Mrs Almeda is the sister of Ina McCune. She lives in Gibraltar, a British Protectorate, which is a peninsula attached to Spain.- Ed.

by Leta Almeda
DUST BOWL DAYS

 

Beautiful, those featureless flatlands of Western Oklahoma are not; but those broad, sweeping expanses of next-to-nothingness are nevertheless undeniably majestic. Picture the spacious wide-spread background canvas of wiry green buffalo grass dotted with grey-green sagebrush, which is perfumed in its season with sweet smelling white flowers. Accent this ground cover with spiky yucca soap weeds and huge round balls of dark green Russian thistles, which dry up and lose their ground anchors to become tumble weed toys for games played by the wind Occasionally caught on this still-life canvas can be a lone coyote or a high jumping jackrabbit. Short legged stocky white faced cattle graze the grasslands contentedly beside scattered fields of golden grain ripening near an irrigation well spouting the water to quench the thirst of the ripening grain. And tucked cozily into the landscape canvas of the present age, here and there, are a few widely spaced distant farmhouses each with its windmill and two or three large cultivated trees, all spread out smoothly under its spacious big top dome of pure cloudless azure blue sky. Superimpose, for a moment, on this image of the present, a flashback phantom herd of buffalo and the Indians who hunted them with bows and arrows. And we have skipped over one more phantom era of the past – the dustbowl days – which deserve more than just a passive mention.

My life does not go back to 1907 when Oklahoma became the 46th State of the United States, but my father was already 18 years old by then. He had grown up in neighboring Kansas, already the more respectable 34th state by nearly 50 years. As a farm boy, he must have understood the farmers’ eagerness to grow food on their new homesteads. They lost no time in ripping through those virgin native prairie grasslands to lands to plough beautiful long straight furrows reaching out toward the horizons. But, unfortunately, the dry land farming methods they had to use were no match for the combination of drought and strong prairie winds, which sweep across those flat, level plains with no land features in their way to slow them down. And, in a sense, the final countdown to “Dust Bowl” had already begun when the first plough pried open the firm grip of the soil on its sprawling native grass protective cover. The farmers did not understand the psyche of the land they had been given, and their hard work, along beside their dreams, was too often blighted by complete failure. One of the verses in a ballad called, “Hooray, Oklahoma!” written to commemorate their desperate plight, sums it all up:

Well, the corn came up a growin’

And it got about waist high,

Then the hot winds came a blowin’

And how that corn did die

There was nothing left but cornstalks

To feed old Beck and Pete,

While I, the wife and children,

Lived on tough jackrabbit’s meat.”

Hooray, Oklahoma!

It’s sage brush and sand.

But we’ve done quit our roamin’

Cause we’ve found the promised land.

By about 1935, Boise City had become merely another stop on their way to California for the poverty-stricken Dust Bowl refugees John Steinbeck wrote about in his Grapes of Wrath. California did not welcome them, and gave them the derogatory nickname of “Okies”, but that did not stop the steady stream of disheartened and destitute Okies who had abandoned their Oklahoma homesteads and continued to seek a newer, more productive “promised land” in California. . …But not everybody left. Most of the towns people and the ranchers continued to cling on to their tenuous destinies in Oklahoma. In our basement home we were safe from the gritty dust storms that blew across the plains and carried away with them all the drought stricken layers of fertile top soil, leaving only a barren wasteland in their wake. People searched the sky for any little cloud that could develop enough to release a few drops of rain in that parched plain. And when it did actually rain, everybody ran out in excitement to enjoy the rare experience of getting drenched by the welcome rain storm that left brief muddy barefoot wading puddles for us children before disappearing again into the thirsty land.

Prayer meetings were held to pray for rain and, in desperation, Indian rain dancers, dressed in bright colored feather headdresses with cheeks and bodies painted with special streaks and symbols were even employed to stomp out their colorful traditional ritual rain dances to try to placate the Great Spirit, the centuries long protector and benefactor of those noble plains, to implore his blessings and ask him once again to send the rain necessary to heal those sick and stricken prairie lands.

