The Sons of the Pioneers
It’s a big job, feeding America, but someone’s got to do it.
Walking his land that cold, clear February morning, Mart Wagner felt just a taste of spring, a hint of promise. Sharp pieces of dust blew as always with the prevailing southwest winds, but the visibility was endless. Wheat farms like Wagner’s stretched west from Ochiltree County in the Texas Panhandle for hundreds of miles north all the way to Canada, an almost perfectly flat horizon of grain, swaying like waves on the country’s mid-ocean, interminably broad and far.
Despite the splendid brisk morning, Mart Wagner felt all of his seventy years. For four hours he had checked his dormant winter wheat and was ready to break for lunch. June would mark Wagner’s fiftieth harvest on the High Plains, and, despite the winter drought, his 186 acres of wheat looked healthy. Irrigation had made the difference. He hated to be at nature’s mercy, to plant seed only to watch it die if the rain refused to fall. Expensive as it was to drill the wells, service the motors, and buy fuel, that clear stream of water trickling down the furrows at his command had tripled his yield and helped protect him against crop failure. No one had to tell Mart Wagner that success to a wheat farmer was measured in bushels per acre. Last year, in 1976, when his dryland field had yielded 15 to 20 bushels per acre, the irrigated acres had produced 55 to 60. This year the crop looked even better.
Through the years of plentiful harvests and high grain prices and the terrible seasons of sere, burned-brown fields, he had raised wheat and cattle and a family on his single section (640 acres) of cropland. It was not a large place by Panhandle standards, just big enough, if properly managed, for Mart to support his family and maintain his land and equipment. He prospered during the forties, when his county twice produced one per cent of the nation’s entire wheat crop, and he persevered during the drought of the next decade, years so dry that workers in the nearby town of Perryton had dug eight feet down before reaching moisture. He had fought to a draw the government, the weather, and the insects, three forces no farmer ever truly conquered. He knew that no matter what a farmer’s bank balance, education, or number of four-wheel tractors, the will of this unholy trinity would be done. It was impossible to become arrogant or greedy laboring under such conditions. A successful farmer was a contradiction in terms. No matter how good one year was, the next year could-and often did-bring disaster.
Mart Wagner was a careful, unhurried man, a hardworking perfectionist, whose yield per acre was always among the county’s best. He had worked the fields alone until his second child, Don, was large enough to drive the tractor and help with the chores. Beginning with the June of his twelfth summer, the boy had worked a full day alongside his father. Mart Wagner always considered it one of the Lord’s blessings that his son understood the land and loved to farm; in his heart he hoped that one day his son, now grown tall and muscular, would return to assume his duties.
But on this particular day, now that the morning was gone, Mart Wagner would follow his custom of driving over to John Doores’ grocery in Farnsworth for lunch. How Mart’s El Camino ended up overturned in the ditch is still a mystery. On the sheriff’s report the cause of the fatal accident remains “unknown.” Perhaps he had been lulled to sleep by the passing gray scenery. Perhaps he swerved to miss a rabbit or Chinese pheasant. Mart was not a hunter and did not tolerate killing of anything except insects on his land. Now, at age seventy, life had ended abruptly for Mart Wagner, and that day he dreamed about, when his son, Don, would return to the wheat fields, had come.
Captain Don Wagner, United States Air Force, sat at his desk worried as usual about one of the sixty air-traffic controllers under his command. As he often did these winter days, he turned his chair around to gaze out at the bleak February sky, thinking of Texas. In Michigan it seemed like it had been freezing since Labor Day. The other problem was too many trees, just like in Georgia, where he had met his wife, Nancy, during pilot training. After they were married, he had taken her to Jekyll Island off the Georgia coast for a holiday. Crossing the island bridge he had suddenly stopped the car.
“What’s wrong?” she had asked.
“Nothing. I just wanted to see the view. I just wanted to feel the space,” Don had replied, as he stared out at the whitecaps on the Atlantic. For him, only the oceans and the Texas Panhandle offered enough space to move around in. Nancy had visited her husband’s hometown in Perryton, county seat of Ochiltree County, and she understood. Perryton didn’t seem to have much else but a view.
The telephone rang and Texas evaporated from Captain Wagner’s mind. Nancy’s soft Georgia accent sounded shaky; strange, unusually solicitous. “There’s been an accident near the farm. You had better come home,” she had said. He hung up and stared at the floor, trying to ignore the certain feeling that told him this call involved death. He had received many calls about death during nine months of flying rescue helicopters out of Da Nang in Viet Nam. He knew there was no other feeling like this one, and he was right.
After Nancy told him of his father’s death, they sat together in the living room. I was long past midnight. The kids—Keith, seven, and Krista, five—had been asleep for hours. “You’ve got to remember,” Don said, “that Mom isn’t going to let anyone else run Dad’s equipment. She could lease the place or sell the tractors and things, but she’s not going to let a stranger run Mart Wagner’s machines. He worked all his life for that row of equipment north of the barn. That’s why, honey, we have to go back. That’s why there is no decision to make.”
Nancy knew that this lonely, mysterious accident a thousand miles south had suddenly ended their ten-year Air Force career and would bring them home to Texas and Ochiltree County. A month after putting Don’s father to rest in the Perryton Cemetery, they arrived in this northernmost county seat in Texas. Don bought a new home in the Wheatheart addition on the city’s southwest edge, as close to the country as possible while still living in the city.
On his return to the farm in the spring of 1977, Don was not surprised to find his father’s wheat strong and healthy, almost knee-high a month and a half before June harvest. The family place also had not changed during his ten-year absence. The old house trailer used as an office and windbreak, the empty cattle pens and corral, the old barn and well, the pile of rotting cottonwoods, the farm machinery, and the family’s underground home were scattered over a cleared portion of the tabletop landscape, completely surrounded by fields of wheat. The Wagner family had lived in their subterranean three-bedroom home until 1957.
“It was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Best of all it was out of the wind,” Don said, looking at the rotting roof and absentmindedly uprooting a weed with his boot. A tall, broad-shouldered man, with the build of high school football tackle gone just a little soft, he wore Viet Nam combat boots and looked at you as if he were always squinting into the sun. “Mom’s parents bought the land in the early 1900s, and we moved out at the beginning of World War II when they moved to Arkansas. Now the termites have gotten the house—just like the cottonwoods. I loved living out here. Never bored. But it’s hard to stay out in the country when kids get to the YMCA social stage. In a lot of ways it’s cheaper to live in town, so the folks moved to Perryton. Lots of other farm folk have, too.”
Home was where you spent your childhood, and, for Don Wagner, it felt good to be back. The spring days were flawless, with the vast sky meeting the horizon in a clear blue line. It was like living under an overturned teacup. In the early morning when the sunlight brightened and poured warmly across the field, Don felt he had to hold back his energy, and by dusk when the sun shrank away from the fields and shadows touched the barn and the few standing trees, he felt an honest fatigue and contentment he had not felt for a long while.
Don continued kicking the week, a man not used to long conversations when there was work to be done. “I love the physical labor and seeing the results of my work. When I come out at sunup, it is totally quiet except for birds, wind, and maybe an irrigation motor. I’m always alone, unless I bring Keith. He likes it already just as I did. Gonna make a good farmer someday. I can’t keep him out of that tractor.” The green John Deere 4320 tractor stood apart from the row of plows and other implements that were lined up north of the barn as if awaiting the order of the day.
