An Amarillo photographer's personal journey through the Dust Bowl- with past and present eyes.

Monday, August 20, 2012

No man's land.

Click to enlarge photos.

There's a place in the northwest Texas Panhandle which includes the entire Oklahoma Panhandle known as "no man's land." It's called that because it was basically abandoned due to the Dust Bowl. What was once promising green grassland became a veritable desert of dust and death due to an unprecedented period of  drought and bad land management during what was called "The Dirty Thirties. 

I explored the Oklahoma & Texas panhandle extensively during a location scout for Ken Burns/Dayton Duncan production to air on PBS this November titled "The Dust Bowl." 

"Let me tell ya how it was. I don’t care who describes that to you, nobody can tell it any worse than what it was. And no one exaggerates that; there is no way for it to be exaggerated. It was that bad.”
                                                               — Don Wells, Boise City, Oklahoma

Although through careful water and land management the wild grasses have returned to hold down much of the top soil - the recent drought - rivaling that of the 1930s, threatens to turn the area again into a new Dust Bowl.  Wildfires sparked by lightning have ravaged the area - stripping the ground of the protective grasses that hold down the prairie. Huge billows of ash and dust are lifted up thousands of feet whenever a "blue norther" comes through - carrying it as far south as Lubbock and Midland also suffering from the drought.

Last year (2011) was the dryest on record, even surpassing those powder dry days of the 1930s. Fortunately 2012 has been kinder. Rainfall is up and for awhile the Great Plains were green this past spring, but as we approach autumn, the water has dried up and once again is becoming fuel for the inevitable prairie fires that will sweep the High Plains during February, March and April of 2013.

Although you can still drive miles and miles without seeing a living soul, you still can find traces of the Dust Bowl or echoes - as I call them - that reverberate through the region to this day. 

I came upon this abandoned  "Jail Break Ford" in ranchers field. It is surrounded by cattle bones, the remains of cows that died huddling around it because it is the only wind break on a featureless plain. In winter  the howling winds give no quarter and can literally freeze the flesh and strip away. 

I imagine a scenario where this truck was a farm truck - tasked with taking wheat to market - but when the grass dried up and blew away - so did the money to maintain it. Most likely when it broke down sixty some-odd years ago it was abandoned in place and has been there ever since. 

 More photos of this unofficial monument to the Dust Bowl will be posted later in this blog.

I found this abandoned homestead just outside of  the town of Texline on the Texas/New Mexico border.
The years have not been kind to what have once been some family's dream home - but now it sits empty - a reminder of the optimism of those early farmers and ranchers who saw great promise in what was once an ocean of green prairie grass only to have it slowly erode into what now is No Man's Land.

In my opinion it should be preserved as an official historical site, as an example of what life was like during the Dirty 30s, but nature didn't concur.

I hear it was swept away by a tornado last year. 

All photos (C) Steve Douglass 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"You are filled with dirt."

Excerpt from The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

One Dirt-filled day blended into another. Starting at the first day of March, there was a duster every day for thirty straight days. according to the weather bureau. In Dodge City, Kansas the Health Board counted only thirteen dust free days in the first four months of 1935. 

People were stuffed with topsoil. In a report delivered to the Southern  Medical Association, Dr. John H. Blue of Guymon, Oklahoma said he treated fifty-six patients for dust pneumonia, and all of them showed signs of silicosis; others were suffering early symptoms of tuberculosis. 

He was blunt. The doctor had looked inside an otherwise healthy farm hand, a man in his early twenties and told him what he saw.

"You are filled with dirt." the doctor said. The young man died within the day. 

All photos (C) Steve Douglass 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dust Bowl saga set to film in Amarillo area, starring Willie Nelson

“Cottonwood,” an independent film set in West Texas during the Dust Bowl, is to be partially filmed in the Texas Panhandle starting this fall, the production team from Mark Campbell Productions said Tuesday morning at a news conference.
The movie will star country music superstar Willie Nelson, whose production company, Luck Films, is co-producing.
Most of the interior scenes will be shot in Austin, but Stacy Dean Campbell, the author of the 2004 novel “Cottonwood” and director of the film, said he wanted the outside shots to feel authentic.
“I want the film to feel open and big and wide, what it was intended to be,” he said.
The team — Stacy Dean Campbell; producer Julie Campbell; executive producer John “J.C.” Elsinger, an Amarillo native, of Mark Campbell Productions; and screenwriter Decker of NYCe Pictures — will be in Amarillo scouting locations through Thursday.
Stacy Dean Campbell, a musician and television host originally from Carlsbad, N.M., said his grandfather used to tell him stories of life during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
“That’s what really sparked me to start the project of writing the book,” he said.
The story takes place in 1937 in Wellington and centers around county Sheriff Rube Whitlock, who struggles to raise his two sons after his daughter dies and leaves his wife mentally unable to cope with the loss.
As the pressure of raising his children becomes too much, he hires Esther, a black woman whose husband, P.V., is hated by locals for attempting to establish himself as a successful cotton producer.
“It really stirs up a lot of racial tensions in the community,” Stacy Dean Campbell said. “People don’t want to see him prosper.”
As the tension rises and relationships develop, Rube is forced to choose between upholding the law and following his moral convictions.
Julie Campbell said it’s the complex characters blended with history, social issues and a surprise ending that make the film worth watching.
“A lot of it is the relationships and how they’re built, the bonds,” she said.
“One thing that the film has, that we still have in society today, is racial injustice, and that’s one of the subject matters of the story. So I think a lot of people will relate to that.”
She said many of the people who read the screenplay said the story reminds them of the books-turned-movies “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“Then I realized, geez, we really do have something here,” she said. “So we’ve been working for the last 18 months producing and in development, getting this project off the ground.”
Eslinger said when he first read the screenplay, he was struck by how accurately it portrayed the voice and feel of West Texas during the Great Depression.
“When Julie sent me the script, I couldn’t put it down because I grew up on the tail end of the Dust Bowl when there was still mountains of sand and it was real flat and dry,” Eslinger said.
“That’s all I heard about until I left home, so when I read this script I was like, ‘Wow.’”
“Cottonwood” is also slated to star Anthony Michael Hall, Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., Ethan Suplee, Alison Eastwood, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and others, according to Julie Campbell and material provided by the production team.
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