A Dust Bowl Survivor
J.R. Davison recalls his experience growing up in Texhoma, Oklahoma during The Dust Bowl.
On The Land
I think the land was good to these people, because it provided 'em with a — I don’t know whether I should say a “good living.” It wasn’t a good living as we would judge it now, but it was an existence. They very seldom ever wanted for anything really that they needed. They had food. They raised gardens and they raised — down in the fields they raised some — ah, in this day we’d think, “How could they possibly have raised enough food on a little old patch like this?” You know, they had 160 acres and probably only had half of that plowed up into a field. I know on my granddad’s quarter there was about 90 acres that he had plowed out with a plow behind a couple of horses and he walked along, you know. And down in the lower corner, why, they planted a garden and they planted in corn and bean and they’d raise a few milk cow calves that they’d butcher. And, of course, they had milk from the cow and they’d have a few pigs. Everybody had an old sow or two and raised a batch of pigs once or twice a year. And so they needed really very little money.
So if a fella had 80 acres, and it made a good wheat crop, why, he plowed up a little more and a little more. And about then, you know, we began to get machinery and we had tractors. And my uncle bought a tractor, you know, from the John Deere Company on time. He made a few payments on it and then my dad ended up makin’ the rest of 'em, but they could plow, you know, 30 acres a day. It wasn’t like that old walkin’ plow when you could get five or six acres a day. So they kept breaking this country out and they plowed up a lot of country that should never have been plowed up. They got the whole country plowed up nearly and that’s about the time it turned off terribly dry.
On Thoughts of Consequences
I think that most of those people thought, “You know, this is just what we might say 'hog heaven’. It’ll always be this way.” They didn’t worry about moisture. They didn’t worry about erosion of any kind. Ah, I could take you out and show you fields now that the gullies washes down through them to where you can’t farm it if you wanted to now. And they didn’t think much about that. My dad didn’t. They — during those Dirty Thirties they came out with a lot of these different methods — contour farming, you know, different things, summer puddling. Ah, you pulled a little apparatus behind your plow that just dug holes and that’d catch that water. You know, you could have a two- or three-inch rain and it wouldn’t run off. And they came out with a lot of these methods, but most of these old-timers wouldn’t do it. You know, finally they got where they’d pay 'em. You know, you could make a dollar an acre if you practiced one of these methods. And that got a lot of 'em workin’ on it because they needed that dollar an acre during those days. But earlier, they just plowed this country up without thought as to what their consequences were gonna be.
You know, if you can git 'em to really sit down and think about it, most of 'em were pretty sensible. But they sure broke up a lot of this country that should never have been plowed up. It just wasn’t farmland. It should have been grassland.
On Shutting out all Light
All of this — the dust storms in — in this Panhandle area were caused mostly by the fact that so many people had broken out so much land that they really couldn’t take care of all of it. They would get a hard rain and that country would go to blowin’ and they just couldn’t get over it, couldn’t work it in time to keep it from pilin’ up in the fence rows. And this just kept getting a little worse and a little worse and then we had this terribly dry year. It was in the early ’30s, and the first thing we knew, back in the northwest we could see this low cloud bank, it looked like. You could see it all the way across. And we watched that thing and it got closer and seemed to kindly grow, you know. It was gettin’ closer. The ends of it would seem to sweep around. And you felt like, you know, you were surrounded. Finally, it’d just close in on you, shut off all light. You couldn’t see a thing. The first one or two that happened, people thought the end of the world had come. Scared 'em to death. Travelers comin’ down the highway didn’t know what to do. They were just hysterical.
I don’t know how many storms we had during what they call the Dust Bowl Days, but a lot of 'em. I remember our — our home… it just nearly covered it up.
On His Father’s Footprints
When those dirt storms would blow, many times they’d blow all night. When you’d wake up the next morning, it would be clear and pretty. And we could always tell when my dad got up early on the morning after a — a dirt storm, and the first thing he would do would be to go to the stove and build a fire. Had wood burning stoves. And you could always tell that, because you could see in the, in the dust on the floor, his footprints. Where he’d walked to the stove. But there would not be a toe showin’. He could turn his toes up and they wouldn’t touch, cause he’d walk to the — we always kidded him about he might freeze his feet, but he sure wouldn’t freeze those toes, because they never did touch that cold floor. He’d be over there and he’d always have him a little pot of kerosene with some kindlin’ in it to build a fire, and he’d build that fire and go back to bed for a little bit while the house warmed up. And of course, the rest of us wouldn’t never get out till it warmed up. But this — this was a joke all our lives, with him too, about the fact that he could turn his toes right straight up. I never could turn mine up hardly at all. If I’d a walked across that floor, every toe print would a shown.
On Dust Pneumonia
I was pretty small when I got the dust pneumonia. I don’t remember exactly getting sick, but I do remember part of my stay in the hospital. They took me to Amarillo, that was the closest good hospital, and I guess I was sicker than I ever realized, because I got, ah, delirious. I was out of my head. I can see, to this day, those merry go round horses coming out of the ceiling, you know? They’d just, like this, just like a merry go horse — round horse goes. And I’d say, “Mom?” She was always there by my bed, seemed like. I’d say, “Mom, those horses are gonna hit you”, I said, “You better move your head.” And she’d move her head over. Say, boy, that one like to got you. And so I don’t really know how sick I was, but I was pretty sick. I think she thought a time or two I wasn’t gonna make it. Ah, that’s about all I can remember about it, but I can still see those horses, they were bright colored, red, green gold, just like on a merry go round. I — I really, really saw them, and you couldn’t have convinced me they weren’t real.
And I don’t know how long this went on, but it was a — a good while there, one evening, they gave me sponge baths, I think to keep my fever down, I don’t remember feeling hot, but I’m sure that I was. And they’d sponge me off every little bit there. I don’t know, for a day or two. And I guess they did what I needed. I got over it. Ah, all I had really was a bronchial pneumonia.
On a Christmas Memory
I remember one time when we were so broke, that when Christmas rolled around, we didn’t have Christmas at our house. I had had it explained to me that we’d have some money 'fore long, a government check would come again, and then we’d have a little Christmas. So, Christmas rolled by and vacation was over and we went back to school, and the teacher says, well, let’s all get up and tell what we got for Christmas. Everybody was tellin’ about their toys and all this, and of course, I wasn’t sayin’ a word. Teacher says, “Well, J.R., what did you get for Christmas?” I said, “Nothing.” She said, “Oh, come on. Tell us what you got for Christmas.” I said, “Ma’am, I didn’t get anything.” She never did believe me, I don’t think. I think the — the years went by, and I don’t know whether she ever did believe me or not, but it was true, we didn’t get any Christmas. About a month later, why, we got a government check for about 200 dollars. Boy, we were rich. We had Christmas. I didn’t, I didn’t really feel bad about it at the time, because I’d had it explained to me, that I think Dad had 50 cents left and we just didn’t — didn’t have any money to spend for Christmas. So, it didn’t bother me. But I did remember that incident at the school. I’ll always remember that.