tx H2O

txH2O Fall 2011

Remembering the past

Memories and recollections of the 1950s drought

Story by Kathy Wythe

The Time It Never Rained is a historical novel about the 1950s drought of record, written by Elmer Kelton, who was a novelist and longtime editor of Livestock Weekly. After the book was published, many people thought Kelton crafted the story after their parents or grandparents. He didn’t, but the experiences in the book were realistic. The following are accounts from Kelton’s book as well as from Texans who remember what it was like during those drought years.

“That was my growing up years. I graduated from college in ’60. So I went (to that school) throughout the 1950s. I remember my dad saying subsequent to that time that we could always get feed up—high gear, what we call hay-grazer now, Sudan back then.

“We had more cattle on our place then than we’ve ever run since then; I’m not exactly sure how we did that because as many cattle as we had then and, of course, before that time, I don’t know what it looked like in the 1940s. I do know that 1941 was the wettest year on record for all of the Southwest, so probably that had some impact on our abilities to run more livestock.

“Following the drought of the 1950s, in many areas in the Southwest, mesquite became much more of a problem, much more prevalent. We could drive anywhere we wanted to on our place; we had mesquite but we could still get around in a pickup anywhere we wanted to go. After the 1950s, we had some wet years in the 1960s, and in the 1970s my dad looked out over the place and he said, ‘Oh, where did all these mesquite come from?’”

Ron Sosebee
Professor Emeritus with Texas Tech University’s Department of Natural Resources Management and 40-year expert on battling the brutal effects of Texas’ droughts

“Six years,” Charlie said, counting on his fingers. “It’s a blessin’ the Lord never gave us the gift of prophecy. If we’d known when we started that we’d still be in it six years later, I think we’d of all gone and jumped into the Concho River. I get to thinkin’ sometimes that maybe drouth is the normal condition here and the rainy years are the freaks.”

Charlie Flagg
Chapter 15
The Time It Never Rained, by Elmer Kelton

“The drought of the 1950s was a lot like the drought we are in right now. I don’t remember as many trees dying in the 1950s as you see now, but then again, this ’ole prairie didn’t hardly have any trees on it. There weren’t even that many trees down in the creek bottoms then, either.

“The prairie land we farmed was so dry and cracked so bad that you literally had to watch your step to make sure you didn’t step in one of the cracks. There weren’t too many water wells in the country back then, so folks would have to drive their livestock down to holes in the creeks for water. Eventually the creeks stopped running, and folks would dig big holes in the creek bottoms, board up the sides and let them fill in with water. That was really the only source of water for the livestock. Luckily, back then nobody really had many cattle. Mostly folks would have a few mules and a milk cow or two, so livestock water wasn’t as important then as it is now.

“It got so dry that nobody really even planted; there wasn’t any use in doing so.”

Frank Oliver Gilbert, Jr.
Flynn, Texas, who lived in Leona in the 1950s
Grandfather of Lucas Gregory of TWRI and IRNR

For a long time Charlie Flagg had watched other men burn the thorns from prickly pear so their livestock could chew the pulpy green leaves. He had sworn that Rio Seco would have six inches of snow on the Fourth of July before he would subject his animals to eating cactus. Now he found himself face-to-face with necessity. The low-growing cactus he had fought for years was, finally, to be what saved him—if anything could.

Chapter 14
The Time It Never Rained, by Elmer Kelton

“I remember the drought of the 1950s as a 6- to 11-year-old boy living on a farm in the southern Rolling Plains of West Texas. 1952 was a particularly bad year with almost no measurable rainfall. Sandstorms were very bad, and so bad on one occasion that near midday a dust storm rolled in and the sky was just black, so black that the chickens went to roost and we had to use lights in the house. My mother announced that it was a total eclipse of the sun.

“During that time, with no rain to grow grass to feed our cows, we had to resort to raking up mesquite beans to feed the milk cows. Also, with so little cotton and grain harvest from our fields, my father had to obtain work off the farm to keep his family of a wife and four boys fed.

“Those years from 1951 to 1957 were mighty lean years for farmers. Fortunately, we had understanding and patient bankers. Farm income almost came to an end, but in 1957 the rains returned and so did the bumper crops.”

B.L. Harris
Former Acting Director and Associate Director of
Texas Water Resources Institute

Time was when an inch of rain would have brought fresh life, a greening to the land. But there had been grass then, a spongy turf to soak up and hold the moisture, and live roots to draw sustenance from it. Now the bare ground had nothing to soften the impact of rain, to catch and drink up the water. The first burst of precipitation would pack and seal the topsoil. The falling raindrops would strike hard and splash upward, brown with mud. Instead of soaking in, the water would swirl and run away, following the contours of the land, seeking out the draws and swales.

Chapter 14
The Time It Never Rained, by Elmer Kelton

“In 1956 the economy was very, very bad. Grandpa was Sheet-rocking for our living from 1953, and jobs kept getting more scarce all the time, until we just were barely making it already. Since we lived here in Houston, we really can’t remember that much about a drought.... I guess we were watering so much anyhow since April of 1954 because we had to hand-plant our whole yard with squares of grass. “Grandpa asked our longtime friend, Erwin Gross, what he remembered about drought around 1956; he said he remembered they were living on sandy land at the time, and it was so very dry that sand just flew on everything and stuck onto the roofs of everything. Then when it finally started raining, it was like it was raining mud ... so much sand had accumulated on the roofs and stuck so that it was actually like raining mud as it ran off the buildings.”

LaVerne Pivonka
Houston resident
Grandmother of Danielle Supercinski Kalisek of TWRI and IRNR

He (Charlie Flagg) turned his back on all he had lost, and they walked together through the cold rain.

Last paragraph in The Time It Never Rained, by Elmer Kelton

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