The gritty wind was merciless in its punishment to those people who had to go out in it. There was no way to escape the cruel lashings it gave to one’s bare face, arms and legs. When I went to school, my father would walk the half mile to the schoolhouse with me, gripping my hand tightly and telling me, “Keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose.” And I would be stumbling along blindly by his side, with my eyes tight shut, crying through clenched teeth, trying to breathe through my nose and keep my mouth closed.

However, the top soil scooped up and carried by the wind did not simply blow away and disappear from the area; it would almost be more accurate to say that it was just cleverly re-arranged by the wind! The wind blew it into the houses through keyholes and tiny cracks around window panes and doors.

And almost every day was house cleaning day because, after a dust storm had pounded the house all day and all night long, it was impossible to sit in the chairs or eat at the tables or cook in the kitchens or walk across floors completely covered by the fresh layer of fine silt which had accumulated since it was completely cleaned the day before. I remember the rolls of brown sticky tape people used to moisten and stick over these tiny little cracks between window panes and window frames and door frames and doors in an attempt to make the rooms dust tight. And it helped, but somehow, the dust still came in, And the wind piled up great dunes and drifts of blow dirt caught by giant tumble weeds pinned by the wind along fences or up against any building structures that stood there in its way. These sand dunes built up so high that they sometimes even covered up the windows on one side of the house and sloped all the way up to the rooftops. We children, oblivious to the danger, thought it was great fun to use the giant drifts to climb up onto the rooftop and slide down the slope of blow dirt again.

Living through those dustbowl days in the land where only the wind was king, caused many personal planning problems for the people who stayed. Everyday life depended upon the capriciousness of the wind. The only certainty was that if the wind blew, there would be a dust storm. But the wind did not blow every day and it could not be predicted. Should the day be used to thoroughly clean the house again after the last dust storm? Or should it be used to do the laundry? If the morning seemed calm, would it stay calm for long enough to wash clothes and hang them out for long enough to get them dry before the next dust storm? The precious time between dust storms had to be used to the best advantage. One memory I have of visiting the country home of my Aunt Ellen reinforces this. She had invited our family to visit her. She knew that we would understand if her floor was still covered with the last layer of blow dirt that had drifted in with the last dust storm and she had apparently decided to concentrate on preparing the dinner for us rather than cleaning the floor, but one of her daughters very carelessly dropped the dish towel, “splat”, on the gritty blow dirt covered floor. I don’t know why it was so important – perhaps it was the only clean one she had left. Anyway, I watched as she did her very best to pick up that dish towel, delicately one corner and one edge at a time so carefully that she hoped none of the blow dirt that covered the floor it was crumpled down upon would be sticking to it!

I can never forget that now famous Sunday in April when we watched the approach of a completely black wall of dust boiling and bubbling up to a height above the rooftops and approaching us from down the street in the middle of the day. Someone took a photograph of it and I believe you can still buy picture postcards of it. But the fascination of watching it approach changed to desperation to get away from it, and we ran to get indoors, and when it struck the sun was completely blocked out and it was as dark, indoors and out, as if it were the middle of a moonless night. Another time I remember seeing a red clay colored dust storm from inside my window. It did not obscure the sun, but it made a reddish curtain just outside the window pane that completely shut out the view of anything beyond.

And sometimes the wind was laden with more than just dust! One year it brought swarms of hungry grasshoppers determined to devour every stalk of greenery they could still find. They were everywhere and it was hard to keep from stepping on them. Grasshoppers don’t bite, but they jump in unexpected directions and thump into you. I hated them. There were so many of them that insecticides had to be dropped on them from small airplanes. Another year there were just as many blister bugs! Those soft bodied pale green beetles had soft gooey bright yellow insides and if they bit you or you got the gooey yellow stuff on your skin anywhere, it made big water blisters. I was terrified of them, and they accumulated in corners and climbed up the outside walls and if they got into the house through a door or window, they had to be tracked down and killed.

