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How One Drought Changed Texas Agriculture Forever

Siblings Charles Hagood and Nancy Hagood Nunns grew up in Junction, Texas, in the 1950s. Charles says the drought drove ranchers to find other types of work.
Michael O'Brien
Michael O'Brien
Siblings Charles Hagood and Nancy Hagood Nunns grew up in Junction, Texas, in the 1950s. Charles says the drought drove ranchers to find other types of work.

In Texas, there is still the drought against which all other droughts are measured: the seven-year dry spell in the 1950s. It was so devastating that agriculture losses exceeded those of the Dust Bowl years, and so momentous that it kicked off the modern era of water planning in Texas.

From 1950 to 1957, the sky dried up and the rain refused to fall. Every day, Texans scanned the pale-blue heavens for rainclouds, but year after year they never came.

The ground desiccated and cracked open, and eventually, cattlemen had to sell off their herds. Some moved to town and never went back to the ranch.

The people of the Edwards Plateau in west-central Texas, the epicenter of what many rural Texans still call "the drouth," can recollect the drought of the 1950s that changed the state forever.

At a ranch in Arden that is just west of San Angelo, Mort Mertz, 88, says he's been ranching all of his adult life.

"And I can nearly say that anything that can happen has happened to me," Mertz says. "I've had hailstorms that just killed 300 lambs. I've had lightning kill 60, 70 sheep at one time, and kill my saddle horses and my cows."

Looking at all of those natural calamities, how did the '50s drought stack up?

"Well, it's 100 times worse," Mertz says.

Sandy Whittley, who is the executive secretary for the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association, was residing in San Angelo during the drought.

"The first year ... nah, not too bad, you know. And then a little dry the next year," Whittley says. "By about the third year, it was beginning to get really interesting, and then it got really serious, and from then on it was just tough."

Mertz's father was no newcomer to droughts, but not for stretches this long.

"My dad kept saying, 'We have these things. They'll go about 18 months and it'll break,' " Mertz says. "Well, that is where it got everybody off guard. It didn't break. It just kept on going and it lasted about seven years."

The relentless sun burned off the grass and baked the ground. The federal government helped with emergency feed supplies, but some of the cattle just couldn't survive.

Eugene "Boob" Kelton is an 80-year-old rancher in Upton County, and the brother of the celebrated Western author Elmer Kelton.

"A cow'd get down and they'd be layin' there bawlin', you know, and those wild hogs be eatin' on 'em. They just started eatin' on her while she's alive," he recalls. "I fell out with hogs right there."

Dusty Times

Across Texas, children were growing up without ever seeing water run in a creek, or feeling the rain pelting their faces. One of nature's primordial elements was absent.

Living in Junction, Texas, Nancy Nunns, a retired certified public accountant, is still active in the family ranching operation.

"For Christmas in probably 1951, my great-aunt gave me a raincoat. It was bottle green and trimmed in white, buttoned up the front. It was quite a raincoat," Nunns says. "And, of course, it just never rained. And I grew and grew and the raincoat didn't. That was the start of the drouth and we just outgrew it before it started raining."

The people who lived through the drought remember dust storms as bad or worse than those of the Dust Bowl days in the 1930s.

They speak of fearsome dust storms that turned noonday into night, so dark that schoolteachers led their students to the buses hand in hand so they wouldn't get lost. The dust storms were so powerful that the grit abraded the paint clean off the license plates on cars unfortunate enough to drive through them.

John Schwartz Sr., 74, still raises cotton and cattle in Tom Green County, near San Angelo. He remembers plowing in 1955 when a dust storm suddenly engulfed him.

"I was to the backside of the field and when I turned around and looked to the north, I saw it comin' and I knew I couldn't get home, so I just got off the tractor and lay down in the furrow that I'd just made," Schwartz says. "And I'll never forget it. I had to put my hat over my head to breathe. It was that bad. And that time, we had chickens and pigeons and guineas and turkeys and all of them were dead. They had to open their mouth to breathe and the dirt stuck in their mouth and they all suffocated."

Finally, It Rains

In 1957, in the seventh year of the drought, the rains finally returned. As it happened, the drought broke immediately after President Dwight Eisenhower flew into San Angelo in late January on a drought inspection tour.

They say San Angelo has been voting Republican ever since.

"There were people standing outside and it just rained and rained and rained and rained, and everybody was dancin' around in our neighborhood in the rain," says Whittley of San Angelo. "But we still didn't think the drouth was broken because, you know, the people who lived around me were all in ranching. And they're always lookin' for the next rain. They can get a 12-inch rain, you know, and they say, 'Yeah, but we sure do need another one.' "

And the rains wouldn't stop. What started in February kept up through the spring and into the summer. Every major river in Texas flooded, washing out bridges and sweeping away houses. Damages were estimated at $120 million. The environment had gone from one extreme to the other.

The long drought affected Sandy Whittley, 74, and her neighbors while she was residing in San Angelo.
Michael O'Brien / Michael O'Brien
Michael O'Brien
The long drought affected Sandy Whittley, 74, and her neighbors while she was residing in San Angelo.

But by the time the land turned green again, Texas had changed irreversibly.

People had begun to leave the ranch for good. It was just too hard making a living growing grass and raising cattle if that's all you had.

"A phrase that came out of the '50s for me as I grew up then in Junction and went into the banking business, I would visit with men that I'd always known as carpenters, painters, merchants, and in visiting with them in deeper detail I'd find out that they were ranchers until the drouth," says Charles Hagood, a banker and a rancher in Junction, Texas. "So, just like many people, my daddy, the drouth drove us to town. And that's a phrase that I think happened all over West Texas, it drove people to town."

Rural Texas never fully recovered. Between 1950 and 1960, the state lost nearly 100,000 farms and ranches, and rural residents who had made up more than a third of the population dwindled to just a quarter of the population.

After the drought, water planners doubled the number of reservoirs in Texas, and all of these storage lakes served the state's water needs well until the drought of 2011.

Today, Texas faces the same challenge it did in 1957: where to find more water.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.