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English filmscript

The folk legend, Woody Guthrie, about the thirties:
Woody Guthrie: "And so we watched the dust storms come up like the Red Sea closin' in on the Israel children. Anyway we stood there and watched the son-of-a-gun come up. And I'm a-tellin' you, it got so black when that thing hit, we all run into the house. And all the neighbours had all congregated in different houses around over the neighbourhood. We sat there in a little ol' room and it got so dark that you couldn't see your hand before your face. You couldn't see anybody in the room ...

And you see, the real thing: up face-to-face with you, most people are pretty level-headed. They just said, 'Well, this is the end, this is the end of the world.' ... Time had come when the river was there to cross and everybody just said, 'Well, so long, it's been good to know you. Let 'er come.'"

Oklahoma at the end of the 19th century. Bison roamed the open prairies. The only inhabitants were native Americans, who had been driven out of the eastern states: Choctaws, Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokees and Chickasaws. The surrounding states - Kansas, Arkansas and Texas had already been settled by pioneers. Therefore, there was increasing pressure on the government to open up Oklahoma as well.

Oklahoma City. We're in the offices of the Historical Society. Dr. Blackburn describes the unconventional method of claiming land:

Dr. Blackburn: "So this was one final area unsettled. And so, instead of allowing settlers to gradually settle the land as the frontier had been settled for the last 300 years, they decided to do it by land run. On April 22nd, 1889, 50,000 people lined up around what is now the central five counties of the state."

The army gave the starting signal and the search for the best piece of land began. Each family was entitled to 160 acres, which had to be claimed and cultivated as quickly as possible.

Dr. Blackburn: "Overnight, one day, going from no legal settlers in the territory to 50,000 people. Oklahoma City going from no legal settlers on the morning of April 22nd to ten thousand people that night. We call it the "Spirit of '89". The people would be imbued with a spirit of boom and bust, a willingness to gamble, a willingness to believe that tomorrow would be better then today, that change was good.

You have booms when times are good. You throw in the impact of our weather cycles, which is boom and bust. It can be very dry one year, or dry one month and wet the next month. And so you have good years and bad years. And so, Oklahomans are used to very good times, on the way up, very dramatic, a willingness to roll the dice, to say,"Yes, times will be better." And then they get used to the down cycle, the bust. But they always know that there'll be another cycle up."

It was with this pioneer spirit that the farmers ploughed and cultivated ever greater areas of the grasslands. Cotton and wheat became the trade marks of Oklahoma. But time and time again there were set-backs because of drought.

Dr. Blackburn told us that the right place to find out more about the dust storms would be in country the "Panhandle". But first, a little Country music in Oklahoma City, to set the mood for the trip.

Grant is director of the Oklahoma Opry. He promotes talent in Oklahoma City's Country music scene.

It's pouring with rain and we're looking for the drought...

This is where clouds of dust are supposed to have swept over the land in the thirties?

Howard experienced the dust storms and not only that. At ninety years, he's almost as old as pioneer history in the Antilope Mountains. Howard is a retired farmer, but busy all the same - his big passion is collecting. His house and farm are full of relics of pioneer life.

Howard: "This here is an old-time radio. It's a ... they call it a ... All the machinery still works, including this radio bar from the thirties ... a radio bar."

Howard's grandparents came to the Antilope Mountains in 1893. Like so many others, they left a secure situation on the east coast to follow the call of good, cheap land. Howard, with his mother,in the thirties. This was the house in which they experienced their first sand storms.

Howard: "Well, it was just like that picture shows. It was just a big cloud of dust - that's all there was. No. No, I wasn't afraid of it. But it was new to us. We never had seen anything like it. Why growl about these clouds of dust which blight the daylight fair? Why sit in gloom and fuss'n'fume on christian life and swear?"

Howard looks at these times with a touch of irony. This is a song of his.

Howard: "... ninety-two, five pull through - I'll tell to the last of that. Well, the years were grand, the dirt pools hard - What a heck of a time we had!"

In the midst of all this bric-a-brac, we find this photo. That was somewhere farther out west, says Howard. A man with two children, on a sand dune, just like in a desert.

From the Antilope Mountains to the Panhandle. By the beginning of the 20th century, Oklahoma and the entire Midwest had become the bread basket of the USA. The mechanization of agriculture had made this possible - more and more grazing land was converted to crop land. Ploughs tore up the land. The soil was exposed, unprotected from the sweeping winds. The days when solitary cattle herds and lonely cowboys roamed the "Rolling Hills" are a thing of the past.

In the Panhandle, once a year, the cowboys on the Hitch Ranch relive the old times. They round up the cattle and calves and brand the young animals with the ranch's symbol.

Boots and spurs, the crackling of the campfire, cattle herds and cowboys with cowboy hats and lassos - pictures from countless Westerns spring to mind. But while the movies are usually quite dramatic, the daily life of cowboys is fairly routine. That's the way it is nowadays and it was never any different. Long before settlers came to the Panhandle, cowboys herded cattle through it by the million, on their way from Texas to the slaughterhouses up north. They also used the region as grazing land.

This is how James K. Hitch came to this area in 1886. Four generations later, Paul Hitch runs the business. By now it's almost an empire, like the ones in TV series.

P. Hitch: "At that time, Kansas was a state, but at that time, Oklahoma was not a state. And this piece of land here that's the little skinny stretch of Oklahoma that sticks out to the west of the main body of the state was called no-man's-land. And it was just here. It wasn't a part of any state. It wasn't a part of any territory and the federal government ostensibly had control over it. But in fact, the federal government sent nobody here, so there was nobody here to exercise the control."

And so, on one of his cattle drives, James K. Hitch decided to stay here at Goldwater Creek.