“First thing I did when I got back was to check out Dad’s equipment,” Don said, walking toward a row of farm machinery. Even on a small farm, equipment made the difference between success and failure. American farmers are the most mechanized on earth. In the early days, Don’s father hadn’t hired help on the farm; today Don would also work it alone, his hired hands a variety of attachments to his tractor, his harvest crew a huge combine. “This is my press drill here,” he said, pointing to a line of boxes welded together and sitting atop a row of wheels. “You pour the wheat seed in these boxes, it falls through those openers, and the press wheels mash it under the soil. Here, chew some of this wheat seed. Pretty soon it sticks together like gum. Real healthy for you.
“This row of turning spikes is my rotary hoe. It breaks up the ground and uproots those damn weeds. This heavy number is my land leveler. You run it over the field before making your furrows. This”—he dismissed a rusting hulk with a wave of his hand—“is a ditcher, but we don’t use it anymore. I use aluminum pipe instead. My sweep plow here saved our land the past few years. It cuts weeds, and instead of plowing them under like the old deep plow used to do, it leaves them on top of the ground. Keeps the topsoil from blowing away and conserves moisture.” Facing the row of equipment was a pile of rusted fence posts and wire and the barn, which housed the single most expensive Wagner implement, the John Deere 6600 combine.
In the few remaining weeks before Don harvested his father’s legacy, he continued to work on the implements, particularly the combine and the two motors that powered his irrigation pumps. The combine reduced harvest time phenomenally, but without the loud irrigation motors there would be little to harvest. Mart had drilled two wells in the sixties, the first 510 feet down, and the second about 480. It took both wells to irrigate the 640 acres. For a while, the first had pumped nearly 1200 gallons per minute, but now it was down to about 700. The second well was also down, from 1000 gallons per minute to 600.
The Ogallala Aquifer, the vast reservoir that lies beneath the Great Plains from South Dakota to Texas, has been declining—by two feet a year in some parts of the county. Each year the farmers have to go deeper to get water. The Ogallala formation is the accumulation of thousands of years of precipitation. Rainfall, dripping through the porous sand and gravel subsurface, has been trapped by impervious clay—the Permian red beds—to form a huge underground lake. But because of extensive irrigation this lake is running dry.
Irrigated farming, now a way of life in the Panhandle, has only been practiced in Ochiltree County for twenty or so years. No one knows how much longer the aquifer will sustain it. During the drought of the early fifties, Howard Holt and his son Robert drilled the first well up on the “flats,” the northern half of the county. They found water at three hundred feet. By the end of the parched year of 1955, there were 38 wells in the county pumping water to dying crops. From 1948 to 1970 irrigated acres in the Panhandle increased from a little over a million to more than five and a half million. By 1970, more than $5 billion was invested in Panhandle irrigation that watered more than two million acres each of cotton and grain sorghum and one million acres of wheat. In Ochiltree County there were more than 600 wells in 1977; each bushel of wheat required 16,250 gallons of water, or about 38 trillion gallons for the crop each year.
Don Wagner’s first harvest went well in 1977. In mid-June he cut 11,000 bushels of his father’s irrigated wheat crop—59 bushels an acre, 18 more than the county average. The continuing drought killed most of the dryland wheat. From eighty acres he harvested only 80 bushels. Like his father, Don worked alone and didn’t use “custom cutters,” the families who follow the wheat harvest from the Texas Cross Timbers to Canada, hiring out their trucks and combines. Without his combine, Don would have had to hire the “wheaties,” as the custom cutters are sometimes called, paying them $7.50 an acre as a cutting charge plus 10 cents a bushel as a hauling fee.
Before the tall gold wheat was reduced to tawny stubble, he had planted another two hundred acres or so with grain sorghum, which is also known as milo or maize. Grain sorghum had been the favorite crop of the famous XIT Ranch in the 1880s because of its resistance to drought and its nutritional value as cattle feed. Until the development in the 1950s of a variety with short stalks and erect heads, milo had remained only a small part of the Texas farmers’ harvest because it had to be harvested by hand. The rust-colored head hung down (crooked-neck milo it was called), and a harvester cut off the hanging head by hand and tossed it against the following wagon’s “bumpboard,” which performed the function of a basketball backboard. The new erect varieties could be harvested by combines.
Watching the water move down his own rows of milo, Don explained the popularity of the crop. “Two things happened. One, feedlots became a huge industry in the Panhandle and became the biggest buyer of harvested milo for cattle feed. And second, seed development reached the point where the farmer can vary his crop almost acre by acre with selective seeding. I can pick from short-season, long-season, dry-row, or irrigated-field seeds. I can plant for a quick crop or for a crop of longer maturation. And yields have increased tremendously. A four- or five-ton yield per acre is not unusual. Also, we’re getting hybrids that have a higher protein content and are resistant to disease.”
Before it is harvested in October, milo has to be irrigated at least four times for profitable yields. “Here in Ochiltree County,” said Don, “the most successful variety of milo matures after 110 days, a mid-to-late maturing date. You have to be careful that you plant early enough in the late spring so the crop will be ready to harvest in October before the first hard freeze.” By late May 1977, Don’s mid-to-late maturing milo seeds, which resembled pink BBs, were in the ground.
In the late summer, after the milo was planted and the June wheat harvest completed, Don prepared and about 180 acres for the next planting of irrigated wheat. First he attached a disk plow, which resembles a row of vertical pie plates, to his tractor and ran it over the wheat stubble to chop the straw. He then attached a land-plane to eliminate the old furrows and level the field. By mid-July it was time to fertilize. Because the higher yields of irrigated wheat sap the soil of many nutrients, the chief element, nitrogen, must be added back. Don spreads 150 pounds per acre of anhydrous ammonia, a nitrogenous fertilizer, on his land.
In August Don dug the furrows with his lister plow, a thirty-foot row of V-shaped wedges. Furrows carried the water from one end of the field to the other, and the flatter the land, the deeper and wider the furrow had to be. In northwest Ochiltree County, where the land is extremely flat, the furrows had to eight to ten inches deep and forty inches wide. Even though the land was flat as a dime, it sloped, so that if the furrows were too shallow, the water would break sideways instead of running straight.
Don seeded his acreage the last week in August, 75 pounds of seed acre for irrigated wheat, as opposed to 30 pounds an acre he would sow for his ninety acres of dryland wheat a month later. After the seeding, the land was irrigated for the first time. When he turned on his pumps, Don was reminded how farming had changed in his absence. Everything cost more, but especially the natural gas that powered virtually all the irrigation motors in the county. Instead of costing 30 to 40 cents a thousand cubic feet, as if did fifteen years ago, it now cost $1.50. The monthly gas bill ran to $1800 rather than $500. Don shared the belief with other farmers that irrigation on the High Plains and elsewhere would be reduced in future years not only by the drying up of the Ogallala Aquifer but also by prohibitive natural gas prices.
After watering his crop 24 hours a day for three weeks to get the wheat plants started in the dry fall of 1977, and after sowing his dryland wheat seed, Don harvested his milo crop. He averaged 6000 pounds an acre, 2200 pounds above the county average. He worked hard through the rest of the fall and winter, but his most recurring activity was looking for the clouds that would bring rain. A woman who had lived in Ochiltree County since 1917, and who remembered plentiful harvest years with the same joy as she did her first love and disaster years with the same sadness of her husband’s death, said once, “I have spent my whole life looking for clouds that never came.” It would be seven more months before the clouds would come for Don Wagner. When they finally appeared in the west, they would come with a vengeance.
From the beginnings of civilization, man has asked in prayer and petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The cultivation of wheat changed man from a nomad to a settler, who founded villages, then cites, as he traded grain with his neighbors. Wheat gives man its bounty only in exchange for his labor. It will not spread itself. The nonbrittle spike, which attaches the seed to the plant, does not break in wind or rain as will self-disseminating grasses; therefore, the seed cannot scatter without man’s help. To grow wheat successfully, man had to settle down.
