The Day They Killed the Cows
From the book, "The Day They Killed the Cows & Other Memories of a West Texas Pioneer. Published with permission of Dan Fields.
People who lived in the Southwestern United States in 1934 had a very rough time getting by, My family and neighbors were no exception. The dry weather, which started 1933, worsened in 1934. Drought conditions extended throughout eastern Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas, an area of approximately 50 million acres. The top soil was dry and pulverized. The few rains that came, fell hard, sealing the ground over so that most of the water ran to the low places or into the creeks.
Those two years were the worst days of the "Dust Bowl."
West Texas had more than its share of sandstorms when howling winds up to seventy miles per hour wreaked havoc with topsoil. Drifting sand piled up on fences, barns, houses and everything else that slowed the wind. The days when the dust came were completely different, a strange phenomenon. Usually, we saw a thin black line on the northern horizon which slowly drifted towards us, sometimes taking a half - day to arrive. This was black soil blown up by ferocious winds in Colorado, Western Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle and the North Plains of Texas.
We lived at Camp Springs, Scurry County, Texas, and found it unbelievable that there little wind with the dust. While we worked outside, we watched carefully as the dust approached so that we were able to get home before it arrived. It drifted in like a black cloud as fine as face powder. It settled on everything. Sometimes it became so dark during the day; the chicken went to roost, and we were forced to light the old coal oil lamps which lighted our house.
We had made a little cotton and some feed in 1933, but 1934 brought almost no rain. We made no cotton and hardly any feed. The feed was Hegira, a grain sorghum which grew to a height of about five feet with a head of grain on top. We called it Hi-gear, don't ask me why. Normally the feed was cut and tied in bundles by a row binder pulled by a team of mules; the bundles were put in shocks, and when dry, hauled to the stack lot, near the barn. Bundled feed was essential to make a crop because it was what we fed to our horses and mules, as they could not do much work without it. A farmer without feed was out of luck! It was like a modern-day farmer without diesel for his tractor.
My dad knew better than anyone that we could not go into fall and winter without feed; but the Hy-Gear had only grown where a little water had stood. It was not much over knee high, too short to be tied by a binder, so dad sawed the handles off some garden hoes, leaving them about fourteen inches long and sharpened them to an almost razor-like edge. Then he and my brothers, J.C. and Rex, cut that field by hand with those short handled hoes. They made bundles and tied them, by hand, with twine. "Back-breaking" does not fully describe this kind of work. I was seven years old and too small to cut feed, so I carried twine and water to them.
We barely had enough fodder for our teams, and none for the cattle. Our grass was gone; so things looked awfully bleak. Many people had no fed, or weren't industrious enough to work to gather the small amount they had grown.
Most of the cattle in the drought area were thin and undernourished; some were starving. he earthen tanks were dry, and some of the creeks had dried up; so most of the water was pumped by windmills, causing many people to be short of water. The majority of farmers and ranchers had disposed of a large part of their herds; but nearly everyone had some stock left. Many of these would not make it through the winter. The situation was grim.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was serving his second year as President. Both he and the Congress realized that the agrarian economy of the United States had to be given a boost if our country was to recover from the Great Depression. They initiated a voluntary program to help farmers and ranchers in the drought stricken area. The government bought the young, strong cows and and big calves and shipped them north to grass. The price was $15.00 for the cows and $8.00 for the calves. They killed the think weak animals. For them, the price was $12.00 for the cows and $4.00 for the calves. They hired hundreds of men from across the southwest, to dispose of the weaker cattle by shooting them. They worked every day of the week and hundreds of thousands of cattle were killed. Owners could either let the animals starve or sell them to the government and get a little money. The choice was difficult, but everyone we knew sold out and paid a few bills with the money they received.
The controversial program was all people talked about for weeks. Dry weather and cows was the only topic of conversation at our house during this time. It was a strange and emotional situation. Nobody had ever seen anything like this, and thank Goodness, no one will ever see it again.