But, the dust storms also brought a new and unique type of recreation, fun for young and old, for the rare calm days when the wind didn’t blow. As time went by, more and more fields were swept clean of every grain of arable soil down to the desolate hard base layer of earth on which nothing light-weight enough to be lifted by the strong winds remained. So – what was left? In particular: Indian arrowheads! Painstakingly chipped into artistic shape by primitive tools from flint stone, for utilitarian use in earlier days, there they were  just laying on the top of the ground waiting to be spotted and picked up by relic hunters. I remember finding some, but I don’t know what happened to mine. But many people, including my brother-in-law, Alton McCune, who still lives with my sister Ina in Boise City, have large collections of arrowheads framed and displayed on their living-room walls. Similarly, dinosaur bones were found excavated by the wind near Kenton, Oklahoma, about 25 miles from Boise City, and, to the best of my knowledge, they are still displayed in the little museum of that tiny town.

And then, finally, the severe drought conditions subsided, and farmers were gradually educated in government sponsored classes into better farming methods and alternative uses for the land were found, and irrigation wells were drilled, and at last it was all over. The mischief loving wind still blows in the Oklahoma Panhandle, tossing about the occasional tumble weed, and, on some days, mild dust storms still blow dirt in one’s eyes and mischievously blow up the ladies’ skirts, the better to whip their bare legs, but the Dust Bowl days have long since ended.

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Leta (Ferguson) Almeda Has Fond Memories of Boise City’s Ferguson’s Shoe Shop

by Leta Almeda

I grew up in the back of the shoe shop. And what a wondrous world it was – full of sights quite unusual to a nursery, acrid smells of cements and leather dyes which still permeate my memory, and noises whose loud start-ups could have stampeded the cattle in the stock pens had they been closer to the town centre but so regularly irregular that they became our lullaby.

I remember the row of wooden lasts in graduated sizes for the cowboy boots, and the metal lasts which topped the sturdy stand on which a shoe was placed for repair and the sound of the short handled hammer banging down nails against that metal last. I remember the shrill whistle made by leather being held against one of the fast spinning wheels of the finishing machine which had various spinning wheels ranging down in texture from carborundum and sand paper to stiff, medium and soft brushes and finally to whirling cloth covered corrugated buffing paper. And I can still hear the loud hum of the electric motors which drove those wheels. And I remember the heavy duty stitcher that chomped its way noisily around a shoe sole being stitched to its uppers.

And I remember the signs and slogans for the shoe shop. One of them bragged, with tongue in cheek, “Save Soles and Fix Heels”. And outside the shop door hung the silhouette of a cowboy boot that hawked, “Cowboy Boots Made to Measure.”

I was born in Kansas, but I was two years old when my father opened the shoe shop in the little town of Boise City in the heart of the farm and cattle ranch country of the Oklahoma Panhandle at the beginning of the thirties. “Even more in a depression,” he reasoned, “people need to get their shoes repaired.” As our shoe shop was right on the town square and I was a cute little two-year old, I must have been my father’s best advert for the new shoe shop, because I am told that I went all around the town centre telling everybody I met that the Ferguson Shoe Shop was the best shoe shop in town – to which nobody could argue since it was the only one there.

My first ‘job’ was “watching the shop”, which simply meant that at least one of us children would be assigned to play in the waiting room area of the shoe shop. Whenever a customer came in, the child on duty would say, “I’ll go get my daddy” and promptly disappear behind the counter. This was because Daddy was always making improvements to our living quarters there to accommodate his growing family of four little girls and one little boy. First he dug a full basement by hand under the original two- roomed house and shoe shop and pushed the loose dirt up a ramp to the surface in a wheelbarrow. Our kitchen and one bedroom remained on the ground floor behind the shoe shop, but he dug out the space for two more bedrooms, a small sitting area, a bathroom, laundry room and a smaller, more roughly hewn, “dark room” storage area.

