‘Till Hell Freezes Over

The Dust Bowl invokes images of mass migration: hundreds of poor, desperate farmers packed into over-loaded jalopies, making their way westward with dirty-faced children and bone-thin wives. Fleeing the dust, the drought, the near-starvation, and searching for the promised land.

But not everyone left.

Many Dust Bowl farmers found the notion of fleeing abhorrent, an option only acceptable for “pussy-footed quitters.” This was their land and, come hell or high water–or no water at all–they were staying. In the town of Dalhart, Texas, near the epicenter of the drought, the editor of the local newspaper, John McCarty, even went so far as to form a ‘Last Man Club,’ in which local residents could make a solemn vow not to give up on the Plains:

Barring Acts of God or unforeseen personal tragedy or personal illness, I pledge myself to be the Last Man to leave this country, to always be loyal to it, and to do my best to cooperate with other members of the Last Man Club in the year ahead.

Hundreds of men signed up, and McCarty led rallies, some of which were filmed by newsreels and shown around the country. During these boisterous gatherings, McCarty made impassioned speeches, promising not to leave Dalhart “until hell freezes over.”

But as the excitement of the new club began to wane, worry set it. Yes, they wanted to stay. But if they were going to stay, John McCarty reasoned, they had to find a way to make it rain.

Tex Thornton, a former oil man, was all too happy to oblige. The only way to make it rain, he declared, was to bomb the clouds.

The so-called concussion theory dated back to the first century A.D. when Plutarch first noticed that rain tended to follow military battles. Napoleon believed the theory and often fired cannons at the sky hoping to muddy the battlefield for his enemies. Even Civil War veterans claimed the constant artillery fire had opened the skies above them, adding to their woes. And despite the United States’ testing–and disproving–of the concussion theory in the late 1890’s, the concept found footing again in the hopelessness of the Dust Bowl.

Thornton attended a meeting of the Last Man Club and peddled his idea. Using a combination of TNT and solidified nitro-glycerin, he claimed he had successfully broken the drought in Council Grove, Kansas. He could do the same for Dalhart…for a fee. The town raised $300 as well as an additional $200 to cover the cost of the explosives and planned a party for the first week of May 1935, a picnic and live band to watch Thornton work his magic and celebrate the return of the rain.

With the crowd watching, Thornton fired his first rockets early in the evening, one charge approximately every ten minutes. The wind began to blow, surrounding the rainmaker with dust and sending most of the crowd scurrying for cover. But while Thornton continued his pyrotechnics well into the night, no rain fell.

He continued the next day. And the day after that. Explosion after explosion rocked skies above Dalhart. But the only thing that blew into town was dust.

On the fourth day, Thornton regrouped. The problem, he said, was that he needed to get his bombs directly into the belly of the clouds. The air wasn’t cooperating. He needed to change his methods. So the following day, he moved to a location outside of town. Tethering balloons to kite strings before loading them with bombs, he attempted to place his explosives exactly where they needed to go.

As the day faded into night, the temperature dropped, bringing an unusually cold May night. Thornton continued to bomb, flashes from the explosions reflecting off the base of low clouds. The rumbles kept many in town awake.

When the sun finally broke over Dalhart the next day, a light dusting of snow covered the ground. Less than a tenth of an inch. But it was the first precipitation they had seen in weeks.

The rainmaker packed up what remained of his explosives, pocketed his $500, and left town as the people of Dalhart celebrated. They’d spent every last penny, but they’d done it. They’d found a way to fight Mother Nature and win. The drought was finally over.

They had no way of knowing it had also snowed in Denver, Albuquerque, Clayton, and Dodge City, places far removed from Tex Thornton’s bombs. They also had no way of knowing it would not rain again for months.

Despite the setback, most members of the Last Man Club remained true to their vows. But after the disappointment with Thornton, most retreated to their homes with lighter pockets and heavier hearts. For the remainder of the drought, they focused less on fixing it and more on just getting by. They shoveled the dust, stretched their meals, and did what they had to do to get through one more day. And they fell back on the only thing had left: they prayed. They prayed for relief,they prayed for health, and they prayed, once again, for rain.




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