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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"The northern Panhandle was settled by a group of fine pioneer people and its citizens are of the highest type of Anglo Saxon ancestry," the Dalhart Texan declared shortly after the Whites rolled into town. But the new citizens of this new town were refugees, each in their own way. Bam went to have a look around. Train whistles blew at regular intervals. The railroads were still offering bargain fares to lure pilgrims to the prairie, though the good land had been taken. The town looked like dice on a brown felt table, the houses wood-framed and bare-ribbed — as tentative as a daydream. Dalhart's first residents had planted locust trees, but most of them did not last in the hard wind, between drought and freeze. Chinese elms were doing a little better. The town was birthed by railroad men and was never under the thumb of the XIT. Like the rest of the Panhandle, its frontier was now, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. While the northern plains were losing people disenchanted with the long winters and ruinous cycles of drought and freeze, the southern plains were in hormonal mid-adolescence. There was oil gushing and news of wildcatters making a killing spread far and wide. The oil drew a new kind of prospector to go with the nesters and wheat speculators tearing up the grassland. Nearly thirty towns were born in the Panhandle between 1910 and 1930.

Much of Texas took its prohibition seriously. Not Dalhart. It took its whiskey seriously, in part because some of the finest corn liquor in America was coming out of the High Plains. Up north, in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, and Baca County, Colorado, farmers had been growing corn for whisk brooms, but then the vacuum cleaner, in just a few years, ruined the market for broomcorn. Prohibition saved the broomcorn farmers, making grain more valuable as alcohol than the dried stalks had ever been for sweeping. A single still near the Osteen family homestead up in Baca County was turning out a barrel of corn whiskey a day, every day, nearly every year of Prohibition. Some farmers made five hundred dollars a week. At the peak of Prohibition, five counties in a three-state region of the High Plains shipped fifty thousand gallons a week to distant cities.

"This is a period of fast times," a Dalhart businessman, Jim Pigman, wrote in his diary, "and much drinking of poor liquor." Just a few strides from the railroad switch tower, Bam White came upon a curious sight: a two-story sanitarium. It was the only hospital for hundreds of miles. On one side of the sanitarium was a tobacco ad — a big, red-and-white snorting bull promoting Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco. Inside was a specimen room, with pickled fetuses, tumors, an enlarged liver, goiters, and a heart. The liver had belonged to a saloonkeeper in the days before Prohibition. It was grayish green and huge, and served as a visual aid — an example of what can happen to someone who poured too much corn whiskey down his gullet. Presiding over the sanitarium was a tobacco- spitting, black-bearded man of the South, Dr. George Waller Dawson. The Doc always wore a dark Stetson, though he was said to take it off during surgery, and kept a brass spittoon nearby for his tobacco habit. He chewed through child delivery and lung surgery, it didn't matter. His wife, Willie Catherine, was the finest-looking woman in the Panhandle. That wasn't just Doc Dawson's opinion; in 1923, she won a diamond ring as prize for being voted the most beautiful woman at a Panhandle Fourth of July celebration. "My Willie," the Doc called the missus. She had dark eyes, an aquiline nose, and a powerful taste for literature. Willie kept the accounting books of the sanitarium and also served as anesthesiologist. She was the only person who could run the solitary x-ray machine for a few hundred miles in any direction. The Doc and his Willie were always busy cutting open cowboys and splicing nesters back together after they had been sliced by barbed wire, thrown from a horse, or knocked down by a windmill pump. They patched bones, yanked gallstones, and cut away shanks of infected flesh from people who insisted on paying them with animals, live and dead. In one month alone, the Doc and Willie performed sixty-three operations. A Kentuckian, Dawson had come to Texas for his health. He had persistent respiratory problems and legs that would sometimes freeze up on him, a kind of paralysis that puzzled the Kentucky medical community. The High Plains was the cure. He arrived in 1907, planning to start a ranch and live off his investments. In time, he hoped to breathe like a normal man and lavish attention on the lovely Willie. But he lost nearly everything two years later in a market collapse. His second chance was found in the two-story brick building in Dalhart, well north of his ranch. He opened the sanitarium in 1912. By the late 1920s, Dr. Dawson intended to cut back on his medical work and try once more to make a go of it on the land. The money in farming was so easy, just there for the taking. Despite all his years of practicing medicine, the Doc had saved up very little for his retirement. The nest egg would be in the land. He had purchased a couple of sections and was going to try his luck at cotton or wheat. Wheat was supposed to be the simplest way to bring riches from the ground. Doc Dawson would take some time off from running the hospital and see if he could coax something from the Staked Plains to free him of the rubbing alcohol and the pickled organs. It was their last best chance, he told his family.

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

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