§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Tim Egan

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Tim Egan

I enjoyed this book, another of the narrative histories so popular these days, books that appeal to real people because the author finds real people from the past whose lives were affected, even defined, by the events in question.

Egan describes the effects of drought on the areas of the high plains (mostly OK, TX and AR) where formerly prairie grasses had flourished and where the buffalo roamed. He begins with the XIT ranch, a huge ranch located in the TX Panhandle and NM, which broke up at the end of the 19th century when cattle prices tanked. Source of many Texas cowboy stories, there's a history of the XIT called 6000 Miles of Fence (

The US actively promoted these dry lands--that of the XIT and beyond--and encouraged farmers to homestead there, even recruited immigrants to  settle the land and grow wheat. since in the years before and during WWI the US was exporting wheat all over the world and farmers were making lots of money that way.

But the worst combination of disasters awaited those settlers: wheat prices tanked right after production in this area came online. a serious drought season began simultaneously, the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in 10 years of Depression. Removing the native grasses from the soil which was necessary in order to plant wheat and other crops, proved disastrous when the new crops failed and resulted in seasons of horrendous dust storms that snuffed out life everywhere in the area and in a few instances caused dust to rain over the entire eastern half of the US.

Egan presents the details of these disasters through the eyes of people who survived, some of whom he interviewed personally, some whose descendants he interviewed and others he explored through their published or unpublished diaries and memoirs. Interspersed among these personal stories was Egan's own research into the period: statistics about immigration to and from the area, crop successes and failures, weather and politics--FDR's New Deal targeted this area first as a haven for settlers and then, as disaster set in, as an area of experimentation with conservation (replanting grass, building tree barriers, rotating crops and husbanding the soil). Some of these projects were successful; other not. And the results were seen in human terms by Egan's informants living and dead: conservation success, lessons learned, but also human skepticism and greed.

A quick read and even if you think you understand the dust bowl, you'll discover that more people stayed than left (as The Grapes of Wrath taught us) and that the effects of the irresponsible use of the soil which directly caused the dust storms were far more disastrous than you thought. At least that was my experience. Rated this one a 9 (out of 10). Only problem with the book is that the combination of factual history and personal story was not quite as well integrated as it is in many of these popular histories.


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