There were a lot of hungry people in the United States during that time, and some of them were folks we knew. Ideally, a program such as this would have provided food for those people; but as in all government undertakings, there was a flaw in this one-regulations prohibited using the meat, which nobody understood. The cattleman, however, soon discovered that the government shooters were sympathetic and left before the ranchers finished burying the cattle, giving each of them the opportunity to save meat from a calf. AT first the general public knew when and where the killings were going to take place, and dozens of people came to the sites, which interfered with the work. Some of them even got into the slaughter pens and fought over the meat while the shooting took place. This had to stop; so the schedule of the government men was kept secret. Only the people who owned the cattle knew the date when their animals were to be shot. Small groups of neighbors were assigned a date and location to take their cattle, in order to expedite the slaughter-only they knew the date of the killings.
The morning came when we were to deliver our cattle, so we were up before daylight. Dad, my brothers and I saddled up on our horses and drove them three miles to a neighbor's place where we met three or four others with their small herds. The first thing I did was to pick a ring-side-seat on the roof of a shed by the main corral, where I could see everything that went on. I didn't intend to miss a thing. I had heard so much talk regarding the event about to take place, that in my child's mind; it was beginning to look like a sensational and exciting adventure. When the government man came, the cattle were counted and sorted according to age and condition. After the paperwork was completed, the ones to be killed were herded into the large corral, cows and calves together. The stage was set.
The government man went to his car and took out a pump .22 caliber rifle and lots of shells. He carefully loaded his gun, smoked his cigarette, and stepped into the corral as casually as if he were going for a walk. There were a dozen people watching; but the only sound was a cow bawling for her calf. Every eye was glued on the shooter. He was standing right below me; and I jumped when he chambered a shell into the gun. He raised the rifle-a sharp crack rang out; a cow crumpled and fell on her side, legs jerking. Three seconds later, Bang! Another cow went down-and another-and another-and another! Within a minute fifteen cows were dying before my eyes. I suddenly realized that I was in the wrong place. Hot water came up in my mouth, and I had and awful felling in the pit of my stomach; but I couldn't leave; I was afraid I would be called a sissy if I let anyone know. The man slowly reloaded, let his un cool for a minute, then the slaughter continued. Shot after shot rang out. For me the calves we the worst part. I shut my eyes part of the time. Finally, it was over and I started to breathe again. Within fifteen minutes, out of more than a hundred animals, not a cow or a calf was standing. The shooter calmly unloaded his rifle, got in his car and drove off. The work for dad and the other men was just beginning. The dead animals had to be dragged away from the corral to a deep pit, which had been dug previously by the ranchers, then covered with dirt. The work wasn't over: the carcass each rancher had saved had to be butchered.
I didn't have much to say on the way home. I was numb. The calf which dad and my brothers had butchered was hung on the windmill tower for the night, to cool and be cut up and canned the next day. Canning in those days was putting the meat in jars and pouring hot grease over it. When it cooled, it solidified, sealing the meat. However it became rancid if kept to long. We cut off enough fresh beef for supper that night, but it didn't taste good to me. It had been a long, sickening day. I went to bed early; but I didn't sleep well. Dreams of dying cattle kept waking me. I did not realize, at my age, that the same slaughter was taking place every day at hundreds of locations, all over the southwest. Thousands of cattle died.
This was a terrible ting for anyone to witness, especially for a seven year old child. That happened more than seventy years ago, and many time, through the years, I have shut my eyes and vividly recalled the sound of the shots, the bawling of the cattle, the fear in the eyes of the animals, as they seamed to realize what was happening- but most of all; the shots ringing out, over and over and over.
Everyone my age can tell you where they were when they heard the Japanese's had bombed Pearl Harbor. They can also tell you what they were doing when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I can also remember a third event, which I recall with the same clarity, I know where and what I was doing in 1934, the day the cattle were killed.