Wheat is the world’s most important grain crop, the staple food of one billion people, the principal foodstuff of 45 countries (compared to 25 for rice and 16 for corn). It will grow at the Arctic Circle or near deserts, from Canada and Finland to Australia. Every month wheat is being harvested somewhere in the world on cropland that constitutes more than one-fifth of the planet’s arable acreage. It is the largest cash crop in North America.
Columbus brought wheat to the New World when he returned to the West Indies in 1493. Cortes took wheat from Spain to Mexico in 1519, and missionaries carried it from there to what is now Arizona and California. At Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, a colonist named Bartholomew Gosnold planted wheat in 1602. Sixteen years later other colonists tried growing it at Jamestown in Virginia, but because their tobacco crops had leached out the soil, the wheat failed to take hold. For two centuries corn remained the dominant crop. In the 1800s wheat traveled with the pioneers, down the valleys of Pennsylvania, through the Cumberland Gap, across Kentucky, Ohio, into Indiana and Illinois, and, at last, to its natural home, the Great Plains, a vast semiarid landscape that stretched from the Texas Panhandle to Canda. After the Civil War, the Great American Desert, as the plains were known, began to be settled by hardy pioneer families, who lived in sod dugouts and scraped a living from the soil. From its first start on the Great Plains, wheat has been beholden to the government, most specifically to the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railroad Act, both of 1862. One gave the land; the other made it accessible.
The forests east of the 98th meridian furnished pioneers with food, fuel, building material, implements furniture, and fences. The plains provided almost nothing. There was only the soil, which could not be eaten or burned and was barely usable for building. But with the right crop, the plains would give forth all these things. Wheat could provide food, and, if it was grown in enough quantity, it could be exchanged for all the necessities the grasslands didn’t provide.
But the plains at first did not seem hospitable to wheat. The white and soft red winter varieties grown elsewhere failed from lack of moisture. But in 1873, a group of Russian Mennonites from the Crimea brought to Halstead, Kansas, a variety called Turkey red, and it changed the face of America. The hard red winter wheat required less moisture; anyone with good soil and blessed with moderate rainfall could grow it, from Texas to Saskatchewan. It kernels were rich in protein and were quickly preferred by millers for making the best bread flour. Almost 60 per cent of the nation’s wheat is now hard Turkey red.
A Mediterranean variety of wheat called little Red May was first grown in Texas about 1870 on the Red River prairies north of Dallas by cotton farmers. During the next twenty years the wheat-growing region spread to Wichita Falls and on west to the Rolling Plains of the southern Panhandle, where the hard red winter variety opened up these regions of less rainfall. But in the 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle, before the first farmer broke the virgin plains to sow the first seed of wheat, there were cattle.
In 1876, two years after the last Indian battle in the Panhandle, Charles Goodnight brought 1600 head of cattle to the rim of Palo Duro Canyon and began the first great cattle ranch in Texas. He declared all the land he controlled off limits to whiskey; today, sixteen Panhandle counties are still dry. To stop rustling he formed the genesis of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers. In 1866, when he was 30, he blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail, driving cattle north from Central Texas to Wyoming. During his fifty-year career he introduced many practices on the million-acre JA Ranch that would become standards of cattle ranching-improved beef breeds, manmade watering facilities, barbed-wire fencing. In 1928, at the age of 92, he told J. Frank Dobie that he felt fine, but his new wife, Corinne, had just suffered a miscarriage. Charles Goodnight died three months shy of his ninety-fourth birthday, but his presence is still felt on the Panhandle. Its first pioneer, he have the region a staunch model of independence and perseverance.
During the 1880s American and British capital flowed into the Panhandle after reports of 30 to 50 percent returns on first-year ranching investments. Huge ranches were developed-the three-million-acre XIT Ranch, four times the size of the King Ranch and occupying most of ten Texas counties, the Rocking Chair Ranch, owned by British Royalty, the Frying Pan, Three Seven, Doll Baby, and Turkey Track ranches.
The end of the cattle empire came in the late 1880s. Beef prices crashed from $9.35 a hundred pounds in 1882 to $1.90 in 1887. Two terrible blizzards, coupled with the drought of 1886, reduced some herds 60 and 70 per cent. In 1893, after another four years of drought, an invasion of grasshoppers stripped the vegetation, devouring half a mile of countryside a day. The great cattle ranches, unable to continue, were carved up into farms. With development of new farm practices, cheaper fences, windmills, and steam-powered machinery, farming replaced cattle ranching as the business of the Panhandle.
The flatness of the Panhandle was an attraction, but the farmers had to adjust to the lack of surface water and the shorter growing season at the higher altitude. Rainfall in the southeastern Panhandle counties averaged only 21 to 23 inches yearly, and in the northwestern counties it drops off to 16 to 18. The rule of thumb is that for every 25 miles east of Amarillo you gain an inch of rain; for every 25 miles west, you lose an inch.
The railroads and state law both encouraged Panhandle immigration. An individual who promised to live on property for a three-year period could purchase a maximum of one section of agricultural land at $2 an acre and three additional sections of grazing land at $1 per acre, with payments spread over a forty-year period at 3 per cent interest. The first large tracts of the XIT Ranch went for $2 an acre in 1901. By 1910, that price had climbed to $12, still cheaper than land farther south, say, in Eastland County or Wichita County, which cost up to $48 an acre. With the continued breakup of the large ranch holdings, the average farm acreage went down. Fifty-nine per cent of the Panhandle farms contained more than 1000 acres in 1900. Ten years later, 75 per cent were less than 1000. Since then the Panhandle has basically remained a region of small farms.
While most of the new settlers in covered wagons, many came on the railroad’s “immigrant cars.” For $25, a family could rent a boxcar and transport their household good, building supplies, two head of stock, farm implements, and themselves to the vast new country, where excited settlers reporter you could plow a mile straight and never hit a stump or rock. By 1900, only five Panhandle counties lacked access to the railroad. One of these was Ochiltree.
Ochiltree County sits in the far northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle; it is 797.4 miles north of Brownsville, but only 43 miles south of Kansas. It is closer to five other state capitals-New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas-than to Austin. Ochiltree County is on the southern edge of the Great Plains. It sits west of the 98th meridian, west of the 2000-foot contour line that falls between Mississippi and the Rockies, and west of the twenty-inch rainfall line, all three boundaries that define the eastern edge of the Great Plains. Ochiltree enjoys rich clay and loam soil, made richer by the humus of grasses and fertilized for hundreds of years by huge herds of buffalo. Periodic mud deposits form throughout the county, the result of the drying up of the temporary lakes; they were called buffalo wallows before their namesake disappeared.
In Ochiltree County there is a sense of vast space, a practically treeless 360-degree horizon, punctured only by austere “prairie cathedrals,” the towering grain elevators. There are violent storms—northers, blizzards, tornadoes, hailstorms, cloudbursts, thunderstorms—all caused by the unrestricted flow of air masses colliding across the flat expanses. There are spectacular sunsets, the most unfettered and vibrant color shows on the continent, which wrap around the western, southern, and northern skies. And way back in 1865, before the white man arrived, there was a sea of blue grama and buffalo grass, which would prove very nutritious for cattle.
The flatter northern part of the county is 360 feet higher than the watershed of beautiful Wolf Creek, which wanders in the breaks beneath the northern edge of the rugged Canadian River cap rock. In the cliffs along the creek golden eagles nest, and at night coyotes race among bedded-down cattle, and rattlers warn intruders who walk the rocky slopes. One hundred years ago, after spotting the clear, running water, and the turkeys, wild grapes, plums, onions, currants, apples, pears, mulberries, and Indian breadroot, Tom Connell and Dee Eubanks founded the county’s first ranches along Wolf Creek in the 1880s. Flour was then an imported luxury.
