When the Sky Ran Dry

Texas has suffered through many dry spells, but none so bad as the fifties drought. To the West Texans caught in its fiercest grip, it seemed like the world was ending. Half a century later, the time it never rained remains as vivid as ever.
Photograph by Michael O'Brien

Texans expect drought. It is our curse of geography and climatology to live in a zone where, as the historian Walter Prescott Webb wrote in 1953, “humidity and aridity are constantly at war.” During every decade of the twentieth century, some part of the state endured a serious drought. In 1917, which before 2011 was the driest year on record, an average of just fifteen inches of rain fell across the state. (During a normal year, an average of around thirty inches falls.) During the thirties, soil devoid of moisture turned to dust, rose in fearsome clouds, and blotted out the sun across the High Plains. But the drought that changed Texas forever occurred from 1950 to 1957, when severely deficient rainfall plunged the entire state into an agonizing water shortage. Crops shriveled, creeks turned to sand, thirsty cattle bawled, and reservoirs and wells dried up. When the water finally returned, the state had been irrevocably scarred.

Flying from Houston to Lubbock today, you can see out the window how the dry spell of the fifties shaped the landscape. Reservoirs cling to the outskirts of cities, while many of the tiny towns are in various stages of withering away. The drought triggered these alterations. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of reservoirs in Texas more than doubled; from 1950 to 1960, the number of farms and ranches shrank from 345,000 to 247,000, and the state’s rural people declined from more than a third of the population to a quarter.

Dallas was the hardest-hit major city. Its reservoirs got so low that water had to be pumped down from the Red River, whose high salt content fouled pipes, choked landscape plants, and threatened kidney patients. The relentless heat wave killed penguins at the Marsalis Zoo and compelled the groundskeepers at the Cotton Bowl to drill a water well in the end zone to keep the turf alive.

In the rural areas the suffering was akin to a biblical plague. True to form, the farmers and ranchers confronted their predicament with resourcefulness and grim humor. “The Lord is a pretty good feller,” goes one old joke, recorded in Rana Williamson’s When the Catfish Had Ticks, a collection of drought humor. “But he don’t know a damn thing about farming.” The economics were brutal: rising expenses for feed coupled with plunging market prices at the sale barn. The environmental cost was equally painful: without new grass growth, cattlemen overgrazed their pastures, which damaged the land and made it more susceptible to mesquite and cedar intrusion. Every day, men and women watched the sky for clouds. The sight of just one, drifting in from the horizon, would trigger anxious debates about whether it carried rain or was just an “empty.” If they could afford to, ranchers shipped their cattle to green pastures out of state; if they couldn’t, they stayed put and did whatever they could to keep the animals alive until the rains came. Eventually, the U.S. government stepped in, delivering emergency feed supplies to these cantankerously independent ranchers on a scale that even surpassed the federal intervention of the New Deal period.

Some ranchers with no debt and enough money in the bank were able to hold out until the rains resumed. Others cashed in their livestock and moved to town, never to return to ranch life. The quiet rural-to-urban migration that began with the drought of the fifties continues in Texas to this day.

Though every region of the state suffered through that dry spell, West Texas, long accustomed to the cruelties of climate, had it worst, and San Angelo was the epicenter. This was where President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited in 1957 to inspect the effects of the drought—coincidentally, just before it ended. It was also the home of the late Elmer Kelton, renowned western novelist and ag journalist, whose novel The Time It Never Rained is still regarded as the best account of those dry years. As that book starts, “it crept out of Mexico, touching first along the brackish Pecos and spreading then in all directions, a cancerous blight burning a scar upon the land.”

LISTEN to a radio segment by John Burnett produced by KUT News and StateImpact Texas:

 

I. THE DROUGHT BEGINS

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment a drought commences. In some parts of West Texas, the dry period began in the late forties; elsewhere, it seemed to start in 1950. But by 1953, there was no mistaking what was under way. More than half the state was 30 inches below normal rainfall, and the statewide average monthly rainfall barely measured three tenths of an inch—the lowest level ever recorded. That summer, Corsicana endured 82 days of temperatures above 100 degrees, peaking at 113. The drought was also gauged in other ways. In 1953 the combined income of Texas farmers fell by one fifth from the previous year, and the price of low-grade beef cattle dropped from 15 to 5 cents a pound. On the Edwards Plateau, where most of the subjects interviewed for this oral history lived during the drought (and where many are still ranching, into their eighth and ninth decades), things went from bad to worse.

 

MORT MERTZ, 88, has been ranching in West Texas since 1954. He lives in San Angelo. It started out west. It tended to get dry out there and not rain, and that lack of rainfall just moved east. My dad kept saying, “We have these things; they’ll just go about eighteen months. It’ll break.” But that’s what caught everybody off guard: it didn’t break. It just kept on going, and it lasted about seven years.

SANDY WHITTLEY, 74, grew up in San Angelo and is the executive secretary of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers’ Association. The first year it was “Nah, not too bad.” And then it was a little drier the next year. By about the third year, it was beginning to get really interesting, and then it got really serious. From then on

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