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.”
I. The Drout 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 it was just tough.
PRESTON WRIGHT, 90, has been ranching in West Texas since 1948. He lives in Junction. It didn’t start overnight—we just kinda eased into it. And when we got into it, it just stayed for a while.
JOE DAVID ROSS, 76, is a retired veterinarian who opened his practice in 1959, treating ranch animals in the counties spread across the southwest portion of the Edwards Plateau. He lives in Sonora. The fifties drought was the worst in my observation because it lasted so long. In some places it started in 1947, ’49. And it was 1957 before people got enough rain and confidence to start bringing their livestock back.
STANLEY MAYFIELD, 93, is the owner of the Mayfield Ranch in Sutton, Edwards, and Hudspeth counties, where it was so dry that when his son was born in 1956, he called him “Seco” (Spanish for “dry”). When it gets dry, it gets dry. You try to live with it till it rains. And you look every day to see if it’s gonna rain.
CHARLES HAGOOD, 59, grew up in a ranch family that has had operations in West Texas since the nineteenth century. He has been a banker and rancher in Junction since 1979. I grew up in Junction and then went into the banking business, and I would visit with men that I’d always known as carpenters, painters, merchants. And then visiting with them in deeper detail, I’d find out that they had been ranchers until the drought. Just like my daddy. The drought drove us to town. And that happened all over West Texas—it drove people to town.
MERTZ: I’ve been in business all these years, and I can nearly say that anything that can happen has happened to me. I’ve had hailstorms that killed three hundred lambs. I’ve had lightning kill sixty to seventy sheep at one time. I’ve had lightning kill my saddle horses, my cows. I’ve had bad fires that burned up all my fences. The drought was a hundred times worse.
JOHN HUTCHINSON, 65, is the county attorney of Hansford County. He was raised on a farm south of Spearman. People that irrigated had a rough go of it because they did not have enough water to cover a situation like the drought. The amount of water the sprinkler would put on the field just couldn’t keep up with the temperature, the wind, and the lack of moisture.
NANCY HAGOOD NUNNS, 70, is a rancher and retired accountant who lives in Junction. She is Charles Hagood’s sister. There were no ticks in the fifties. It was just too dry for them.
HAGOOD: When I was a little boy, people would gather and they’d bring their kids over. The men, all they’d talk about was “Is it going to rain?” And if a bunch of clouds were building somewhere, the men would all be out there looking at the clouds and speculating whether or not we were going to get rain. You remember that Randy Travis song about how old men sit and talk about the weather and old women sit and talk about old men? That’s exactly what it was.
WHITTLEY: We’d look outside, and often you’d think, “Oh, that’s a rain cloud. I know that cloud’s got some rain in it,” and you’d smell the rain. And it’d go away. Or you’d hear a little bit of thunder and, “Oh gosh, here it comes,” and it’d go away. It was so disheartening because we needed it so bad, and everybody kept saying, “It’s gonna rain. It always rains. One of these days it’s gonna rain.” Well, after seven years you’re still telling yourself the same old fable: “God won’t let you just die of thirst. I know he won’t.”
As one year turned into the next without appreciable rainfall, West Texas stockmen realized they were in a severe drought, similar to the one their fathers had weathered in the thirties and the one their grandfathers had endured in 1917. It was a grim time. As Elmer Kelton wrote, “There was little about the dry land that made a man feel like talking. There was comfort of sorts simply in the silent sharing of the misery.” Ranchers moved into a mode known as “hangin’ on,” which meant looking anywhere for grass, selling animals when necessary to pay bills, and finding innovative solutions to feed their livestock, such as feeding them prickly pear cactus (after burning the pads to remove the spines) or filling troughs with cheap molasses.
EUGENE “BOOB” KELTON, 80, is an Upton County rancher and the brother of Elmer Kelton. Fifteen dollars was the price for a ton of hay, and [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] was paying half of it. But whenever the government went to pay more, the producers just raised the price of the feed. So we didn’t realize any more help from the government, but the farmers that were growing the feed, they realized a little more profit. That’s kind of the way things go.
ROSS: I was in high school in the early years of the drought. Wasn’t much livestock around. Only thing we had left on the ranch was 1,200 Angora nanny goats. Angora goats are easiest on the land, and since they eat oak and cedar, you could chop the smaller oak trees down, and the goats would eat the leaves.
KELTON: The cattle would weaken down, and then the wild hogs would just start eating ’em while they were alive. They’d be laying there bawling, and those wild hogs’d be eating on ’em. So I fell out with hogs right there.
WRIGHT: Prickly pear is burnt with a pear burner. We used butane instead of propane. You have a hose that comes out of a tank. It shoots a pretty good flame to where you could burn the stickers off the pear. Then the cows would eat the pear. They liked it. ’Course, back then they’d like anything. You weren’t trying to fatten ’em, you were trying to survive.
MERTZ: Oh, man, the cattle get after it. There’s a problem after you burn pear for ’em: they’ll even eat it with the stickers on, and that’s not good. It tears their mouth all to pieces, and it’ll kill a sheep. They get screwworms in their mouth, and then you’d better find ’em and doctor ’em in a day or two, or the worms’ll eat their heads off.
BILL SCHNEEMANN, 77, has been raising cattle in West Texas since 1954. He lives in Big Lake and describes himself as a “semi-tired, wore-out rancher.” We used to feed molasses to the sheep. It was so much cheaper than anything else, and it was a high-energy food. We had a lot of old grass, and that molasses would give the livestock an appetite to go out there and eat that old grass. My brother and I had to fill up barrels out of a five-hundred-barrel tank. You had to build a fire under the molasses because it don’t run very fast in January. So we would fill up some barrels and get that molasses hot and drive around putting it out. The first trough we got to, we leaned the barrel over on its side, and I unscrewed that air bung on top. Well, that barrel had made a lot of gas, and all of a sudden that bung blew out and hit me right between the eyes. All that molasses hit me right in the face. I had to ride in the back of the pickup the rest of the day because my brother didn’t want that molasses all over the truck.
ROSS: In any drought, you don’t want to sell out too soon, and yet you don’t want to abuse the land [through overgrazing]. It’s just a real gamble. What we learned is, you can’t feed your way out of a drought. The way some ranchers got through it was, you’d load up some cattle, sheep, or goats and sell them for whatever a truckload of feed would cost. When you ran out of livestock, you didn’t buy any more feed. People didn’t go into debt as much as they might now.
MERTZ: I don’t believe in running from a drought. I think you’re better off to just sell out and stay there and wait till it does rain again. Basically we sold out of everything until we didn’t have any livestock at all—just some yearling cattle and yearling sheep. There was a line on the highway up to the unloading pens at the Producers Auction, in San Angelo. Good young cows wouldn’t bring but $150. A good young cow now goes for $1,100 to $1,200. But nobody was depressed. We don’t get down.
MAYFIELD: Five years I didn’t grow a sprig of grass. It never rained a drop. But we were a little luckier than a lot of people. We knew a man in San Angelo that had a ranch in South Dakota, and he wanted to pasture some cattle, so we sent a bunch of Hereford heifers up there one year, and they grew so unbelievably that the next year we sent a bunch of cows up there and some sheep too.
KELTON: After you feed a few years and it doesn’t seem like there’s any relief a-comin’, you’ve spent most all your money on feed, so it’s best to sell ’em. And that’s what we did. They were all gone, and you’d just look out there in the pasture and there wasn’t anything. Kind of depressing. It’s kind of like losing your children. It’s just bad. They’re part of the family just like everybody else.
MERTZ: There’s an old saying: Don’t marry your livestock. You want to be ready to part with ’em when it’s time.