Wolf Creek’s banks support the only native trees in Ochiltree County. The willow, the most relaxed and abandoned of trees, bends with the wind as it weaves and dips it branches in the water. Hackberries also grow along the serpentine banks, but dominating them all are the grand old trees of the plains, the cottonwoods. With only their higher branches showing across the bare landscape, they wave like the helmut plumes of a band marching along the creekbed, their hidden trunks gnarled and creased like an old cowboy’s hand.
The upper half of Ochiltree County is wheat country, so flat you can see nothing but sky between the legs of a steer; flat enough that if you lie down on your back, you lose sight of the ground; flat enough that if your adventurous son ran away, you needn’t worry—you could still see him three days later; flat enough that from the outskirts of Perryton on a clear night you can see the lights of Spearman 25 miles west and the lights of Booker 16 miles east.
The first farmer to plant wheat in Ochiltree County was J.R. McMillen, who sowed it by hand in 1900 on four sections in the southwest portion of the county. He made twenty bushels an acre, which is still the dryland wheat average. McMillen took his wheat to market in Canadian, 45 miles southeast. The trip took four days by wagon, including fording the Canadian River. McMillen’s wagon carried eighty bushels and he received 80 cents a bushel for his year’s work.
One man realized what McMillen’s $64 worth of wheat could mean to Ochiltree County: George Morgan Perry, who had arrived in April 1886 from Meade, Kansas, wearing a dashing round straw hat and riding a horse named Buster. The son of a John Deere dealer in Grinnell, Iowa, Perry settled in the village of Old Ochiltree and became the first county clerk and county judge, bank president, cattleman, and cornet player in the Whippo family orchestra. No matter how much quality wheat his neighbors produced, Perry knew that without the transportation provided by the railroad Ochiltree County would remain underdeveloped and unpopulated.
The first train arrived at high noon on August 22, 1919, which was promptly declared the birthday of the new town of Perryton. Steam-powered tractors moved buildings north from Old Ochiltree and south from Gray, Oklahoma, for the founding day celebration, an event chronicled in Popular Mechanics and the London Illustrated News. The celebratory speeches, picnic, baseball game, and fireworks were marred only by the town’s first fatal accident: a stunt pilot’s plane crashed at the present site of the Balko Machine Shop, just north of the tracks.
Perryton was incorporated in November 1919, and at the first council meeting, thirteen ordinances were passed, among them laws prohibiting public intoxication, disorderly conduct, prostitution, unlicensed dogs, and gambling and setting speed limits for horses and autos at twelve miles per hour. By the city’s third birthday, it called itself “Wonder Town of the Plains” and had 2000 citizens, concrete sidewalks, three banks, two mills, five grain elevators, and all-night streetlights. Civilization had arrived.
Less than a year after the founding of the Wonder Town of the Plains, two brothers named Clyde E. and Cliff S. McGarraugh—one a farmer, one a rancher-from Harper County, Kansas, arrived at the Perryton railroad station. Clyde E., the farmer, found a man who wanted to trade his farm and move north. They struck a deal, and the McGarraugh farm in Kansas was traded for the Hanna farm in Ochiltree County. Cliff S., the rancher, found his home 25 miles south of town amid rich buffalo and grama grassland on the edge of the cedar canyons leading down to the Canadian River. Farmer McGarraugh settled in four miles north of Perryton with his wife and four children, horses, dairy cows, and an old Model T Ford. One of the kids, Earl, took to farming the best. Before he was ten years old he was tied on the back of a tractor, when he wasn’t milking the cows, or tending pets, or ice skating on the buffalo wallows.
“During the twenties when I was growing up, I learned something more important than just growing wheat,” said Earl McGarraugh, as he wearily lowered his five-and-a-half-foot frame onto a bench near his side door, his face grimy and dusty after moving wheat seed for twelve hours. “The twenties mixed good growing years with the bad. We had years like 1925 when the crop was a total loss. The next year put this county on the map with a record harvest and good prices. We led the country in implement sales as I recall. In 1927 we suffered another almost total loss, but the next year we averaged twenty-five bushels an acre, five more than usual.
“Farming is feast or famine, a cycle understood only by the Maker. Don’t ever have to go Las Vegas. I do enough gambling right here.” McGarraugh has an open, honest face, knowledgeable but not calculating. He always seemed to be smiling about something. The scriptures Earl McGarraugh remembered best from church had to do with trials and tribulations, feast and famine, the ups and downs of life with the Lord seeing you through. The verses from I Corinthians always were read before harvest:
But some man will say, how are the dead raised up? And with what body they come?
Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except to die:
And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain:
But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.
It was hard to believe in those words after a year’s work brought little more than the going price of eggs. But this was not brutal country. It only became so as man tried to turn land to his purposes. Man worked it, plowed it, and nourished it through good harvest and bad. It made sense to take life as God’s will. The cycle of plant and harvest, birth and death, good crops and disaster taught that. Man was insignificant creature struggling from dawn to dusk, lost in the vastness between the horizons. Earl McGarraugh learned these lessons early in the terrible years of the thirties. Earl married Elmyra Cone in 1935, the bleakest year of the Dust Bowl. Since 1931, when wheat sold at the lowest price ever—25 to 35 cents a bushel—farmers had survived by selling eggs and cream and anything else but wheat, mainly living by their imaginations.
“Elmyra, fix this boy some lemonade while I get these shoes off. You just had to live through the Dust Bowl to understand how bad it was,” said Earl. “The problem was that farmers were caught in a squeeze of low prices for crops and high costs for necessities. In desperation, everybody doubled their efforts, putting land to the plow that should have been allowed to lie fallow. We gambled then, too, that the rains would come. Well, they didn’t. Worst of all we had those old one-way plows that plowed under the protective cover of vegetation and wheat straw, leaving the tilled land to blow away in the dust storms.”
What blew away was the fertile top soil, which had taken thousands of years to develop. Because farmers had plowed too much and ranchers had overstocked the grassland, the thick-rooted buffalo grass that held the soil together was gone. The color of the dust gave a clue where a storm originated: brown came from Kansas; red from Oklahoma; dirty yellow from West Texas and New Mexico. But the worst were the black dusters, which usually roared in on strong northwesterly winds, sometimes lasting for ten hours and covering almost 250,000 square miles. On a clear Sunday afternoon in April 1935 the granddaddy of them all hit Perryton.
It came from Boise City, Oklahoma, the thirtieth dust storm since early March to reach the Panhandle. People were outside enjoying a warm spring Sunday after church. In the middle of the afternoon the storm appeared on the horizon, a monstrous wall of black-red dust that reached 75,000 feet high. It kept coming like a wall of boiling smoke form an oil fire, an ugly black mass that rolled and rolled over the land. At three o’clock the day was suddenly like night. People and buildings across the street disappeared. Car lights were uselss. Children wetted their dust masks that the Red Cross had issued at school and clamped them over their mouths and noses. The fine silt covered everything inside houses, even though every crack and opening had been stuffed with wet sheets and taped. The dust accumulated around fencerows where tumbleweeds had blown and formed a solid wall that livestock could walk over. Doctors stopped operations because it was impossible to keep instruments sterilized. That night, housewives served supper in sunbonnets to keep the dust away from their eyes and covered their food with gauze. Beneath the dinner table the linoleum pattern had disappeared under a thick coating of transported soil. The black storm finally turned reddish, and objects ten feet away became visible. It lasted all night and broke the next morning.
