The Worst Hard Time Summary

Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time

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The Worst Hard Time Summary

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The Worst Hard Time is an award-winning American history book by New York Times journalist Timothy Egan that charts the experiences of the survivors of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. It combines descriptions of individuals’ lives with an analysis of the factors that led to the Dust Bowl to give an account of the period that is both overarching and intimate.

After an introduction providing a general overview, Egan begins to dig deeper into the issues and introduce some of the survivors. He introduces ranch hand Bam White who, in 1926, was traveling to Texas with his family in search of work. Along the way, they lost horses and looked in horror at the lack of foliage. When they arrived in the Texas panhandle, they found no work and the land being sold off as farmland, despite warnings from the locals. The White family settled in a shack in Dalhart, Texas. A short way away in the Oklahoma panhandle, land in so-called “No Man’s Land” was also being sold off. The land was tough and there were terrible winds but wheat grew well and the population soared with new farmers and new farms. Among the new farmers were many Germans fleeing political persecution in Russia and hoping to start new lives. George Ehlrich and his family were among those who arrived shocked at conditions and by the persecution they experienced from the local inhabitants.

Back in Texas, Bam and the other ranch hands knew that the grassland that had once been ideal for ranches could not grow wheat in the long term; they were correct in this assessment. With an increasing overproduction of wheat, prices began to drop, leading farmers to produce even more wheat in order to earn a livable income. This taxed the land even further, drawing out water and nutrients and removing the grass and weeds that prevented topsoil erosion. The stage was set for a disaster, which happened when, in 1929, the stock market crashed, rapidly devaluing wheat, leading to bank closures and the loss of personal and business savings. As a vast surplus of wheat piled up, the citizens of the panhandles experienced their first dust storm: a lashing, lacerating cloud of wind-borne dirt that tore through the regions.

For many in the Texas panhandle, the closure of the Dalhart bank first made the Great Depression a reality. It left many desperate and ruined, as savings were lost and businesses failed. Throughout the United States, people were starving and living in abject poverty reliant on whatever external support they could claim. In the High Plains, wheat production continued, but when there was no rain, and then no winter snow, the prospect of planting more wheat in the spring became implausible: it simply would not grow without sufficient water. Like many others, Fred Folker stopped planting wheat and fed his family on the devalued grains instead. After a second year of drought, insects and spiders hatched out of season overrunning towns, and uncountable thousands of rabbits had to be slaughtered by the locals. The heat became unbearable, and black clouds of stinging dust damaged building and machinery, and brought on debilitating and fatal lung conditions. Men like Bam White were reduced to wandering in search of any work they could find, even down to collecting skunk hides, and everywhere people were unemployed, suffering, and starving.

In 1933, President Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who at least managed to bring a little hope and assistance to the worst affected areas. However, the drought persisted and people continued to starve and struggle in the choking dust. When rain finally fell, it fell as wet dirt, and was followed by twisters and tornados that tore down buildings and left hundreds without homes. People in the panhandles began to develop “dust pneumonia,” an entirely new condition in which airborne dust settles in the lungs, and even cities as far off as Chicago and New York experienced huge dumps of dirt in their streets. For the people of the High Plains, these conditions continued for years with precious little respite. On April 14, 1935, on what became known as “Black Sunday,” the worst storm yet struck, displacing hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil. As well as setting up provisions like the Social Security Act and the Works Program Administration, President Roosevelt offered to buy back people’s homes and farms. Many fled the terrible conditions, although many also chose to stay and tough it out. The editor of the Dalhart Texan newspaper, John McCarty, started the “Last Man Club” for those dedicated to remaining in their homes and communities.

The government and others began documenting the problem in films and photos. One documentary made Bam White’s haggard face the symbol of the struggling people of the panhandles. This angered many of Bam’s farmer neighbors, but he was unconcerned, considering them part of the problem. Hugh Bennet, a pioneering soil conservationist who had long fought to help the region, also blamed over-farming, but insisted that the panhandles could be revitalized. Under his direction, weeds and grasses were sown to secure the topsoil. While this would eventually have a positive effect, residents of the High Plains still faced increasingly vicious dirt storms and twisters. Despite his promise to the Last Man Club, by 1937 even McCarty had left Dalhart. However, things finally began to turn around. In July 1938, President Roosevelt gave a talk to more than 100,000 people in Amarillo, Texas. Like a lucky omen, not only was his visit not ruined by twisters and dust storms, it even began to rain. As the book draws to a close, Egan suggests that, for many, this marked the beginning of a growing hope, while for some, including the president, it marked a growing acceptance that over-farming and exploitative land deals can do catastrophic damage. Either way, from here, the region began its slow and difficult recovery.