Misery on a Grand Scale: The Drought of today and Yesteryear

Droughts have been a nemesis to all living things even before documented history. The great millennium drought of 6,000 years ago wrought untold misery to life in the plains of mid America and is actually documented in geological strata at the Lubbock Lake State Park where ancient people lived beside this isolated oasis for generations and survived the great dust storms and dryness of some 1,000 years.

A dreaded dust storm boils off of the Llano Estacado and eastward down Highway 82 in the late 1990's. Canon F1N and Canon 14mm f2.8 Lens.

My dad and mom related stories of the dust bowl years and the suffering endured by the masses who lived on the ranches and farms that were located in the “belt of misery” during that time. Stock tanks going dry and the act of killing emaciated cattle defined those times and I have always prayed we will never have to endure them again.
Although not an ancient soul by definition, I am old enough to recall some of the times during the drought of the 50’s after our family had been on the old League ranch for only 3 years. The wind was atrocious and even at the young age of 5 years I still recall one particular day when conditions were absolutely abysmal.
The Benjamin ISD school bus made its daily trip to the ranch to pick up my sister, then eight years of age, both in the morning and again in the evening. On one particular afternoon a terrible dust storm had blown in and my dad decided to drive out to the highway to meet the school bus to minimize the dirt road travel for the kids on board. I wanted to go so he relented and we drove the mile long trip to the highway. I recall even today, 55 years later, the ferocious wind and dirt reduced visibility to zero and dad could not see past the front of his pickup. That was a long time ago but the memory of those dismal conditions are imprinted in my mind for a lifetime.

Sand dune growing across the road in Knox County. Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 17mm f4.0L Tilt Shift lens.

In the late 1990’s we had to endure yet another drought with minimal rainfall and dreadful dust conditions. My sons, Pate and Hunter, were teenagers at the time and we lived in the old jail together with no air conditioning. With the doors always left open to ensure a cool night breeze coming through, the dust inside the house was but a little less than what could be seen on the outside! When the drought of the 90’s finally broke I hoped above hope that I would never have to endure another episode of such dry and dismal conditions. Much to my dismay, the worst drought in a century has settled over our Texas and has proven to be more dreadful than any of the 20th century.

Another morning of misery in the hot summer of late the 1990's. A vehicle rolls westward with the scorching sun rising to the east. Canon F1N and Canon 500mm f4.5L lens.

Again I try to think positively and know that in time it will end and perhaps we will never have to endure this level of misery again…at least not in my lifetime. Although I can use the terrible conditions to my advantage and photographically document the misery of it all, I feel for the ranchers and farmers who have to face the critical problem of evaporating stock tank water and unavailability of adequate forage for their livestock. The threat of wildfire every day compounds the stress that they feel and it is a heavy burden to bear.
Call it a celebration of sort but with each “greatest of” in our lives it deserves at least some recognition of sorts either through images or the written word. The following images show conditions of our late 20th century and early 21st century droughts that I have created over the years. For the sake of all living things, I hope we do not have to endure these conditions ever again. Like through the study of history, we should not forget the lessons we can learn through these trying times of the past.

A benign summer storm teases the plains with cool wind and a dismal cloud of blinding dust (1990's). Canon EOS 1N and Canon 70-200 f2.8L lens.
A dust devil dances beneath a scalding summer sky in Knox County, Texas (1990's). Canon F1N and Canon 20-35mm f3.5L lens.
Turtle tracks leave a dying wetland in Knox County. Canon F1N and Canon 20-35mm f3.5L lens.
Where water used to be. Hasselbald 501 and Distagon 50mm lens.

8 comments

  1. Darla Sauter says:

    As I read your blog and viewed the photographs, I feel parched. It is such a sobering topic. But I thing I find through your visual and written work, you draw one into the message. Well done. For me, well absorbed.

  2. Jim Davis says:

    Daddy’s response to the “misery on a grand scale” of the 1950s was to mount a butane tank in the back of my pickup and send me out after school with the torch on the end of a long hose so that I could burn the stickers off the prickley pear. The cows came to the sound of that torch the same as they would come to a sack of cake. And it was all hands on the deck helping Mother put wet towels around the doors and windows when the walls of dust blew in from the west. Your photos make the memories seem like yesterday. Maybe next month you will be shooting floods!

  3. Harris Napier says:

    9/2/11. Our ranch on Hwy 190, 12 miles East of Eldorado, TX is just dirt and rocks now. We are full feeding the last small group of cows before selling them probably in October. We have had 3 inches of rain since last October. The good news is our cedar trees appear to be dying,
    We went through an earlier drought starting 9/1987, ending in the summer of 1990 when got 12 inches of rain one Sunday in mid July, followed by 4 more big rains by the end of October. Please pray for a big rain all over West Texas.

  4. Tex Schroeder says:

    I remember in the 30’s a dust storm came in after dinner (lunch) and it got so dark that the chickens went to roast.

  5. Kitty says:

    I send Prayers for ALl…. it is sad that these things are happening all over the World… We are being sent a message…………/Be careful what you ask for you may get it……. Talk to “the Man” and follow His reply Blessings to all of you.

  6. I understood drought intellectually,hearing the stories but remembering only the 50’s drought breaking with monsoon rains, but this year with only .6 inch rain in 10 months, I now understand emotionally. When I look at the “Dead Tally” Book of my dad, W.E. Burleson, my heart cries with him. I am now standing in his boots, having lost cows to eating toxic weeds because there is little else. Like then, the vets have no answer, just “The Drought.” The difference for my situation and that of my granddad, J. C. Burleson, in the Thirties is that he had to sell his cows for 3 cents a pound and pay railway freight on top of that. My other granddad, W. B. Barton, watched while his cows were condemned, shot, and buried on the farm. The reason I love history and the photographs of Wyman Meinzer is that they teach me that our people endured and survived, and we will endure and survive. I look forward to seeing your work of the epic saga of 2011: wind, fire, drought, dying,and survival. Like the turtle tracks in the mud cracks, we will persevere. Marisue

  7. Lee Wilson says:

    At age 72, born and reared in Dallas, TX, I’ve seen a few droughts, too, and your photos are both painful, yet memory triggering. I did spend 2 years in Scottsdale, AZ (1972-74), and the dust storms there are just the same. Dust blows in around every small pain in every window or door, no matter how well they seem to be sealed. Your photos and words tell that story well. May God bless all of Texas by sending us more rain and may He do it more often. Lee Wilson

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