Earl shoveled dirt from the attic when it began to sag and threatened to fall. He and Elmyra nailed up quilts and shoveled out dust in the morning only to see it pile up by nightfall. Nothing kept the silt out. An old boy named Woody Guthrie, who’d lived in Pampa, down south of Perryton, was singing about it that year:
A dust storm hit and it hit like
It dusted us over and covered us
Blocked out the traffic and
blocked out the sun.
Straight for home all the people
did run, singing:
So long, it’s been good to know
“Two years after that storm, in 1937,” Earl said, “our first boy, Melvin, was born and we were still living with dust. Elmyra kept him covered with wet sheets in the back room of our house to prevent his catching what they called ‘dust fever’-a type of pneumonia. When she picked him up after his nap, his sleeping position was outlined in dust. The reason we don’t raise any milo today is because of Melvin’s terrible allergies that developed from his first two years.”
For four months, morning to night in that awful year of 1937, Earl stayed on the tractor, pulling a new “chisel” plow. Fred Hoeme from Hooker, Oklahoma, just northwest of Perryton, had used a road scarifier (a heavy big-toothed implement used to tear up blacktop roads) to plow part of his fields one fall, and his wheat the next spring was better there than anywhere else. He and another farmer put together a plow based on the scarifier. It left stubble and ridged on top of plowed fields, which reduced wind erosion, helped retain moisture, and prevented runoffs. Earl’s neighbor, Harold Kershaw, told him about the plow, and Kershaw and McGarraugh were the first in Ochiltree County to begin using it to rehabilitate the ravaged land. Historians later credited the plow with saving the plains.
Earl was not among the one-in-four farmers who quit during the Dirty Thirties, not was he one of the 80 per cent of Panhandle farmers who joined some form of relief program. Not that he spoke against those who did, but he and Elmyra worked harder than most and saved their money. They had four strong sons who were driving combines and John Deere 820 tractors, about the same summer Don Wagner’s father first tied him on behind a John Deere. On a farm, children were an investment, like machinery. Raymond McGarraugh, the second oldest, and Don Wagner grew up to become best friends. They usually met in town because their fathers put the boys to work when they visited each other’s farms. Raymond starred as right halfback and fullback and Don as tackle on the 1961-62 Fighting Ranger football team at Perryton High. Wintertime was when friendships developed. Spring, summer, and fall demanded work in their respective north forties.
For the McGarraughs, this meant a north forty times 125: 5000 acres of some of the best dryland wheat country in the county, not a bad spread compared to the 560 windblown acres they started with in the Dirty Thirty years. They had made considerable money during the prosperous forties and had been able to buy land near their old homestead. There were nine huge red Case combines (each costing $50,000) in the Quonsets, and nearby were four White four-wheel tractors, eight bobtail wheat-hauling trucks, six pickups, nine smaller John Deere 820 tractors for planting, several barns, and a bunk house. Working for Earl were two full-time hired men, Shorty Martindale and Carl Arginbright.
Last September, Earl McGarraugh was working his soil, letting air into it so the earth could breathe. “I ran the thirty-foot-wide sweep plows all summer after the harvest in June to open up the ground and then used my forty-two-foot-wide rod weeder, that contraption over here, to yank up weeks with its rotating rod,” Earl said, as he walked toward hi Quonsets. “That chicken picker pulverizes the soil and overturns mustard and bind weeds and the volunteer wheat that grew up from the seeds we left during the last harvest.
“There are two times to plant wheat in September,” said Earl McGarraugh, ordering more lemonade and bowls of ice cream from Elmyra. “If you are growing wheat for the purpose of pasturing cattle, you plant the last of August or first week in September. If you planting for crop production, you plant later, from mid-September to the first week in October. I always plant for crop production, so we usually start sowing about September fifteenth.”
By mid-September 1977, Earl’s soil was prepared. The nine John Deere 820 tractors took to the fields like motorized beetles. Earl, Shorty, Carl, the McGarraugh sons and Elmyra drove the beetles for three weeks, each pulling drill boxes full of wheat seed, a half-bushel per acre. “After planting, what I was looking for were clouds carrying rain. But what I saw were grasshoppers. You could look into the sun and see them flickering as they landed in the fields. They came in on wind drafts from a mild norther we had in early October. When I saw them, I knew the wheat was gone.”
Like most farmers, Earl McGarraugh hated insects much more than the government or the weather. He remembered how the fifties had begun not only dry but also with an invasion of greenbugs, tiny plant lice that suck the juice from stems of growing wheat. Farmers were desperate in 1950 to rid their plants of the greenbugs, and, knowing one ladybug would eat 3000 greenbugs in a day, they decided on help from these carnivorous insects. They contacted a man who had tracked the ladybugs to their winter home in northern Arizona and had gathered them in half-gallon tins. Ochiltree County farmers ordered 390 gallons at $7 a gallon. The ladybugs arrived at the airport in feed sacks filled with pine cones to prevent bug squashing. They worked fairly well, but in 1950, the total wheat harvest in the county was the lowest ever recorded-only 100,000 bushels. Grasshoppers had stripped the Panhandle Plains in 1874, 1893, and, in varying degrees of destruction, at least once each decade since then.
Ten to eighteen grasshoppers per square yard will graze as much pasture as one cow; some fields last September had fifty grasshoppers per square yard. Killing them is not easy. Scientists have frozen grasshopper eggs for twelve years, and they still hatched. In 1955, when huge grasshoppers rode into the county on air thermals form Kansas and Missouri, farmers sprayed their fields with 155,000 gallons of aldrin mixed with diesel oil. Aldrin is now banned, and effective spraying is impossible anyway if the wind exceeds ten miles per hour and the temperature is above eighty degrees. If every poison known to man where available and free, it wouldn’t matter. The wind in Ochiltree County always exceeds ten miles an hour.
Earl watched the grasshoppers advance from the bar ditches to the weeds around the edges of his fields and then to the just sprouted wheat. It was not a crawling mass like the scourge of 1893, but it was bad enough. Finally, the first frost arrived and killed most of the pests but not until they had ruined 1100 acres of wheat. Not three miles away from Earl’s devoured fields, a neighbor’s crop was hardly touched. Farming was not a profession for the paranoid. One thing Earl had learned since the dust storms of the thirties: no matter what happened, an insect invasion, months without rain, tornadoes, or hailstorms, there was nothing to do except get up the next morning, eat breakfast, kiss the wife, and get back after it. He had his 1100 acres replanted in fifteen days.
THE FIRST SOCIAL EVENT Don and Nancy Wagner attended after returning to Perryton in the spring of 1977 was the annual Miss and Little Miss Perryton Pageant. The Ochiltree County Chamber of Commerce and various town businesses sponsored this affair before the wheat harvest, perhaps in keeping with the ancient custom of honoring goddesses like the Greek Demeter or the Roman Ceres, who held sway over the harvests.
The spring of 1978 Don and Nancy missed the pageant. Don went to the fields every day and stayed late, watching the progress of his first wheat crop. He had survived the invasion of grasshoppers, but the fall and winter had been terribly dry. A snow in February had provided the only moisture. In December, to help make ends meet, he had rented out 39 acres of wheat pasture to his friend Charles Caison from Waka to graze 140 head of steers and heifers, charging $1.50 per hundredweight. That lasted until mid-March when it was time to pull the cattle off the land and get the wheat up.
