental apocalypse that struck our heartland 3 generations agoTimothy Egan's book is an example of why I like non fiction especially topics about which I've previously been unlearned If there was a test of knowledge about the Dust Bowl I feel Egan has taken me from a score of 10 to around 70 After 70 the score toward 100 rises geometrically so don't expect The Worst Hard Time one book to make you an expert However Egan provides a range of issues agronomy policy culture trade allowing you to hold your end of a discussion at a cocktail partyEgan's tone is a bit melodramatic but holy cow how better to connect with a readership than recounting the Dust Bowl experience through the lives of several different families at the epicenter of the disaster? To witness the downward spiral the depravity of the human condition it really underscores the human toll from 1932 1938 Had this occured in a sparsely populated area or a third world country it may have been a footnote in a government report Instead the American hegira to Dust Bowl country was promoted by the government sustained by commodities speculation facilitated by the ingress of the railroad and magnified by the hubris of the early plains farmerFrom a notes section you know Egan has done his homework He's interviewed witnesses combed through Congressional testimony poured over weather data pictures and diaries and from this pile has laced together several family portraits of daily life on the plains There's nothing spectacular about the writing but he's nicely captured the gravitas through character narrationHere are major points I've learned Dust Bowl boundaries were much smaller than I thought I assumed you could overlay the boundaries onto the Great Plains or tornado alley or most parts of the Louisiana Purchase No The Dust Bowl was the shape of a lightbulb scribed over the panhandle of TexasOklahoma outstate Kansas SE Colorado and south central Nebraska although it's effects were felt throughout the plains and in several instances as far as the east coast The primary academically accepted Congressionally reported cause of the Dust bowl was the plowing under of native drought resistant grasses which had accumulated a mere 3 inches of topsoil over several thousand years for the wide scale planting of primarily wheat Secondary reasons were a strong drought cycle absense of high plains growing techniues cheap land the arrival of mechanized farming practices political pressure to homestead these areas unsustainable food commodities speculation and an ingrown belief in American manifest destiny Mistaken public policies have been largely responsible for the situation p 267 Growth of farming within the Dust Bowl boundaries is eerily similar to the real estate bubble 80 years later In the late 1920's land was cheap ualifying for loans was easy even easier for farm properties and towns sprang up as uickly and as absurdly as today's McMansions in USA's exurbias The concomitant Great Depression destroyed worldwide grain prices but the Dust Bowlers didn't seem to suffer any worse than average Americans in other parts of the country or at least that's not how Egan portrayed the circumstances Astonishingly folks in the heart of the Dust Bowl did not move of the 221000 people who would move to California most of them from AR OK and TXonly 16000 came from the actual Dust Bowl p 235 These people simply hunkered down and rode it out for 5 years Amazing Why? The word 'duster' Lost to my generation it described a windstorm that picked up dirt the consistency of talcum powder and lashed it at near hurricane strength at everything in range The most impressive pictures are those of solid walls of roiled earth barreling down on puny crossroad towns In 1937 the high dirt mark 134 dusters wracked the Southern Plains Some of these lasted for days Black Sunday 14 Apr '35 was the absolute worst a Biblical duster of moving earth responsible for most of the storm pictures you're probably aware of from that timeI award 3 stars for a solid book but nothing spectacular besides the topic I'd have awarded another star if Egan devoted a chapter solely to the science of what happened Would recommend this book to anyone who's ignorant of what happened in 'No Man's Land' in the 1930s The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since Timothy Egan’s critically acclaimed account rescues this iconic chapter of American history from the shadows in a tour de force of historical reportage Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards crop failure and the death of loved ones Brilliantly capturing the terrifying drama of catastrophe Egan does eual justice to the human characters who become his heroes “the stoic long suffering men and women whose lives he opens up with urgency and respect” New York TimesIn an era that promises ever greater natural disasters The Worst Hard Time is “arguably the best nonfiction book yet” Austin Statesman Journal on the greatest environmental disaster ever to be visited upon our land and a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of trifling with nature I have about a week to read this for book club and I've got a lot of books in progress that I hate to set aside so we'll see how this goesUPDATE I gave up I must be the only person on the planet who didn't like this book I found the writing to be overblown over the top even silly at times The way it was organized didn't work for me He'd introduce a person or family and I'd start to get interested and then he'd abandon them and go back to large sweeping passages about the land which made me start to nod offHad he chosen one person or family to tell the story through it could have been fascinating Especially if he'd told it straight and without the grating phrasing This should be reuired reading for anyone living in the west and for all politicians The author does a fine job of telling the story of the Dust Bowl era why it happened natural forces and human actions and where we stand today It's clear to see that adding climate change to the mix reuires us to develop stronger conservation policies practices if we want to avoid such a catastrophe happening again With the population we have in this area now I can't imagine the suffering or how we would recover The old photographs included in this book are truly worth a thousand words

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