While the event conjures up the dark aspects of biblical “last days,” the 1930s drought, resulting in the hard-hit plains territory dubbed the “Dust Bowl,” generated countless instances of neighborly generosity and astounding tenaciousness. Journalist Timothy Egan gives voice to those heartland people in the 19 states affected the severe dust storms that blackened skies, sometimes for days. It was “The Worst Hard Time,” as Mr. Egan titled his 2005 book, but it was also a time when men, women, and children’s mettle was tried and tested and found triumphant.
Hopefulness is expressed in stories and diary entries. For example, the book shares Don Hartwell’s 1936 diary entries as he lived through dust storms on the Kansas-Nebraska border with his wife. Mr. Egan points out that Hartwell “was not going down without a fight,” adding that the farmer “started his diary at the darkest hour.”
While the 47-year-old Hartwell documented the dust storms and the dead or dying crops, with one entry, noting, “Very dusty, windy, mean,” he also focused on life’s pleasures and the wonders of technology: “I listened to the ‘World Series’ baseball game over the radio. The N.Y. Yankees beat the N.Y. Giants 18-4. One can hear the ball game in N.Y. City from the radio (wireless transmission) in his own home. You can hear the crack of the bat and the ball hit the catcher’s glove. Who would have thought it possible 25 years ago!”
The drought added injury to insult to a country already suffering severely during the Great Depression. The 100-million-plus Dust Bowl-affected acres were the result of what the author terms “The Great Plowup,” in part-one of his book. A series of federal land acts initiated after the Civil War enticed people to go West and settle and farm the Great Plains. Quickly, the area was over-occupied and over-farmed by those who decided to “settle in and see what the earth would bring,” Mr. Egan wrote.
By 1930, the drought began and dust kicked up and swirled and traveled over the dried up the land. “The strange thing about it, the weather bureau observers said, was that it rolled, like a mobile hill of crud, and it was black. When it tumbled through, it carried static electricity, enough to short out a car. And it hurt, like a swipe of coarse-grained sandpaper on the face. The first black duster was a curiosity, nothing else.” During one summer dust storm, a woman remembered that she was sitting in her room where she kept the telephone but could not see the telephone for all the dust that had blown inside cracks and crevices by the forceful winds.
But the dust persisted and people’s livelihoods, mostly farmers, disappeared. And many people fled. But many stayed put. It is those people that Mr. Egan focuses on. John McCarty of Dalhart, Texas, made a public vow that “no matter how hard the dust blew, no matter how deeply people were buried in sand, they would not retreat.” McCarty was, in fact, part of the community’s Last Man Club, and he printed enrollment cards that read, in part: “Barring Acts of God or unforeseen personal tragedy or family illness, I pledge myself to be the Last Man to leave this country, to always be loyal to it. …”
When rain finally began again to moisten the dusty soil, “The land came through the 1930s deeply scarred and forever changed, but in places it healed,” expressed Egan, adding that much of the plains was returned to grasslands, but “some farmers got religion: They treated the land with greater respect.”
As the book’s subhead conveys, “The Worst Hard Time” is “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Yet, it is not an entirely a disheartening account as the title might imply, but instead a testament to American fortitude and patient endurance.