Excerpt from The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Worst Hard Time

The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 352 pages

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And then there was the larger image problem.

Great American Desert. It was Stephen Long, trying to find something of value in the treeless wilderness, who first used those words in 1820, later printed on maps that guided schooners west. It would stay as cartographic fact until after the Civil War, when the Great American Desert became the Great Plains. Zebulon Pike, scouting the southern half of the Louisiana Purchase in 1806 for Thomas Jefferson, had compared it to the African Sahara in his report to the president. Jefferson was crushed. He feared it would take one hundred generations to settle the blank space on the map. It was a vast empty sea, invariably described as featureless and frightening by the Americans who traveled through it.

"A desolate waste of uninhabited solitude," wrote Robert Marcy, after exploring the headwaters of the Red River. Marcy had the same opinion of the region as did Long, the influential American explorer who followed Pike. After conducting an extensive survey, Long wrote in 1820 the words that still make him seem unusually prophetic:

"In regard to this extensive section of the country, I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence."

The answer to the syndicate's problem was aggressive salesmanship. Why, this wasteland could be England or Missouri, if plowed in the right way. Brochures were distributed in Europe, the American South, and at major ports of entry to the U.S.: "500,000 acres offered for sale as farm homes" and cheap, as well, the land selling for thirteen dollars an acre. Twice a month, agents for the syndicate rounded up five hundred people and put them on a train from Kansas City for the Texas Panhandle to see for themselves. The train ride was free.

Speculators who bought from the syndicate turned around and added to the claims. "Riches in the soil, prosperity in the air, progress everywhere. An Empire in the making!" was a slogan of W. P. Soash, a real estate man from Iowa who bought big pieces of the XIT and sold them off. "Get a farm in Texas while land is cheap — where every man is a landlord!"

To prove the agriculture-worthy potential of the Llano Estacado, the syndicate set up experimental farms, demonstrating to immigrants how they could make a go of it on the Texas flatlands. They worked with government men from the Department of Agriculture. Well, sure, it rained less than twenty inches a year, which was the accepted threshold for growing a crop without irrigation, but through the miracle of dry farming a fellow could turn this land to gold. Put a windmill in, and up comes water for your hogs, chickens, and garden. And dryland wheat, it didn't need irrigation. Just plant in the fall, when a little moisture would bring the sprouts up, let it go dormant in the winter, and then wait for spring rains to get the crop going again. Harvest in summer. Any three-toed fool could do it, the agents said. As for the overturned ground, use the dust for mulch, farmers were advised; it will hold the ground in place and keep evaporation down. That's what Hardy Campbell, the apostle of dry farming from Lincoln, Nebraska, preached — and the government put a stamp on his philosophy through their agriculture office in the Panhandle. No nester was without Campbell's Soil Culture Manual, a how-to book with homilies that all but guaranteed prosperity. What's more, the commotion created by the act of plowing itself would bring additional rain, causing atmospheric disturbances. Rain follows the plow? Damn right! The Santa Fe Railroad printed an official-looking progress map, showing the rain line — twenty inches or more, annually — moving west about eighteen miles a year with new towns tied to the railroad. With scientific certainty, steam from the trains was said to cause the skies to weep.

Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.  

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