Despite the lack of rain, his irrigated wheat looked spectacular. Don figured he could average almost 60 bushels an acre, about 13,000 bushels for ten months of work. At the going rate of $2.65 he could gross $34,450. In early March he had irrigated again for three weeks, which had brought up the wheat and the mustard weeds, the bad, as usual, with the good. He called Buster Hendrickson of Buster’s Aerial Dusters in Spearman, and Buster the Duster brought over his Pawnee Brave 300 and spewed the lethal chemical 2,4-D over 120 of his weed-infested acres at $2.75 an acre. By the first May, all Don Wagner needed was to irrigate one more time.
But before he could turn on the pumps the most astonishing display of weather in anyone’s memory occurred. In 48 hours, beginning May 3, Ochiltree County received freezing temperatures, two inches of snow, a tornado, heavy rain, and hail. Three weeks later one of the violent Great Plains thunderstorms brought devastating hail followed by 21 days of rain. Eleven inches, more than half the county’s annual rainfall, fell from the sky, temporarily breaking the drought.
Overnight the buffalo wallows became lakes, and there were many unusual sights and sounds on the plains: the chorus of hundreds of frogs echoing across the fields; toads and turtles creating traffic jams on the highways; mallards floating across the wheat fields; and brown caps on the lakes as the incessant wind whipped the muddy water. The incongruous ponds sat for weeks on the land like water spilled on a tabletop.
Promptly at seven o’clock on a cool June night after the May rains, Don Simpson, Chamber of Commerce president, welcomed the audience to the Perryton High School auditorium. The curtain opened and revealed all 21 pageant contestants lined across the stage. The pianist sounded the opening chords of “You Light Up My Life.” The girls not only sang the lyrics but also provided them in sign language. For the second verse, the lights dimmed again, and the 21 girls reached to the floor and picked up something. Your life was suddenly lit up with darting beams of light, as the girls continued the hand signs with flashlights. While singing, they covered their flashlights left to right, then uncovered them right to left in a visual Rockette high-kick-style sequence. It was all done perfectly, not a stray beam or flashlights click. The ensemble finished to furious applause.
President Simpson gallantly presided over the beauty pageant: the self-introductions of contestants (“Hi, I’m Kim Pierce and I’m sponsored by James and Homer Clark Dirt Contractors”); swimsuit competition; awarding of the Little Miss Perryton crown to Katina Brock (five years old; measurements: 25-22-26; favorite TV commercial: Chow Chow Kitty; favorite game: Doll Baby Roll Over); the older girls’ formal gown strut; the asking of the important question (“What do you consider to be an ideal woman?”); and finally, announcing the winner, Paige Ann Winkler (ambition: fashion merchandising; favorite hobby: showing off her quarter horse mare, Roan Petoha).
Friends of Paige Ann Winkler who had not see the attractive high school graduate win the Miss Perryton title could no doubt be found participating in the favorite pastime of all small-town young people: dragging Main. George Morgan Perry insisted that the railroad men lay out a wide Main Street for his new town, and he got one, ninety feet wide and unimpeded by the usual Texas courthouse Square, or anything else, for that matter, until Main crossed the Santa Fe tracks on the north.
What becomes Main Street in Perryton begins seven miles south at the Y, where Highway 70, coming north from Pampa, converges with Highway 83, rolling up northwest from Canadian. After joining, it is not so much a highway as a fourteen-mile runway that doesn’t bend until Oklahoma. At night the distant lights of Perryton look like a railroad train stretched across the horizon. Passing through town, the road continues straight north to the state line. If finally curves where the smooth Texas highway with ample shoulders becomes a narrow, cracked asphalt roadbed, and the beer sold at the joints flanking the bumpy road is 3.2 per cent alcohol. That’s Oklahoma.
Main Street divides Perryton (population: 8200) socially, economically, and practically. Like many West Texas towns, the west side is the most prosperous, as if the more well-to-do pioneers got as close to the sunset as possible before halting their wagons and building homes. On sleepy Sunday afternoons west of Main, young men manicure lawns in front of well-kept houses, and women tend blooming flower beds, while the family old-timers doze in porch swings, sleepily watching grandchildren skid bicycles on the driveway gravel.
East of Main is the chief section of lower-income housing (the other being north of the railroad tracks), where the poorer pioneers stopped and stayed. Instead of lawns, the houses more often than not have rusting cars with flat tires and expired license plates parked near a torn screen door and tire swings hung from trees pushed by barefoot shirtless kids with unafraid expressions. On the west side are located the town’s establishment churches—First United Methodist, First Baptist, First Christian—while on the east side are the fundamentalist sects-Pentecostal, Primitive Baptist, Church of God—hard-shell believers surrounding themselves with what a famous theologian once called “character armor.”
Also on Perryton’s east side is the industrial district, home of the local petroleum service companies, such as Dowell, Ford Tool, and Halliburton Oil Well Services. In the terrible drought-seared year of 1955, oil was discovered in the southwest sector of the county south of Farnsworth. In the fall of 1955, when wheat seeds died soon after planting, Ochiltree County was the hottest play in the Panhandle. By the end of 1956, major oil companies and independents were servicing ninety producing wells across the county. Although most of the large drilling outfits have left the area, petroleum-related companies have stayed in Ochiltree County; indeed, the oil industry pays more county taxes than agriculture.
What tensions exist in a place like Perryton rarely ever erupt. The whole town was shocked this summer when police shot and killed a Mexican American burglary suspect. No policeman had ever killed anyone in Perryton before. Those were the sort of things that happened in other places. Even though a local jury exonerated the officers, the affair will not soon be forgotten, even though the town has resumed its customary sleepiness.
There’s two stores, two whores, and
a blacksmith shop
The best deer and the coldest beer
One Main Street where all friends
Where every man’s a king and no
One wears a crown
That’s Perryton, Texas, my town.
While the blacksmith shop has gone, that old verse, meant for almost any West Texas town, speaks to Perryton’s Main Street. Everyone is welcome to drag Main. The official southern perimeter is Allsup’s convenience store, 1.2 miles south of the northern boundary, which is the Santa Fe Railroad tracks and the Equity Co-op grain elevator. The baddest Trans Ams, Can Ams, Cobra IIs, and Silverados make their turnaround in Allsup’s parking lot, then head north, past the Dixie Dog Drive In, up Main Street, dodging the lumbering, geared-down, possum-bellied cattle trucks that almost scrape Main, past their pit stop, the Wheatheart Shopping Center parking lot.
Main Street draggers leaving the pit stop move past the courthouse (“Erected 1928 AD”); past Perryton Motor Company Chevrolet (displaying in its showroom window the favorite vehicle of the dragger emeritus, a classic white 1955 Chevy Bel Air with red and white interior); past the Ellis Theatre (where each night before the regular feature the audience stands to the “Star-Spangled Banner” and then watches a film clip of American history); past Plainview Hardware (with its World War II mural urging you to “Keep ‘Em Flying—Buy Victory Bonds-Stamps!”) to the final turnaround near the Treasure Island Coin Shop and just before the grain elevator and railroad tracks.
North of the tracks Main reverts to the highway, which leads past the centrum of Perryton’s vertebra on the far north edge of town; the Dutch Inn, so named because the Holland family own it. In this busy restaurant and coffee shop, early risers in overalls and hard hats or the more popular plastic one-size-fits-all baseball caps (locally known as “gimme” hats) gather to air weather tales, crop troubles, escapades, and Jimmy Carter gripes.
But Main Street officially ends at the 195-foot Equity Co-op grain elevator, which lords and looms over Perryton like a castle on the Rhine. Physically and spiritually it dominates the town as a cathedral does a Mexican village. It is Perryton’s gleaming white Polaris, its beacon, its cairn. In years of plenty, it is the rallying cry, the drumbeat, the triumphant weather vane, reveille. In years of failure, it is taps, a fool’s cap, the mark of Cain. In every year, it is a monumental confirmation and a boding reminder of how they began and why they are all there.
