During the late 1920s, business was thriving in our area, and the farmers were raising good crops. I remember the steam engines puffing away threshing the grain and the huge straw stacks they produced.
During those years, I was developing an interest in what was going on in the world. I subscribed to a weekly called Current Events, and I still clearly remember one headline: "Knute Rockne killed in plane crash."
Of course, the crash of 1929 changed all that. It is another story, but we who were living where the Easterners called "out there" were not affected nearly as severely as folks in financial and manufacturing businesses. But we were about to experience the worst drought in the history of our area.
The most devastating phase of that era was the severe drought with the resulting dust storms and crop failures. The barren fields eroded so badly we called the action "black blizzards." On the windiest days, there were actually dirt particles blowing in the air, which stung like sleet when striking one's face.
After every storm, more topsoil had eroded away, causing us to wonder if we were going to lose it all. Of course, we were desperate for a solution to the problem when it became apparent that where the soil happened to be somewhat cloddy, it actually was catching the dust and slowing down the erosion. So an implement known as a "duckfoot" was equipped with long chisel blades, which would penetrate deep enough to bring up clods. It wasn't a total cure, but it did slow down the erosion to where it was thought a good deal of the topsoil could be saved. When a field started blowing, we immediately would hook up and get after it.
One has to keep in mind that the worst occurred during the coldest months because of the blasts from the north. Tractors weren't equipped with cabs and heaters, so one bundled up as much as possible to keep from freezing. We didn't have insulated clothing and snow-packs back then, so we piled on as much clothing as possible and still be able to move. Underneath, we wore long-johns with two flannel or wool shirts, two pair of overalls, a cap with ear flaps, and a sheepskin lined coat we called a "beltz." I don't know whether we couldn't afford goggles, at least I didn't have any.
With the dirt blowing in one's eyes, teardrops ran down the cheeks and on the very cold days, they would freeze. It didn't take long to discover that wrapping a scarf around one's face helped keep the face warm but didn't prevent the tears. The ground was so hard and dry the steel lugs would not penetrate so one got a good kidney shaking-up in the bargain.
Many of the large tumbleweeds broke loose, rolled into the fences and were so thick the force of the wind against them broke the barbed wire strands. In many cases, the whole mess would wind up out in the roads. To compound the problem, the blowing dirt piled up in the tumbleweeds like drifting snow.
During severe blizzards, the cattle would walk up over the dirt piles, there wasn't any fence to stop them. On one occasion, a farmer who lived 10 miles north of Otis found his cattle a mile south of town. I don't remember how many years we had the severe dirt storms, but I think it was the winter of 1937 -38 when we did get some beneficial moisture and things got a little better. However, I think it was 1940 before we started breathing a little easier.
Give some credit to the tumbleweed, which was really a Russian thistle. Father said the thistle found its way to this country in seed wheat imported from Russia. The Kansas farmers needed a hard winter wheat, which they believed could be imported from Russia because the farming conditions were so much like those here in Kansas. They sent for seed of the type of wheat they had raised in Russia called Turkey Red and it did very well in Kansas.
During those dry years, it was never possible to raise enough fodder for the livestock. Some enterprising soul discovered if one cut the thistle at a certain stage, it would make good feed. Since the thistle requires very little water, they grew well during the drought.
We would mow the thistles when they contained the most moisture, rake and stack them. They then went through a mild fermenting stage and remained preserved until we fed them. There are some winters I doubt we could have kept all of our milk cows if we hadn't had the thistles to supplement the little sumac cane we were able to raise.
The worst dust storm period was usually from November through April. Although the summers were hot and dry, they were pretty much dust-free. How dry was it? One report from the Fort Hays Experiment Station stated its hygrometer indicated 5 percent, but that was the bottom of the scale so they didn't know how dry it really was.
We had no Thermos jugs for drinking water in the field; we used gallon glass jars wrapped in burlap. We would soak the burlap and expected the evaporation process to cool the water in the jug, sort of on the swamp-cooler principle. The theory was fine, but by the time I drove to some of our more distant fields, the burlap was already dry so I didn't have cool water very long.
When I took a drink, I would always rinse my dry mouth and spit out the residue, and I swear it evaporated before it hit the ground -- what little did hit the ground popped so loud it sounded like a gunshot.
And so time marches on. Will the drought of 2012 disappear in 2013?
Carl Schlegel lives in Hays with his wife, Darlene. They both grew up in Otis. He worked 40 years for the Bureau of Mines managing a helium plant; Darlene worked as a nurse at Cimarron Memorial hospital. They moved to Hays after retirement to live with "Unser Leute" and say they are happy to be back "home" again.