The Worst Hard Time - Timothy Egan

I never knew very much about the dust bowl beyond what I learned by reading the Grapes of Wrath in High School (still have to loop back and read that) and a bit more in A.P. US History. So this book was a real eye opener for me. I never understood just how much humankind was at fault, and how quickly it all happened.

Egan has a great map in the front of the book showing the extent of the dust bowl, involving the states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. He walks you through the history of this area from the times before the dirty thirties. For thousands of years, a stable grassland ecosystem had thrived in this dry region, with buffalo and antelope thriving on an ocean of plant matter. With the arrival of horses in the late 1600s, the Comanches ruled this plain, thriving on an ocean of buffalo. Then in the mid 1800s, white buffalo hunters came and decimated the buffalo herds and sent the natives to reservations. But white cattle ranchers soon filled the void, replacing the mighty wild herbivores with their domesticated cousins, and the ecosystem at least could function in a similar manner as before. Then came WWI and a huge boom in beef prices, followed by an inevitable crash, leaving behind many financially ruined ranches.

The next void-fillers were farmers. They came from all over the U.S. as well as Europe lured by cheap land (via the Homestead Act) and promises of a better life. While the area was known to be very dry, shaky science (e.g. "water follows the plow") and unscrupulous marketing by various land speculators helped confuse the issue for potential farmers. The combination of a few unusually wet years, Russian wheat with low water needs, and new technology such as the use of windmills to pump water from deep wells that tapped the massive Ogallala Aquifer meant that there actually was enough water to produce great crops. City folk ("suitcase farmers") would come in, buy land, plant it, leave town and come back to harvest, the potential for profit was so great... for a brief time.

Ranchers were dismayed to see so much grassland being plowed under and warned that problems would follow. Then came a drought and a lull in prices. Much of the plowed land was left in dirt. That dirt, which had been held down by grasses since the ice age, was now exposed to the wind. And thus was born the dust bowl.

Most of Egan's book is devoted to the stories of those who lived through the dustbowl, and the horrible conditions they were forced to endure. It is a very personal sort of history, filled with hopes, dreams and love, and despair, sickness, and death. He also chronicles how our government tried to mitigate this catastrophe, and what has happened to the land and the inhabitants of the dust bowl.

This book is a must read.

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