Earl McGarraugh has never been on to polly-wolly-doodle all day. Between the May deluge and the June harvest he and his sons Melvin and Eddie, along with the hired hands, Shorty and Carl, worked over the bobtail trucks and tractors, saving the combine maintenance until last because Earl hated messing with the big Case wheat cutters. Case planned to discontinue these particular models, and some folks predicted Earl would be up a creek without a paddle, unable to get parts. But Cliff McGarraugh, his cousin, knew better. “Shoot, Earl will cover the whole United States finding what he needs. He won’t take a loss on those combines. He’s quite an Earl.”
After many years of hard work, Earl has won the Ochiltree County Farmer of the Year in 1977, the highest tribute his friends and neighbors awarded a man in agriculture. Earl kept his silver tray hidden away in a kitchen cabinet, but he was proud of the recognition. He would show you the tray at the drop of his hat.
Elmyra McGarraugh sat in her living room about dusk one evening and talked lovingly about the man she had been married to for 43 years. “Earl’s only luxury sits out there in the garage, new as the day he bought it. We were driving in Arkansas on a vacation and he spotted a Lincoln Continental, white top with orange bottom. He had been telling me for years how nice they looked, classy without showing off. We stopped and he wrote the man a check. He drives it about three times a year. My car is the real story. It’s a Cutlass, Oldsmobile, I think, that has been driven 135,000 miles, survived my four sons, and has never been in the shop except for the usual tinkering, spark plugs and things.” Elmyra looked very pleased with herself.
As the grain kernels hardened and harvest grew closer, Earl McGarraugh wasn’t thinking of Lincoln Continentals and luxury. He was worried about finding combine drivers and grain haulers. Earl and Elmyra paid fair and square wages, $25 a day net, room and board in the bunkhouse, and Earl paid Social Security. Still, the petroleum service companies paid better, and young men didn’t stop by as much as they used to, so he had four unmanned combines and several trucks sitting in the front yard awaiting drivers.
Along with higher prices, the biggest change in farming in Earl’s lifetime has been the development of more sophisticated machinery. “I barely remember the old steam-powered threshers we used to have before combines,” Earl said. “A crew of men called ‘pitchers’ forked wheat onto a conveyer belt that carried the grain to a threshing machine. The chaff and straw blew into one pile, the clean grain into the wagons on the other side. The crew designated one man the ‘swamper.’ He had to get up before dawn, fire up the boiler, and spend the rest of the day hauling coal and water for the machine. Nobody much wanted to be the swamper, I’ll tell you that.”
In the 1920s, the combine quickly replaced the reaper, threshing machine, and binder. The early McCormick reaper, invented in the early 1830s, was a two-wheeled horse-drawn affair that pushed a series of scissorlike blades against the grain to clip it close to the ground. A rotating paddle wheel swept the stalks against the blades and back onto a platform as the machine moved forward. The modern combine does just that, it combines the five ancient steps of harvesting wheat into one machine: (1) it cuts, which replaces the sickle, scythe, and cradle; (2) it feeds, which eliminates hauling the cut or bunched wheat stalks; (3) it threshes, which means no more flailing or other handwork to separate grain from hull; (4) it separates, which eliminates tedious discarding of stalks by hand and (5) it cleans, which ends winnowing. Instead of the 46 hours it took to harvest one acre of wheat in the 1920s, it now takes about thirty minutes. But regardless of the marvelous machinery, the improved seed varieties, and the benefits of irrigation, farmers had begun the harvest year of 1978 in big trouble.
The previous year had been the worst since the Depression. All across America farmers were leaving the land in record numbers, 450,000 of them in 1977, a 5.4 per cent drop in the agricultural population. One and a half million have quit the fields since 1970. From the time Earl McGarraugh watched steam threshers arrive on the Santa Fe Railroad almost sixty years ago, the country had changed from rural to predominantly urban. Now only 3.6 per cent of the population, or 7.8 million Americans, live in rural areas. The specter of the Dust Bowl has also returned. Wind damage in the Great Plains in 1977 was the fifth worst since federal records began in 1935. Wind erosion for a six-month period of 1976-77 affected 2.1 million acres of Texas land, compared with 1.5 million acres the year before, the worst wind damage in twenty years.
Thirty-five years ago one Ochiltree County farmer could produce enough food for himself and nine others. Now he can feed himself and fifty others. Despite this splendid performance, farm prices are down 5 per cent since 1974 and costs are up 23 per cent. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures showed that for the year ending February 1978 there were 5000 foreclosures among the nations 2.7 million working farms, as compared to 3600 for the previous year.
One reason for the gloomy forecast is that for the first time, labor costs involved in food production and processing will exceed the farmer’s share. The USDA has predicted that in 1978 the farmer will get about $56 billion, while it will take $58 billion in labor costs for processing. Another way of putting it is that the average family spent $1945 last year for food grown on U.S. farms, $50 more than the same items cost in 1976. The farmer’s share dropped $4 to $745. The difference went to processors, and supermarket employees (hourly wages of checkers, for example, are increasing 8.4 per cent yearly). Labor costs last year came to 36 per cent of the food bill, 5 per cent more than the farmer’s cost.
For the wheat farmer, the situation is particularly severe, Middlemen (commodities speculator, miller, baker, grocer) take 77 per cent of every dollar spent on grain. From a 36 cent loaf of bread, the wheat farmer gets 2.5 cents. Since 1973 the wheat farmer’s cost of production has risen almost 50 per cent. Four years ago he was spending an average of $2.50 to produce one bushel that sold for $5. Now he is spending $3.50 to produce one bushel that was selling at an average of $2.65 in the harvest month of June. He has also been left out of the boom in farm property. The average value of most U.S. farmland rose 17 per cent in 1976 and 9 percent last year. But, because the price of wheat has not covered the cost of growing it in the past few years, wheat cropland values have suffered. Nebraska was the only state in the country showing a decrease the past year in land values. Kansas, the nation’s leading wheat producer, has only a one per cent gain.
While farm income in the century has always been 10 to 30 per cent below nonfarm income, the current agricultural crisis dates back to 1972 and graphically demonstrates how the Ochiltree County farmer is affected by occurrences around the world. Eight years ago, crippling droughts in Russia, China, Australia, and Argentina reduced the world supply of grain. That year, Russia bought almost one-fourth of all U.S. wheat, and in 1973, negotiating secretly with U.S. grain companies, the Soviets bought even more. At the same time, the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973 ended price-support measures and lifted restrictions on the amount of land a farmer could plant. As in World War I and World War II, farmers were encouraged to plant fence to fence. American reserves had failed drastically and the federal government urged optimum yields. With export demands skyrocketing and reserves down, prices shot up from $1.57 in 1971 to $5 a bushel in 1974.
During these halcyon years, farmers made money. They bought new equipment (John Deere sales vaulted $1 billion between 1972 and 1974), remodeled or bought new homes, sent sons and daughters to college, and bought land. The farmer’s share of the food dollar in 1974 was 46 cents, compared to 38 cents today. Wheat farmers in 1974 got 25 cents of every dollar spend on grain goods; today they get 13 cents. Farm income rose from $6200 per family in 1972 to $9925 in 1974. Ochiltree County farmers enjoyed the prosperity along with their colleagues, but in the process they became equipment heavy, according to Don Townsen, First National Bank of Perryton vice president. “In 1971, you could buy a machine for $25,000 and the next year could come back in and they would give you $26,000 trade-in for a new one. The new one would cost, say, $30,000. Any money you made could be put into equipment and it would increase in value each year,” said Townsen. “Then in 1975, when demand for equipment dropped off and used equipment values dropped thirty per cent in a few months, these guys lost their equity an didn’t have any borrowing base. Plus, in 1976 most farmers lost a little money and in 1977 they lost a lot. That’s why we have big debts in this county.”