The dark room was not off-limits for us children but we never played there. It was serious business to venture in when sent on an errand by one of our parents. True, it had its own attractions and my memory of it rivals that of the treasure-troves of Aladdin’s cave, which it must have resembled. But it was completely uninhabitable until the light switch scared away the suffocating blackness that obscured those rough, windowless walls and its gleaming treasures. And …. there could be a spider …. interrupted in the conduct of its affairs in that pristine refuge by the sudden light. I still love the smell of leather and I remember the row of hooks along the back wall of the dark room from which hung stocky cow hides, stiff slabs of composition rubber, supple calfskins dyed red, pink, blue and green which blossomed from the lineup of the more sedate black, browns and tan. Tough wearing horse hides hung in equal rank to exotic imports of finely creased kangaroo, scaly alligator and bumpy ostrich. On the opposite wall were shelves containing rows of sealed glass jars displaying the bright cache of my mother’s golden home canned peach halves, yellow-gold nuggets of corn, various shades of emerald green beans, peas and pickles, and precious darkroom gems of jams and jellies whose tempting ripe fruits imitated the translucent colors of rubies and garnets, their shiny glass jar exteriors reflecting bright sparkles of light.

The basement part of our house was always warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And it also served as an appropriate shelter in that tornado alley location in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Daddy didn’t turn away any business and his heavy shoe repairing machinery also became useful to some of the ranchers and farmers living in the area, and they would bring in their big heavy canvas tarpaulins to be patched, as well as saddles with broken straps and cinches to be stitched back in place. The shoe shop was a family place, and as our family grew, we children were never excluded from playing in the shoe shop. We loved it when a saddle was brought in for repair and we took turns straddling that saddle on the floor and riding it throughout all the wide open spaces of our fertile imaginations to the very ends of our childhood horizons.

Another process we gathered around, heads bent over to watch, began when Daddy got an order to make a pair of cowboy boots. We took in every detail as Daddy drew a pencil outline around the customers stocking feet on the open facing pages of the boot order book. Several measurements of each foot were then taken with a cloth tape measure to build up a three dimensional model which were carefully recorded inside the foot print for that foot. Wooden lasts of the nearest size were then selected and built up with leather skivings to the exact same measurement of the foot to build the boot around. This process included three or four rows of sewing a fancy stitching pattern with variegated colored silk or nylon thread to attach the boot top to its leather lining. Sometimes brightly colored leather inlays under heart or diamond shape cutouts in the boot top was a part of the decorative pattern. Many more steps were necessary to fashion the durable leather uppers around the wooden lasts in order to link the fancy boot tops to the robust leather soles and built-up layered heels.

A memory I will always cherish was the daily ‘ceremony’ of asking Daddy for a penny. So far as I can remember, he never refused but as children, we were far from sure. We banded together and planned our strategy carefully.

“You ask him, Leta. He will give it to you.” ‘ :”Well…. but I asked him yesterday! Somebody else has to do it today!”

When we had selected our spokesperson, we gathered behind the door to the shop and, unlike our usual boisterous entry, we entered single file, our faces reflecting the solemnity of our undertaking. Daddy must have been laughing inside himself, already understanding the game, but his expression didn’t waver. He stood there, serious faced, apron on, working at his last punctuating the silence with occasional hammer blows. We waited in respectful silence. Finally our spokesperson would voice our plea in his most persuasive tones. “Daddy … can we have a penny?”

“Oh … I don’t know,” he would always reply. More silence.

Then, “P1 e a s e. Daddy.”

He would leave us waiting until he had finished repairing the shoe before he went to his cash drawer to hand each one of us a penny.

Spending it usually required going to more than one candy counter, each one a sugary heaven measuring out bliss by the ounce.

I haven’t mentioned my mother, but she was always there – cooking, cleaning, sewing, washing and ironing clothes and taking care of our latest baby. When Daddy had too much business, she would work beside him to repair shoes and it was always she who fancy-stitched the boot tops.

But this story has outgrown its space so I must stop. I will just add that I lived in the back of the shoe shop until I graduated from high school and got married at the age of eighteen.

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One response »

  1. Ruby McKnight Smith says:

    thanks for the memories…I wasn’t born until later … but we still had dust storms and I remember the dirt and the cleaning! No, not just spring cleaning in the panhandle! After dust storm cleaning. I love it there, and still go back as my mother is living.

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