P. Hitch: "He came here 'cause there was grass and water and there wasn't anybody here to tell him he couldn't. You could have about as much country as you wanted. It was just here. He established a place and we still live there. I mean, I think he chose a wonderful spot. And it proved to be even more wonderful years later, because he managed to locate right on top of the Hugeton Gas Field, which was at one time the largest supply of gas in the world, and the Ogalala Water Aquifer, which is one of the biggest underground lakes in the world and neither one of these things would have been apparent to the man in the 1880s."

Ideal conditions to build a cattle empire. Of course, none of this has much to do with the romantic notion of grazing cattle out on the wide open spaces. The Hitch enterprise breeds about 350,000 head of cattle a year, as a service for other ranchers. The cost? Around 5 cents a day per animal. There are approxiamately 50,000 head of cattle on this feed-lot; about 20% of them belong to Paul Hitch.

The animals are no longer branded, but the marking process is painful for them nonetheless. The four-legged fortune receives medical attention: antibiotics against pneumonia, vermicides against worms, as well as vitamins and hormones. When they come here, the animals are a year old. In four and a half months they are fattened up to a slaughter weight of 1220 pounds. Nothing is left to chance: the feed mix is regulated by computer. On the other hand, for transmitting messages, the old familiar methods work just fine.

Silage, corn and proteins are adjusted according to the growth of the animals. For the most part, the corn is grown right on the farm. The fields are round because the sprinkling system moves in circles. Because of systematic irrigation and altered ploughing methods, it's believed that something like the dust storms will never happen again.

From Guymon on the way to Texhoma.

We can't get that picture out of our minds - the man with the two children on the sand dune ... The black dust clouds and their after-effects are a common theme in songs. Thousands of tons of swirling black sand simply rolled over the country. The area around Texhoma was especially hard hit.

Ann's Cafe, the only cafe in town, at downtown Texhoma's big intersection. This is where the older residents sit and talk. They all have their own personal experience of the dark days. J.R. Davison went through his first storm in just such a cafe.

J.R. Davison: "And suddenly this began to get dark and this cloud of dirt was rollin' in. And the little old man that was running the place said, 'Fellows,' he said, 'just keep your seats, would you, and stay in here when this hits.' He said, 'My wife gets very excited and this'll keep her from gettin' so excited if you guys are here also.'

That dust storm rolled in and it got so dark in there, that the only thing I can remember was, you could kinda see where that light bulb was up there in the room. The light bulb was burning. You could still kinda see a little glow there. But except for that, you couldn't see anything. It was dark. I was about to get a little excited too. I knew my dad was sittin' right there. I could just reach out and touch him, but I couldn't see him. We had a lot of days kinda like that afterwards, but that was one of the first ones."

One storm followed the other. Farming virtually stopped. The Panhandle went into economic decline.

J.R. Davison: "This picture is our old home place out in the country where we lived back during those dirty thirties. The house, as you can see, was one large room with a lean-to on two sides. And this was all we had.

When we would see one of these storms coming, it wouldn't just hit immediately, you know. We'd have approxiamately 30 minutes from the time we realized we were fixing to have a storm until it actually closed in on us. We could see those ends pulling around and we could know, you know, that in a few minutes it's gonna shut all. We wouldn't be able to see anything to speak of. And that's when you'd go in the house and close everything up, go shut your chicken-house door and make sure the chickens were in where they wouldn't blow away. This kinda thing. You'd get ready in that 30 minutes.

We'd take a handkerchief. We'd put that handkerchief over our face, you know. Maybe wet it a little. Tie it around there like that. And that's the way we protected ourselves pretty well. You know, if you had to go out, that's the way you went. Now, if you didn't have to go out, you stayed in that house and hung those wet blankets and wet sheets and things over the windows. 'Cause that - you just couldn't stop at all. At best, you know, you'd look across the room and you could see that dust in the air. When the storm was all over, there was just a layer of it over everything in the house.

In my lungs too. I had the dust pneumonia and nearly died. They took me to Amarillo and I spent some time in the hospital with dust pneumonia. My bronchial tubes plugged up and I don't know how long I was there - not too long. But I can remember, I got delirious and I can kinda remember things that happened. Mom was sittin' there, my mother was sitting there by the bed and I could watch her and talk to her and I could see these merry-go-round horses. See, I was delirious. They were just goin' like that away ... and I'd say, "Move your head, Mom, one of 'em's gonna hit ya." She'd move her head. I guess I was pretty sick there with that dust pneumonia."

The Panhandle became the Dust Bowl. Farmers had to give up, especially those who were only lease-holders. The musicians sing of these times - of lines in the faces, and of the pain that can't be hidden.

J.R. Davison knew more about the picture and the people in it - we should go via Guymon to Boise City and ask for the Coble family there.

Guided by Charles Coble, we continue our journey to an isolated house. Clara Coble, mother of Charles and Lloyd, lives there. Clara has gathered together a few photos that certainly don't look like snapshots. Where do they come from and who are the people in the photos?

Daryll - Daryll Coble in 1936, after the first sand storms. And here is the original - the man with the two children on the sand dune ... in front of the chicken coop.

Clara: "This is Daryll's dad Arthur, this his older brother Milton, and this is Daryll."

And Daryll later became Clara's husband. This is how he looked 25 years later.

The photos were commissioned by the government in 1936. Professional photographers, like Arthur Rothstein, toured the affected areas and documented the damage and the suffering of the population. Rothstein came again, for a visit in 1961. A commemorative photo at the same spot with Milton and Daryll. The photo on the sand dune is known throughout the world - a strange feeling for the Coble family. And now it adorns Daryll's grave. Hard to imagine - this flowery meadow is the same place where in 1936 the duststorms blew. How did Dr. Blackburn put it? Oklahoma is a land of extreme opposites: side by side - boom and bust ...