The hoedown ended in late 1974. Consumers blamed the farmer for the 10 cent rise in the cost of a loaf of bread and sounded the alarm that “dollar bread” was inevitable. President Gerald Ford announced the 1974 grain embargo, and, in the middle of a season when farmers were planting fence to fence, there were no foreign customers, just a mounting surplus. Prices fell back to $1.80 a bushel, but the cost of farming kept rising, as did the farmer’s debt, which now is almost 119 billion, a 100 per cent increase from 1970.
The government, which had urged fence-to-fence planting, now did nothing to remedy the surplus situation. Finally, last September Congress passed a farm law designed to limit production and cut the surplus. Most farmers consider it a form of welfare, but early everyone in Ochiltree County has agreed to take a total of about 50,000 acres out of production so that they will be eligible for disaster and subsidy payments or loans.
This year’s harvest for Ochiltree County farmers began the third week in June, when temperatures climbed over one hundred degrees. Earl McGarraugh and his crews started with four combines abreast on his eastern fields. The test weight per bushel was disappointing—51 pounds. Number one grade is 50 pounds per bushel, and the county average is about 57 to 58, but the fields had held water too long after the May rains. Then came the hot winds, which further damaged the kernels. South of Perryton his test weight improved to 61 pounds per bushel, more to his liking. Grain elevators paid full prices at 58. Earl suffered the usual equipment breakdowns and labor hassles as one man then another quit. He harvested 27,000 bushels, averaging only 8 an acre, a bad year for the county’s top farmer.
May 24 for Don Wagner was the day to finish planting fifty acres of milo. Forty acres were already in the ground. He lifted the fifty-pound sacks containing the BB-like pink seed and filled the drill boxes behind the John Deere. He started the tractor, found the country-and-Western station from Guymon, Oklahoma, turned on the air conditioning, and remembered how his father used to work in the sun all day in his old parasol-topped tractor with the hot wind blowing hotter as it came off the exhaust pipes that stuck up in front of the seat. The noise from the old tractors was like listening to the firing of artillery for eight hours. New tractors, like combines, lessened the work load immensely. More horsepower, round cabs that deflected the noise from the exhaust pipes, air conditioning, cushioned seat suspension, improved eight-speed transmission, radio, tape decks—all the comforts that farmers didn’t have ten years ago were now almost impossible to do without.
North of the Wagner barn, Don earlier had checked and watered the hundred small olive trees and sixty red cedars he had ordered from the Soil Conservation Service and planted in rows. “By the time Keith gets married, he’s going to have a real nice windbreak. The problem is, we need it now,” said Don. Since the cottonwoods had been destroyed, the farmstead was almost bare and the wind never quit. Back in the 1880s, the sod houses had a “crowbar hole.” According to the story, you pushed the crowbar out the hole and if it came back bent, the wind was normal. If it came back broken, you had better stay in the house.
Outside Don’s tractor cab, a gentle breeze began picking up speed as it shifted from the southeast to the west. Panhandle old-timers will tell you that when the wind shifts during a drought, you might expect rain. Farther west, a warm tropical air mass from the Gulf of Mexico was about to meet and rise over a huge heavier, colder air mass, which had traveled south from Canada. Don had noticed the cloud build up toward Spearman, but it didn’t look dangerous, and he welcomed the idea of rain. It would be another hour before the more peaceful cumulus cloud was transformed into the boiling vertical-shaped cumulonimbus with its characteristic anvil top that reached 50,000 feet above Ochiltree County. After running the chicken picker over about thirty acres, Don parked the tractor and filled the drill boxes with more milo seed for an early start in the morning. By the time he drove his small Chevrolet Luv pickup toward Perryton, 22 miles east, raindrops had begun splashing on the windshield.
By eight o’clock in the evening, the black cloud covered the whole western horizon except for a single aperture over Don Wagner’s barn, where the sun, dramatically illuminating dust and water droplets in the air, defiantly poured through before it surrendered the day. When the cloud reached the county, coming northeast from Spearman, it contained rain, dust, high winds, streaks of lightning, and deafening thunder.
But this cloud carried worse baggage. The strong updrafts thrust raindrops to the top of the cloud where they froze into ice grains. They then fell to the lower levels of the cloud, picked up another layer of rain, and ascended again. Many times this cycle was repeated until the spherical objects became too heavy to stay aloft. Only then did the hailstones, the size of hen’s eggs, fall to earth.
Don’s first cousin Tommy Butler, who farmed half a mile away, called Don around nine o’ clock. “There’s a hell of a storm just passing over. I can’t tell the extent of the damage because another one is just beginning,” said Butler. “I don’t want to hear about it,” replied Wagner. Butler called again at ten, and while they were talking they were disconnected. The line was dead. At the same time, the rain and hail hit Perryton. Joe Easley Ford suffered damage to 27 new cars, Channel 10 was knocked off the air, Earl McKinley Insurance Agency would receive over two hundred claims for damaged property, the Scramble Golf Tournament was canceled because the greens were ruined, and Perryton’s streets were flooded for 45 minutes after the three-inch deluge.
The next morning Don Wagner rode west on the Lord Switch Road to his farm. Passing the farms closer to town he felt all right. Some of his neighbors’ wheat was damaged but not completely ruined. He knew about hail. His dad’s crop was totally demolished in 1951, the last time anyone had suffered serious loss out his way. He knew the path of a hailstorm was as capricious as a tornado’s. He had considered insurance after the freeze earlier this month, but it had not damaged his crop. Insurance cost $12 to $13 an acre, and, after all, the last hail damage in the area was twenty-seven years ago. So he didn’t buy any.
He turned the corner, stopped the Luv, got out, and stared, standing as still as a post. After a minute or two, he reached down and pulled up a piece of grass and slid the narrow end through his teeth. He twanged his nose with his index finger and thumb while he stepped back as if he were holding a camera and had to refocus on the scene. His green wheat, nurtured for nine months, was smashed flat.
There would be no harvest this year, nothing at all to show for his $30,000 investment. The hailstones had beaten the young plants flat to the ground. They lay there in pools of water, already beginning to rot. Soon they would turn brown and begin to smell, giving a putrid odor to the clean-scented countryside.
The storm had also blown off a barn door, scattered and split a piece of irrigation pipe, battered to the ground most of his young olive and cedar trees, and knocked all the roses off the twenty-year-old bushes his mother had planted.
Don Wagner turned and went home. He picked up Nancy and the two kids and some inner tubes and brought them back to enjoy his new lakes. You can’t do much more when it’s too wet to plow.
In a few days, after the shock began to wane, he and his son, Keith, sloshed around the farm making plans. Don was a man who tried to believe things turned out for the good. Despite temptation, sin, and the fall from grace, salvation was yours if you kept the faith. As the water receded, he and Keith saw the milo plants, looking like tiny green whiskers, pushing out of the face of the earth. There was no doubt he would have to resow most of the fields close to the trailer, but the milo had survived. Maybe it was time to strap Keith in the big John Deere as his father had once done with him so long ago. Don would put his son in the seat, point out the levers, and show him the hare and tortoise symbols John Deere uses to indicate fast and slow. He thought how his small blond head would look like a lemon bobbing around in the expanse of the big cab.
As it had been done through the ages, Don Wagner would soon pass on to his son the love of the land, the mysteries and rituals of growing wheat, the lessons of the world not as chaos but as God’s will done. And blest be, Don would think, the tie that binds.